[From the Dublin Penny Journal, Vol. 1, No. 21, November 17, 1832]
Magdalene's Steeple, Drogheda.
To the Editor of the Dublin Penny Journal,
Sir, - Encouraged by the very flattering notice you were pleased to take of my former communication, respecting Drogheda, I take the liberty of offering the following remarks to your consideration.
I have long been anxious to see an attempt made at illustrating the history and antiquities of my native Town, Drogheda, but have hitherto been disappointed; and, while other places, (particularly in the sister kingdom) the most insignificant and obscure, are daily brought before the public, recommended by the united talents of the artist and historiographer, this town, which possesses a degree of historical interest, equalled by few in this kingdom, and which yields to none, in either respectability or antiquity, has been hitherto passed over in total silence, or but slightly touched upon by the occasional tourist.
I have for many years found pleasure in visiting the numerous monuments of antiquity so profusely scattered over the face of this country, and, after an attentive examination, I can safely affirm, there are none more worthy of notice by the antiquary or historian, or more intimately blended with the ancient, ecclesiastical, and military history of Ireland, than those in Drogheda and its immediate vicinity: they are rapidly falling into decay; some through the ravages of time, but by far the greater number, it is much to be lamented, from carelessness and neglect; nor have there been wanting instances, where the proudest of our castles and monastic ruins have been despoiled, that the materials might be employed in the construction of works, for which stones might be obtained at less expense from a neighbouring quarry.
The zeal of the first reformers (which in many instances was not tempered with much discretion) has also done much towards their destruction. Some of the ruins in this town bear evident marks of fire, nor do we want reformers at present who are equally willing to remove what they are pleased to consider nuisances, witness the late demolition of the ancient palace of the archbishops of Armagh, at Termonfecken, (because, forsooth, part of it fell and killed a cow!) a spot hallowed by the residence of some of the wisest and holiest men of their day, and which should be particularly consecrated as that in which the great usher compiled his celebrated Chronology; an event which should have caused the most trifling circumstance or place connected with him to be held sacred.
From the causes above-mentioned, it is not unusual to perceive in this town, the remains of abbeys and monasteries once dedicated to the service of the Deity, and palaces heretofore the residences of the most powerful men of past ages, now converted into stables, warehouses, &c., and next, to meet with the armorial bearings of the proudest families, and the sculptured ornaments, and stone utensils of what were once the sanctuaries of religion, now appropriated to the most servile and ignoble purposes. "Amor Patriae," or Love of Country, is a principle inherent in the breast of every man, in a greater or lesser degree; a spark of this has prompted a desire to endeavour to rescue from total oblivion the few remaining monuments of the ancient grandeur and importance of my native town, by attempting a few sketches and descriptions of some of the most remarkable, which if you deem of sufficient merit to occasionally occupy a column of your truly national journal, are at your service. Perhaps the attempt may stir up the dormant faculties of others, and create a spirit of emulation in other quarters, which may bring to light many interesting facts and documents connected with, and illustrative of, our national history and antiquities.
It may perhaps be objected that these "Sketches," &c. possess but a local importance, but by a reference to the History of "Our Fatherland," it will appear that at or or near Drogheda, Milesius and his followers first landed in Ireland after a hard contested struggle, in which his son, Coalpha, was either killed or drowned. Coalpha was buried near the spot where he fell, and his memory is still preserved, by his having given name to the parish of Coelp. We also find, that Drogheda was in the year 911 fortified by, and became the strong hold of Turgesius, the Dane, from which he frequently sallied, and laid waste the surrounding country. At Duleek, in the vicinity, was erected the first stone church in Ireland. Here St. Patrick it is said founded a monastery, since called the Abbey of St. Mary de Urse.
Here we also find the sovereignty of Ireland surrendered to King Richard II. by four Irish kings doing homage and fealty in the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene, in the year 1395: we find also the residence of all the archbishops of Armagh, from the days of St. Patrick until those of primate Robinson, in the close of the 18th century. Here many of the English viceroys kept their courts and held parliaments; and here was passed the famous law called "Poyning's Law," which made the Irish parliament entirely dependent on that of England, and its edicts of no effect until ratified by the English monarch. In 1641, the progress of the northern Irish, under Owen Roe O'Neill, was stopped by the resolute defence of the garrison of Drogheda; and in 1649, Cromwell here consummated an act of the most inhuman barbarity, by the slaughter of the garrison and inhabitants for their adherence to King Charles I.
