Statistical Survey of the County of Meath


Robert Thompson,

of Oatlands, 1802

THE county of Meath, as some writers assert, has taken its name from the Latin word Media expressive of its central situation, its boundaries having extended, at an early period, to the centre of the kingdom; whilst others are of opinion, and with greater appearance of truth, that its name is derived from the Irish word Maith, or Magh, which signifies a plain or level country.

This supposition is further strengthened by this circumstance, that the country, for many miles around Tarah, was formerly called Magh Breagh; and from its having been the place, in which the king resided, it is more than probable, that in those days, when local circumstances gave rise to names, the whole country, under the immediate government of that king, received the name of the royal residence; which, by corruption, from wrong pronunciation, established its present name.  This, however, is all conjecture.

By tradition, however, we learn, that Ireland was first peopled by a colony of Scythians, immediately from Spain, who introduced the Phenician language and letters, and divided the kingdom into five provinces, all subject, however, to one monarch, who it generally supposed to have resided at Tarah, then called Teamhair, in the province of Meath.

The four subordinate princes, as they became more powerful, created commotions, and invaded each other's territories; to prevent which, the country was divided by Hugony, the then ruling monarch, into twenty five dynasties, the rulers of which were bound by oath to acknowledge no other superior than one of the king's family.

These precautions, however, seem to have been so very unavailing, that we find not only Hugony himself, but likewise most of his successors, taken off by violent deaths, until the pentarchal government was again restored, which happened about a century before the introduction of Christianity into the kingdom.

Meath, one of these five provinces, at that time included the present counties of Meath, West Meath, Longford, part of Cavan, Kildare, and the King's county.

Tarah was the principal place of residence of its king, who, in right of Meath, was king of Leinster also: indeed, it is generally thought, that the kings of Leinster were monarchs of Ireland, to whom the other four subordinate princes paid tribute.

At Tarah were held their solemn feasts and assemblies, at stated times, to which place St. Patrick came, to be present at one of those festivals, that was held with more than common splendor every third year, and originally instituted to create an amicable connection between the different and distant inhabitants of the island.  This year (433) happening to be that third year, St. Patrick thought it a favourable opportunity to preach Christianity, rightly judging, that whatever impression he made there must have an influence over the whole kingdom, as most of the nobility of Ireland were there assembled.  At this meeting he is said to have succeeded, to the utmost extent of his wishes.

St. Luman, nephew to St. Patrick, accompanied him upon this occasion, and was by him created Bishop of Trim.  He, about the year 482 built St. Mary's abbey there, and dedicated it to St. Augustin; the monks were Canons Regular.  This abbey was afterwards elegantly rebuilt by the Lacies, about the year 1180.  That beautiful ruin, now called the yellow steeple, belonged to it.  This was the first fee in Meath.

About this time, St. Mary's abbey at Duleek was built by a person of the name of Kelly.  St. Cianan, who was the first bishop of it, died in the year 489, and was buried in the abbey.

Christianity began now to advance with rapid strides, and we have accounts of there being, within the limits of Meath alone, no less a number than seven bishopricks, viz Clonard, Duleek, Kells, Trim, Ardbraccan, Dunshaughlin, and Slane; all of which (except Kells and Duleek) were, in the year 1152, united by virtue of a bull from Pope Eugenius 3rd, and sent by Cardinal Paparo, who held his synod in Kells.  And in a few years after, Kells and Duleek underwent the fame fate; and Clonmacnoise was also united in the year 1569, so that in the present fee of Meath are united eight bishopricks.

We are not to conclude, that learning, even at this early period, was at so low an ebb, as might be expected among a people just emerging from barbarism; for, in the year 530, there flourished a famous school, or college, at Clonard, under the immediate direction of St. Finian.

This seminary was styled "The fountain of all wisdom and learning;" and St. Finian, from his many virtues, was surnamed "The wise." In it, amongst others famous for learning and piety, were educated St. Kieran, and the two Columbs.

This St. Kieran, about the year 540, built for himself a cell near Kells, at the place now called Castle Kieran, near which there is a remarkably fine spring, issuing from a rock, which the tradition of the country attributes to a miraculous order of St. Kieran, who blessed it.  To this well the more ignorant order of Catholics resort, on the first Sunday in August, and wash in the stream issuing from the fountain, attributing many remarkable cures, in a variety of diseases, to its sanctified influence.

There is in the church-yard, belonging to this cell, a fine old stone cross, with several hieroglyphical figures on it, but not any legible characters.  St. Columb flourished immediately after St. Kieran, and lived at Kells, where about the year 550 he founded and built St. Mary's abbey, little or no traces of which are at present visible, if we except the foundation of an old tower.  This abbey is famous for the birth of St. Cuthbert, and was rebuilt about the year 806 by Cellac, abbot of Iona, or Hy.

