This coming weekend marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Drogheda from the yoke of Meath oppression. In his new book, When Louth Wasn’t Proud: Forgotten Voices of the 1940-1945 Meath Occupation, local historian Walter B. Crummy sheds light on a lesser known theatre of The Second World War. In an exclusive scoop, The Faa Side will be serialising the book in the run up to its publication in May.
As dawn broke on the morning of Friday May 10th 1940, Europe was plunged into the greatest war the world has ever seen. A continent woke up to a new word – Blitzkrieg. Just as the Nazi Panzers emerged from the Ardennes forest in Belgium, taking the French by surprise and marching virtually unopposed into Paris, the Meath Militia sneakily emerged from Townley Hall Woods on horse and cowback to march on a Drogheda oblivious to the conniving and covetous intentions of her neighbour.
Diary entry from Patrick J. Grennan, Commissioner of Oaths, Drogheda.
There was nothing unusual about that morning. As I made my way into town from my estate in Termonfeckin I passed farmers driving their cattle in for the market. There were the usual shoeless urchins skulking about the port on the look out for palatic sailors to rob. The calming din of drunken scuffles and knife fights filled the alleyways in that messy crossover from late house to early. You could see the black lunged men shuffling from their hovels into the riverside factories while their women folk got ready for the first mass of the day, a Novena, I think. Business was brisk. You could say life was good.
By 1940 Drogheda was but a shadow of her former self. Centuries of systematic subterfuge by Meath moles within Drogheda’s Urban Planning Department (DUPD) had seen the town’s once formidable medieval walls severely denuded. By the time the church bells were rung to call the men of Drogheda to arms it was too late. Hordes of lurch-shouldered potato-faced Athboymen were swarming through the town hungry for the spoils of war.
Life was particularly uncomfortable for Drogheda’s women. Parochial House cleaner Aggie Keogh’s face unwrinkled in fright as she remembered the early days of the occupation.
We were afraid of our lives. My mam had told me of the terror she felt on hearing the horse clop that signalled the arrival of the Black and Tans. But this was worse. The crunch of the Navan jackboot goose-stepping down Peter Street has had me screaming like a mad bitch for years.
Nuns assistant Betty Byrne now lives in a nursing home just across the border. Time hasn’t clouded her memories.
It’s hard to believe it’s 70 years since the liberation. Sure the young ones these days think they have it hard. Pah! All of us in our house lived in perpetual fear of getting sent to do forced labour in the Tayto factory in Ashbourne or becoming comfort women in one of Duleek’s militia brothels – even the men could be rounded up and used – Meath men aren’t picky.
For the average citizen of Drogheda, daily life was rife with bully boy tactics and thuggery. Rashers Judge was in fourth class when the Meath militia took the town.
You could be walking back to school after lunch and a group of militia would spring out at you. They’d be shouldering you and grunting at you and poking you in the kidneys. Then they’d deny it outright or say you did it first and blame you!
It was a tactic re-employed by Meath football manager Sean Boylan during the 1980s and 1990s to great effect.
Local politician Tommy Tully could never rid himself of the humiliation.
The children were the worst. They’d Chinese burn you until you swore undying allegiance to Navan. Before the occupation if a child trat you like that you’d spank him into next week. But the Meath born would squeal on you to the police and you’d be sent to work in the potato fields like what happened alderman Mickey McIvor who went mad beyont.
While life was tough for the women of Drogheda, able bodied men fared far worse. Nan Kieransis remembers the day they took her older brother Fitzy away.
That first day all the able-bodied men were rounded up and frogmarched into darkest Meath and forced to build a railroad from Kells to Navan. When the English were here they surveyed the area and found that topographically and morally it couldn’t and shouldn’t be done; the cost to human life too great. That’s why there’s nobody living in Newgrange now. You can’t cut into the land in Meath. Things get out. But they were empire building and wanted to get noticed. They don’t even use the railway line now. Each sleeper is like a gravestone. It was Louth’s Bridge Over the River Kwai.
Though they didn’t know it, the railway men who worked the Kells-Navan line were blessed in comparison to those forced to build the Maze in Navan Shopping Centre. To this day, nobody knows how they managed to construct such a mysterious and confounding object. Buckles Loughran Snr. explained.
They lined us up in the market square and made all the fellas with glasses go to the right. See they wanted clever looking fellas to build a lasting monument, a legacy, like the Pyramids. When it was finished they shot everyone, even their own architects and engineers and made them into mirrors. So even now one knows how it was made or how to get out of it. They had to take it away in the 1990s as it was a danger to the public. It’s probably in a warehouse somewhere.
Next week: Life in Vichy Louth – memories of Dundalk collaboration.
When Louth Wasn’t Proud: Forgotten Voices of the 1940-1945 Meath Occupation is available to pre-order from The Faa Side.