Last, not least, in 1690, Drogheda resisted the attack of a division of king William's army; and within two miles of its walls was fought the famous "Battle of the Boyne," which decided the fate of the British empire.
After this recapitulation, I think it will be admitted that Drogheda possesses something more than a local importance; and that, as I before remarked, its history is intimately blended with the ancient ecclesiastic and military history of Ireland.
I now furnish a view and description of "Magdalene's Steeple," a building which has braved the storms of above six centuries, hoping it may prove acceptable.
OR REMAINS OF THE DOMINICAN CONVENT.
In the north part of Drogheda, near Sunday Gate, and immediately adjoining the site of the ancient Town-wall, stand the remains of the Dominican Convent, under the invocation of St. Mary Magdaiene, called also, the Abbey of Preaching Friars. It was founded A.D. 1224, by Lucas de Netterville, Archbishop of Armagh - was suppressed at the general dissolution in 1541, and is now the property of a branch of the Leigh family.
The original building, (if we may form an opinion by what remains,) appears to have been of considerable extent and magnificence; the tower, which is the only part remaining, is a lofty square structure, of light and elegant proportions, built upon, and entirely supported by a noble pointed gothic arch, the buttresses of which from their apparent slightness appear scarcely sufficient to support the superincumbent weight: this circumstance, with its present isolated state, give the tower a most singular and commanding appearance: it contains two apartments above the arch, the intervening floor being arched and groined from the angles - the groins supported by cherubs' heads, well carved in stone; the walls are perforated by eight windows, two on each side, with cut stone casings, mullions and transoms, neatly finished and ornamented; a spiral stone staircase is connected with the outside of the building, the entrance to which is at a considerable distance from the ground; the masonry is remarkably firm, and in fine preservation, scarcely a stone being removed by the effects of time, although braving the storms of above six hundred years; there is, indeed, a breach in the upper part of the east side, and the mullions of one window are removed, but this is supposed to have been effected by Cromwell's cannon, in 1649, to compel the surrender of a part of the garrison who had taken refuge in it.
The church appears to have been cruciform, the tower arising from the centre; but the body of the building, and every other appendage, has been long destroyed, and that so effectually, that not even the foundations can be traced: it is probable this took place immediately after the dissolution, as we find that in 1570, the ancient monument of Richard Strongbow, earl of Chepstow, being broken to pieces by the fall of the roof of Christ Church, Dublin, Sir Henry Sidney, lord deputy, directed a monument of Thomas, earl of Desmond, then in this church, should be removed and placed instead of it, which was accordingly done: it is not probable this would have occurred if the place had not been previously desecrated; and in the most ancient paintings of Drogheda extant, particularly one in the hall of Beaulieu House, representing the siege in 1641, the tower is represented in its present isolated state, with the exception of some turrets or towers on the Town-wall, which formed the northern boundary of the church-yard, but of these turrets or wall there are not at present any remains.
The area which the church and its dependencies formerly occupied, has been parcelled into a number of small tenements, consisting of cottages with gardens attached; over these the lofty tower rears its venerable head, and from its magnitude, and air of solemn grandeur, forms a striking contrast with the hovels which at present surround it. "magdalene's steeple," as it is now called, and the tower and spire of St. Peter's, of modern architecture, in the immediate vicinity, both being situated on the highest part of the ground on which Drogheda is built, form a very conspicuous and imposing object in the approach to the town in any direction.
There are some remarkable circumstances connected with this convent related in history, a few of which are transcribed in the order of time in which they occurred.
