Meath has come down in the world.   When the name first emerges from the mists of the history, it is of a kingdom, the middle kingdom as its name indicates, possession of which, or power over, which made respectable, though not effective the claim of its ruler to be High King of Ireland.   It became a Liberty  in 1172 when presented by the Angevin King Henry II to Hugh De Lacy and by 1542, divided into two, Westmeath and Eastmeath, the eastern part became known as Meath, the county of today.

Meath in Pre-History

The first traces left by prehistoric man recognizes in the last few years are, the flints of Mesolithic man, man the hunter, left around Randlestown near Navan, 9500 or so years ago.   With the remains of Mount Sandal, Co. Antrim and Lough Boora, Co. Offaly, these are the earliest imprints known today made by man on the soil of Ireland since the great ice caps melted, and the country covered with oak and hazel on low ground, and elm on high ground, became habitable for human beings.

In fact the earliest piece of material shaped by the hand of man found on the soil of Ireland, a piece of roughly chipped flint; was found at Mel, just west of Drogheda, not five miles from the county boundary.   This piece, worked by Paleolithic or old stone age man, is not enough to establish the presence of man in Ireland before the last ice age 2000,000 years ago; it could have been deposited by melting ice which had moved slowly carrying it from what is now Great Britain, or even further east; but it does make feasible a possibility that the great moving ice sheets, did in fact, scour the under-lying land of the presence of old stone age man in Meath and in Ireland.

Again by accident as at Randlestown – there the Mesolithic remains turned up in archaeological investigations of an Iron Age ring fort – traces of later Mesolithic man have turned up in John Bradley’s exploration of a crannóg, or lake dwelling at Moynagh near Nobber.   The paucity of these remains and their scarcity over a period of over 4000 years reveal the first inhabitants of County Meath, hunting for a precarious living, and being threatened in every generation with the likelihood of extinction.

The first farmers who came to Ireland, increasing the food supply and providing a surplus of energy, spent in stone monuments, called in modern times Court Cairns, have survived on the soil of Meath through the post holes of three of their modest oval huts about 5 metres in diameter that have been found in the hill called Slieve Breagh at Rathkenny, just north west of Slane.   It is a barren highland from which eight counties can be seen, and is covered with earth works from both the Bronze and Celtic Iron ages.   It has both atmosphere, eerie and vigorous, presence, and, seen in winter weather, a capacity to reflect something of the pain, strength and stoicism of the so called Court Cairn people who settled there.

The next people who came to County Meath, again like the first farmers, defined by their monuments to the dead, the Passage Grave people, left a more substantial mark on the landscape.   From the Four Knocks on the east of the county not far from the sea through the complex of cemeteries, caught in a crook of the Boyne river five miles from Drogheda to the Slieve na Gallaigh cemetery perched on the highest point of the county, where one cairn about 900 feet above sea level almost comes within the definition of a mountain, spectacular examples of the architecture of these people survive on the landscape.

The best known of course is Newgrange where people, with stone and wood implements not only raised a great mound of 2000,000 tons of gravel containing a passageway of 62 feet long ending in a chamber, decorated with abstract art, sometimes of the highest quality, but also revealed a control over astronomical information – the rising sun about the winter solstice hits a roof box over the entrance to the mound, creeps up the passageway and lights up the corbelled chamber for nearly fifteen minutes – unique in the Neolithic world.  Knowth, in course of excavation, has also yielded new surprising information about these people.   Two passages facing east and west have been found there in one of which an astropomorphic image on a large stone which is a masterpiece art.   Found too, at Knowth was a ceremonial mace head of flint, again with a stylized human image – semi-abstract art of highest quality.   The visible achievement of these people in Meath 5500 years ago reflect a social achievement of which the monuments are the mirror, a structured quasi urban life sustained by a generous supply of food; the beginnings in short of civilization.

The succeeding neolithic peoples with different burial habits – they built a simple grave or dolmen – are not as well represented in Meath as their predecessors, though there is a dolmen at Rathkenny north of Navan, and a small number of single graves have, in fact, being found.   Some say that the existence of the simple grave as the normal burial pattern reflects a movement away from a closely knit community, bound in familial allegiance that finds expression in a communal grave, to a society divided between an emerging warrior elite that found heroic expression in a single grave culture, and a labouring subject majority whose graves have not survived at all.

