Through Meath, from Collon to The Ward ... a visitoršs impression

By Seamus McCluskey who hails from Emyvale in north County Monaghan.

The luxury touring bus heads southwards, I’m heading from the ‘North to the country’s capital and I’ve just left the ‘Wee County’ of Louth. It was ‘down’ that steep hill from Collon, or ‘Cullen’ as they pronounce it here, and then back up an even steeper climb, past ‘Hungry Hall’, which reminds me of ‘Famine Times’, and now I’m into the plains of the Royal County.

A few weather-beaten black-and-red flags of Mattock Rangers, however, still fly from some telegraph poles, as this south Louth club extends its catchment area into Co. Meath, and it’s not such a long time ago since the Rangers captured the Louth Senior Championship and then did so well in the Leinster Club Championship. The flat lands of Ireland’s Great central Plain stretch out before me, to right and to left, and I can see much further than back home among the little hills of South Ulster.

The locals will not have noticed it, but this area of Meath has been changing rapidly in recent years and is much more noticeable to the infrequent traveller, to whom it presents an alarming perspective of the rapidly developing pattern gradually unravelling throughout Ireland but particularly in these counties on the eastern sea-board. The obvious development of the farms (or should I now call the ‘ranches’) on both sides of this N2, and the building of superb mansion-type houses clearly shows that the Celtic Tiger has thrived on the plains of Meath.

The town of Slane (it’s no longer a village) hovers into sight, with the ruins of the old church on top of the historical ‘Hill of Slane’ away over to my right, reminding me of the stories of St. Patrick and his Pascal Fire of so many hundreds of years ago. Down-hill, and ‘The Poet’s Rest’ pub on the right recalls the poet Francis Ledwidge, and I think of his lovely haunting lines on the patriot Thomas McDonagh, his personal friend, of whose execution he learned while serving in a British uniform on the ‘Western Front’ during WW1.

Down the hill through the Square (now with its traffic lights), where its four identical town-houses diagonally face each other, and I am told that a recent suggestion to dismantle one of them has proven unsuccessful - thankfully so, for this is surely one of Slane’s most distinctive attractions. The steep hill down to the bridge has now three traffic lanes, one for ascending traffic and two for descending traffic, the latter being divided into separate lanes for light and heavy vehicles. Surely an improvement and a protection against some of the awful tragedies we had in recent years, when lighter traffic and their occupants were at the mercy of following heavy trucks, whose breaking systems sometimes failed, with tragic consequences.

Across the Boyne of ‘William and James fame’ (1690), and away over to my right is Slane Castle, where Lord Mounthcarles regularly hosts huge concerts for the ‘young at heart’. These were not in vogue in my young day and now I must listen as the grand-children relate their experiences at these massive assemblies, which they appear to thoroughly enjoy.

Uphill again and the large brown tourist signs on the left side of the road point to ‘Bru na Boinne’, or Newgrange, and I marvel as I recall making several visits to that truly astonishing monument, which is older than the Pyramids of Egypt and older than Stonehenge, but all that is ‘another day’s work’. Suffice it to say here that Newgrange has changed remarkably in the past couple of decades since it was given such a huge cash injection (and rightly so) some years ago and is a far cry from the Newgrange I first visited away back in the ‘fifties, when it was then approached from the north side rather than from south of the Boyne. In addition, I always tell visitors to Ireland that they should never return home without visiting Newgrange.

Soon we cross the Drogheda to Navan railway line and I wonder if they will ever re-open a rail link between Navan, one of Ireland’s fastest growing towns, and the county’s capital city. Surely the people of Meath and its largest centre of population at least deserve that much.

Form Slane to Dublin is practically a straight line and I am reminded of George IV’s official visit to Ireland in 1821 and his urgent desire to get to Slane, so much so that he ordered this road to be straightened prior to his arrival so that he would not be delayed. His object of affection, of course, being Lady Conyngham. At least the people of present day Meath have benefited something from his worldly desires, as this perfectly straight road is a pleasure to drive on, compared to the twisted roads we have left behind us much further south.

The stud farms to my right are a reminder or wealth and Ireland’s great tradition for racing horses, but the traffic gets heavier as we approach Ashbourne that area of Meath on the Co. Dublin border and a Dublin GAA flag hanging from a lamp-post reminds me of the great rivalry between the two counties as we enter Ashbourne. ‘Cill Deaglann’, as Gaeilge, and I am reminded of the great St. Declan, who was a senior to St. Patrick and who took some umbrage at the encroachment on his territory by the ‘foreign upstart’.

The 1916 ‘Ashbourne Ambush’ monument on my left is one of the most unusual of its kind in the country, the figure bearing the cross having the face of Christ on one side and the face of a volunteer’ on the other side. I sometimes wonder of the people of the area are even aware of the fact - it is something to be really proud of. This monument used to be ‘out in the country’ but so many industrial estates, ware-houses, factories, garages, etc., etc., have sprung up all around it in recent years that it is now actually part of the town. And what a plethora of magnificent apartment blocks that I wonder if all Dublin has not moved out to this lovely area of South Meath. The population of Ashbourne must be sky-rocketing.

Into the ‘town proper’ and I note that the former Dardis and Dunne seed Store on the right has now also been dismantled. What -- more apartment blocks???? This must be the fastest growing town in all Ireland. I remember when it was just a village of some two hundred souls. Through more traffic lights, hotels to both right and left, and I recall that winning Meath teams always make this their first stop on their way home from Croke Park. To the south of the town some more lovely housing estates and the huge Ashbourne Community Centre to the left looks as if it is a regularly used amenity.

Leaving Ashbourne and heading for the ‘Big Smoke’ I had always noted a rather strange monument, like a small obelisk, in the middle of a field over to the left, just about a kilometre out of the town, and did not rest until I discovered what it was all about. This is actually a monument to a man called Charles Brindley, and the quotation on it reads - ‘Charles Brindley 1880. Erected by his Friends as a Testimonial for his Thirty-five Years Service as a Huntsman of the ward Hounds’. Now there was a man that was obviously much thought of, but I ask myself if ninety nine percent of today’s Ashbourne population ever even heard of him.

Not much of Meath left now as we approach the new county of ‘Fingal’, which reminds me of the Finn-Ghall, or ‘Fair-Haired foreigners’ who invaded our country in the 9th and 10th centuries, but who were given a quick exit by the immortal Brian Boru in 1014. It’s Dublin now but I can look back with pleasure on that short trip through a beautiful stretch of Meath, and the only fear I have is that it will all soon be gobbled up into an extended ‘concrete jungle’ as our capital city keeps expanding more and more every day and never ceases in its theft of our beautiful green and luscious countryside.

Taken from Royal County
December 2004