County Meath in 1839
Meath appears to have been included by Ptolemy in the territory of the Blanii, or Eblani, a nation whose sway extended over the neighbouring counties of Dublin and Wicklow, and whose name may be traced in the first syllable of the province of Leinster.
At an early period Meath constituted one of the kingdoms into which Ireland was divided, and comprehended, it is likely, not only the present counties of East Meath and West Meath, but also the whole or part of those of Longford, Cavan, and King's County. Teamor, now Tarah Hill, near the Boyne, between Dunshaughlin and Navan, was the residence of the sovereign of Ireland and the seat of the supreme government, and the place where St. Patrick made his first efforts for the conversion of the Irish to Christianity.
It is probable that the kingdom of Meath was erected in the second century of the Christian era as the immediate domain of the Irish monarchs; or if not then first erected into a kingdom, was placed under the immediate government of the Irish monarchs, while the rest of the island owed them only feudal obedience.
At a subsequent period the government of Meath was separated from the monarchy, which was so far weakened by the separation as to become little more than a nominal supremacy; the kings of Meath ranked as subordinate princes, but they constituted one of the two lines of the great family of the Hy-Nialls, by which the supreme government was alternately possessed. Teamor ceased to be the seat of the national government.
In the invasions of the Northmen, or Danes, the kingdom of Meath suffered severely. Turges, a Danish leader, in the early part of the ninth century, established himself at Lough Rive (Ree?), and after cruelly ravaging the kingdoms of Connaught and Meath, was seized and put to death, probably at Lough Uar, near Mullingar in the present county of West Meath, by Melaghlin, or Malachi, king of Meath, who afterwards acquired the supreme power.
The Northmen however soon renewed their attacks, and civil dissensions diverted the Irish from resisting the common foe. For several centuries Meath was exposed to their ravages, or those of other Irish princes with whom the kings of Meath were at war.
Traces of this period of confusion exist in the numerous camps and earthworks that overspread the district; and the frequent destruction of monasteries and towns recorded in the annals of the religious houses is another attestation of the prevalent ruin.
The last king of Ireland of the Hy-Niall family was Melaghlin II, who, though reduced to abdicate the supreme authority for a time in favour of Brian Boromy, king of Munster, resumed it upon the death of that prince (who fell in battle against the Northmen at Clontarf near Dublin, A.D. 1014), and reigned till his own death, A.D. 1022, about 150 years before the invasion of Ireland by Henry II.
Before the invasion of the English, Dermond, or Dermod MacMurchad, king of Leinster, had reduced O'Melaghlin. or Melaghlin, king of Meath, and other princes, into a state of subjection; but having roused indignation by the abduction of the daughter of Melaghlin, who had married O'Ruare, or O'Rourke, king of Breifne, or Brehny (now the county of Leitrim), he was expelled by Melaghlin and others, aided by his own subjects, and compelled to flee to England, where he engaged the Anglo-Normans in the conquest of his native island.
Richard, earl of Strigul or Chepstow, commonly called Strongbow, the leader of these auxiliaries, took possession of Meath (A.D. 1171), which was conferred by Henry II as a county palatine (or feudal lordship, the holder of which had several regal rights), on Hugh de Lacy, who was appointed governor of the English pale or district.
Hugh de Lacy built a strong fortress at Trim, which was burned, A.D. 1173, in an attempt which the Irish made, under their king Roderick, to reconquer the country. The Irish were however repelled, and the ruined castle of Trim was restored. De Lacy parcelled out his territories among his followers, whom he created barons, whence is derived the subdivision of counties into baronies.
Meath however appears to have passed again into the power of the natives; for in 1178 De Lacy, who had been reappointed governor of Ireland, and held that office for a short time, restored the English power there.
In the general rebellion excited by the petulance of Prince (afterwards King) John, whom his father Henry II sent over as governor, Meath was preserved to the English by the valour of William Petit, who defeated the Irish invaders (A.D. 1186).
About the same time Hugh de Lacy was assassinated by one of the workmen employed on a castle he was then erecting at Durrogh, in what is now King's County.
His son, Hugh de Lacy the Second, who appears to have succeeded him in his county of Meath, was afterwards appointed governor of Ireland, in which office however he was soon superseded, agreeable to the policy, at least the practice, of that day, which seldom allowed a governor to retain office any length of time.
De Lacy, in his character of earl of Meath, was engaged as auxiliary (A.D. 1200) in a contest between two Irish princes for the sovereignty of Connaught; and having been reappointed by King John lord-justice or governor of Ireland, he was defeated by John De Courcy, the Anglo-Norman earl of Ulster, whom he was commissioned to arrest and send over to England.
He succeeded however in getting De Courcy into his hands by treachery and sending him over to England. He afterwards received the earldom of Ulster as his reward.
