18 January 2014
Winter came back with a sharp and bitter attack today, bringing with it heavy rain and dark clouds, without any glimmer of the bright sunshine that has broken through the clouds on most days of the week gone by.
Undeterred, five of us set out soon after breakfast, with one student proclaiming delightfully: “The Church History Road Tour continues.”
Our first stop was Drogheda, where we parked close to Abbey Street to see the ruins of old Saint Mary’s Abbey at the west end of West Street.
The Old Abbey or the Hospital of Saint Mary d’Urso was founded by Ursus de Swemele and his wife as a hospital for the sick and infirm about 1206. Flooding from the River Boyne in 1330 damaged much of the abbey, but it was restored mainly through the generosity of the Brandon family, and in 1349 the Prior was granted a royal charter with privileges. It passed into the hands of the Augustinian Friars later at the end of the 14th century.
Drogheda was an important walled town in the Pale in the mediaeval period, and frequently hosted meetings of the Irish Parliament. Parliament met in Drogheda in 1494 and passed Poynings’ Law a year later. This effectively subordinated the Irish Parliament’s legislative powers to the King and his Council.
Sir Edward Poynings had been appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland by King Henry VII in the aftermath of the Wars of the Roses, and his plan was to make Ireland obedient to the Crown. Poynings’ Law remained in place until 1782 when legislative independence was restored to the Irish Parliament.
The Observantine Friars reformed this monastery in 1519, but at the dissolution of the monastic houses the abbey was suppressed, and it was finally surrendered in 1543 by the last Prior, Richard Malone, to the Corporation of Drogheda.
The Corporation proceeded to dispose of the monastic properties, leasing them to local merchants. Today, all that remains of the old abbey is the central belfry tower, surmounting a Gothic archway, with another fragment supported on a similar arch to the east, and a gable wall to the west.
But the whole site is in a sad state of decay with shabby commercial premises abutting the old abbey walls, and it all looked neglected and lonely this rainy day.
From the old abbey we headed east along West Street, where our next stop was at Saint Peter’s Roman Catholic Church. It was designed in the French Gothic revival style by John O’Neill and William Byrne in the 1880s and the 1890s, and has survived almost unscathed from the post-Vatican II fashion for reordering church interiors.
The church is best-known for the elaborate shrine of Saint Oliver Plunkett, the Archbishop of Armagh who was martyred at Tyburn in 1681. The shrine on the (liturgical) north transept contains his preserved head, while a second showcase displays his shoulder blade and other bones as relics. The transept exhibition area also includes the door of the cell in Newgate Prison where he spent his final days.
In the opposite (liturgically south) transept is a reliquary said to contain a relic of the True Cross. This relic was presented to Drogheda in 2008 by the Bishop Ghent to commemorate the consecration of Oliver Plunkett as archbishop in Saint Bravo’s Cathedral, Ghent, in 1669.
We continued east into Laurence Street, past the former Franciscan Friary, the former site of Drogheda Grammar School and the elegant Victorian Whitworth Hall to Laurence’s Gate, a barbican first built in the 13th century as part of the walled fortifications of the mediaeval town.
The gate was named in the 14th century after the Hospital of Saint Laurence on the Chord Road.
The gate consists of two towers, each with four floors, joined by a bridge at the top and an entrance arch at street level. Entry is through a flight of stairs in the south tower. A portcullis could be raised and lowered from a slot underneath the arch.
Why was such a major barbican built in the east of the town when the main artery through Drogheda was always along a north/south axis? A similar barbican in Canterbury is less than half the height of Laurence’s Gate. Yet, the top of the gate provides clear views across the estuary of the River Boyne and the four mile stretch of river from there to Drogheda, providing a vantage point for watching any potential attack from the sea invasion.
Twice the walls and gates of Drogheda held face against invasion, firstly when Edward Bruce, brother of Scotland’s King Robert Bruce, attacked the town in 1317 and again in 1642 when Sir Phelim O’Neill tried to capture Drogheda. A portion of the town wall remains to the south of Laurence’s Gate. North of the gate, the town wall ran up Palace Street and King Street, but the walls and gates fell into disrepair over the centuries.
We returned to the Tholsel and walked up Peter Street to Saint Peter’s Church, the town’s Church of Ireland parish church. The first Saint Peter’s Church on this site was founded before 1186.