At any rate in the years about 2000 B.C. a new people made their presence felt in Meath – the so called Beaker people [ they placed a beaker in their single graves] who came here looking for easily workable sources of pure copper which they eventually mixed with imported  tin to produce bronze.   They found such sources in the quartz outcropping still evident at Kentstown where the Nanny river begins its road to the sea.   They built at Newgrange beside the great mound then 1500 years old, a great wooden hinge or circle at which they put charred animal remains in specially prepared pits.   It has the greatest dimensions of any henge in Western Europe and in it, the post holes of houses have been found.   It was followed by the great stone circle that, with a few gaps, still surrounds the original Neolithic mound.   Some say that the very large circle known as Queen Maeb's Rath at Tara is also a beaker settlement, made near the Neolithic passage grave there, known as the Mound of Hostages.   Again and again succeeding people were attracted to, and adapted, to their own needs and customs the monuments left by their predecessors.

Meath being blessed with excellent soil attracted every new people to settle on its land.   In the late Bronze Age the Mound of the Hostages itself a Neolithic grave, was used for Bronze Age burial; one grave, of a teenager of some importance, yielded a necklace of amber and faience, the former an import from the eastern Baltic sea, the latter a milky blue bead made in Egypt, both showing the far flung trade contacts of Meath in the Bronze Age.

In the centuries before the birth of Christ a new technology, art style and point of view from which to measure human values shaped the culture of people living in Meath.   The celtic centuries had begun.   The secret of making furnaces hot enough to smelt iron made for an advanced iron technology, the adaption of the La Tene motifs or decoration, on bronze and stone at first in the northern half of the country reveals a people with a flair for seeing mysterious quasi divine forces behind natural phenomena, and the familiar character of the basic political unit, the vath, of which there were about eight in what is now Co. Meath, implies an incapacity for empire characteristic of the whole Celtic world.   The physical expression of this on the landscape is of course the absence of any large scale buildings for political or religious purposes.

The dwelling units of the Irish Celts dot the landscape, mostly circular rings of earth thrown up from, and creating a surrounding ditch inside, which were the ephemeral huts for humans and animals.   Below the surface of the ground at these, so called ring forts, found very frequently in Co.Meath are the L shaped tunnels called sousterrains which seem to have been places of refuge from frost and enemy alike, and perhaps cool storage places for food and perishable goods.   In Meath too, are some spectacular Celtic sites, spectacular not because of buildings, but because of view and position.   There is the Hill of Ward near Athboy, a tri-vallate ringfort much disturbed since; the sites about Teltown  which relate to those sacred games held every three years, at which was reaffirmed the marriage of him who claimed to be High King to his people; and of course Tara itself, a complex of ringforts on a grand scale, centred on the Neolithic passage grave called the Mound of Hostages, entered by an imposing sacred way and dominating the surrounding central plain of the county.

The primary political unit in Celtic Ireland was the tuath, of which there were about eight in Meath, ruled by a chief, or petty king chosen from the extended family of his predecessor.   The names of these petty kingdoms have often survived as the names of baronies in early modern Meath; Lune and Morgallion reveal the presence of the Luaigne [followers of the Celtic God Lugh], and the Gailenga.   The chiefs paid or received tribute from one another and all paid tribute to a ri coicead, the provincial King of Meath whose sway stretched from the Shannon to the sea.   Below the chief were, the representatives of his family, and the independent farmers whose ringforts still cover the county.   With him the learned classes, interpreters of the law, doctors, the poets and genealogists and the free tradesmen made up the free inhabitants of the tuath; below them the unfree, servants, labourers and musicians, worked to keep the rest in relative comfort.

In the early Celtic age, about the time of Christ, the provincial centre was at Tara which had such a hold on the imagination of the people of the area, that even when it was long abandoned as a centre of power, the king of Tara was the coveted of the provincial king of Meath.

Early Christian Meath

Once Christianity had come to Ireland – St. Patrick’s presence here is well attested not only by legend but also by the evidence of place names like Dunshaughlin, Donaghpatrick and Donghmore which proclaim pre 500 Christian settlements there – the incarnation of the Roman Church in a new and Celtic world took place which was to play a key role in the preservation of Christianity and civilization itself in a Europe that has entered the dark ages.