Columbkil's house is still standing; it is stone roofed, and hitherto has withstood the iron hand of time; it is said to be the oldest stone built house in Ireland.  Near the site of the abbey, is one of those old round towers, in high preservation, that we so frequently meet with in Ireland; which, with one at Donoughmore near Navan, is the only one of the kind in Meath.

It is called by the country people, "Clugash Kanadus," which signifies, "The belfry of Kells. This name has been handed down by tradition, which seems to denote, that they were first intended for bells.  In Kells are several stone crosses, but one in particular of beautiful workmanship.  This formerly lay prostrate in the street, opposite to the castle, but was raised by the desire, and at the expense of the celebrated Swift, Dean of St. Patrick's.

St. Ultan is the first bishop mentioned of Ardbraccan; he died there in the year 606, although that see did not get the name of Ardbraccan until the time of his successor Abbot Braccan, after whom it was called.

In the year 838, Turgesius, king of the Danes, sailed up the Boyne, and subdued Meath, using the professors of Christianity with the greatest cruelty.  To him, in this expedition, is ascribed the formation of those Danish forts, or raths, to be met with in various parts of this county, particularly that remarkable fine one on the south east side of Tarah hill, near Mr. Lynch's house.  Here he is said to have taken up his headquarters, whilst subduing Meath.  It contains about seven acres, and is now beautifully planted by Sir John Dillon, Bart. and Mr. Lynch, for which they obtained a premium from the Dublin Society, in the year 1791.  In 845, Turgesius plundered Clonmacnoise, and many other places, and is said to have fallen in love with the daughter of Melaghlin, king of Meath, who, seeming to accede to his proposals, promised to send his daughter to a certain place, attended by fifteen beautiful maids.  Turgesius came to the place appointed, and found, instead of his intended bride, fifteen young men, dressed like women, with arms concealed, which they made use of for the tyrant's destruction.

The fame of this action soon spread abroad, and the Danes were either cut off by stratagem, or compelled by open force to return to their own country.  In the year 849, however, they again returned to Ireland with recruited strength, and gained some advantages over the Irish.  They, with varied success, held their ground until the year 980, at which time they met with a complete overthrow at Tarah; the Irish, under the command of their king, slaying one thousand private soldiers, together with most of the principal Danish officers.

During the time the Danes held the reins of government in Ireland, which lasted for the space of 350 years, we find no record of any religious foundation in Meath, except that of the abbey of St. Mary at Bective, which was built by Murchard O'Melaghlin, king of Meath, in the year 1146.  The friars were of the order of Cistertians.  In this abbey was buried the body of Hugh de Lacy, Lord of Meath, who was killed in the year 1188.

The Danes, having been in possession of Ireland for about 350 years, were at last overcome, in the year 1171, by the English, who came over under Richard Strongbow, Earl of Pembroke, being invited by Dermot, son of Murchard, to avenge him of his enemies, who had made inroads upon his territories.  Henry II King of England, granted the Earl liberty to bring what number of followers he could, in order to establish himself in Ireland.  He, soon after his arrival, married Dermot's daughter, on  whom were settled all her father's possessions for ever.

This invitation of a small number of English into Ireland was the first step towards the almost final subjugation, which soon followed; yet we do not find the Irish tamely submitting to the yoke, but, on the contrary, even after they were overcome, resolutely insisting upon, and Henry consenting to, terms, as regulated by an assembly convened for that purpose.  In this convention it was agreed, that the Irish should become vassals and tributaries to King Henry, and that he was to protect them in the administration of their own government, according to their own mode.  They were to appoint their own magistrates and officers; to pardon and punish all malefactors, within their several districts; and they had the power of making peace and war with each other, without control.

By these stipulations, both with the natives and the original adventurers, Henry became master of several maritime cities and their dependencies.  Strongbow claimed Leinster in right of his wife, and although it was settled on him at his marriage, yet he consented to hold it under a grant from the king, thinking it a more secure tenure.  Meath, too, was ceded to Henry, who afterwards granted it to Hugh de Lacy, for the service of fifty knights, so that Henry had now a considerable territory, and a number of subjects in Meath, and had every reason to hope for a speedy encrease of both.  Immediately after Hugh de Lacy received the grant of Meath, he subdivided it, and gave to Gilbert Nangle the barony of Morgallion; and to Joicelin, his son, he gave Navan and Ardbraccan; to Adam Feipo he gave Skreen; to Misset he gave the barony of Lune; and to one Thomas he gave Kells; beside several other grants, which, from alteration in the names, are not now easily known.

Henry, by the grace of God, &c. To the archbishops, bishops, &c. greeting.

Know that I have given, and granted, and by this my charter confirmed, to Hugh de Lacy, for his service, the land of Meath, with all its appurtenances, by his service of fifty men, to him and his heirs, to have and to hold of me and my heirs, as Murchard Hu Melaghlin held it, or any other before or after him.

