Part 2, Ireland location series
Divided by a gentle curve in the great River Boyne, the town of Drogheda (pronounced DRAW-hee-duh) in County Louth is one of the oldest and largest in Ireland. This important trade and commercial center began as two walled towns that literally grew together, officially so in 1412, but archaeological evidence shows the first civilization in this area began at least 3,000 years ago.
At a point on the Boyne where St. Mary’s bridge exists today, a natural ford made Drogheda an attractive settlement and defensive location. The name Drogheda comes from the Irish Droichead Átha meaning 'bridge of the ford.' On behalf of King Henry II in 1172, Hugh de Lacy began constructing a wooden fort on the high ground overlooking this ford. By around 1200, the first stone bridge across the river made the settlement part of a principal north-south travel route, and its location just four miles inland from the mouth of the river confirmed its role as a trade center.
De Lacy’s fort eventually was rebuilt as a motte and bailey fort now known as Millmount—the highest and most distinctive landmark in the city (it is sometimes called the ‘cup and saucer’). In addition to Millmount and St. Mary’s Bridge, Drogheda has several more historical sites of interest, including the 13th century St. Laurence Gate, which was part of the 113-acre stone enclosure built by the Anglo-Normans, and Magdalene Tower, the remains of a 13th century monastery.
I first learned about Millmount Fort and Drogheda when researching my first novel, Sharavogue. The book begins near the end of Cromwell’s famous and brutal march of 1649, at what was then the village of Skebreen (as it was spelled by map-makers at the time, and now known as Skibbereen), in the southwest corner of County Cork. By the time Cromwell reached this part of Ireland, stories of his army’s killing and destruction had spread far and wide, causing some towns to surrender and inhabitants to flee even as he approached. And the most powerful of stories was the terrible siege of Drogheda.
Since 1641, Ireland had been in a state of rebellion. The native Irish, Old English settlers, and Catholic Irish had joined to form the Irish Catholic Confederation led by James Butler, the Marquess of Ormonde. When Cromwell’s new model army defeated King Charles’ royalist forces in England’s Civil war, many royalist officers and troops fled to Ireland and joined the Confederation to continue their resistance. Among these royalists was Sir Arthur Aston, who led a garrison at Drogheda composed of about 2,550 men.
Cromwell arrived at Dublin with the intentions to wholly crush the rebellion, starting by seizing major port towns, thereby securing the ability to supply his forces via the sea. He marched his soldiers north to Drogheda with heavy artillery, established batteries on either side of St. Mary’s Church, and blasted two breaches in the town wall. Then he called for surrender.
In the belief that Ormonde would come to his relief with 4,000 royalist troops, Aston refused. By the rules of war at the time, refusal to surrender meant that if his garrison was taken, all in the garrison could be killed. Cromwell attacked the town and the fighting was fierce, but no reinforcements arrived and soon the royalist resistance collapsed. Some tried to flee across the river, while Aston and 200 others took refuge in Millmount Fort. Cromwell’s soldiers surged into the town and massacred about 2,000 men—and an unknown number of civilians.
Rather than attacking Millmount Fort, Cromwell offered to spare the lives of the governor and the men within if they surrendered, but within an hour of their surrender, all were put to the sword. Soldiers reportedly beat Aston to death with his own wooden leg, believing Aston concealed gold coins within it. About 30 more who hid within a church steeple were killed when Parliamentary soldiers set fire to pews they’d stacked beneath the steeple. Soldiers who were not killed were deported to work as slaves on the plantations of Barbados.
Richard Talbot, mentioned in my previous post about Malahide, was one of the few who escaped, most likely through the thinly guarded north of the river.
In Sharavogue, the protagonist convinces the villagers of Skebreen to dismantle a bridge across the River Ilen to deny Cromwell access. The story is based upon a legend I came across in my readings, about a town somewhere in County Cork where the people did dismantle a bridge and were then forced by Cromwell to rebuild it. In the novel, the scheme also fails, and the protagonist is swept away, not to Barbados but to the island of Montserrat in the West Indies, to work as an indentured servant on an Irish-owned sugar plantation.
Drogheda’s remarkable history is much greater than the stain left by Cromwell, however. In 1849, Oscar Wilde’s father William wrote that the very history of Ireland could be traced through the monuments along the River Boyne.
A 15-minute drive from the city will get you to Newgrange, a 5000-year-old passage tomb that is famous for the precision of its structure, such that it lights up at sunrise on the summer solstice. Less than 10 minutes drive from the town center, you’ll find Oldbridge, where the famous Battle of the Boyne was fought. Even more indelible than Cromwell’s march, this battle between deposed king James II and William of Orange (and his wife Mary, James’s own daughter) changed the course of England’s monarchy.
If you love castles as I do, the well-restored Norman stronghold, Trim Castle, is about 26 miles from the city. Slane Castle, owned by the Scottish Protestant Conyngham family since 1703, is less than 10 miles from the city. Now an events venue, there are guided tours of the castle and distillery. You can learn about the archaeological heritage of the Boyne Valley at Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre, 6 miles south west of Drogheda near Donore.
There are also historic manor houses in the area, including Beaulieu House, three miles from town. In existence for more than 800 years, it is believed this house evolved from a stronghold to a fortified manor house, and is now a ‘grand mansion.’ It is considered a rare example of 17th century Irish domestic architecture.
A Detailed History by Michael Holohan
History of Drogheda
Ghosts of Drogheda (historical photos)
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