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A History of Drogheda Port

A History of Drogheda Port


We will never know for certain when man first entered the mouth of the river Boyne. However, once he arrived he began to transform this scenic river into a dynamic commercial highway which was to play a major role in almost every period of Irelands history and development.

At Drogheda, millions of years ago, the river Boyne had to cut a gorge into a large deposit of limestone some 100 feet in depth. This is probably the reason why the river is narrow and crooked at certain points along its course to the sea. The Boyne is tidal as far as Oldbridge and the mariner must be aware of this fact in order to cross the Bar safely. Once across the shifting bank of sand, the journey from the mouth of the river to Drogheda is approximately four miles long.

The earliest evidence of man on the river Boyne was discovered by Professor Frank Mitchell, the leading authority in the Old Stone Age. This stone tool is known as the “Drogheda Flake” and is thought to date back to 3400 B.C. and show that Middle Stone Age Man was exploring the area around the mouth of the river nearly 6000 years ago.

Around 3000 B.C. the New Stone Age people sailed their boats into the made their way upriver towards Newgrange. These farmers and tomb builders were the first civilisation to really exploit the land around the Boyne Valley. Upon their arrival they discovered a river covered on both sides with dense forest. When they had chosen the area they wished to live in they then proceeded to cut down the trees. From his excavations at Knowth Professor George Eogan has come to the conclusion that these farmers had constructed for themselves a highly organised society both socially and economically. They were probably the most important Civilisation of their time in Ireland and England and it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that they traded with their European counterparts.

5000 years ago the Beaker Folk arrived in the Boyne Valley and brought with them the important skills of metal working. This Bronze Age civilisation continued trading links with their neighbours in England and Europe. At Baltray there exists in a field two very fine standing stones typical of the Bronze Age.

Like Dublin, Drogheda has a natural ford on the river at the site of St. Mary’s Bridge and the Celts who arrived at Inbhear Colpa (Colpe Inlet) always considered a ford a prize well worth fighting for. Some ancient sources have claimed that the Celts were the first people to exploit the high ground at Millmount and legend has it that Amergin, the first poet, is buried under the large mound at the same place.

At the end of the 2nd Century A.D. the Egyptian philosopher Ptolemy drew up a map of Ireland and showed the river Boyne with the Latin title “Buvinda”. He claimed that he received his knowledge on these matters from “the merchants who frequented Ireland.” It is extraordinary to think that even in the confined ancient world Ireland was well known as a trading centre.

In 432 A.D. it is claimed that St. Patrick landed at Colpe Inlet, the nearest and safest port of debarkation. Eleven years later in 443 A.D. he made his entry into Drogheda. The prince of Austria D’Agobert landed in Drogheda in 673 A.D. and immediately went to Slane where he passed 18 years studying religion and science. He then returned to Austria to become King D’Agobert II.

A number of Christian settlements and monasteries were founded around Drogheda in 7th and 8th Centuries. In 1988, during the excavation on the Natural Gas pipeline at Colpe, E-ware pottery from Bordeaux in France was discovered in reasonable quantities. This pottery was primarily functional and was used for cooking utensils and storage jars. These finds tell us that even before the arrival of the Normans the inhabitants along the Boyne were trading with merchants from Europe.

The first recorded Viking raid on Ireland took place in 795 A.D. when the Vikings plundered and burned the Church of Lambay Island. In 837 A.D. the Annals inform us that the Vikings had 60 ships on the Boyne and 60 on the Liffey. Due to the lack of concrete archaeological evidence scholars now dispute that the Viking played any role in the foundation of the town of Drogheda. Professor Mitchell stated that the “Vikings certainly took their boats up the Boyne” and the Annals tells us that in 860 A.D. the tomb at Knowth was searched by the Vikings, who returned again in 934 A.D. when they attached and plundered it. This was confirmed by the discovery in one of the souterrains of two Anglo-Saxon pennies of late 10th Century date. Father Rice in his article the “Coins and Tokens of Drogheda” states that in 1846 a leather bag of coins was found on the banks of the Boyne at Drogheda and init were contained coins of Scandinavian origin.