The presence of the monastic family of Colmcille is well attested to in Meath.’ Clonard, “the training place of saints”, founded by St. Finian, seems to have been one of the seed beds of the Irish monastic tradition that transformed the structure, inherited from the Roman Church, with its emphasis on bishops ruling territorial units called dioceses, and excercising both, pastoral and judicial responsibilities.   By the end of the sixth century, Meath was covered with monasteries which ruled the Church through their abbots, often members of the ruling families of the tribe from which their founder had come.   The abbots in time were very often married and rulers of Christian communities which were made up of married monks, celibate monks and nuns, and the so callel manaig attached to the monasteries who worked the land, and were the tradesmen of the monasteries.  In short, the monasteries were Christian communities which included, what we today would regard, as people who were members of religious orders.

Even to-day most spectacularly in places like Kells and Duleek one can trace the circular boundaries of these monasteries from the air; the street patterns of the modern towns reflect the monastery construction, imitative of the secular settlements of the countryside, the ring forts of the successful farmers.   Little else survives on the ground except for the great stone Celtic crosses of places like Kells, Castlekeeran, Duleek and Lobinstown and the round towers like that of Kells which, peculiar to the Celtic church were both bell towers, sacristies, safes for valuables and places of refuge for monks when hostile forces, local or Viking, arrived bent on loot and destruction.

From the monasteries too came some of the masterpieces of the Dark Ages of Europe – the Book of Kells, the crozier of Kells, the shrine of the Cathach enclosing the book of psalms which, written in the 6th century, has with cogency been attributed to the hand of Colmcille himself.   With the focus on craftsmanship, perfect to the point of obsession, the use of motifs or decorations characteristic of their pagan ancestors, their avoiding direst representation of Our Lord or the saints, their refusal to equate seriousness with solemnity, they have left behind them caught in metal, vellum and stone the very quick of their psyche, their dark faith, racy of the pagan ancestors which from they sprung which was strong and vibrant enough to impress itself with wonder all over western Europe.

While there were secular sires of power in places like Lagore and Ervy and once for a brief nine years, the king of eastern Meath ruling at Knowth, Congalach 947-957, became High King of Ireland, in general the kingdom of Meath was ruled from a crannóg on the shores of Lough Ennel, Co. Westmeath by the Cineal Conaill.

Only after the millennium were substantial contacts with continental Europe resumed again; they had been broken with the missionary work of the Golden age had resulted in the reemergence of vigorously organized Christianity and civilization at the court and empire of Charlemange, and the native church had to concentrate on surviving the destructive presence of the pagan Vikings in the years after 800.   Now concern with a reform of the Church, and the bringing of it into line with the continental Europe led to the reform work of the 12th century.

One of the first great initiators of reform in Ireland was Maol Muire Ua Dunain, papal legate at the synod of Cashel in 1101, and the first bishop of Meath.   He got a handsome epitaph in one of the annals when he died in 1117 being styled “chief bishop of Eirinn, head of learning and devotion of the west of the world”.   At Rathbreasail in 1111 two territorial dioceses were set up in the Kingdom of Meath, one at Duleek for the east of Meath, and one at Clonard for the west. At Uisneach another synod divided Meath into Clonard for the east, and Clonmacnoise for the west.   Finally at Kells in 1152 a great synod presided over by Cardinal Paparo, the legate sent to represent Pope Eugene IV, set up the dioceses of Clonard and Kells.   In time Kells was absorbed into Meath [which Clonard was soon called] when its last bishop died in 1211.   Today the Bishopric of Meath, stretching from the Shannon to the sea, reflects the boundaries of the old kingdom of Meath which disappeared at the Norman Conquest.

The great synod of Kells held its last meeting in the church of the monastery of Mellifont in 1152, whose very existence indicates the other Church reforms that are associated with the name of St. Malachy.  His visits to Rome in 1138-1140 led immediately to the introduction of the Cistercian Monks into Ireland at Mellifont.   The physical presence of Europe in Ireland is reflected in the introduction for the first time of a continental style of architecture into Ireland – the Romanesque.   The moral presence of Europe was the Cistercian order, whose second foundation was in Meath, where at Bective on the banks of the Boyne in 1147 Murchad Ua Maeleachlainn, King of Meath, greeted the twelve monks headed by an abbot who arrived up the Boyne from Mellifont to begin work on a monastery, the ruins of which are so impressive even today.

