Speech on Receiving the Freedom of the Borough District of Drogheda
Highlanes Gallery, Drogheda, Friday, 22nd May 2015
Citizens of Drogheda,
Is mór an pléisiúr agus an onóir dom é, mar Uachtarán na hÉireann, glacadh le Saoránacht an bhaile íontach seo ón Comhairle Buirge agus ó phobal Dhroichead Átha.
I am very pleased to be back in Drogheda and to have the great honour of receiving the Freedom of this distinguished town from the Borough District and the people of Drogheda.
My last official visit here was on 27th May 2012, to unveil a plaque to the memory of Leading Seaman Michael Quinn, who died tragically one winter night of January 1990 in a courageous attempt to rescue the crew of a Spanish Fishing Vessel which had run aground in Bantry Bay. It is fitting that this memorial should be located in Drogheda, not just Michael Quinn’s hometown, but also a town with such a fine seafaring tradition.
Less tragically, I have, over the years, attended many football games involving Drogheda, and I very much look forward to the match between Galway United and Drogheda later this evening. As a freeman of Drogheda henceforth, tonight I should at least attempt to be more neutral than I would usually be!
I recall many great sons of Drogheda, whom I had the pleasure of meeting, such as Steve Staunton, Gary Kelly, Ian Harte and Eamonn Campbell. In these years of commemoration of WWI, I have also, on several occasions, quoted the poetry of
Francis Ledwidge, a native of Slane, who published his first poems – as well as football reports – in the Drogheda Independent.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Distinguished guests,
Standing here, in the historic centre of Drogheda, I am very conscious of how this town and its inhabitants have been at the centre of so many critical moments in Irish history. In fact this is true of the area at large: although small in size, Louth is a county with a very deep and dense history; and the Boyne Valley is an area of exceptional historical richness, going back thousands of years, to the founding moments of human settlements on our island. Indeed archaeological evidence suggests that, c.3000 B.C., the greater part of the Boyne Valley mouth had already been converted into cultivation land by passage tomb builders.
As for Drogheda itself, it is one of the few, and the oldest planned town in Ireland. Like all the towns built on this island between 1180 and 1330, it is a Norman creation, and more specifically, that of the Anglo-Norman Lord Hugh de Lacy, who was instrumental in setting up the two parish churches of medieval Drogheda. In 1194, his son, Walter de Lacy, granted to Drogheda-in-Meath, on the south side of the bridge, its first Charter.
In the preface to Hughes’ History of Drogheda (1892), one can read the following words:
“If it is true happy towns, as happy nations, have no history worth recording, Drogheda, at all events, does not rank in this category.”
The history of Drogheda, of course, has not always been a happy one; indeed it has, at some periods, been particularly tragic. The imposing mace and sword of state which I had the pleasure of seeing earlier remind us of the Battle of the Boyne, which was fought at Old Bridge, just a few miles upstream from here. These symbols of power – given as they were to the Corporation of Drogheda by King William of Orange to replace James II’s previous mace – can, today, be displayed in this gallery as elements of our shared heritage. Yet they had, for a long time, very divisive connotations. “Remember Drogheda!” was a cry often heard from the children of those exiled or who had chosen to fill, and so often led, the armies of contesting empires abroad.
Drogheda is best known for its fall to Cromwell and his Parliamentarian troops in September 1649, and the associated slaughter of its Irish and Royalists defenders as well as hundreds of its citizens. I have had the opportunity, in my earlier life, to review the rich account of the transportation to the Caribbean, including of women, that followed the fall of Drogheda. According to Cromwellian historian John Morrill, the massacre at Drogheda:
“was without straightforward parallel in 17th century British or Irish history”; it “does stand out for its mercilessness, for its combination of ruthlessness and calculation.”
Drogheda, of course, is also associated with the martyrdom of Saint Oliver Plunkett, who, having fallen victim to the so-called “popish plot”, was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in July 1681, after a trial which, even of its time, was regarded as a serious miscarriage of justice. St. Oliver Plunkett, whose head has rested in Saint Peter’s Church since 1921, is also remembered in Drogheda for the Jesuit College he established here in 1670 – a college which, before its demolition following the enactment of the Test Act, was attended by Catholic as well as Protestant students, making it the first integrated school in Ireland.
Another important chapter in the history of Drogheda were the years leading up to the rising of 1798, which saw the brutal crushing of the local peasant Defenders organisations by the infamous John Foster, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, and a native of Collon.
Although Drogheda, like Dublin, did not rise in 1798, these events of the early 1790s are believed to have had a profound effect on revolutionary opinion in Ireland, and, in particular, on Theobald Wolfe Tone, who, in 1794, acted as a junior counsel to John Philpot Curran at the Drogheda Assizes, in the defence of Bird, Delahoyde, and Hamill, three prominent Catholic merchants from this town. Tone’s son, Matthew, thus wrote:
“I know that in the year 1794 and 1795, particularly at the Drogheda Assizes in the former year, and on the occasion of the trial of Bird and Hamill, he [Curran] opened his mind to my father and that on the main point – on the necessity of breaking the connection with England – they agreed.”
One recipient of the Freedom of Drogheda in those years was George, Prince of Wales [the future George IV], whose successor I had the pleasure of meeting in Galway earlier this week. Prince George received the honour from the hands of John Forbes, M.P. of Drogheda, and a staunch supporter of Henry Grattan in his campaign for the repeal of the Poynings’ Law, which, as it happens, was passed in Drogheda three centuries earlier, and is thus also known as “the Statute of Drogheda.”