After the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169 King Henry II feared that lords like Strongbow would try to set up an independent kingdom. He decided that the best policy was to divide and conquer. Therefore, he conferred on Hugh de Lacy around 1172, the lordship of Meath and the grant included “the town of Drogheda in Meath” which was situated on the south side of the Boyne. At the same time, under a similar grant Bertram de Verdon was given possession of the town on the Northern bank with the “maritime lands of Louth”.

After his arrival in Drogheda DeLacy set about constructing a wooden fort on the mound of Millmount. He chose this spot because it overlooked the narrowest point on the river and in subsequent years this Motte and Bailey served as the town’s principal point of defence, commanding as it does, an excellent view of the surrounding countryside.

The original “Droicead Atha” i.e., the “Bridge of the Ford” was constructed where St. Mary’s Bridge stands today. It was probably a structure consisting of crude hurdles resting on piles. The first stone bridge was erected on the same site sometime around 1200 and was succeeded by many others down the centuries. In 1981 David Sweetman investigated the area close to the north bank of the River Boyne near Shop Street. He discovered the remains of what appeared to be part of an early thirteenth century quayside. This evidence proves that around the year 1200 the Normans were actively engaged in constructing the town of Drogheda and its first bridge and quayside. In 1989 Eoin Halpin, in his excavation at St. Mary’s Abbey discovered part of what may turn out to be the first defensive ditch with which the Normans encircled the North side of the town.

During the 13th Century the Normans enclosed each of the separate towns with stone walls, in places as high as twenty two feet. Both towns were governed by Corporations which had been granted to them under Royal Charter. For two centuries both towns regularly fought each other over their respective economic rights. Finally in 1412, through the intercession of Friar Bennett, the two towns were united under one Corporation and under the motto inscribed on the armorial bearings “God our strength, Merchandise our Glory”.

After the unification of the two towns Drogheda was regarded along with Dublin, Waterford and Kilkenny as one of the four “Staple-Towns” of Ireland. A “Staple-Town” was a fixed place through which exports of wool, woolfells and hides were compulsorily directed.

During the unification period Drogheda merchants traded mostly with other Irish ports. Goods were shipped on a regular basis to Cork, Kilkenny, Wexford, Kinsale, Youghal and also to Ulster ports such as Carrickfergus. Although the documentary references to the overseas trade of Drogheda are sparse the town did have extensive trading connections with Flanders, Gascony, Bordeaux, Bristol and Chester. Ships from Drogheda sailed to Gdansk in 1384, Iceland in 1458 and Lisbon in 1480.

Wine was the major import and it came from the royal dependencies of Anjou and Aquitane. Gascon wine was sold by the Drogheda merchants at 8d a gallon to the Royal Court at Rindown in County Roscommon. Other important imports included Iron and Salt. Goods such as hides and corn were sent on the outward journey and sold at a suitable port of call. In 1340 the Drogheda Ship “La Magdeleyne” was blown by a storm towards Galway when she was returning from Bordeaux with wine. The major export from Drogheda was agricultural produce. William Symcock a well known local merchant shipped wheat to Bordeaux in 1412 in order to bring back wines. During archaeological excavations in the 80s both David Sweetman and Kieran Campbell have found shreds of pottery from Saintonge, Bordeaux Rouen and Beauvais in France. Also large quantities of pottery from Bristol, Gloucester and Chester have been found. This evidence is ample proof of Drogheda’s overseas trading connections.

The Kings wars overseas played an important role in the development of Medieval Drogheda’s trade and industry. In 1222 King John ordered “a galley to be constructed in the town of Drogheda” for the purpose of defending his lands. The royal commands to construct galleys indicate that Drogheda was an important ship-building centre and the Murage grant of 1296 to Drogheda in Meath, in which large boards, masts, rigging ropes, and canvas for ships were subject to tax, suggests that the building yards may have been on the south side of the town. At the end of the 13th Century the royal armies in Scotland, Wales and Gascony were supplied with oats, flour, wheat and victuals from Drogheda. Also strict laws were enforced in order to prevent local merchants from exporting goods to the King’s enemies. If caught the transgressors often had to forfeit their goods and ships.