St. Malachy also brought with him from Europe a new rule of religious life purporting to derive from that given by St. Augustine of Hippo to the priests living in his household.   This rule Malachy found in Arrouaise in the north of France.   He gave it to any of the old Celtic monasteries which had preserved any semblance of ordinary religious life.   In 1141 began the Augustinian Abbey of Navan given its lands by the king of Breifne, Tiernan O’Rourke, who had temporary control of the area.   Perhaps, began at the same time, the Augustinian character of the old Celtic abbey of Trim. Soon there were Augustinian canons at Duleek and at Kells.

Norman Meath

Politically, of course, continental Europe came into Ireland in 1169 when Strongbow and his Normans arrived at Wexford and conquered the kingdom of Leinster ,and the Hiberno Norse kingdom of Dublin.   By 1171 Henry II of England, afraid that Strongbow would become too strong, and perhaps, set up an independent kingdom in Ireland, arrived here, and, as a counter balance to Strongbow’s kingdom of Leinster, presented Hugh de Lacy with the kingdom of Meath to hold as a liberty under the crown.

De Lacy more that any other man, with the possible exception of St. Patrick, influenced the history of Meath.  With almost demonic energy he fixed his capital on the site of a former church near the river Boyne at Trim, and set off the building of the greatest castle in Ireland.   He founded the two towns which today make up the town of Drogheda at the mouth of the river Boyne as the port of his liberty through which its imports and exports could flow, and divided the liberty into baronies, which he distributed among his barons [in what is now County Meath, the Nangles got Navan and Morgallion, the Fleming’s got Slane.   De Pheipo Screen, Pettit Dunboyne, Hussey Rathkenny and he kept Kells, Duleek and Trim for himself].

The Barons in the classical Norman and feudal fashion divided up the baronies among their knights who owed them feudal and military service in return for protection.   The knights’ domains can be traced today by the mottes and baileys they built to hold down their lands, the small rectangular churches they built beside them which, in ruins now, are the old graveyards that dot the county.   They founded towns too, like Navan, convenient to the fort over the Blackwater where north-south traffic converged, Athboy and Trim.   The old major monastic sites like Kells and Duleek became fully fledged walled towns which like the other three had burgesses, corporations, mayors, sovereigns or portreeves and sent, each of them, to member of Parliament to Dublin.   Norman feudal customs were imposed on the natives and at least the east of the Liberty of De Lacy took on the feudal way of life that was common to the rest of western Europe.   Even the old natives took on new names from their trade, and even from colours, turning their backs to some extent on the traditions of their ancestors.

The colony, for such it was, was hard pressed by the Gaelic neighbours in what is now Westmeath and Cavan, by the Black Death of the 14th century especially effective in monastery and town, and even from the temporary and destructive presence of Edward Bruce from Scotland in the years after 1300, and a physical protection going from Dundalk to Kells south to Clonard and east to Bray was built, a ditch enclosing what was known as the English Pale.

Within that ditch, which enclosed most of what is now County Meath, the Norman colony had a golden age in the 15th century. Witness the complete rebuilding of the abbeys of Bective and Navan, the elaborate baptismal fonts surviving at Johnstown and Curra, the highly decorated parish churches of the Plunkett family at Killeen, Dunsany and Rathmore, and the great number of town houses which replace the old motte and bailey dwelling places that had dated from the year of the conquest.   The self conscious loyalty of the feudal nobles who financed this spate of building, is reflected in an almost universal motif of decoration on their churches and castles, the roses, white, red and composite of the Yorkist, Lancastrian and Tudor kings of England.

The administrative evolution of the county is quite complex.   Today the county is the administrative unit of local government; it began as a unit for the administration of law.   What made a county was the existence of a county sheriff and a county court.   Meath as a liberty had been granted to Hugh de Lacy in whose hands was the administration of law; the one exception was the church lands over which the royal writ ran.   In 1241 the Liberty of Meath was divided into two as de Lacy’s grandsons was succeeded by this two great granddaughters, the liberty of Trim which belonged to Matilda de Lacy, and the Liberty of Lough Seudy which formed part of the Vernon inheritance.   In 1297 the church lands of Meath were made into a separate county with a sheriff and county court at Kells.   Before this the sheriff of Dublin had administered justice in the church lands of Trim and Lough Seudy and after 1280 in the whole liberty of Lough Seudy [Ballymore, Co. Westmeath was its capital or caput] which had reverted to the King.

