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Frederic William Burton - The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
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Louth: Land of Antiquities

mellifont abbey

Mellifont Abbey by Will Cooper

by Suzanne Barrett

At only 317 square miles, Louth is the smallest of the Irish counties, yet is huge in sights for the visitor, extending northward from the River Boyne to Carlingford Louth. Fertile, undulating countryside, sandy coastlands, and rocky headlands comprise most of the land except for the mountainous Cooley Peninsula which lies between Dundalk Bay and the Carlingford Lough. On the north side of the county, visitors have the vista of the rising Mourne Mountains, a noted scenic area.

County Louth figures prominently in the epic tales of ancient Ireland and was also the scene of many historic events. Here may be found many relics of the past.

Brown Bulls and Battles
A border between Ulster and the Republic, Louth bears a resemblance to the ragged Atlantic coast and has a similar pattern of settlements. The mountain barriers made it less quick to be Anglicized than its neighbors. The Cooley Peninsula is the site of the great epic of Irish mythology, the Táin Bó Cuailgne,'the Cattle Raid of Cooley'. It tells the story of how Queen Maeve of Connacht sent her forces, under the command of Ferdia, against those of his friend Cuchullain of Louth. The story is one of great heroism, but is also about the futility of war.

Further south, the town of Drogheda was important in the Middle Ages due to its strategic position. Along with Dublin, it was one of the most important English towns in twelfth-century Ireland. The town is remembered more for Cromwell's treatment of its citizens in 1649. When the leader's third assault allowed him to seize the town, he ingloriously slaughtered some 2,000 of its inhabitants.

Dundalk, a busy and progressive manufacturing center, lies at the head of Dundalk Bay. Its ancient Irish name means Dealga's Fort. From the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries, Dundalk was repeatedly attacked since it was an English town at the edge of the pale. The O'Neills were the major attackers. The town was garrisoned by Lord Mountjoy in 1600 as a defense against the great Hugh O'Neill. In the seventeenth century, the town changed hands frequently, until in 1690, the Williamite army entered and James II withdrew his forces southward. The shrine of Blessed Oliver Plunkett, two miles south of Dundalk, is a place of pilgrimage.

Carlingford lies at the foot of Slieve Foye (1,935 feet), on the southern shore of Carlingford Lough. Unsupported historical tradition claims St. Patrick landed near Carlingford on his return from Rome. Later Norsemen established a settlement here from which they raided the interior of the country. Following the Anglo-Norman invasion, King John had a castle to guard the harbor erected. The town was strongly fortified, though not walled until the sixteenth century.

Greenore, near the entrance to Carlingford Lough, is a quiet seaside resort in beautiful surroundings. In the vicinity are two fifteenth-century ruins: Ballug Castle, a stronghold of the Bagnall family and Kilwirra Church, (Cill Mhuire, or Mary's Church. It is believed this church may have belonged to the Knights Templars, after whom the surrounding district, Templetown, is named.

Omeath is another lovely little resort town, connected with Warrenpoint, Co. Down, by ferry. A little south of the town are vistas to see nearbyFlagstaff Cairn and the Long Woman's Grave.

Driving south, one comes to the N1 and the border town of Dundalk, an excellent center for exploring the Cooley Peninsula. Dundalk was at the north edge of the Pale--a boundary from Anglo-Norman to Elizabethan times that signified the ribbon-like area of English rule. The town, largest in Louth, is the principal town and administrative capital of the county and also a progressive manufacturing center.

Dundalk and its neighboring locale are closely associated with Cuchulainn, who is said to have been born at the fort of Dealga, at the place now called Castletown Hill. The Anglo-Norman, John de Courcy, took possession of Dundalk in 1177 on his way north to subdue Ulster. In 1185, Henry II granted the town to Bertram de Verdon, who walled and fortified it. Later, King John made the palace a royal borough.

Brian O'Neill burned it in 1253; Edward Bruce did the same in 1315. Bruce was crowned King of Ireland on a hill near the town, but he was slain and his army defeated at Faughart in 1318. For the next 300 years, Dundalk was repeatedly attacked--chiefly by the O'Neills.

Further south lies Dromiskin village and the ruins of the Monastery of Dromiskin, traditionally founded by St. Patrick and ravaged by Norse raids in the tenth century. The graveyard contains some remains of a medieval church, a round tower, and a sculptured cross. Four miles east of Dundalk lies Blackrock, and nearby, the ruins of Dunmahon Castle and Rosmakea Abbey, a medieval Franciscan foundation.

MonasterboiceA few miles west of Dromiskin is Darver Castle, now turned into a fancy hotel. It, and several fortified castle ruins dot the landscape in this area. At Termonfeckin, an ancient place which grew around the sixth-century monastic settlement of St. Fechin, hosts a castle, a high cross, and a protestant church.

Drogheda is an ancient and historic town situated nearly halfway between Dundalk and Dublin. It is situated on the River Boyne which here separates Louth from County Meath. Anciently, Drogheda was called Inver-Colpa, which means the Port of Colpa. The Danes had established a fortified settlement as early as 911 A.D., and by the end of the tenth century, Drogheda ranked with Dublin and Wexford as a Danish trading center.