During the 1400s Drogheda was the centre of a sizeable Irish Trade. The town was a market place for much of the surrounding countryside and goods were carried in barges up the Boyne as far as Trim. Cattle, horses, sheep, pigs, wheat, rye, barley, butter, cheese, apples, salmon, eels and seafish were marketed in the town. Different types of fish and particularly salmon were being exported to Chester and Bristol 1477-78. From the Chester Customs Accounts we know the names of some to the ships from Drogheda. “The Mary”, “The Katherine” and “The Anne” regularly carried consignments of herrings, dried white fish and salmon to England. Other more exotic exports included both hawks and falcons which were in great demand in Europe. Throughout the 16th Century Drogheda traded with Liverpool on a wide scale. The main export was linen yard and between 1565-1598 135 sailings left Drogheda with yarn for Liverpool. Around the same time, the men of Dublin and Drogheda joined the Corpus Christi Guild of Coventry. In 1558 exports from Drogheda yielded £8700 whereas those from Dublin yielded only £5400.

In 1981 at an excavation in James Street Kieran Campbell discovered important deposits of early 16th Century material. He found the fragments of eight dishes from Valencia in Spain. These may have been expensive imports or the property of Spanish merchants or clerics living in Drogheda. It is interesting to note in the Chester Customs Accounts that on the 2nd May 1566 “The Patrick of Drogheda” left Chester with goods for Richard Stoke and Nicholas Bathe. Bathe was a wealthy local merchant and was responsible for building the famous timber-framed house in Shop Street in the year 1570. The house was not demolished until 1825 and a drawing of it can be seen in the Old Dublin Penny Journal.

During the reign of Elizabeth Dublin became more important and Drogheda fell into decline due to the heavy customs imposed on English wares. It is said that its bridge and quays lay idle and ruined and its people were driven form trade to tillage. This situation arose because Elizabeth yielded to the demands of the Manchester merchants for vast increases in the supply of unwrought yarn from Drogheda and Dublin. Neither centre could sustain the amounts required of them and consequently both Dublin and Drogheda had collapsed economically by about 1600.

In 1588 when Red Hugh O’Donnell escaped from prison in Dublin Castle he fled with a friend to Drogheda. Fearing that he would be recognised he did not come directly through the town. He turned from the main road towards the banks of the Boyne. There he handsomely paid a fisherman to row both himself and his colleagues across the river. The fisherman then recrossed the river and brought their horses through the town to where they waited at the landing place.

The port of Drogheda was used as the main depot for the transmission of military supplies during the long war between Hugh O’Neill and Queen Elizabeth. It seems that at this time c. 1600 the Tower which stands at the mouth of the harbour was erected as a beacon for the safety of the ships so frequenting the port. It was named in honour of Queen Elizabeth “The Maiden Tower”.

In 1641 the town of Drogheda was besieged by Sir Phelim O’Neill and his Catholic confederate forces. It was a long drawn out siege and at the close of December 1641 the Boyne became so frozen that it could scarcely be broken with mallets. Men and horses could pass safely over and this caused considerable anxiety to the besieged townspeople. It is also said that during this time it was possible to light fires on the frozen river.

On the 11th January 1642 a pinnace, a frigate, a gabbard with two shallops and another vessel laden with biscuit, powder and ammunition arrived at the mouth of the river for the relief of the town. The entrance of the harbour was very narrow and at its mouth was a bar of sand, unpassable at low water. To close up the navigation completely O’Neill’s forces sunk a ship in the channel but a strong west wind had a short time previously carried her out to sea. The besiegers had also stationed two vessels on each side and fixed an iron chain with a cable between them across the channel but the pinnace and shallops that brought the supplies overcame all the obstacles, passed the bar even at low tide and skimming over the chain arrived safely at the quay.