On the 10th of March, 1395, four Irish kings, viz. - O'Neill, O'Hanlon, O'Donnell, and Mac Mahon, with several other petty chieftains of Ulster, made their personal submission to King Richard II., in this church, the manner of which is thus related by Sir James Ware, in his Antiquities of Ireland. "Every one of them, before the words of submission, laid aside his cap, belt, and skeyne, and kneeling down before the king, put both his hands joined between the king's hands, and repeated the words of fealty and submission in the Latin language. These kings, after this ceremony, were committed to the care of Henry Carlile, an Englishman, who understanding the Irish language, was commanded to instruct them in the English customs, particularly in that of receiving the order of knighthood, who so wrought on them that he prevailed on them to accept it, although they alleged they had received it from their fathers at the age of seven years. These kings being more fully instructed by the earl of Ormonde, by the king's command, were habited according to their dignity, and having performed their vigils, and heard a mass, were solemnly made knights by the king's own hand, in the Cathedral Church of Dublin."
The MS. annals of Ireland, in St. Sepulchre's Library, Dublin, relate that in 1412, great dissensions subsisted between the two sides of Drogheda, divided by the River Boyne, which were often attended with bloodshed, mutilation, and loss of life on both sides. Father Philip Bennett, master of divinity, and a friar of St. Mary Magdalen's Convent, invited the people of both parties to hear his sermon in the Collegiate Church of St. Peter, on the festival of "Corpus Christi;" that he assumed for his theme these words of cxxxiii. Psalm, "Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity;" that in the sermon having thrice asked the congregation with energy, "will ye be united together in the body of Christ ?" Alderman William Symcock answered, in the name of all, "we will;" that when the sermon was ended, they were profusely entertained in the refectory of this convent; and, having there and then consulted with Father Bennett upon their disputes, by his advice a joint petition was made to King Henry VI, signed by Nicholas Flemmyng, Archbishop of Armagh, which they sent to London by one Robert Ball, who returned to Drogheda on the 15th of December in the same year, with a charter from the king, uniting the two sides into one Town of Drogheda, and under one mayor, and forming it into a special county; that the following day the archbishop gave his blessing to the people of the county and town thus coalesced; and that the first mayor of the town so incorporated was the said William Symcock. It appears from a charter given in the fifth year of Edward IV. (1365) for founding an university in Drogheda, that there was a corporation established here prior to the one just mentioned, and, it is probable, that the inhabitants of each side of the town, claiming the right of electing the mayor and other officers, the confusion and bloodshed referred to above, occurred at contested elections.
Some memorial of this feud and reconciliation is preserved here, by an annual burlesque or mummery, still exhibited on Shrove Tuesday, by the lower order of the inhabitants. "The mayor of Flea-lane," (an obscure lane in the suburbs behind Millmount) crossing the bridge, enters the northern part of the town, mounted on an ass, in mock procession, attended by his sheriffs, bailiffs, and other officers, all fantastically dressed with straw, and each bearing the insignia of his dignity, together with several ragamuffins disguised in petticoats and masks, and armed with blown bladders tied on poles, who clear the way, and enforce the passengers and lookers-on to treat "his worship" with proper respect; the cavalcade is preceded by a "bough," or garland, and music; in this way they parade the principal streets of the town levying contributions: at the same time another party enters the town by Laurence's-gate, consisting of "the mayor of the chord" and his followers, who are generally dressed in cast-soldier's clothes, perambulate the town in another direction until evening, or they conceive they have enough collected, when they meet, and after a mock encounter between the "bladder men," to the great amusement of children and idlers, they all adjourn to the "chord field," outside Laurence's-gate, and spend the evening in mirth and jollity.
On the 15th of February, 1467, Thomas, Earl of Desmond, was beheaded on the North Commons (Hard-man's garden), Drogheda, by command of John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester, lord deputy of Ireland, for exacting coyne and livery; his head was sent to Dublin and spiked on the castle, and his body interred in this church, and a stately monument erected to him, ornamented with his effigies in stone. This statue is now in Christ's Church, Dublin, in place of Strongbow's, being removed as before mentioned in 1570.
* Our ingenious correspondent is in error in this and in his former statement relative to Strongbow's tomb, as we shall shew in a future number. It is but fair however to acknowledge that he has the authority of Archdall to support him. - ed.