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Maryborough to Portlaoise (2): The Market Square

Laois Local Studies > Articles > Maryborough to Portlaoise (2): The Market Square

by Terry Dunne, Laois Historian-in-Residence

The pivotal urban public space in the revolution in Laois was the Market Square, Portlaoise. This was the centre piece for a range of demonstrations and rallies —with the focal point often the sadly no longer present Town Hall. We’ll look at a couple of these mobilisations here.

Hunger Strike and General Strike

On the 13th and 14th of April 1920 most of Ireland was closed down by a general strike in support of hunger striking political prisoners in Mountjoy Gaol.[1] The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union branch in Maryborough sent a report on what it had achieved up to Liberty Hall, union headquarters in Dublin. It explained how they ended trade on the Market Square, which, as the name would suggest, was used for agricultural markets and fairs. The report reads:

“as far as Maryboro was concerned the strike was a great success. All our Branch members co-operated and we had a strike Committee which regulated the closing of shops and opening of same for sale of food. We stopped motors and compelled them to get permits from strike Committee. Also compelled stock owners to clear off the fair on Wednesday; ten minutes to get off the square. Our pickets allowed no drink to be sold and as far as we of the OBU [One Big Union] were concerned here we did our best.”[2]   

The Nationalist carried an evocative account of the reception of the dramatic news from Dublin:

“The people had just came from the Parish Church, where the Rosary had been offered up for the prisoners, and were standing about the streets in groups, regardless of the rain, which was pouring, when the last message arrived. The news spread rapidly, and the relief which it brought was manifest.

The official announcement of the declaration of the end of the strike, prisoners being released, was made at a public meeting held in the Town Hall.”

“After the meeting a big procession of Transport Workers, Volunteers and some ex-service men marched through the town, and returned to the Market Square, where a tar-barrel was lit.”[3] 

Slide to Civil War

In 1922 the Market Square was host to rallies for and against the Treaty. The assembly for acceptance of the Treaty took place on St. Patrick’s Day. This rally had a strong presence of councillors and clergymen and launched the electoral campaigns of the sitting T.D.s, all of whom were pro-Treaty. Parading were the Mountrath Brass Band and the Mountmellick Fife and Drum Band.[4] Speakers at the meeting included national prominent leaders W.T. Cosgrave, then Minister for Local Government, and future Taoiseach; as well as Gearóid O’Sullivan,  lieutenant-general of the new Free State army. Kevin O’Higgins, both locally and nationally prominent, was also a speaker. In less than a year his father was to fall a victim to the Civil War, as was publicist Erskine Childers, a major target of Cosgrave’s invective at the St. Patrick’s Day rally. 

The following month the Market Square experienced the anti-Treaty riposte —a rally addressed by Éamon de Valera from a platform bedecked with the slogans “Oathbreakers must go” and “We stand for 100 per cent”.[5] Also in April there was a response to the slide towards the Civil War in the form of the national general strike against militarism. [6] In Portlaoise’s part of that strike a procession of workers took to the streets behind the Green Road Fife and Drum Band. [7]


These are just a sample of the occasions in which people used the Market Square to demonstrate their views —the last article featured rallies marking the release of prisoners in December 1921; the Motor Permits dispute – wherein drivers boycotted official permits —also saw dramatic scenes on the Market Square; and the anti-conscription mobilisation in April 1918 was as widespread as the general strike of April 1920. What has been described here are among the main ways most people experienced and participated in the revolution — there were other ways, trying to avoid being the victim of violence for one, but in so far as there was a positive popular experience of revolution the kind of events described here was central to it.  

[1] John Dorney, ‘The Hunger strike and General strike of 1920’,

[2] Copy of correspondence between branches of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, concerning a general strike on 13th April 1920 to show solidarity with hunger strikers in Mountjoy Prison,

1920-1923 (National Library of Ireland/William O’Brien (1881-1968) Papers, 1898-1969/MS 15,670/11),

[3] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 24th April 1920.

[4] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 25th March 1922.

[5] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 22nd April 1922.

[6] John Dorney, ‘The General Strike Against Militarism, Ireland April 1922’,

[7] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 29th April 1922.