Hill Top

The Origin and Development of the Village of Laytown

The village of Laytown lies at a strategic location on the north bank of the estuary of the Nanny river.  Evidence exists of an Iron Age settlement in the area in the shape of a burial mound and a habitation site ‘The Rath’ based at the Sonairte Hill Top,  (feature illustration below).  This site is officially recorded as an archaeological monument and is protected by law.  As it has not been excavated yet, very little is known about it.  However a broken blue glass bead dating to the early Christian period was found here.

Raths, ringforts or fairy forts were a common type of early Irish medieval settlement, built to house a large family and their livestock.  The Sonairte settlement is an example of a nucleated settlement often found along river valleys and lakes which provided the settlers with Defence, Food & Water; mainstay requirements for any successful community to survive medieval challenges. 

The name Laytown or Leyton the old English spelling was interpreted by O’Donovan as Leath-thoin translated half-bottom.  The Irish word toin signifies low-lying or bottom lands.

As early as the 9th century, reference can be found to Laytown.  The Annals of Ulster noting at AD 852 a battle fought there when Maelseachlain and Flann slew 200 foreigners; reference to Viking raiders who often used rivers & estuaries to raid local settlements and later richer monasteries.  The Tara Brooch dates to this period and was found on a local beach near here.  It is one of Ireland’s main treasures and is housed in the National Museum of Ireland.  By the early 13th century Laytown had official standing; with records noting that in 1205, Stephen de Nevin was pardoned by King John for plundering a ship out of Laytown.

By the end of the 15th century Laytown had become a significant settlement but the Black Death epidemic which struck Ireland in 1479 wiped out the ‘Leyton’ population as noted by D’Alton who wrote:

“Drogheda was decimated in this visitation; and it is of tradition, that the malady was so violent at Leyton, a little village at the mouth of the Nanny, a previously thriving fishery port, that all its fishing boats, without hands to man them, were left rotting on the beach.  The little harbour that then existed was much used at the time for underhanded traffic, as a place where no customs or duties were collected.  Has since been long choked up, by the action and reaction or the alluvium of the river and the silt of the sea; the current day ‘Marshlands’.”

Thus, the 15th century was the high point of Laytown as a settlement and it appears to have taken at least four centuries to recover its population and historical significance.

By the 16th century ownership of land in the area had been assumed by members of leading families in Meath following the surrender and dissolution of the religious houses, James Bathe Chief Baron of the Exchequer is listed as tenant of Mynestown (Minnistown), Nnch and Leyton.  Ownership changed hands often; a sign of turbulent times.  However despite anti Papist laws preventing Catholics from land ownership the Civil Survey of 1654-56 shows Lord Netterville, Nicholas Hollywood and Roger Preston; Irish Papists, as proprietors of Ninch and Laytown.  A later Census in 1659 notes Robert Preston, another member of the Preston Gormanstown family as titulado of Rogerstown, Ninch and Julianstown; indicating the tenacity of this family to hold onto their lands.  

During the 19th century Laytown had a small casual settlement catering for summer visitors who came for the sea bathing.  The advent of the coastguard station, the boatmen and their families may be regarded as evidence of a tentative growth of a permanent settlement.  The coastguard station at Laytown was built as a response to the extensive illicit smuggling trade in the Irish Sea in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  The initial station was housed at Nanny Water Cottage part of a small cluster of houses which were leased from the local landlord, Robert Taylor of Corballis House.  In May 1871 the station moved to ‘six cottages’ in Laytown village.  A boathouse was built and the station remained there until 1882 on its return across the river to Corballis where a new building had been erected.  This station was burned by the IRA in June 1921.

The opening of the Railway station in 1844 along the Dublin to Drogheda railway prompted significant growth of Laytown village.  At this time Laytown consisted of the station offices, the coastguard station and a number of cottages, six of which were let annually to ‘respectable sea bathers’.  D’Alton in describing the approach to the village says ‘The Nanny is crossed by an embankment with a noble viaduct of timber in the centre, 304 feet in length’.  The annual ‘Strand Races’ which still take place today in September were held then in August and attracted a number of visitors with the railway offering special return fares for the occasion.  Reduced fares were also a feature for excursions on Sundays in June advertised as ‘Day at the Seaside’ from Oldcastle & Navan.  The Railway may be seen to have contributed to the great increase in the number of visitors to the village and to the germination of a permanent settlement.  As noted in the Drogheda Argus, June 10th 1911;

“The vast Crowds which assembled to avail of the first local Sunday train were of such proportions that many were left behind which dozens of others determined on visiting the briny had to be content with standing room at the rear of the train.”

It seems unlikely that the agricultural workers could have availed of the railway services offers.  Records at the time note Colonel Charles Pepper of Ballygarth Castle (situated across the Nanny facing Sonairte), reputed to be a just employer, in a letter of engagement to a workman dated 28th October 1892 offered three pounds a month.  A free house, milk and other perquisites were included but on such wage the disposable income must have been limited.

The popularity of Laytown as a seaside resort had commenced before the advent of the railway and the six cottages in the village (now Alverno Terrace) had been let from year to year to ‘very respectable bathers’.  The provision of additional accommodation catering specially for visitors followed the railway opening and included the building of the Alverno Hotel by James Kennedy, a shopkeeper from North Quay, Drogheda, who owned the cottages later leased to the coastguard personnel.

Wooden huts and bungalows were erected on every available plot of ground and used as holiday homes or for letting.  The Great Northern Railway increased the number of trains servicing the station and offered special excursion fares of 10d, 7d and 5d for first, second and third class travel.  Early in the twentieth century one Mr Carroll, in addition to owning a café, operated on the premises water baths to which salt water was pumped from the sea.

By the turn of the century Laytown had developed the features of a village with a public house, grocery, and butchery adjacent to the hotel.  This business was operated by Cornelius Sheridan and later contined by John Kenaghan who in 1920, was selling ham at 2/4 a pound, sugar at 8d and port wine at 2/- a bottle.

Laytown had come a long way since the establishment of The Rath’ in the early medieval period presently situated at ‘Sonairte’ which you stand before today!

Source: Michael Ward

Edited & Abridged 2013.