A second more terrible siege took place in 1649. A Royalist, largely Catholic, garrison of about 3000, including hundreds of townspeople defended Drogheda against an English Parliamentary force of 12000 commanded by Cromwell. We are told that during the siege Cromwell had five ships sent from Dublin to the port of Drogheda with cannon, heavy artillery and provisions. When the ships arrived they anchored on the south side of the river. After the slaughter about thirty soldiers, whose lives Cromwell had spared, were exiled to the Barbadoes.

In the late 1600s the economic outlook improved and under less restrictive trading practices Drogheda began to export widely to other countries once again. In 1683 Drogheda exported to Liverpool, Minehead and Dover the following items: wool, linen, yarn, wheat, rye, oats and beef. The ship “Ye Diamond of Liverpool” arrived in Drogheda in July of the same year carrying such intriguing items as Silk Ribbon, Gauze Hoods, Silk Shagg, Frogg Loops etc. This event has been commemorated by the Drogheda Quilters and this highly original and beautiful quilt is now hanging in the museum at Millmount. Around the same time, consignments were sent from Drogheda to Cadiz and the Canary Islands of beef, butter, herrings, cheese and biscuits. Also, Rotterdam received exports of beef, malt, tallow and tanned hides.

On the 30th September 1703, the Irish House of Commons ordered the formation of a committee to prepare a bill for making the river Boyne navigable and to report back to the House. Little being achieved, in 1729 the Corporation petitioned the Irish Parliament with the object of having the channel, harbour and river cleansed and a Ballast office erected. The Act, 3 George II, c21. was passed making the Mayor, Sheriffs, Burgesses and Commons of Drogheda, Keepers and Conservators of its river and port. Finally, in 1790 the most important Act of George III c.39 gave a grant of £600 per annum whereby the Mayor, Recorder, Representatives in the Parliament for Meath, Louth and Drogheda and 6 Aldermen and 7 Members of the Council were constituted “Commissioners” for “improving and cleansing the river and harbour and certain duties on the tonnage of vessels were thereby imposed, to be applied for such purposes.

Drogheda was an important centre for the Linen trade throughout the 18th Century. In 1707 the Donegal yarn merchants laid charges of illegal exaction of duty on linen yarn by the Mayor, John Cope and the farmers of the customs, Edward Cheshire and Abraham Knight. These men were brought before the Commons, rebuked by the Speaker and only released after promising to keep the law and refund the duty.

The peak period of growth in Drogheda’s economy took place between the years 1785-1808. These were also the years of the great merchants families of Drogheda. The townspeople will recognise many of the following names: Brodigan, Bellew, Dardis, Hardman, Scholes, St. George Smith and Ball, to name but a few. The two most important commodities for export to England were grain and linen. These were sent to Liverpool and Glasgow. Other exports between 1780-1820 included butter, beef and port. An entry in the Drogheda Journal’s port column in 1795 shows the arrivals over a three day period to consist of seven colliers from Workington, four from South Wales and cargoes of slates from Beaumaris, bark from Chepstow, rock salt and mixed goods from Liverpool. In 1798 Drogheda was the fourth largest town in Ireland after Dublin, Cork and Waterford.

Shortly after 1810 there was a growth in the amount animals leaving the port and this became an important part of the town’s trade during the 1820s and 1830s. Imports during this period included coal, timber, iron, bark and rock salt. The luxurious imports included tea, tobacco, sugar and wine.

Work on the quays was hard, dirty and dangerous and unloading a coal boat was one of the worst jobs. Usually, six men were stationed in the hold, shovelling the coal into ten-stone bags. They were hoisted on the deck by the ship’s derricks, using rope slings. The other workers lifted the bags onto their backs and ran down to the quay on a single long gangplank two feet wide which bounced up and down with the weight of the men. Needless to say, there were many serious accidents and drownings.

