Drogheda - gateway to the Boyne Valley - history and prehistory
The town of Drogheda, Co. Louth, is often referred to as the "Gateway to the Boyne Valley". Today, it is a bustling town of over 30,000 inhabitants, constantly growing and developing with the times. But Drogheda is a uniquely historic town, with many layers of history woven into its almost countless centuries. It is best known for a number of significant historic events, including the Battle of the Boyne, which took place a few miles outside the town in 1690, and the storming of the town by Oliver Cromwell in 1649.
Today, visitors can view the head of Saint Oliver Plunkett at the St. Peter's Parish Church on the main street, while Drogheda provides a number of unique historic attractions, such as several monuments and portions of the old Norman town walls, which date from the 12th century. These include St. Laurence Gate, a fine example of a barbican, and the Butter Gate, and there is also a substantial portion of the old town wall adjacent to the old St. Mary's Church of Ireland, near to where Cromwell broke into the town in 1649. Nearby is the Millmount, a stone martello tower which was built by the British when they garrisoned Drogheda in the early 1800s. From here, visitors can get sweeping views over the historic town of Drogheda, which straddles the Boyne River. Downstream is the massive Boyne Viaduct, an impressive railway bridge completed in 1855 and designed by the Scottish engineer, Sir John MacNeill.
It is at Millmount, standing on the top of a large earthen mound, that we can begin to trace Drogheda's prehistoric heritage. While most visitors believe it to be a relatively modern construction, the 19th century martello tower sits on the top of a large mound which, according to local folklore is the burial place of a poet warrior from Spain called Amergin, who was said to have landed with his kin and folk in the year 1694BC. So if myth is to be taken as some form of historic record, the mound at Millmount is much older than recent centuries. With a lack of archaeological evidence, it is hard to tell. Curiously, there are historic records of stone passages and chambers beneath the mound at Millmount, which were still accessible until modern times but are now all but sealed up behind a retaining wall around the base of the mound.
More interesting still is the mention of a cave at Drochat Atha (Droichead Atha is the Irish for Drogheda) in the Annals of the Four Masters, which identifies it as the burial place of the "wife of the Gobann Saor". Even more fascinating, it is mentioned as one of the great monuments of the Tuatha Dé Danann, along with Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, the Boyne passage-tombs just five miles upstream which are all over 5,000 years old.
Given that there has been settlement in the Boyne Valley since about 6,000 years ago, it should come as no surprise that there was activity in the hills overlooking the Boyne at the place which would later become Drogheda.
Less than half a mile from Millmount is a place called "Sunnyside", where a curious small, flat mound, is located in the garden of a local house. This mound, according to archaeologists, is a "denuded passage-tomb" which most likely dates to the Neolithic period, around the time Newgrange would have been in use.
If Millmount and Sunnyside are passage-tombs, they are unique in the Brú na Bóinne area because of their location south of the River Boyne. Newgrange, Knowth, Dowth and their plethora of satellite mounds, ringforts and standing stones, are all located north of the river.
Some interesting astronomical data about Millmount, which has been unearthed by Anthony Murphy and Richard Moore of Mythical Ireland in recent years, shows that Millmount, like Newgrange, was probably positioned with some reference to the heavenly bodies and the sky above.
Standing at Millmount, the Winter Solstice sun sets in the direction of the Hill of Tara, while sunset at the equinox happens over the Hill of Slane - the famous place where St. Patrick is said to have lit the first Paschal Fire in Ireland. The Paschal Fire, of course, is the Easter Fire, and therefore intimately connected with the Spring Equinox. From Millmount, Summer Solstice sunset occurs in the direction of Collon, and Mount Oriel, on which there was said to have been a large cairn of stones until recent times.