In the Middle Ages, Saint Peter’s was an important ecclesiastical centre, and for centuries served as the Pro-Cathedral for the Archbishops of Armagh, who lived either in Termonfeckin, Dromiskin and Drogheda. The large mediaeval church had six chapels dedicated to Saint Anne, Saint Martin, Saint Patrick, Saint Peter, Saint John the Baptist and Saint George, each supporting its own chaplains.
The font by the west door of the church is all that survives from the mediaeval church. But the churchyard has many interesting monuments. A “cadaver stone” from the tomb of Sir Edmond Goldyng and his wife Elizabeth Fleming is built into the east wall of the churchyard. It probably dates from the early 16th century shows two cadavers enclosed in shrouds that have been partially opened to show the remains of the corpses in the tomb.
A tombstone on the north side of the church marks the grave of John Duggan from Drogheda who survived the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava and the battles of Alma and Sevastopol in the Crimean War. When he was discharged from the army, he worked as a sexton in Saint Peter’s until his death in 1881.
From the churchyard we had a glimpse too of the Magdalene Tower, all that now remains of the mediaeval Dominican Friary founded in 1224. There that O’Neill and the Ulster chiefs submitted to King Richard II in 1367.
We returned to Laurence Street for lunch in Relish on Laurence Street. We have often eaten in Relish in Bettystown, but this was my first time in their restaurant in Drogheda. We were warmly welcomed, and although the place was delightfully busy a table was soon found for all five of us.
After lunch, we went next door to the Highlanes Gallery, which opened in 2006 in the former Franciscan Friary as the town’s first dedicated Municipal Art Gallery and visual arts centre. The gallery houses Drogheda’s municipal art collection dating from the 17th century and the civic mace and sword, as well as visiting exhibitions.
The Franciscans donated the property to the people of Drogheda when their 760-year association with the town came to an end in 2000. The buildings date from the early 19th century, although some parts date back to earlier times and include the former Franciscan burial crypts. The main exhibition spaces are open plan and include the old church level and a new floor at the height of the old balcony so that, the character of the old building is not lost.
The gallery includes works by Nano Reid, Bea Orpen, Evie Hone, Mary Swanzy, Nathaniel Hill, May Guinness and Sarah Purser, as wells as a number of important 18th century works, including two views of Drogheda by the Italian artist, Gabriele Ricciardelli (ca 1743-1782).
From Drogheda, we headed north to the monastic site at Monasterboice. It dates back to the sixth century when the monastery was founded by Saint Buite. Although nothing remains of the original monastery, we saw the remains of two tenth century churches, the site’s three High Crosses and the Round Tower.
Saint Muirdeach’s Cross, the cross nearest the site entrance, is an outstanding example of Irish high crosses and probably finest of its type in Ireland. It is 5.2 metres high and its principle theme is Christ the King and the cross displays Biblical images from Adam and Eve and Cain slaying Able to the Last Judgment.
The West Cross is seven metres high, making it the tallest high cross in Ireland. It has an unusual crucifixion scene on the west face. The third cross, the North Cross, is less spectacular and is fenced off by low rails.
The South Church is the older of the two churches on the site, and includes the remains of the chancel arch. The smaller church beside the Round Tower shows has no trace of a chancel.
The Round Tower, about 100 ft high, is now missing its upper part and conical cap. A modern flight of steps leads up to the door, six feet above ground level.
From Monasterboice, we drove south-west to Mellifont Abbey, founded by Saint Malachy in 1142. This was Ireland’s first Cistercian monastery, and its foundation marked the introduction of the European monastic way of life to Ireland.
The most unusual feature is the octagonal lavabo from ca 1210. But it is possible to trace out the original walls of the abbey church, and the other remains on the site include the former Chapter House and interesting colonnades.
Dusk was beginning to close in as we drove back though Drogheda and south to Bettystown. But of the five participants on this “Church History Road Tour,” I was the only one to get out of the car for a short walk on the expansive beach behind the original Relish. The tide was out, and darkness was beginning to fall.
We stopped again briefly to look at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Laytown, and then continued on our way along the coast through Balbriggan to Skerries, where we stopped for a short walk at the harbour and a glass of wine in Stoop Your Head.
It was about 6.30 p.m. when we got back to South Dublin. But the “Church History Road Tour” must resume.