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Ireland Gazeteer

King's County in 1839

KING'S COUNTY, an inland county of the province of Leinster, in Ireland, bounded on the north by the county of West Meath, on the east by the county of Kildare, on the south by Queen's County and the county of Tipperary, and on the west by the river Shannon, which separates it from the counties of Galway and Roscommon. From the boundary of Kildare, near Edenderry, on the east, to the Shannon at Shannon Bridge, on the west, it extends 32 Irish or 41 statute miles; and from the boundary of Tipperary, near Moneygale, on the south, to the boundary of West Meath, near Clara, on the north, 31 Irish or 39½ statute miles. According to the map published under the superintendence of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge it contains 456,960 statute acres, or 714 square statute miles. The area has elsewhere been estimated at 528,166 statute acres, of which 394,569 are cultivated land, 133,349 are unprofitable, chiefly bog, and 248 are under water. The population in 1831 was 144,225.

The outline of the county is very irregular, extending east and west from Kildare to the Shannon, and thence stretching southward between that river and the range of the Slieve Bloom Mountains. A series of low limestone hills, running in a north-easterly direction from the northern extremity of the Slieve Bloom range, by Geashil, divides the northern portion of the county into two districts of unequal area, of which the one discharges its waters eastward to the Barrow; and the other, which is of about double the extent of the former, westward into the Shannon. This range of eminences terminates in the north-eastern part of the county, in the conical hill of Croghan, which rises 500 feet above the surrounding country, and forms the most prominent object within a circuit of twenty miles in diameter. From the northern and eastern declivities of Croghan Hill the ground slopes towards the basin of the Boyne, one branch of which, the Yellow River, has its source in the small lake of Loch Rushnel, situated in a morass at the northern foot of the hills.

From Croghan and the Yellow River to the Boyne, which forms the north-eastern boundary of the county, separating it from the barony of Carberry in Kildare, is a tract of well-cultivated country, containing the flourishing market-town of Edenderry, an ancient seat of the Cooley or Cowley family, who settled here in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. A branch from the Grand Canal is carried to the town, which is situated above half a mile north from the main line. The Marquis of Downshire is the proprietor, and has contributed liberally to the construction of the canal and to the erection of a handsome and commodious market-house. South from the line of the Grand Canal, the district included between the heights of Geashil and the county of Kildare is to a great extent occupied by peat-bog, forming a portion of the great bog of Allen. This tract, extending about twelve miles every way, is divided into two principal valleys by the Philipstown and Cushina rivers, which, running from north-west to south-east, discharge themselves, through the Feagile and Little Barrow rivers, into the Great Barrow, which last forms the southern boundary of the district. The Philipstown river, which runs in a very tortuous course between undulating banks which are generally arable for a distance of half a mile to a mile on each side of the stream, has its source on the eastern side of the bog of Ballycommon, a tract of peat-bog occupying the summit level of the central northern district of the county. The highest part of the bog is 286 feet above the level of the sea, and the waters issuing from its eastern and western borders run respectively to the Barrow and the Shannon. Between the Philipstown river and the Grand Canal are included the detached bogs of Cloncrane, Esker, and Down, covering, with the bog of Ballycommon, a total area of 9,499 statute acres. South of the Philipstown river, between it and the Cushina, the bogs of Mount Lucas, Clonsast, and Ballykeane, extend over 16,592 acres; and the bog of Portarlington covers a tract of 4,916 acres between the Cushina and the Barrow. The highest elevation of the bogs on this side of Ballycommon is about 250 feet. The Barrow at its junction with the Little Barrow, where it receives their waters, is 185 feet above the level of the sea, so that their drainage could be effected with unusual facility. It is estimated that the entire bogs on this side of the heights of Geashil, comprising a total of 33,656 acres, which includes some smaller tracts not specified above, could be drained at an expense of about £50,000. Each of the rivers above mentioned has a margin of arable land varying from half a mile to two and three miles in breadth. The valley of the Barrow, which consists on the King's County side of such a margin interposed between it and the bog of Portarlington, is highly cultivated, and to a considerable extent occupied by the demesnes of the resident gentry. About midway between the point where it becomes the boundary of the county and its junction with the Little Barrow is Portarlington, a very well-built and respectably inhabited town, partly situated on the northern bank of the Barrow, in this county, but chiefly in Queen's County. The Barrow here is shallow and comparatively rapid, having a fall of 16 feet from Portarlington to its junction with the Little Barrow. North-west from Portarlington, near the head of the Cushina river, is the small town of Geashil, formerly a seat of the O'Dempsys. The upland tract, on which the town is situated, is said to have been one of the first places cleared of wood by the early colonists of Ireland. Agriculture is however but little advanced in the immediate vicinity of the town. Between Geashil and Croghan Hill the high ground has more of the character of a flat table-land, on the summit-level of which, nearly surrounded by the bog of Ballycommon, is Philipstown, formerly Dangin, a seat of the O'Connors, and, from 1557 to 1833, the shire town of the county. The transfer of the assizes to the neighbouring town of Tullamore in the latter year has reduced Philipstown, which was never a place of much importance, to the condition of a village. It is situated on the summit-level of the Grand Canal, the surface-water of which is 264 feet above the level of the sea.

