Hill tops are perhaps the geographical feature that were re-used the most by succeeding waves of invaders over the centuries, and as such some sites can provide a comprehensive lesson in Irish history. One location that can serve as this microcosm of Ireland’s history is the Millmount mound in Drogheda, Co. Louth.
The dominant feature of the town of Drogheda is the Millmount Fort. Built on a hill high above a bank of the river Boyne, the mound has been crowned by a succession of military, civic and religious buildings over the centuries.
The mound on which the present-day tower is built is shrouded in mystery, and thought to be of great historical significance. Tradition holds that it is the burial site of Amergin, the first great Celtic poet. No physical evidence of this connection has been uncovered, but given the rich variety of ancient tombs built on similar hilltops throughout the surrounding region, it appears likely that there was once a passage grave or burial mound atop the hill.
The Normans, as was their custom, built a motte, a crude guardhouse surrounded by a wooden paling, on top of this mound, whatever it was, in the 12th century. It’s been shown elsewhere (such as the nearby Hill of Slane) that old passage graves were readily reused for this purpose (and unsurprisingly so, as the graves — typically sited on high points — would already have been 2000 years old or more by the time the Normans arrived, and would have looked like nothing other than a convenient hill.
Over the years this motte was replaced by a small castle, presumably adapted and greatly expanded over the years, until it was breached by Cromwell’s forces during the bloody siege of 1649.
Probably the most hated name in Drogheda, if not all of Ireland is that of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England. During the English Civil Wars, Cromwell led a strong force to Ireland to defeat the joint Irish Catholic and Royalist Protestant forces. One of this first priorities was to secure the East coast ports to allow his troops to receive supplies from England. After arriving in Dublin, he turned his attention to Drogheda, which was a bustling port city.
Over nine days in September 1649, Cromwell’s forces besieged the walled town, and on the ninth day, having breached the walls in two places, Cromwell’s men entered the town and put to death all but a handful of the 2500 soldiers in the garrison, and between 800 (by Cromwell’s reckoning) and 4000 (by the accounts of later Catholic writers) civilians. The exact size of the slaughter is debated by historians, but there’s less debate about the brutality and ruthlessness of the treatment of the defenders in relation to contemporary standards of warfare at the time. Drogheda was the largest and most bloody slaughter of defeated soldiers and innocent civilians during the whole of the English Civil Wars, and only has one equivalent massacre in the whole of Europe during the 17th century. This is why Cromwell’s name remains reviled in Ireland to this day — when I was a child, I’d occasionally hear an older person mutter “The curse of Cromwell on him…” but it’s not an oath that many people use. During a meeting with the British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, in 1997, the then Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, walked out of the room and refused to return until a portrait of “that murdering bastard” Cromwell was removed. But for the removal of that painting, we may never have got the the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which was instrumental in bringing peace of Northern Ireland.
Take the guided tour at the Millmount museum and they’ll point out the places where the walls (mostly long gone) were breached, and the remaining landmarks that survive from the siege. The Martello tower that currently stands on the mound was part of a series of such towers built around Ireland during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) when it was feared that the French would invade Ireland as a stepping stone to England. Before the War of Independence, the British Army used the site as a makeshift prison.
The original Martello tower was occupied by Republican (Anti-Treaty) forces during the Irish Civil War in 1922. The Free-State Army shelled the tower on July 4, and destroyed it. The ruins lay basically undisturbed — an uncomfortable reminder of the vicious civil war — until 2000, when the city of Drogheda (bolstered by both Celtic Tiger money and post-Good Friday Agreement good will) restored it as part of the Millennium celebrations.
Today, the restored Martello tower forms part of the Drogheda Museum, and contains an exhibition about the many military engagements the town has seen over the centuries.