Inhabited since Neolithic times, the area that would become the town of Dundalk is located in what is now County Louth near the border of Northern Ireland. The name derives from Dun Dealgan, which means Dealga’s fortress or stronghold, and refers to an early chieftain of the Celtic people who entered Ireland around 500 B.C. The people ensconced there carved a tiny kingdom out of the wilderness.
This kingdom was eventually absorbed by the O’Carrolls into their kingdom of the Airghialla (as an aside, the Anglicized form of “Airghialla” is “Oriel” which is why people in Dundalk watch live sports today at Oriel Park). The O’Carrolls and their successors lost this land, and virtually all of County Louth, to Norman invaders in the 12th century. The Normans chartered the town of Dundalk which grew into an important trading center but faced constant danger from the powerful and indigenous (and very good looking) O’Neill clan of the north.
The Normans succeeded in holding on to Dundalk but faced an altogether different challenge in the 17th century when a new wave of now Protestant invaders arrived from Britain.
These newcomers viewed the Catholic descendants of the old Norman nobility as little better than the indigenous Irish (whom the Protestants regarded as basically subhuman). War broke out between the new invaders and the old conquerors. In 1642, Dundalk was seized by a Protestant force. The town was sacked, looted and burned, and a number of its leading citizens were hanged.
This was a dark time for poor Dundalk. After its fall to the Protestant soldiers of Sir Henry Tichbourne, there was little of the old town left. Most of its inhabitants had either fled or been killed.
In 1649, a fresh Irish revolt broke out. Charles I, the king of England, had been beheaded and replaced by Oliver Cromwell, who led a large English army into Ireland to put down the rebellion.
In the same year, he stormed the nearby town of Drogheda and massacred the populace. After this, Dundalk became an English garrison town. Its defenses were maintained in case of another revolt that its new population was there to stomp out with all the ferocity of Cromwell at Drogheda. The few Irish who remained lived in the poorer homes and subsisted as servants to their new masters.
After the destruction of Drogheda, Col. Mark Trevor, a Welsh military adventurer who had fought on both sides of the English civil war and in Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland, became the military governor of Dundalk.
Cromwell eventually granted Trevor extensive lands in and near Dundalk. Trevor, who seems to have had a talent for turning his coat, managed to hold onto these lands even after the restoration of the English monarchy. He was even ennobled and held the titles of Baron Rosetrevor and Viscount Dungannon.
While Trevor oversaw an era of relative peace, albeit forced, in Dundalk, the town was again fated to fall victim to the bloody squabblings of the English. Trevor died in 1670, but his line ruled until 1706.
After Catholic James II of England was forced off his throne in 1688 by Protestant rebels, his supporters in Dundalk forced out Trevor’s descendants and the supporters of the new government. Dundalk became a stronghold for the Jacobites (followers of King James) but was taken by Protestant forces (who supported William of Orange as king of England) in 1689.
The Jacobites retook Dundalk the following year but, because of the widescale death through disease and famine that took place during the occupation by the Williamites, it was thought the town was uninhabitable.
The Jacobites retreated from Dundalk later in 1690 before the approach of a strong Williamite force. The Jacobites completely plundered the town before leaving. The victorious Williamites upon entering Dundalk proclaimed it “desolate.” The Williamites left Dundalk to pursue King James’ army.
After the war, Dundalk was virtually abandoned. One observer as late as 1723 describes it as a “wretched little village.” The town slowly regrew, its native Irish and Norman-descended population now at the bottom of a social ladder that had Protestants firmly at the top.
In 1750, however, the town’s fortunes began to change. A man named James Hamilton had inherited the old Dungannon estate (including Dundalk) and set about improving his properties. On his initiative, the street plan was modernized, a sea wall built and land reclaimed from marshes. He built new houses, squares and public buildings.
By the late 18th century, Dundalk had regained a merchant class that included Catholics and Protestants. The growing success was buffeted by the Irish political turmoil of the time, but, unlike before, the town survived and prospered.
The 19th century saw the rise and fall of Dundalk’s mercantile fortunes, the modernization of its water and lighting systems and the crushing poverty that was a natural byproduct of Victorian capitalism.
After Ireland’s independence, Dundalk suffered as a result of its new role as a border town on the verge of Northern Ireland. But, with the open trading systems of the European Union, Ireland has experienced in the last decade something of an economic renaissance. Dundalk has benefited with the rest of the country, though it may always be thought of as a gritty, industrial town. Just like us.
(first published 2002)