During 2015 the Irish Aesthete will visit an Irish town once a month and comment on the state of its architectural heritage. January’s town is Drogheda, County Louth.
As has often been pointed out the name Droichead Átha – meaning Bridge of the Ford – indicates Drogheda is the final bridging point on the river Boyne three miles before it joins the Irish Sea. This made the place strategically important. Although St Patrick is said to have landed here and Viking raiding parties wintered in the area, Drogheda was only founded, as two separate towns on either side of the Boyne, in the late 12th century when Hugh de Lacy built a motte and bailey in the Millmount area. For two centuries rival corporations faced each other across the river but were united as one in 1412. As evidence of its prosperity, Drogheda was subject to raids by both the Scots and the native Irish, leading to the construction of walls some twenty feet high and with a circumference of more than one and a half miles. These defences were strong enough to repulse an attack in 1315-16 by Edward the Bruce’s Scottish army in 1316-16. The most visible remnant today is St Laurence’s Gate on the eastern side of the old town. While the medieval religious establishments were closed during the Reformation, otherwise Drogheda continued to blossom until caught up in the wars of the 1640s. In November 1641 the Irish Confederate army under Sir Phelim O’Neill laid siege to the town and three times attempted to take it, without success; eventually the following spring relief forces from Dublin forced O’Neill to retire. Seven years later the town was again besieged, this time by Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army which after three days gained possession and slaughtered many of the citizens. But Drogheda recovered from this terrible event and thanks to a revival of trade enjoyed something of a golden age in the 18th century when some of its finest extant buildings were constructed. Commercial decline began in the second half of the 19th century and has continued ever since; with improved transport links, such as the arrival of the railway and then the car, Drogheda’s relative proximity to Dublin (less than 35 miles) has been to its disadvantage. The consequences of this are evident to anyone visiting the place.
As already mentioned, the most tangible attestation of Drogheda’s medieval defences is St Laurence’s Gate. The print at the top of this page, taken from John D’Alton’s History of Drogheda and its Environs (1844) shows how the gate, with its little toll houses on either side, looked in the first half of the 19th century looking eastwards up St Laurence Street with the old grammar school (of which more below) to the north and a series of handsome houses to the south. Originally built in the 13th century and St Laurence’s Gate survives but is difficult to inspect or appreciate, both because surrounded by a jumble of telegrath wires and other clutter, and because it is used by traffic as a point of entry from this side of the town. Immediately to the south on Featherbed Lane is a section of the old walls with its series of elliptical arches: both the walls and the lane are in poor condition and look as though little has been done for many years to improve their state. Moving northwards and to the periphery of the old town one reaches the Magdalene Tower, all that remains of the Dominican Friary founded by Lucas de Netterville, Archbishop of Armagh in 1224. It is likely to be of a later date, the upper windows judged to be from the early 14th century. At the end of the same century it was here that the Ulster chiefs acknowledged their submission to Richard II. Today it stands isolated amid housing estates. The Magdalene Tower’s environment is considerably better than that of Drogheda’s other medieval ecclesiastical remains, those of the Abbey and Hospital of St Mary d’Urso, aptly described by Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan in 1993 as ‘a perfect expression of the State’s lackadaisical attitude towards its historic buildings.’ More than two decades later, nothing has changed. Found at the end of Abbey Lane, despite its central location the tower is surrounded by derelict buildings, rubbish and graffiti: an apt metaphor for how Drogheda treats its architectural heritage
After the depredations of the 17th century, much of Drogheda had to be rebuilt. But in addition the town’s regained prosperity encouraged something of a building boom as affluent citizens wished to live in better premises than had their forebears. One of the most notable additions of the period was Barlow House on Drogheda’s western perimeter. The building dates from 1734 when Alderman James Barlow married Althemia Leigh, daughter of another alderman and merchant; its prominence even at the time is attested by an appearance on Joseph Ravell’s map of the town which was produced in 1749. The architect is unknown but it has been attributed to both Richard Castle and Francis Bindon. Of three storeys over basement, and five bays wide with a stone eaves cornice, the focus of the house’s facade is a pedimented Gibbsian doorcase with the first-floor window above flanked by scrolled volutes topped by a segmental pediment. In the mid-19th century the building became a police station and continued being used as such until 1997. In 2000 a three-year restoration programme began and the house is now used as a venue by the local arts centre. Some thirty years after James Barlow began building his new residence and as evidence of the town’s mercantile prosperity, in 1765 Drogheda Corporation ordered the demolition of the old wooden tholsel and the construction of a new replacement. Completed in five years, this was designed by George Darley and faces onto two thoroughfares with a plain four-bay front on Shop Street and an entrance front around the corner on West Street. With an exaggeratedly high first floor this rises just two storeys before being crowned by a cupola tower ending in an octagonal belfry and dome. The Tholsell was converted into a bank in 1890 and continued as such until a few years ago: it is now a tourist office. Between them, the Barlow House and the Tholsel reflect the confidence and ambition of Drogheda’s citizens in the 18th century, qualities that are much less apparent in the town today.