Sir J. Ware, chap. 27.

He gave, likewise, to Hugh de Lacy the country called Meath, to be held by the service of fifty knights, Anno Domini 1 172.

Vide Sir J. Ware's, Antiquities, chap. 4,

From these he exacted the service, that he was bound in to the king, and enjoyed large possessions himself, for which he was not bound in any service.  From these grants arose the names of the divisions of the county, under which it still remains; and, from the possessors having been afterwards created barons, their possessions took the name of baronies.

In the year 1174, De Lacy made Hugh Tyrrell governor of Trim; and, about 1178, he caused the castle of Kells to be built by the English colonists of Meath, as a barrier against the incursions of the Ulster men, who that year became exceedingly troublesome.  Kells, in those days, was considered the key of Meath.

Slane Castle was about this time besieged, and totally demolished, by Melaghlin M'Loughlin; and Richard Fleming, lord of that place, with many others, was slain in the contest.

Some time after this, De Lacy's power in Meath was so encreased, from his having planted several colonies, and erected many castles therein, that he vainly thought, and, some say, as vainly boasted, that Ireland was more subject to him than to the king of England; which coming to Henry's ears, he was recalled; yet, the very winter following, he was sent back into Ireland as chief justice, which office he held for three years, during which time he built many castles, and, among others, those of Clonard, Killair, and Delvin.  Some assert, that Trim castle was built about this time, but, according to  Ware’s Antiquities, it was built in the year 1220, of which we shall speak hereafter.  He built, in 1182, a cell for canons regular, of the order of St. Augustin, at Duleek, which he afterwards made a cell of Lanthony, near Gloucester, in England.

About this time (1188), as Hugh de Lacy was stooping down to give some directions in the building of a castle at Dermagh, or Durrough, his head was almost severed from his body by the stroke of an axe, made at him by an Irishman employed in the work.  His  body was buried with great solemnity in the abbey of Bective, but his head was carried to Dublin, and buried in the abbey of Thomas court.  This gave rise to a most ridiculous controversy between the abbies, for the rest of his body, which was at length decided in favour of Thomas court, by Simon Rochfort, the then bishop of Meath, and Pope's legate in Ireland.

De Lacy left two sons, viz. Walter, Lord of Meath, and Hugh, Earl of Ulster.

In the year 1190, Joicelin Nangle, to whom Hugh de Lacy gave Navan, &c. built there, at the confluence of the Boyne and Blackwater, an abbey, which he dedicated to St. Mary, for the order of Canons regular.  The horse barracks stand at present on the site; no traces of the abbey are now visible.

In the year 1152, Cardinal Paparo, the Pope's legate, held a synod at Kells, in which it was decreed, that, on the death of a village bishop, a rural dean should succeed him, and that their sees should be changed into rural deaneries.  This canon Simon Rochfort, bishop of Meath, adopted, and enforced in a synod, held by him in his diocese in the year 1216, changing the village sees of Clonard, Kells, Slane, Skreen, and Dunshaughlin, into rural deaneries.

In the year 1206, this Simon Rochfort, being the first Englishman preferred to the see of Meath, founded, at Newtown, near Trim, a priory of Augustin canons, and dedicated it to St. Peter and St. Paul.  He transferred the episcopal seat from Clonard to this priory, died, and was buried there, in the year 1224.  A great part of the walls of this priory are still standing.  The east window was almost entire within these few years, and was of exquisite workmanship; indeed the whole architecture was of the purest conception.  The prior had a vote in parliament.

Near this, but on the opposite side of the Boyne, stand the ruins of the priory of St. John the Baptist, of the order of Cross bearers, of which the bishops of Meath were either the founders or benefactors, or, perhaps, both.

In the year 1220, Meath was almost ruined by private quarrels, between Sir Hugh de Lacy, Earl of Ulster, and William, Earl of Pembroke.  "Trim was besieged, and brought to lamentable plight," says Ware," and, when the rage and fury of their broils were somewhat abated, to prevent the like in future, the same year the castle of Trim was built." This castle is called King John's castle, but from what authority I know not.  Tradition also says, that King John held a parliament in it, but this could not have been the case, as it was not erected until about the fifth year of the reign of his successor.  Walter de Lacy, about this time, founded a preceptory of Knights Hospitalers, at Kilmainham, near Nobber, and one at Kilmainham wood; he also built a priory at Kells, and dedicated it to St. John, of the order of Cross bearers; it stood where the old burial ground is, at the lower end of St. John's street, after which priory the street was called.

In 1234 died Walter de Lacy; he left two daughters, one of whom married Jeffry de Geneville, Lord of Meath, and the other married Theobald Verdon.  In 1240, Avice de la Corner, sister to the then bishop of Meath, founded a nunnery at Lisimullen, and dedicated it to St. Mary, of the order of St. Augustin.  To this nunnery were given, by the bishop, the manors of Dunsink and Ballygoodman.