Two towns, one on either side of the river, first evolved, united by a charter from Henry IV. Richard II held court here in 1394 to receive submissions of the princes of Leinster and Ulster. The city continued to prosper in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but became the target of attack in the seventeenth. The first attacker, Phelim O'Neill, was unsuccessful in taking the town in 1641, but eight years later, Cromwell took it by storm, massacring 2,000 of the garrison and inhabitants. Recorded documents reveal he felt he had God a service!

Drogheda declared for James at the outbreak of the Williamite Wars, but later surrendered to William after the Battle of the Boyne.

Sights to see: Of the ten gates originally set in the town walls, only St. Lawrence's Gate remains. It is considered one of the most perfect specimens existing in Ireland. The Magdalen steeple is all that remains of the Dominican Friary founded in 1224. The Tholsel is a fine square building surmounted by a cupola and is presently the bank of Ireland. Millmount, in the County Meath section of the town, is said to have been erected over the grave of a son of Milesius, who died in 1029 B.C. A fort built on the mount was stormed by Cromwell in 1649. The British garrisoned Millmount Fort down to recent times. It was used as a temporary prison after the 1916 Rising, and was shelled during the Civil War which followed the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

The areas around Drogheda offer much to the visitor--more, perhaps, than the town itself which can seem dismal in comparison to its neighboring towns and villages. The Boyne Viaduct which carries the Dublin-Belfast railway high above the river at Drogheda is one fine example. St. Peter's church on West Street is another.

By far, the most interesting nearby site is Mellifont Abbey, just six miles west of Drogheda. The foundation ruins of which were the first Cistercian house in Ireland, stand by the Mattock River, a Boyne tributary. The abbey was built in 1142 on land granted by Donough O'Carroll, king of Oriel, but owes its establishment to St. Malachy O'Morgair, archbishop of Armagh. With the suppression in 1539, the abbey ceased to be used as such; it later fell into the hands of Edward Moore who made the church into a fortified dwelling. Phelim O'Neill took the house in 1641 at the siege of Drogheda, but the Moores returned and occupied the house until 1720.

The remains to a massive square-towered gate house stand some fifty feet high and are the best preserved portion of the ancient abbey. Nearby is the abbey church ruin and the outline of the cloisters, a two-story chapter house, and a roofless building known as the lavabo. Originally octagonal in shape, the building once had a central fountain in which the monks washed their hands before eating in the refectory.

Six miles northwest of Drogheda is Monasterboice, or St. Buithe's Abbey, a secluded spot noted for the remains of a fifth century monastic settlement. The ruins, surrounded by the old graveyard, include two churches, a round tower, three sculpted crosses, two early grave slabs, and a sun dial. The South Church is the larger of the two and consists of a rectangular nave about 39 by 22 feet. Nothing but shapeless mounds of earth remain from what was once the chancel, a west wall is of a later date.

The north church adjoins the round tower and is of poorer construction. Base-courses of walls hint of an earlier construction. The round tower is 51 feet in circumference and about 100 feet high; however, the top portion and conical cap are missing. The cross of Muireadach is nearest to the graveyard entrance and is an outstanding example of the high crosses of early Ireland. Almost every inch of its seventeen- foot eight-inch high surface is ornamented with sculpted panels of extraordinary workmanship. It was probably built for the Muireadach, abbot of Monasterboice, who died in 922.

The two other high crosses are known as the West or Tall Cross and the North Cross. The West Cross is taller, twenty-one feet six inches, and richly ornamented, while the North Cross at sixteen feet, consists of the head, supported on a modern stem. The original stem lies broken inside the enclosing railing. The crucifixion is detailed on the west face, while a pattern of spirals shows on the east face.

Ardee is an ancient, but busy marketing town on the River Dee, near the Meath border. The name means "the town of Ferdia's ford" and refers to one of the most famous epics of ancient Irish lore--the four-day hand-to-hand combat in which Cuchulainn slew his friend Ferdia. Following the Anglo-Norman invasion, Roger de Pippard came into possession of the district and established the Trinitarian monastery and hospital. He also may be responsible for the building of Ardee Castle. The square keep stands today in the main street. Hatch Castle stands in Market Street, different from Ardee Castle in that its corners are rounded instead of square.

Two St. Mary's churches grace the town, one Protestant, the other Catholic. The Protestant St. Mary's was once a Carmelite church, said to be founded by Roger de Pippard. The church contains a beautifully carved old font. At the entrance can be seen an ancient stone cross with the figure of the Crucifixion on one side, the Blessed Virgin and Child on the other. The church was is a state of decay in 1789, but was repaired and the front added in 1812. The Catholic Church of St. Mary was built in 1829 on what is said to be the site of the Trinitarian Monastery. The annals contain frequent mention of the monastery, founded in 1207.

Louth village lies three miles north of Tallanstown and eight miles west of Dundalk. Just a cluster of houses now, it was of such importance in early medieval times that it gave its name to the county. Several ancient buildings are worth a visit. One is St. Mochta's House, a tenth-century building about eighteen feet by ten feet, in excellent repair, its lower story vaulted. St. Mary's Abbey dates from pre-Norman times. Fire destroyed it in 1312, but the abbey was rebuilt and continued in existence until the Suppression. The remaining fourteenth-century ruins are of a large church, perhaps one hundred fifty feet by fifty feet.

There are many more sites to be seen in Louth. This virtual tour has but touched the surface. I'm hoping I've whetted your appetite to see them for yourself.

Until next time.

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Photo courtesy Louth Online

Photo of Monasterboice courtesy Will Cooper



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