At least both the Barlow House and the Tholsel survive. The fate of Drogheda Grammar School provides a salutary instance of how easily a town’s architectural heritage can be lost. This institution occupied what had been Mr Clarke’s Free School on St Laurence Street (founded 1669) and the neighbouring Singleton House. The former building begun in 1728 was attributed to Michael Wills who at the time worked as an assistant to Thomas Burgh. The latter, possibly designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, was built circa 1740 as a residence for Henry Singleton, Lord Chief Justice of Ireland; it contained one of the finest oak-panelled interiors in Ireland including a magnificent staircase. Both were used by the grammaer school until it moved to modern premises in 1975. Thereafter the two houses stood empty for several years until 1978 when a consortium of local businessmen set up a company called DGS Ltd. This acquired the old Grammar School for £70,000 and looked for an opportunity to demolish the buildings even though they had been listed since 1967 as ‘worthy of preservation.’ A small group of civic-minded local residents established the Drogheda Grammar School Preservation Committee in an effort to counter DGS Ltd’s systematic neglect, a policy based on the expectation that eventually the site would be deemed irreparably dilapidated. To add insult to injury in April 1980 the company claimed £12,500 from Drogheda Corporation for vandalism to the old Grammar School, a property the DGS Ltd had done nothing to protect. Indeed the local authority, while insisting it wanted the old Grammar School to survive and discussing the possibility of the buildings’ use as a public library, signally failed to utilise its statutory powers compelling the owners to safeguard listed properties. Over the next decade a series of court cases followed, during which the condition of the buildings continued to deteriorate. Then one Sunday morning in July 1989 a demolition contractor hired by DGS Ltd moved onto the site and proceeded to knock down the old Grammar School. The local preservation committee immediately went to the High Court in Dublin where the presiding judge issued an order preventing any further demolition or the removal of building materials and requiring the protection of the remains of the building. It proved to be a Pyrhhic victory, as the damage done during the unauthorised work was so great not even the original facade could be salvaged. Eventually a replica of this was built behind which DGS Ltd developed its intended shops and offices. This is what one sees today. What should have been a valuable tourist asset to all Drogheda and the surrounding region was obliterated so that a handful of speculators might gain.
Drogheda’s former prosperity deserted it some time ago: when Thackeray visited in 1842, he wrote of buildings on the main street being ‘in a half state of ruin and battered shutters closed many of the windows where formerly had been “emporiums”, “repositories” and other grandly-titled abodes of small commerce.’ He also described the town as dirty, a term that would not be out of place today: last week in the annual nationwide survey of towns organised by Irish Business Against Litter Drogheda had fallen to 35th place out of 40. The links between urban decay and litter, together with such associated problems as graffiti, are too well known to need repeating here. What really shocks a visitor to Drogheda is the flagrant neglect of the town’s historic fabric, the fact that so many old buildings are being permitted to fall into desuetude. There is scarcely a street in the centre which does not have several houses in advanced stages of the decay cited by Thackeray, and the consequences are inevitable: the property is not treated with respect, becomes subjected to vandalism, slips further into ruin and likely drags neighbours with it. After all, who wants to live or conduct a business in an area on its way down?
To pick one example of many possible, Fair Street, which has many fine 18th century townhouses and should be cherished, is today anything but fair in appearance despite the former Francis Johnston-designed Cornmarket having housed the local authority since the end of the 19th century: if those in charge don’t see the problems on their doorstep, what hope anyone else will? Likewise while Barlow House has been restored, many other buildings in the vicinity are in an advanced stage of decay, giving a very poor impression of the western entrance to the old town. With its enviably rich architectural history, Drogheda has the potential to rival Kilkenny in terms of becoming a popular tourist destination. It needs both literally and metaphorically to clean up its act and start appreciating the advantages it has been bequeathed. But at the moment, the town is failing to reap the benefits of its heritage, preferring instead to squander them. When explanations are sought as to why Irish towns should be in seemingly inexorable decline, Drogheda can provide a ready and regrettable explanation.