Upcoming exhibition charts long history of trolleys in Boyne

An upcoming exhibition at Millmount Museum aims to chart the long affinity between the River Boyne, Drogheda and the shopping trolley. The exhibition looks at Drogheda’s maritime and mercantile past while also offering compelling evidence that the town was a hipster hub long before it was even founded. Recent excavations along the banks of the Boyne have unearthed several medieval trollies with some dating back to Viking times. TFS caught up with exhibition curator Úna Costigan to get the lowdown.

Úna, is it fair to say that Drogheda’s river based shopping trollies have come in for some bad press of late?

It certainly is. For many they are an eyesore that represents the mindless vandalism and thuggery that made Drogheda a magnet for Dubliners over the past fifteen years or so. But what most people probably don’t know is that the dumping of shopping trollies in the Boyne River is a practice that dates back over a millennium. Whether we like it or not, it is part of our heritage.

I take it you’re referring to the recent archaeological discoveries along the river banks?

Yes, a number of discoveries have been made in the area in the past decade. The most recent being a collection of seven perfectly preserved wooden shopping trolleys of Scandanavian origin. The mud and silt around the estuary is perfect for preserving wood and the turbidity of the water has probably helped hide them from knacker drinkers and spear fishing tramps.

So how do you know that the trollies weren’t part of a consignment of goods? Are we reading too much into things here?

You’d be surprised at how much we can glean from what’s buried under us and we have contemporary sources too – poems, folklore, monastical books and images. The Annals of the Four Masters for example, makes reference to the practice in the town of Drogheda on numerous occasions. And there are links between it and contemporary ethnographical studies which cast the practice as a primordial mating ritual – you only need to go within 100 metres of where the trollies are dumped after dark before you can hear the rutting. Many of these texts and images will be on display in the exhibition.

As for how we know they weren’t part of a trade shipment, well, the angle they were dumped at tells us a lot. Also, they display superficial damage consistent with being drunkenly pushed down a hill and then not all of them were from the same carpenter. Oh, and being from Scandanavia, they would have been flat-packed.

A picture of the original Drogheda Coat of Arms on show at the exhibition. The inscription reads Shanks Godfreycus Our Strength, Commerce our Glory.
A picture of the original Drogheda Coat of Arms on show at the exhibition. The inscription reads Shankus Godfreycus Our Strength, Commerce our Glory.

Lets talk if we can about the mercantile past of the town. The recent trolley discovery lends weight to the theory that Drogheda originated as a medieval out of town retail park serving the Viking settlements of Annagassan and Dubhlinn. Where do you stand on the issue?

All we can rely on is the primary sources we have. For example we know that Annagassan was one of the first permanent Viking settlements in Ireland in 841. The Annals tell us that it was abandoned for a more prosperous place near a ford, thought to be modern day Drogheda. The unearthing of Scandanavian shopping trolleys on the Boyne certainly gives greater credence to this train of thought.

Why was the settlement abandoned?

There was a schism between the older generation of Vikings and the newer generation who were born here. They wanted to focus more on establishing trade links and less on raping and pillaging. Basically, the younger generation moved to the River Boyne, roughly where St. Mary’s bridge is now and set up an out of town retail park with an eye to tapping into the emerging Dubhlinn market.

The Annagassan Vikings reacted too slowly to the changing market forces though they did try and pedestrianise their main street in an attempt to compete with the more convenient and family friendly retail outlet. But problems with cowboy builders and council bureaucracy delayed the pedestrianisation by about 18 months. They ended up running way over budget and by the time it was eventually finished, town centre shopping had effectively been hara-kiried as all the traders had moved to the retail park.

In the end the street wasn’t even fully pedestrianised! The more prosperous settlement at the Boyne lured all the best Danish designers so the finished article was an incongruous abomination, a vile faux-Viking Rococo if you will.

That’s fascinating. Sometimes the past seems like the present. So why does Drogheda not celebrate its Viking heritage? We could do with tapping into that market, the state this place is in we’ll be telling our kids about a building called St. Laurence’s Gate.

The new settlement thrived for a couple of centuries. King Sigurd Ikeasson enforced rape-and-pillage-free-zones and the settlement became a respected commercial post on the European trade route. But then, like all civilizations, they succumbed to what we refer to now as hipsterism.

Really? I didn’t know the Vikings were so progressive. So are you hinting that we are nearing the end of our time?

It’s hard to say. Each generation became less manly than the last. We have accounts of young Vikings refusing to rape women who worked in bakeries as they might have come into contact with gluten, or only doing so after the poor women had taken a gluten test. There are literally hundreds of accounts of Vikings mutinying when ordered to pillage and burn villages containing cows as they had developed a perceived lactose intolerance.

Boyne trollies. Taken in 1860 courtesy of the Whitworth Estate.
Boyne trollies. Photograph dated 1860, courtesy of the Whitworth Estate.

That’s terrible. I suppose we can only judge those against the times they lived in.

The past was a brutal place. Eventually they became so ironic that they didn’t realize their culture had been subsumed into that of the Normans. However, we can still see traces of Drogheda’s Viking past. The Normans continued to throw trollies in the Boyne and you know the famous sign on the bridge of peace with the shopping trolley stuck on to it? That gets redone by different people when it’s fading – that’s our heritage speaking to us.

I’d imagine the exhibition is full of little nuggets like that.

 It is. It’s aimed at getting both young and old engaged with our past. Here’s one for you. The word maaket comes from the Norse word markadhr.

I’ve always imagined Staa Baa as some sort of Viking war cry.

It’s possible. My favourite tidbit is about Annagassan. Linguistic experts say that the Annagassan dialect is the truest relfection available to us today of what the Vikings would have sounded like.

It’d certainly make you look differently at our wild Annagassan cousins! Though if I’m honest, I don’t think I could take a Viking seriously if he came at me with an Annagassan accent. Úna, it’s been a pleasure. When does the exhibition open?

Thanks. We’re opening in conjunction with the Drogheda Maritime Festival in June but will be open at the end of May for schools.