In 1263, a convent of Dominicans was founded in Trim; in it Jeffry de Geneville, Lord of Meath, took the habit of the order of Predicants, in the year 1308; this is what is now called the black friary, from the monks wearing black hoods, and was situated near Athboy gate.  John de Dumbleton, archdeacon of Meath, wrote, about this time, on logic, and natural history; these works are still extant.

In 1318, William de Londres, Lord of Athboy, founded there a convent of Carmelites; scarce any traces of it remain at present.  About this time also, Francis Feipo, Lord of Skreen, founded there (Skreen) a friary, which he dedicated to St. Augustin.

In the year 1406, a parliament was called in Dublin, which, in the year following, was adjourned to Trim.  And, in ten years after, another parliament was, in like manner, called in Dublin, and immediately adjourned to Trim, where it sat for ten days.  Both these were held in the black friary, where the tradition of the in habitants makes the first Irish parliament to have been held.  In 1459, a mint was established in the castle of Trim; and there not only brass money, but silver also was, by the king's order, coined.  And, in 1467, mention is made of another parliament having been called, Richard Duke of York, father to Edward IV whilst in Ireland as Lord Lieutenant, resided some time in Trim, when he is supposed to have built the steeple of the present parish church, which was then, as some think, the friary of the Minorites.  The Rev. Doctor Elliot, who has given me this information, grounds his opinion upon the coat of arms, cut in stone, and built into the steeple, which, upon searching the Herald's office, he finds to be those of York and Mortimer.  He quartered the Mortimer arms in right of his mother Anne, who was sister to the Earl of March and Mortimer.  The body and chancel of the church are certainly of much greater antiquity.  In 1479, a military society, called the fraternity of St. George, was instituted for the defence of the counties of Dublin, Kildare, Meath, and Louth, and consisted of thirteen principal men, resident in these counties, who all met in Dublin on St. George's day in each year, and chose from amongst themselves a captain or leader, who should command the rest: each of these thirteen men had a certain number under them, all, however, subordinate to the captain so chosen; yet this captain had seldom more than about 200 men to command, badly disciplined, and worse appointed.  The first men, chosen for Meath, of this society were, Robert Preston, Viscount Gormanstown; James Fleming, Baron of Slane; Sir John Plunket, Knight; and Alexander Plunket, Esq.

In 1485, 1490, and 1493, parliaments were held in Trim castle, since which time there has not been any held there, that we can find a record of.  In 1494, the Military society or fraternity of St. George ceased to exist, not having been found to answer the designed end, or, as some assert, on account of the state of the funds of Ireland, which were then too low to admit of such an expence, though estimated only at five hundred pounds sterling yearly.  Two years after which, Trim was consumed by fire, communicated by lightning; shortly after which, died John Payne, Bishop of Meath, a man eminent for his learning, piety, and political knowledge.

In the year 1536, Henry the eighth cast a covetous eye upon the vast possessions of the church in Meath, and having begun in England to convert the property of monasteries to his own use, he was not long in determining to do the like here also.

The abbeys of St. Peter and Paul, at Newtown near Trim Duleek, and Ballybogan, were the first sacrifices to his avarice; two years after which, the statue of the blessed Virgin Mary, kept at Trim in the abbey of the Canons Regular, was burned, and the image of our Saviour on the cross, kept at Ballybogan, underwent the like fate.  The gifts of the pilgrims which were numerous and valuable, and all the precious reliques were taken away by order of the king, who, however, to soften the asperities of religious zeal, and avert the anathemas, which he must otherwise expect for despoiling the sanctuaries of their wealth and ornaments, granted pensions to the abbots and priors, during life, out of the revenues reserved to the crown.

Bective Abbey next suffered the like fate, and Henry, the year following, by an act of parliament confirmed to himself all the abbeys in Ireland.  By an act of this parliament, the title of King of Ireland was annexed to the crown of England; the Kings of England having been, before that time, styled only Lords of Ireland; and Meath, having been considered too large for the jurisdiction of one Sheriff, was divided into East and Westmeath.  The town of Navan was about this time burned, and pillaged, by Con O'Neil, in revenge for some depredations committed on his territories by Grey the Lord Deputy; after which it was walled, and the expense defrayed by a cess laid on the counties of Meath and West Meath, for that purpose.

From this period, the work of the reformation went on rapidly, yet it met with several severe shocks in succeeding reigns; nor was it until that of William the Third, of glorious and immortal memory, that it gained complete footing in Ireland.

Having thus far laid before my readers a sketch of the history of the county, down to the Revolution, (since which, the incidents are fresh in the recollection of most people) to avoid prolixity, I shall next proceed to report on its present state.