By 1480, the heir to Richard Duke of York who had inherited the liberty of Trim through his mother and the Mortimer family, to which it had descended from the family of De Geneville and De Lacy, became Edward IV of York and England, and so the whole and original liberty of De Lacy was once more in the hands of the crown.   The result was an Act of Parliament passed in 1542 which declared;

“For as much as the shire of Methe is great and large in circuit, land the west part thereof laid about and beset with divers of the Kings rebels, and that in several parts thereof the Kings writ, for the lack of ministration of justice, have not of late been obeyed, his graces lands put in due exercise, and that the sheriff of the said shire most commonly hath been one of the inhabitants of the English Pale, and is not able to execute the Kings processe and percepts, and other things belonging to his office, throughout and by all the said shire shall be divided and made into two shires and one of them shall be named Methe and the other shall be called Countie of Westmethe, and there shall be two sheriffs and other offices convenient within the said shires, and that the kings subjects thereby should greatly increase in obedience unto the Kings Highness and his laws”.

By early in the 17th century the county court was in Trim, the county goal and sheriff too.   In an act in 1635 the Grand Juries were set up in each county.   This was a self renewing group of major residents, landlords, who had to levy rates for the upkeep of the roads, the building and maintenance of public buildings and the provision of hospitals and the administration of the primitive poor law that existed.   Technically they were appointed by the county sheriff; in fact they appointed themselves.   One obvious sign of their interests and power is the way that the county roads still form part of the avenues to the great houses and at the very gates veer away in dangerous curves to right or left – it was presumed that the only people worth catering for were going to the landlord’s house itself.   These grand juries – for Meath they met at Trim – controlled the county local government until 1898 when representative local government was granted to the counties.

From the middle ages, four towns of Meath had self government, Duleek, Trim Navan and Athboy and Kells. They were granted various charters after the conquest [De Lacy definitely granted charters to his own boroughs at Drogheda, Duleek and Kells] and had them renewed from time to time.

Navan for example had a charter from Edward IV, James I, Charlesd II and briefly a charter from James II.   Each town had a series of burgesses to form a town corporation and variously a mayor [Drogheda], portreeve [Navan / Trim] or soverign [Kells] as chief urban officer.   Each place had the right to send two members to Parliament too; this included with Trim, Navan Kells and Athboy, Duleek, and Ratoath as well.   The county sent two members to Parliament too.

But after 1660 at the latest these corporations became self perpetuating bodies made up of minor members of the Protestant ascendency and were dominated by neighbouring landlords who were accepted as, so owning the towns near them, that when the Irish Parliament was abolished by the Act of Union in 1801 the landlords, whose town now lost the privilege of sending members to Parliament, were compensated in cash, sometimes as much as £15,000 – a substantial sum in 1801.   The large common lands attached to the towns were generally alienated by those who controlled the corporation [one exception was the common of Kells at Lloyd which is still in the hands of the local urban council of Kells].   By 1840 these corporations, still protestant and closed, were abolished and the towns of Meath governed by the Town Commissioners who formed a council which had the privileges of the old Corporation, and in time the new privileges, of floating loans to provide street lighting, fresh water supply and sewage disposal.

Until the 1880s there was still an inspector of nuisances and a night watchman in each of the towns of Meath.   In fact it took the great local authority bill of 1863 to so transform the towns, that for the first time a visitor to the towns of Meath was not oppressed by the smell, dirt and unhealthy ambience which had been characteristic of them since their foundation.

Early Modern Meath

The middle ages came to an end in three events in County Meath.   In 1542 the Liberty was divided into two, Westmeath and Meath, setting up the county we know today, with county courts and county sheriff and its capital at Trim.

In 1539, the O’Neills and their allies from the North devastated the county leaving Navan and other towns in ruins – they were forced to disgorge their loot at Ballyhoe on the Meath Cavan border by the Lord Deputy Grey, - and in the years 1536–1539 the monasteries of Meath, eighteen in number owning up to, one third of the land of the county, were suppressed, their inhabitants scattered with pensions as parish priests, and their lands taken by the King.