Another illustrious freeman of Drogheda from the period was James Napper Tandy, leader of the United Irishmen in Dublin and a friend of Wolfe Tone. Everybody of my generation knew the song with those famous lines – “I met with Napper Tandy and he took me by the hand.” On October 9th 1798, however, the Corporation of Drogheda resolved unanimously that Tandy be disfranchised for “being notoriously disaffected, and disloyal, to the King and Constitution.” My hope is that I never commit so seditious an act in the eyes of this honourable Council as to be stripped of the Freedom of Drogheda!
I am aware too, from writings of such as Antoinette Quinn, that it was into the port of Drogheda that Turkish ships sailed with food for the relief of the famine at the bidding of Sultan Abdülmecid I who, influenced by his Irish dentist, had already led the list of donations for famine relief. He was 23 years of age.
A Dhaoine Uaisle,
A shaoránaigh Dhroichead Átha,
The recollection of such tragic episodes of our past as the Cromwellian massacres or the repression against the peasant Defenders should not constitute some inversed bitterness; rather – while never amnesiac as to such events – they should confirm us, Irish people in our common will to move past any sectarianism. The awareness of these darker chapters in our own history should also, I believe, warn us against any misplaced sense of civilisational superiority as we watch in awe the equally horrendous acts currently being perpetrated in other parts of the world, distorting sacred texts as instruments of hatred. This memory of our past should, in other words, make us ever more mindful of the dangers carried by all forms of fundamentalism, be they of a religious or political nature, here in Ireland or elsewhere in the world.
The people of Drogheda live in a place where bridges are so important, both physically and metaphorically. They are very much aware of the role of their town as a bridge between a troubled past, a present of peace and prosperity, and a future of promise and cooperation between the Northern and Southern parts of Ireland.
Drogheda, Droichead Átha in Irish, the ford by the bridge, enjoys an exceptional geographical location which, in the past, has allowed it to act as a link with Britain’s West coast and, beyond, with Flanders and Gascony, as well as further afield, with Iceland and the Hansa towns such as Gdansk to the North, and Spain and Portugal to the South.
Today Drogheda is home to a vibrant community who are putting a new shape to the town, its economy and society. Utilising the successive revolutions in transport and communications, they have forged all sorts of new connections, notably with the Dublin region, as well as developing new relations with the cities across the Irish Sea.
Through its history and location, Drogheda has also been well placed, both to benefit from the Peace Process in Northern Ireland, and to help secure that process. It is significant, for example, that Oliver Plunkett was made, in 1997, a patron for Peace and Reconciliation in Ireland. As for bridges both physical and metaphorical, this town is home, as you know, to The Bridge of Peace and The Mary McAleese Boyne Valley Bridge, which carries the name of my direct predecessor, who dedicated so much of her Presidency to nurturing dialogue between communities on this island.
As John Bradley put it in his study of medieval Drogheda, towns are “ongoing monuments”: ‘monuments’ in that so many traces of their previous existence remain visible within them; ‘ongoing’ in that they are lived in, re-imagined and modified by every new generation. May the current generation of Drogheda citizens continue to live together in harmony, cohesion and prosperity for many decades to come.
It is with a sense of humility and great appreciation that I accept your conferring of the Freedom of the District Borough of Drogheda on me.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.
 Cf. Bradley, John. 1997. The Topography and Layout of Medieval Drogheda. Since the synod of Kells, in 1152, the Boyne had marked the boundary between the dioceses of Armagh and Meath. Hence two parishes, with independent corporations and privileges, had to be formed for the town to be built on both sides of the river. It was only in 1412 that they merged to form one town.
 This Charter emphasises the plantation status of Drogheda, thus linking it to the wider process of town foundation and colonisation at play throughout Europe in the 12th and 13th century In it, Walter de Lacy confirms the law of Breteuil and other privileges to all of his burgesses living on the south side of the bridge in return for an annual tax. The law of Breteuil (a town in Normandy) was regarded at the time as one of the best codes of burgess rights and granted to many new towns across England, Wales and France. In Ireland it was given to Kells (Meath), Duleek, Trim and Dungarvan among others.
 Cromwell’s tactics at Drogheda were determined by the need to take the port towns of Ireland’s east coast quickly, to ensure re-supply for his troops throughout the winter.
 Morrill, John. 2007. “The Drogheda Massacre in Cromwellian Context.” in The Age of Actrocity. Four Courts Press.
 This fact has been ascribed, among other things, to the system of espionage established locally by Speaker Foster. Cf. Drogheda and 1798. 1998. Old Drogheda Society.
 They successfully won the case and some suggest that it was partly as a result of this victory that Tone obtained the appointment as agent for the Catholic Committee.
 The context was that of the anxiety caused in the British Parliament by the mental ill health of King George III and the need to appoint a regent to act for him. The Prince of Wales was the obvious choice, but the question was a very controversial one. In Ireland, the principal borough-owners, including the Borough of Drogheda, persuaded that the prince’s power was now in the ascendant, were anxious to be on the winning side. The attempt to curry favour with the Prince of Wales did not, however, have the desired result since the King recovered his health a short time afterwards, and for another decade.