In 1826 the Drogheda Steampacket Company was formed and by 1840 five steamers operated from Drogheda to Liverpool and Glasgow. The first two steamers in use in 1830 were “The Town of Drogheda” and “The Fair Trader”. Later additions in the company’s fleet included “The Irishman”, “Faugh-a-Ballagh” and “The Brian Boru”. The Steampacket Company along with the advent of a proper Railway system brought about the economic demise of the Boyne Canal Navigation Company who could not compete with the new modes of transport.

Drogheda’s Steamers had some technological firsts to their credit.

- First to have a steam steering mechanism;
- First to use electric light;
- First to use compound engines;
- First to give 3rd Class Passenger Berths

The Steamers also carried a fair share of passengers and in the 1880s there were four sailings a week. The fares to Liverpool were 10s Saloon and 4s Steerage. The four Steamers used for these journeys were “The Tredagth”, Nora Creina”, “The Kathleen Mavourneen” and “The Iverna”.

Launched in 1903 under the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company ‘The Colleen Bawn’ and “The Mellifont” remained on the Drogheda services until 1928. The cattle dealers were frequent travellers on these boats and we are told by former attendants that they often stayed up all night in the saloon, drinking and playing cards. During these card games, it was usual to see thick wads of banknotes being flung across the tables. The cargo was unloaded at Birkenhead and the dealers went ashore to the markets to sell their cattle.

However, it must not be forgotten that the vast majority of working vessels during this period were still “Sailing Ships” and in 1830 there were 30 such vessels working from the port of Drogheda. These included “The Eagle”, “The Experience”, “The Unity” and “The Lady Florence”.

Shipbuilding was also an important industry connected with the port. Grendon’s Foundry was established in 1835 and for many years it was a prosperous and successful company employing up to 600 men. They built ships, bridges, locomotive engines, barges and almost every type of iron article. The bridge which crosses the Boyne at Oldbridge was made in the firms premises in 1869. In 1878 the company launched their ship “The Mouse” broadside into the river. The event was watched by a large number of people from the North Quay. They also provided such items as lighthouse equipment and buoys. One of Grendon’s more exotic inventions was a diving bell which was used to repair the harbour walls in the port of Dublin.

The Mall on the North Quay was an important place for public meetings in the 1800s. In 1839 Daniel O’Connell addressed a Repeal of Union meeting of 60000 people just outside the present Harbour Commissioners Office. In the same place in 1891 Parnell made a speech about Home Rule to a large assemble of people. Another more leisurely meeting place was Donor’s Green just beyond the Viaduct. In 1864 the Drogheda Rowing Club held its first Regatta on the River Boyne and a large crowd of spectators gathered on the Green to watch the event. The Annual Regatta became one of Irelands premier sporting events.

The grand architectural edifice “the Viaduct” which spans the river in the port was built in 1854-55 at a cost of £124000 to the design of Sir John McNeill, who was the consulting engineer for the Dublin and Belfast Junction Railway. The same McNeill provided the Drogheda Commissioners with a report on the river in 1849. Previous reports were written by John Goldbourne in 1783, Josias Jessop in 1817, Alexander Nimmo in 1826 and William Bald in 1837.

During the present century Drogheda continued to trade with the outside world despite the extraordinary growth of the bigger ports such as Dublin, Waterford and Limerick. The port continued to export agricultural produce, livestock, manure, beer and whiskey, and during the Second World War it was extremely busy exporting cattle to England. The B + 1 boat “The Kilkenny” was a regular visitor to the Quays. In the 1960s imports included coal, fertiliser, timber and containers from the B + 1 company. Exports included cement, clinker, gypsum, stone chippings and beacon.

The 1970s saw the growth of the importation of bulk paper for the first time. There was also an increase in the importation of steel, heavy fuels and gas. During this period exports tailed off to some extent and did not begin to rise again until recently. The 1980s have seen the arrival of Flogas and Ola Teo (now Maxol), and exports are once again on the upturn: cement, clinker, chipboard, malt, animal feeds, barley etc. With the recent opening of the Tom Roes Point Container Terminal and plans for a new deepwater port facility Drogheda might once again be on the verge of an economic Renaissance comparable to the one that the town experienced in medieval times.

Michael Holohan