Drogheda is a valley town. The River Boyne cuts through it in a great big brown ribbon, the same colour as the trout that swim upstream.
Coming down the hill, round the corner from the train station, the town sweeps into view, spires and building tops spreading out to your right. For many years, four silos stood on the Marsh Road proud, ribbed and grey. It was the sight of these that always meant home for me. Our journey at an end. Familiar. Home.
The first bridge you can cross by car is St. Mary’s bridge. It’s a tight junction with lanes criss-crossing each other, the Bull Ring, intersected by the ring road, creating a bottle neck and a slip road that was once Jame’s Street. The traffic builds up far past the train station, while pedestrians make risky leaps across the road.
Across the bridge, Shop Street comes into view, a colourful collection of boutiques and a hidden Augustinian Church. Along the quays, faded shop fronts, some with grilles capture the dust of the cars that queue along the river to cross the badly designed bull ring junction. When the tide is in, the river comes up close to the path, brown and jagged and choppy. When the tide is out, a marshy bed appears, the rocks of the wall exposed and steps and moorings for the boats that once docked here.
Now the ships are out towards the sea, giant cargo vessels that bring wood and coal. They dock under the Viaduct Bridge, a giant of engineering that looms over the town. Thick blocks of stone form into each arch, supporting the Drogheda to Dundalk train line. It is one of the most iconic structures in our town and when television crews come to film Drogheda, it is always the opening sequence.
Up a short hill from the docks is St Laurence’s Gate. Its stone work, grimy black in places, has stood for over 800 years, opening its mouth to the town. Traffic still passes under it, locals holding their breath as lorries make the awkward turn around the narrow bend to access this route into the town. A recent campaign to close the gate has taken hold.
Laurence Street meets with Shop Street, tall Georgian buildings littering its path. Some are drab and grey, battered by years of cheap apartment living, while others retain part of their former glory with painted railings and shiny steps. The redbrick front of the former Grammar School has been rebuilt and the Whitworth Hall, with its trapezium cuts to its stonework, houses gamblers who take the 10.20am bus in to play the slot machines.
At the bottom of Laurence Street and Shop Street sits the Tholsel, flat dark limestone housing the former courthouse and bank. Now it takes tourists in and presses leaflets into their hands, sending them to Newgrange and Monasterboice and St. Oliver Plunkett’s head.
There is a seat cut into the side of the Tholsel, so shiny you need to squeeze your arse tight to hold on. It was once reserved for drunks and down and outs but they’ve since moved on to the shelters provided for them and now the seats are vacant, passed by buggies and footsteps of shuffling shoppers and old men.
Dunnes Stores looks out proudly onto West Street, once one of the only supermarkets in the town. For years, wives were dropped off by their husbands to do the weekly shop and collected then, holding up traffic while the boot was loaded with stacks of plastic bags.
Now, West Street is much narrower, down to only a single lane of traffic. Plans to pedestrianise backfired when the building works took years longer than expected and sent regular shoppers out to the new retail parks with free parking on the edges of town.
Those who remember West Street in its glory days shake their heads at the slow moving main street. Worse is the effect further up to narrow West Street where all but a few shops have closed down their shutters and left the shopfronts to fade and flake in the rain.
St Peter’s Church looms across from the entrance to Drogheda Town Centre, a shopping precinct once facing a similar death to Narrow West Street, except for a new cinema that appeared and brought young people back to its door.
The steps to the church are littered with people at weekends and in good weather and when there’s a wedding on, all shoppers and walkers will stop in their tracks and huddle to look over at the bride and her party, to make aahing noises at her dress and say ‘isn’t she lovely’.
Inside the church sits the head of Saint Oliver, a man who was hung, drawn and quartered in the 1681. Tourists flock to see if it’s really true that a man’s head is on public view within the confines of a sacred church. And there he is, quiet and shrunken, destined forever more to be stared at by Spanish students and flabbergasted Americans.
On the way into the church sits a bronze statue saint, its knee worn gold from being touched by thousands of hands. It’s good luck to rub it and make a wish and so I always do.
Past the church you can make a choice to go down Stockwell Street and walk past the small boutiques and the neon signs of the nightclubs that spring to life at the weekends. Or you can continue on West Street and look in the window at the Moorland Cafe, where cream buns and green iced frogs are lined up tempting you in.
The Post Office is on the left, a snake of people spilling out, collecting pensions and payments and paying bills and sending packages off to sons and daughters in Australia. Takeaways pop up, an Italian chipper, a noodlebox, a pizza place, two Chineses. At night, when the nightclubs finish, men and women zig zag their way to buy food to soak up the shots of sambuca and tequila and Coors Light and vodka. They sit on the footpaths and hold out their hands for taxis, tipping the slow moving cars and yelling.
The Abbey Shopping Centre stands empty and unused, a small smattering of shops surviving on their regular customers they’ve built up. At the back of it a new courthouse is being built, overlooking the river and backing onto the old two screen Abbey Cinema, where children of the 90s climbed the three flights of stairs to watch movies about mutant Ninja Turtles and anything with Macaulay Culkin in it.
Here you’ll find the Dominican Church and Dominic’s Bridge, a red and white railing footbridge used by people making their way up to Rathmullan and beyond. To your right is the Bridge of Peace, a dual carriageway sweeping over the Boyne and further up to your left is the Haymarket Bridge, a new addition that takes traffic from the bus depot and Dyer Street and gives access to McDonald’s.
There was great excitement when McDonald’s opened its golden arches in Drogheda. It appeared in flat pack and was built in a day. On our way to school that morning there was only a building site, by that evening a restaurant had appeared all false brick and happy mealed. It offered a Drive-Thru, something only previously seen on television. And when we tested the toilets we discovered there were no taps and water magically appeared with just a wave of your hand. It was the start of things changing.
Each generation will have its own memories of Drogheda. The town that I spent my youth in has progressed from being a bustling boutique based town, to a much larger, spread out scape with new shopping centres filled with branded names at Scotch Hall and St. Laurence’s. My parents will remember a different structured town before the ring road, a town filled with dance halls and music shops and pubs packed with people. My grandparents will remember an industrial town with factories pumping out black smoke and produce and barefoot children and bicycles as the main source of transport.
As I research further into Drogheda’s past and I learn what went before us, it’s difficult to know which time is better. It is easy to be nostalgic and think that busier street scapes and more glorious Georgian buildings meant more wealth and prosperity for Drogheda and its people. Old photographs were not often wasted on the poor.
When I think of Drogheda, I think of bridges and spires and hills and valleys and a people moving and breathing like the river that swells there twice a day.
I feel lucky to be from a place where people know each other and a community exists and it’s easy to go out and chat and talk and meet a friendly face.
There are advantages to living in a small regional town.
Even if you don’t realise it.
This post was inspired by a wonderful blog post by Sadhbh from Where Wishes Come From called Live Where You Live. Many Irish bloggers have added their own post to the end of Sadhbh’s article. What do you think of when you think of your home town? Can you relate to anything I’ve written here?