After a number of switches, which were bewildering for the citizens from a King headed Catholic Church under Henry VIII to a Protestant Calvinist Church under Edward VI to a Catholic Church under Mary, to an Anglican Church under Elizabeth, a religious division evolved between the new Anglican Church and its followers, the impecunious English civil servants who were rewarded with confiscated monastic property and became gentlemen of the old Catholic Church and its adherents, the Old English gentry and the ordinary citizen of the county. Bective for example was leased for thirty years at a time to various civil servants like Andrew Wyse, Vice Treasurer in Dublin, and Dillon of Riverstown until 1639 the Bolton family got it, whose decendents kept it until the Land Acts, at the end of the 19th century. The monastery at Navan was first given to the Wakely family, then to Sir Arthur Savage [1613], then to Sir Roger Jones about 1620; his descendents, the Earl of Essex, still enjoy ground rents from some of the former monastic lands inNavan. Jones got the Augustinian abbey of Trim too, and a monastic estate in Roscommon from part of which the Earls of Essex still draw ground rents.

These people were the first of the New English, who were, with others who came afterwards, and the old nobility, Old English and Old Irish, who conformed to the state Anglican religion, to form the Protestant Ascendency which eventually controlled Meath through possession of land, control of local government and support from the royal government in Dublin until well on into the 19th century.

Yet in the century after 1542 the lands of Meath remained substantially in the hands of the Old English nobility who lived uneasily with political loyalty to the crown and religious loyalty to Rome.   They no longer obtained office in the royal government at Dublin and they sent their children abroad for education in the Low Countries and France, to seminaries founded by their relations there.   The Irish College at Douai was founded by Fr. Christopher Cusack who eventually became a parish priest in St. Mary’s in Drogheda, the parish priest of St. Severin, a church near the Boulevard St. Michel in Paris and hence the university there, and got permanent from about 1615 from Fr. Thomas Dease from Turbotstown in Westmeath, afterwards bishop of the diocese.   It was the control of the Old English over land, and hence over local government that allowed Bishop Dease [1622-1652] to staff the county with parish priests, and enable the Catholic Church retain the allegiance of the people even after the conquest of Ireland by Cromwell.

The Protestant Ascendency

In 1641 the northern Irish rebelled to regain their lands lost at the plantation of Ulster in 1607.   The Old English of Meath, spurned by a puritanical government in Dublin, were forced to ally themselves for the first time en masse with the rebel Irish – the alliance was formally ratified at the Hill of Crofty near Duleek and finally at the Confederation of Kilkenny.

The rebellion ultimately failed and in 1654 the Cromwellian authorities to pay their armies, their debts to the London merchants, and to pacify Ireland for good and ever, confiscated the lands of the Old English, sent them “to hell or to Connaught” and created a new aristocracy Protestant and new English in origin who were to control the county and the towns of Meath for two centuries.   The return of King Charles in 1661 made little difference except to allow some big Catholic landlords like Dowdall of Athlumney Plunkett of Killeen and of Dunsany to get their land back.   But with few exceptions like the Plunketts, even these, having backed James II in the war against William of Orange, lost their lands too, leaving ninety per cent of the property of Meath in the hands of the so called Protestant ascendency.   Joining the former, of former monastic lands like Essex, Bolton and Domville were people like Bligh of Athboy, Preston of Ardsallagh and Tara Somerville of Kentstown, Napier of Oldcastle, Nicholson of Kells, Taylor of Kells too, [the eponymous founder of the dynasty that was enobled as Marquis of Headfort had been a surveyor in the Cromwellian plantation and got some juicy pickings from it].   Wesley of Dangan, Conyngham of Slane.

The towns too became Protestant in the 1660s with clusters of families controlling the corporations, though the big landlords usually controlled the nomination of members to Parliament.   In Navan, for example, names like Medge, Noy, Beaufort show a cluster of Hugenot families influential in urban affairs.   With them were the Prestons who became Lords Tara and the Earls Ludlow.   Below these were the tenant families, usually Catholic, minor Catholic gentry like Cusack of Rathaldron, the Plunketts mentioned already, Barnwell of Trimblestown and Netterville of Dowth.   Below these were the masses of the population, overwhelmingly Catholic.   Already the vast majority in the countryside, they came in the 18th century to form the majority, in time the vast majority in the towns of the county as well.