West from the range of Geashil the country slopes to the valley of the Brosna, which, flowing from Loch Ennil in West Meath, traverses the north-western portion of the county in a direction from north of east to south of west; and, after receiving the Clodagh and Frankford rivers from the district between Geashil and the Shannon, flows into that river at Shannon Harbour. The line of the Grand Canal, which joins the Shannon at the same point, is nearly parallel to the course of the Brosna after its junction with the Clodagh. The latter river rises in Loch Annagh, a pool of marsh water on the confines of Queen's County, and receives the drainage of about 4,000 acres of bog lying between Geashil and Tullamore. Tullamore, the assize town of the county, is situated on the southern bank of the Grand Canal, on a stream running into the Clodagh. The demesne of Lord Charleville, comprising 1,500 acres, extends from the western outskirts of the town to the junction of the Tullamore and Clodagh rivers, the latter of which forms several beautiful cascades in its descent through a wooded glen in the demesne. The mansion is in the baronial style, on a scale corresponding to the extent of the grounds, and is by much the finest residence in this part of Ireland. Higher up, on the Clodagh at Clonad, is a considerable tract of wood, which, with the extensive plantations of Charleville Forest and the cultivated tract round Tullamore, forms a pleasing contrast to the boggy districts on each side. The bogs on the western side of Tullamore, lying along the southern side of the Grand Canal, occupy an area of 11,588 acres. They are disposed in three principal tracts, separated from one another by low hills of limestone gravel, and bounded on the south by the hill of Cloghan, which separates the bogs immediately bordering on the canal from the more extensive tract lying between its southern declivity and the range of Slieve Bloom. This latter tract, consisting of five principal fields, extends over 23,986 acres, and by its drainage forms the chief supply of the Frankford or Silver river. This river has its source on the north-western declivity of Slieve Bloom, near the small town of Kinnitty, which, previous to the forfeitures of 1641, was the residence of a branch of the O'Carrol family, petty-princes of Ely O'Carrol.

About five miles from Kinnitty, lower on the river, is Frankford, a thriving market-town for grain, situated in the district which was anciently possessed by the O'Molloys, the ruins of whose castle of Broghill are still standing in the neighbourhood. The Frankford river, passing under the Grand Canal at the Macartney aqueduct, runs into the Brosna, about three miles below the junction of the latter river with the Clodagh, which also passes under the canal. The valley of the Brosna is the best cultivated portion of the north-western division of the county. The river winds between undulating banks, which form a margin of considerable breadth on each side free from bog, and towards West Meath spread into a well-cultivated open country about the town of Clara, which is situated on the river near the county bounds. Clara is well built, and, prior to the opening of the Grand Canal, was the chief manufacturing town of the county: the linen and cotton manufactures are now the principal branches of trade carried on in it. Below Clara, on the Brosna, are the village of Ballycumber and the town of Ferbane, the latter very pleasingly situated on the wooded banks of the river near its junction with the Shannon. The district included between the Brosna and the county of West Meath, with the exception of the arable margin of the river, is almost wholly occupied by bogs. These are of greatest extent towards the Shannon, covering an area of 17,800 acres along the banks of that river. The Blackwater stream drains this tract, and gives its name to the principal field of bog, which covers 12,105 acres. A margin of arable land borders the Shannon also, and elevated tracts of limestone gravel extend from it into the interior of this part of the county, separating the several bogs. The remainder of the bogs of this district, extending from the field drained by the Blackwater to the north of Clara, cover 11,055 acres. The most eastern of the four tracts comprised in this division is the bog of Kilmaleady, now generally known as the 'moving bog,' which in the year 1821 burst its bounds and flowed nearly a mile and a half down an adjoining valley.