The ambition and power of Hugh de Lacy, now earl of Ulster, and of his brother Walter, who appears to have succeeded him in the earldom of Meath, having excited the jealousy of John, that king visited Ireland in person (A.D 1210), and spent some months in reducing the fortresses in Meath and Ulster belonging to those nobles, who had fled to France, and did not obtain restoration to their estates and honours without the payment of a heavy fine.
Meath seems at this time to have lost its privilege as a palatine county, and to have been made subject to the jurisdiction of the king's officers.
The De Lacys acted a conspicuous part in the feuds of the Anglo-Norman lords of the Pale, and Meath suffered from these intestine commotions.
Upon the decease of Earl Walter, Meath came to his two daughters, who divided his inheritance between them. West Meath, which fell to the elder, who was married to Sir Theobald Verdon, appears to have been so neglected, and fell into such a state of anarchy, that it did not obey the English laws for above a hundred years.
East Meath, the portion of the younger daughter, married to Sir Geoffry Genneville, was also wrested from its owners, either by native chieftains or Anglo-Norman rivals.
The English dominion, never fully established, appears rather to have decayed during the reigns of the later Plantaganet and the Lancastrian princes, and the civil war of the Roses.
The native Irish renewed their incursions; and in A.D. 1329, the English under Lord Thomas Butler sustained a severe defeat from them near Mullingar in West Meath. Richard, duke of York, lord-deputy in the reign of Henry VI, erected castles along the border of Meath and other counties in order to repress them.
The Irish chieftains appear to have levied a tribute upon the English settlers, in consideration of leaving them in quiet, similar to the blackmail levied by the Scotch Highland chieftains upon the neighbouring Lowland lairds and tenantry. The county of Meath paid at one time a yearly pension to the O'Connors of £60.
In the reign of Henry VIII, when the power of the English began to revive, Meath was invaded by an Irish chieftain, Con Buckah O'Niall, or O'Neal ( A.D. 1520); but he quickly withdrew on the approach of the earl of Surrey, lord-deputy.
In a rising in favour of the Papacy, which took place at the Reformation, the Irish broke into Meath, destroyed Navan, and, after mustering their forces at Tarah Hill, set out to return home, but were overtaken and entirely routed (A.D. 1539).
In A.D. 1540 the natives assembled in West Meath, with a view to break into the English pale; but dispersed on learning that preparations had been made to resist them.
Just at the close of the reign of Henry VIII, the ancient county of Meath was divided; and West Meath, including the present counties of West Meath and Longford, and part of King's County, was erected into a separate county.
Cavan, which was partly formed out of Meath, was erected into a separate county by Sir John Perrot, lord-deputy in the reign of Elizabeth.
In the great rebellion of 1641, Meath was again the scene of hostilities. Trim was entered by the English troops, who designed to make it a military post; and an attempt of the Irish to surprise the garrison was defeated by a bold and successful sally (A.D. 1642). Sir Charles Coote, one of the best officers of the English, and commander of the garrison, fell in the action.
In 1643 negotiations for peace between the English and the insurgents were carried on at Trim.
In 1647 Trim was besieged by the insurgents under their general Preston, who, having learned that Col. Jones, the parliamentary governor of Dublin, was on his march to relieve the place, set out in order to surprise the capital, but was met on the road and entirely defeated.
Trim served as a place of retreat to some of the Royalists on their defeat at Rathmenes near Dublin, in 1649: but after the storming of Drogheda, and the massacre of the garrison by Cromwell in the same year, Trim was surrendered by the Royalists without resistance.
In the war of the English revolution the battle of the Boyne was fought (A.D. 1690) close upon the border of this county, between Drogheda and Slane. The two armies subsequently crossed the county from north to south, that of James in retreat, that of William in pursuit.
In the rebellion of 1798 some outrages were committed at Dunboyne by a party of insurgents, who were very shortly defeated at Ratoath; but the victors having separated, the vanquished party rallied and cut off part of them at Clonee Bridge.
Some further outrages were committed at Dunshaughlin, and immediately a considerable part of the population of the county rose in rebellion: a body of men, 4,000 according to some accounts, took post on Tara Hill, where they were defeated with considerable slaughter by the troops and yeomanry.
Part of the fugitives took refuge in the bogs, from which they continued for three weeks to make excursions for plunder and devastation.
There are several remains of antiquity in the county. At Tarah, or Taragh, once the seat of the Irish monarchs, are considerable earthworks. Two splendid torques, or collars of pure gold, were dug up here in 1813.
There are considerable ruins of the castles of Scurlogstown, Dunmoe, Athlumley, and Asigh.
Slane Castle and one or two others have been fitted up as residences.
There are round-towers at Kells and at Donoughmore near Navan.
There are numerous ruins of ancient monastic edifices: those of the monastery at Duleek, supposed to be the most ancient monastic edifice built of stone and mortar in Ireland, present some remarkable traces of rude architecture.
The front of the ancient cathedral at Clonard yet exists, and there are several stone crosses.
The ruins of Bective Abbey are extensive and picturesque.