In fact the Penal Laws, aimed at excluding Catholics from political power by making it impossible to own land, transmit it intact to an heir, and to enter the professions, pushed Catholics of talent into trade where they soon controlled the ready cash of the country and pressed eventually for a political say in local and national government. Signs of the changes all over were evident in Navan where Catholic merchants like Fay and Conolly in the 1790s were given privileges without membership of the corporation of the town in return for undertaking the rebuilding of parts of the town walls and gates.   Again in Navan the commissioning in 1792 by the Catholic citizens of a crucifix from the most celebrated sculptor of the day, Edward Smyth, a native of the county, for a new chapel, shows a growing self confidence among the hitherto cowed population which was to have political implications during the 19th century. The crucifix in wood still adorns the Catholic Church of Navan.

19th Century Meath

These major changes shaped the county in the 19th century. There were religious changes especially in the towns where primary education was made possible for poor and middle class by the religious orders of women founded in the early years of the 19th century. The Mercy nuns were involved in the work in Navan,Trim and Kells.   In 1833 the Loreto nuns had come to Navan to provide primary education for Catholic girls there; in time their secondary school at St. Michael’s, Navan, the only one for girls in the county until well into the 20th century, was among the finest in the country, getting gold medals and distinctions in the Intermediate Education Board examinations [after 1879]. In Navan too, in 1802 the first Catholic secondary school for boys, St. Finian's was set up in a house in what is now Academy Street. It was the first such school set up after the Reformation north of a line between Dublin and Galway.   It was moved to Mullingar in 1908.   Allied with the activity and supportive of it was the building of Catlolic churches to replace old penal day huts which had served for worship in the 18th century. These churches and schools became major features of the landscape and in the towns reflected the growing influence of the Catholic Church in the community.

Another change which characterised Meath in the 19th century was the evolution of local government. Where the county had its origin as a legal unit, it now began to be defined as a unit of social service.   To combat the problem of able bodied poverty in Ireland the English solution was introduced into Ireland, the workhouse, aimed at catering for the desperate and destitute, it was financed by an area in local government, the union, of which there were five in Meath, Dunshaughlin, Navan, Trim, Kells and Oldcastle. The union was valued by Griffith who has given his name to the countrywide valuation system.   Based on his valuation a rate was struck, a local tax to pay for the building and running of each workhouse.

It was run by a Board of Guardians of local and substantial rate payers elected in part, and in part made up of prominent landlords, who been substantial rate payers themselves, could be relied on to run the service as economically [some would say as miserably] as possible.   The problem of able-bodied poverty was, of course, solved not by the workhouse systems but by the Famine [1845-1849] which consigned the poor, on the edge of starvation since the switching of the farming economy from tillage to cattle after the wars with Napoleon, to the grave or the emigrant ship.   In 1847 the board of guardians was required to run a medical dispensary system and a system of outdoor relief.   After 1851 the workhouse came gradually to cater for two kinds of people only, the sick in the workhouse hospital or those who by age or infirmity required institutional help to survive.   Gradually all sorts of local responsibilities were given to the boards, the only local representative bodies outside the towns which since 1840 were run by town commissioners elected by the ratepayers.

They were given charge of graveyards after 1869, the responsibility of at least overseeing the introduction of freshwater supplies [you can still see the pumps set up by them in the countryside and towns], of sewage schemes of the labourers’ cottages [after 1882] and the various successful medical attacks on the scourges of the day, small pox, scarlet fever, ophthalmia and, after 1900, tuberculosis.

So far did their mandate stretch from their original responsibilities that a whole reformation was required, and it came under the Conservative Government in 1898 which, as part of its package, to wean by reform the Irish from Home Rule, set up county councils, urban and rural district councils, to take over from the landlord, controlled Grand Juries the roads of the county, and from the Boards of Guardians all their functions save that they had been set up to discharge, the running of the workhouse system.   Ironically, of course, the new councils far from killing “Home Rule with kindness” provided training grounds in democracy for those who would rule the state after 1921, and in fact made Home Rule inevitable.

The workhouse system itself had by then outlived its usefulness.   The workhouse at Dunshaughlin was used for Belgian refugees during World War I and that in Navan was partly a military barracks during the War of Independence.   In 1924 the new state, aware of the unfortunate association the workhouse had with far off Famine days, when they were forced to cope with, abolished the system, sold off the workhouse at Dunshaughlin, Kells and Oldcastle and turned the Navan building into a county hospital and that in Trim into a home for the old.