The remaining portion of the county, included between the western declivities of the Slieve Bloom Mountains, Tipperary, and the Shannon, has a general slope towards the Little Brosna, which forms the boundary between King's County and Tipperary. This division of the county, with the exception of that part immediately bordering on the Shannon, lies south of the boggy region, and is little encumbered either with rough land or morass. The portion which slopes immediately to the Shannon, north of the junction of the Little Brosna with that river, is bleak and moory, comprising a considerable portion of the bogs lying south of Cloghan hill. These are drained by two streams running westward to the Shannon, the more considerable of which has its source in Loch Coura, a small lake south of Cloghan. On the bank of the Shannon, between these streams, is situated the thriving town of Banagher, commanding an important pass into Connaught. The bridge which here crosses the Shannon is old and narrow, and it is proposed to erect a new one better fitted for so great a thoroughfare. There are fortifications at both ends of the Bridge, commanding the approaches, and about a quarter of a mile farther down, on the King's County side, there is a circular redoubt mounting six pieces of cannon. Banagher is well situated for trade, and has several thriving manufactures. The banks of the Shannon are here richly clothed with meadow, but liable to frequent floods. The valley of the Little Brosna from the Shannon to Birr, and thence to the range of Slieve Bloom and the borders of the county of Tipperary and Queen's County, is an undulating well inhabited district, containing extensive tracts of pasture, and towards the mountains abounding with varied and pleasing scenery. The small towns of Shinrone and Moneygale are situated in this part of the county, the latter within a few miles of Roscrea, on the northern border of Tipperary. The highest elevation of the Slieve Bloom Mountains is 1,689 feet. They extend in a line from north-east to south-west, through a distance of 15 miles along the Queen's County border of this county, lying principally within the latter. A narrow pass, called the Gap of Glandine, is the only point of communication throughout this line available for purposes of general traffic. It lies near the northern extremity of the range, on the road from Frankford to Mountrath in Queen's County. A continuation of the Devil's Bit range forms the more southerly part of the boundary-line bordering on Tipperary. Through the interval between these ranges is carried the line of communication between Roscrea and Birr. These mountains, although of no great altitude, present a varied and picturesque outline, and abound with scenes of much natural beauty.

That part of the river Shannon which borders on this county is included within the division of the Middle Shannon, on which the Grand Canal Company have a jurisdiction, extending from the north end of the canal at Athlone to the north end of Loch Derg below Portumna Bridge, a total distance of 39 miles. The navigation is partly by the river and partly by lateral cuts. There are three such, with locks on that part of the Middle Shannon bordering King's County, viz. at Meelick, Banagher, and Shannon Bridge. Five steam-boats employed by the Ireland Navigation Company in connection with the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company ply on this part of the river. The largest of these steam-boats is of 282 tons burthen. The number of boats plying on the same part of the river in 1829 was 342, having a gross tonnage of 9,252 tons; and in 1835 was 467, having a gross tonnage of 15,482 tons. Various improvements have been recommended by the commissioners of the Shannon Navigation, which are likely to be soon put in execution. These contemplated improvements include new bridges at Shannon Bridge and Banagher, and a foot-bridge near Meelick. The Little Brosna is navigable for small boats to a distance of about two miles from its junction with the Shannon, and it is proposed to make it navigable as far as Birr.

