18 January 2020

Please pray for the peace
of Drogheda, and for
the people of Drogheda

Looking along Laurence Street towards Laurence’s Gate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

It is sad to read what friends have been saying on social media about Drogheda this week.

There are tweets on Twitter saying, ‘Pray for Drogheda.’

But others are saying ‘If you didn’t have an excuse not to go to Drogheda, you do now. Stay away, stay in Dundalk.’

The people of Drogheda are numb, in shock, and wondering what has happened to the town they know, the town they grew up in, the town they live in and love. Some have been so numbed this week, they are saying things like ‘I can’t believe people are talking about Drogheda in such a way’ …

‘It’s like they’re talking about somewhere else’ … ‘Our lovely town is being destroyed by drug gangs’ … ‘We need to stand together in solidarity and stay strong’ … ‘We need our town back’ … ‘Our streets are not safe.’

I have known Drogheda since my childhood, with day trips into Drogheda during holidays in Bettystown and Termonfeckin.

Later in my teens, as a schoolboy in Gormanston, I spent many memorable Saturday afternoons in Drogheda. I have lost contact with most of my friends from those teenage years, but I still remember them with fondness and affection and their parents who welcomed me into their homes.

When I chaired he board of the Church of Ireland Gazette, we occasionally met in the Boyne Valley Hotel Drogheda. In more recent years, as a lecturer in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, I took many post-graduate students on my Church History module on ‘church history road trips’ to Drogheda, and there have been occasional visits to Drogheda for lunch after walks on the beach at Bettystown or Mornington.

I was last in Drogheda last year, and was sorry to miss the launch in the Arc Cinema, Drogheda, in July of The Spiritual Journey of Ireland, for which I was interviewed in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton.

So, it was a pleasure to have been asked recently to contribute a chapter on the Duke of Wellington to the new history of Drogheda Grammar School, which was published last month, to mark the 350th anniversary of the school, which was founded in 1669.

The site of the Old Abbey in Drogheda … looking forlorn and dilapidated (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

We began one of those ‘Church History Road Trips’ to Drogheda, at 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.

The shrine of Saint Oliver Plunkett in Saint Peter’s Church, Drogheda (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Of course, we also visited Saint Peter’s Roman Catholic Church on West Street. 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.

The reliquary of the True Cross in Saint Peter’s Church, Drogheda (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In Laurence Street, we saw the former Franciscan Friary, the former site of Drogheda Grammar School, the elegant Victorian Whitworth Hall, and 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 Cord 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.

The ‘cadaver stone’ from the tomb of Sir Edmond Goldyng and his wife Elizabeth Fleming in Saint Peter’s Churchyard in Drogheda (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

We returned to the Tholsel and walked up Peter Street to Saint Peter’s Church, the town’s Church of Ireland parish church, which has fond memories for me from my school days.

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 and shows two cadavers enclosed in shrouds that have been partially opened to show the remains of the corpses in the tomb.

The grave of John Duggan … a survivor of the Battle of Balaklava and the Crimean War (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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.

After lunch in Relish Café, 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).

Dusk was beginning to close in as we drove back though Drogheda and south to Bettystown for a walk on the beach that evening.

I must return to Drogheda soon for my own ‘Church History Road Tour.’

Meanwhile, please pray for the peace of Drogheda, for the people of Drogheda, and for bereaved families.

The railway viaduct at Drogheda (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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