In time the rural district councils were abolished as too small to be administrative units, and after some spectacular examples of mismanagement, to say the least, in some Irish counties, the government in 1940 set up a county manager in each county, with powers almost as substantial as a French prefect with whom the county councilors had to share power.

A third change in Meath in the 19th century was of course the change in the system of land tenure. The old system had been blamed for the extent of the Famine; in central and southern Meath in the second and third decades of the 19th century landlords and fairly strong tenant farmers favoured cattle production against tillage, pushing the landless labourer to a dangerous dependence on the potato for survival.   In the east and north of the county the holdings were small, widely shared and used for tillage. The Famine hit the first area worst and provided the first impetus to the movement for land reform in which Bishop Nulty, son of a tenant farmer from Oldcastle, was prominent, and which was reflected in the radical policies of the members the county sent to parliament; John Martin, the ex Fenian, Charles Stuart Parnell and Michael Davitt.

The result, of course, in Meath as in the rest of the country, was the stifling of an incipient rural revolution of tenant farmers by encouraging them to buy out their holdings through government loans and the turning of the Meath farmers into a conservative element in society.

The 20th Century

Meath’s part in revolution was in consequence mild enough.   There had been some Fenian trouble in Meath in the 1860s but that was more in promise than performance.   The most revolutionary event in the twentieth century was the only substantial action ofthe 1916 rebellion outside Dublin, the ambush of the R.I.C. at Ashbourne.  In fact, the only Meath involvement in this, was, the R.I.C. convoy from Navan which was decimated in the ambush.   During the War of Independence there were six casualties; the slight unrest characteristic of the time was mild compared to that in Dublin and in the south.

In the 1920s after independence, the county council was dominated by independent farmers mainly, who supported the Cumann na nGael Government.   In 1934 a surprise upset put into power Fianna Fail, the constitutional party of those who had fought against the treaty in the Civil War of 1922.   This control was, of course, short lived – the County Manager Act was passed in 1940 by the Fianna Fail party in the Dail, shifting substantial power to a civil servant, the county manager.   The thirties saw changes in Meath.   The emergence of Navan, a furniture and carpet centre, and the building of local government controlled houses of high quality in the towns of the county were the most obvious.   The forties and fifties were times of falling population and urban and rural stagnation.

The sixties saw, in contrast, traumatic changes.   Far from dealing with a stagnant economy and population, the rapidly increasing population of the south east of the county, caused by the increase in population in Dublin, forced the county officials and structures to become more flexible and capable of rapid change.   Though this expansion slowed down in the seventies, the development of Tara Mines, with its consequent social and economic implications, kept long term and constantly changing planning, a priority into the eighties.   The county has now a population 180,000, greater than it had ever been before the Famine, and its still rapid growth puts new strains on existing resources, and, on the search for newer ones.   The recent discovery, for example, of some underground lakes of water at Curraha and other centres in the county ensure an expanding water supply well into the next century.


After the innovations of the medical act of 1842 no restructuring in medical services took place for over a century.   The only hospital for private patients was the County Infirmary in Navan, set up in the 1750s by an enlightened Grand Jury; the Fever Hospital near which, the workhouse was built had catered for the plagues of cholera, typhus and typhoid since 1817.   Gradually the workhouse hospital became acceptable as a local hospital for all, especially after the 1880s when the Mercy Nuns became nurses there in Trim, Navan and Kells.   The changes in 1924 to County Hospital and County Home were the last before the medical services were taken from the County Council, the dispensary system abolished and the North Eastern Health Board established to cater for medical services in Meath and five neighbouring counties in 1970.

Meath then began as a kingdom, became a duchy, shrank to a county which was a unit in alien law.   In the 19th century when the unit became one for local government which eventually became representative of local opinion, providing social services to the community, it became one acceptable to the citizens, and was no longer perceived as an alien imposition.   Its adoption as the G.A.A. unit helped too, of course, forging awareness of tribal unity through national competitions.   Today it is still a unit through which substantial political power is exercised.   In fact some movement towards the devolution of more powers is mooted at central government level.   Time will tell if that is more than a pious hope.