Climate.— Notwithstanding the great extent of wet ground on the surface of King's County, the climate is neither damp nor unwholesome. This is partly accounted for by the antiseptic quality of the peat-bog, and partly by the fact of the county lying comparatively high and open. The Queen's County side of the Slieve Bloom range is however much more favourably situated for sun and shelter than that declivity of the chain which spreads into the south-western district of this county.

Geology.— The floetz limestone of the central plain spreads over the entire area of the county, with the exception of the portions occupied by the protruded masses of the Slieve Bloom chain and the hill of Croghan. The range of Slieve Bloom consists of a nucleus of clay-slate, supporting flanks of sandstone in which the clay-slate is enveloped on all the declivities. The clay-slate is generally of a quartzy and flinty character, approaching to fine-grained grauwacke. The rock ranges 20° south of east and 15° north of west, and dips 70° towards the south. The strata are generally from one foot to three in thickness, and in some places afford excellent flags from one to five inches thick, and seven and eight feet square. The surrounding sandstone, which lies conformably on the supporting rock, is yellowish-white or grey, composed of granular particles of quartz, and very compact. It is rarely found of the red cast which characterizes the sandstone formation farther south, nor has it much of the conglomerate character. Croghan Hill consists of a protruded mass of trap conglomerate rising about 500 feet above the level of the surrounding country, with steep declivities towards the south. The limestone of the surrounding plain appears tilted up and supported on the north-western and south-western sides of the greenstone tabular masses. Calcareous matter generally diffused through this rock, which varies from a pale lavender colour to a greyish-black, consisting, where it assumes the former appearance, of an intimate mixture of compact felspar and carbonate of lime; and where it has the latter characteristic tint, of a mixture of hornblende and felspar, containing minute disseminated particles of hornblende, calcareous-spar, quartz, and iron-pyrites. These, the calcareous fragments especially, are often found embedded in the greenstone in rounded lumps. The rock is consequently very easily decomposed, and forms an uncommonly rich and friable soil. The hill is almost all under cultivation, and yields the most abundant white and green crops without any manure whatever. Massy strata of greenstone appear also between Croghan Hill and Philipstown, about a quarter of a mile from the latter place, whence it seems probable that the floetz limestone of the vicinity reposes immediately on the trap-rock. Granular limestone occurs at the Seven Churches in the north-west of the county, and has been quarried to the extent of 3,000 cubic feet of good grey marble. Banks of rolled-limestone gravel, called eskers, occur frequently throughout the floetz limestone district. Continuous ridges of these gravel-banks surround the principal divisions of the bogs above enumerated. The eskers afford an interesting subject of study to the geologist, as from their structure they appear to have been deposited from water in violent action, and their external configuration affords an index to the direction of the current.

Soil, &c.—The bogs, which occupy a large portion of the county, generally repose on limestone-gravel. The peat, although apparently spongy and easily permeable, is very retentive of water, as shown by the remarkable fact of surface pools existing in the bogs within short distances of each other, on different levels. The soil in general is not naturally fertile, but can be made to yield very good crops in the arable districts by manuring with the lime and bog-stuff which abound throughout the county. The soil of that side of the Slieve Bloom range included in King's County is cold and gritty, with the exception of one portion near the middle of the range, where the limestone reaches high up the declivities of Knocknaman, Castletown, and Cumber hills. This part of the range affords fertile and extensive pastures, which are grazed throughout the year with flocks of sheep and young cattle. In the district lying between these mountains and that portion of Tipperary which intervenes between them and the Shannon the soil is generally a light gravel, easily tilled, and tolerably fertile. Farther north on this side of the county it becomes stiff and moory; and throughout a great part of the barony of Garrycastle, which stretches along the entire line of the Shannon, the rock is covered only by a thin stratum of poor clayey moor. The banks of the Shannon however, where they are occasionally overflowed, afford considerable tracts of fine meadow, and the eskers and derries, as the open spots of dry ground in and between the bogs are termed, have generally a rich friable soil. The chief grazing districts in the county lie on the borders of West Meath, where the pastures are considered very favourable to wool-growing. Throughout the central division the soil, where unencumbered with bog, is almost wholly in tillage. In the south-eastern districts bordering on Queen's County and Kildare tillage is not so much attended to, the insulated tracts between the bogs being better calculated for grazing. The best ground in the county is in the north-western division, from Croghan Hill to the boundary of Meath. It is equal to fattening bullocks of any weight, and is consequently little broken up by tillage. Forest-trees flourish here, the ash especially, with peculiar vigour, and the hedge-rows of white thorn are remarkably luxuriant. The average sales of grain for each of the ten years preceding 1836 in the principal market-towns of King's County appear from the following table: —

  Barrels of wheat of 26 stone Barrels of oats of 16 stone Barrels of barley of 16 stone
Tullamore 45,000 35,000 20,000
Philipstown 100 9,000 6,000
Clara 16,000 16,600 none
Ferbane 60,000 30,000 300
Cloghan 5,800 300 none
Banagher 25,000 40,000 1,000
Birr 5,600 15,100 13,000
Edenderry 20,000 30,000 25,000

The linen manufacture was carried on about the beginning of the present century with considerable activity in the west of the county, but has latterly declined. There is a small manufacture of friezes, stuffs, and serges for home consumption. Distilling, brewing, and the grinding of corn are carried on at Birr and in other parts of the county, but not to any great extent. In 1831 there were 699 weavers, 13 tanners, and 18 brewers in the county.

The condition of the working classes is somewhat better in the northern and central districts of King's County than in most of the neighbouring parts of Ireland. Wages vary from 6 pence to 10 pence per day, on an average of 100 working days each year. The cabins of the labouring peasantry are commonly of a very bad description, particularly in the boggy districts. There is however a good number of comfortable farmers, and the people generally are of industrious and decent habits. The English language is spoken universally.

King's County is divided into the baronies of Warrens-town, on the north-east; Coolestown, on the east, containing the town of Edenderry (population in 1831, 1,283); Philipstown, Lower, on the north, containing the town of Philipstown (population, 1,454) ; Philipstown, Upper, containing part of the town of Portarlington (total population, 3,091); Geashil, in the centre; Kilcoursey, on the north-west, containing the town of Clara (population, 1,149); Ballycowen, west of Geashil, containing the town of Tullamore (population, 6,342); Ballyboy, south of Ballycowen, containing the town of Frankford (population, 373); Garrycastle, on the west, containing the towns of Banagher (population, 2,636), Shannonbridge (population, 559), and Ferbane (population 501); Eglish, south of Garrycastle; Ballybrit, south of Eglish, containing the towns of Birr or Parsonstown (population, 6,594) and Crinkle (population, 531); and Clonlisk, on the south-west, containing the town of Shinrone (population, 1,287) and the village of Moneygale (population, 379).

Philipstown was incorporated as a borough by charter of the 12th Elizabeth, but the corporation is now extinct; Banagher also, incorporated as a borough by charter of the 4th Charles I, has no longer any traces of a governing body: and these are the only towns in the county which have at any time had corporations.

Prior to the Union, King's County was represented in the Irish parliament by two county members, and two for each of the above boroughs. The representation of the Imperial Parliament is now limited to two county members. The constituency in 1836 consisted of 1,694 voters.

The assizes are held at Tullamore. General quarter sessions are held at Tullamore, Birr, and Philipstown, in each of which is a court-house and gaol, that at Tullamore being the county-gaol and the others bridewells. On the 1st January, 1836, the police force of this county consisted of 5 chief constables, 45 constables, 225 sub-constables, and 6 horse, supported at a cost, for the year 1835, of £9,548, 3 shillings, 8 pence, of which £4,838, 5 shillings, 11 pence was chargeable against the county. The total number of criminal offenders committed to the county-gaol in the year 1836 was 672 males and 94 females, of whom 254 males and 13 females could read and write at the time of their committal, 272 males and 38 females could read only, and 146 males and 43 females could neither read nor write.

The district lunatic asylum for King's County is at Maryborough in Queen's County. There is a county infirmary at Tullamore, fever hospitals at Shinrone and Birr, and dispensaries in all the chief towns and villages. There are barracks at Banagher, Birr, Shannon-harbour, Tullamore, and Philipstown.