The story of Ashbourne (Courtesy of Ashbourne Historical Society)
The modern town of Ashbourne (1820) is located 20 kilometres north of Dublin City on the site of the earlier settlement of Killegland. The area has always been attractive to settlers as it is fertile, low lying and drained by the Broadmeadow River. The construction of the Killegland Street complex and the motorway (2000–2008) has uncovered a wealth of new evidence of occupation and industry in the area over thousands of years. Archaeological surveys show that the area has been occupied from as early as 4000 BC. Finds include early and late Stone Age tools. Killegland playground on Castle Street is on the site of a prehistoric ring ditch and cremation pit. Evidence of Bronze Age fulacht fia (a pit filled with water into which stones heated in a fire were placed in order to cook meat) were found at Castle Street roundabout and also at Cnoc Neil, 1.5 km south of the town
An Early Christian monastic settlement (AD 430–1200) discovered at Raystown, 1.5 km west of the town, contained several enclosures with no less than seven horizontal mills and a large graveyard. Nearer to the town, the area around Killegland graveyard was also an early Christian monastic settlement AD 800–1200. The name Killegland may derive from St Declan of the Decies. After the Norman invasion the church at Killegland was granted by charter to the Abbey of St Thomas in Dublin by various Norman knights including Hugh de Lacey and Walter Wafre. The settlement at Killegland was described in these charters (1194–1224) ‘Grants all my water (works)at Killegelan, with the site of the mill and a messuage at which Hugo the miller is tenant, with appurtenances and (rights of) common pasture (and for) six cows in the aforesaid settlement (villa) of Killegelan’. Recent excavations in Killegland have shown evidence of a medieval farmhouse and village occupied between the 12th and 17th centuries.
The Wafre family lived in Killegland until the mid–15th century and one William Wafre built a tower house ‘Killeglan Castle’, on the site of a previous residence, around 1414. It was described as a square block with four towers. William had no male heir and the lands and castle passed through marriage to the Segrave family. The Segraves of Killegland were very wealthy and powerful. Richard Segrave was Sheriff of Meath and later Baron of the Exchequer in the late 1500s. His son, James, was a man of gigantic stature and considered the ‘champion and most valiant man of the Pale’. He fought at the Battle of Clontibret (1595), and engaged Hugh O’Neill in single combat but was defeated and killed. The Segrave family retained Killegland and its castle for over 200 years, only losing possession when Oliver Cromwell’s Government confiscated all the lands of those involved in the 1641 uprising. The family continues to live in the area.
Killegland is described in the Civil Survey 1654–56 ‘there were then on the premises a castle, a stone house with outhouses, a church, a mill and divers cabbins’. The 1659 census indicates ’37 adult inhabitants in Killiglan 35 Irish and 2 English’. Maps of this time also show dwelling houses on the sites of Archerstown House (now the Golf Club) and Robertstown House.
Asbourne from the air c.1950
In 1703 Killegland (439 acres) was purchased by Thomas Carter who did not live in the castle and the area went into decline. Of note during this time was the burial of Michael Plunkett, cousin of St. Oliver Plunkett and Vicar General of Meath, in Killegland Churchyard in 1727.
With the passing of the Post Roads Act in 1806 the road from Dublin was upgraded. Previous to this the road came by Donaghmore Church across the bridge at Milltown and on to Curragha. Later in 1813 private companies (Turnpike Trusts) took over road maintenance, to be funded by the payment of tolls.
The Bourne family, by 1820 based in Terenure House, County Dublin, had amassed a considerable fortune from the Transport industry in Ireland. Working initially in partnership with John Anderson, a Scot who pioneered the earliest Mail Coach routes, by 1816, the Bourne brothers Richard and William controlled the important coach routes in the mid-West and Connacht. Theirs was an integrated business model, ‘With a nationwide communications business built up over nearly fifty years and embracing not just roads, coaches and 800 horses but ancillary ventures in inns, hotels and a coach-building concern operating from Blackpitts in Dublin….’ (Ferguson, S, 2016). One of their number, Richard, became a founder of the P&O Line.
Another scion of the family, Frederick, financed a ten-mile (old Irish miles) section of road from Dublin to Killegland. In line with the family practice, he built a small village with an inn, a hotel and other small businesses to make money from travellers. He built this village near his ten-mile tollbooth and named the place after his favourite tree, and himself, i.e. Ash and Bourne. He also named the main street Frederick street. The lease for the land on which Ashbourne was built is recorded as having been registered on 4 March 1820. The Ash2020 project has designated this date as the ‘Founding’ date and thus selected 4 March 2020 to mark the 200th anniversary of the establishment of the town.
The population of Killegland (now Ashbourne) in 1821 was 133 but by 1831 it had risen to 473. With the onset of the Famine, the advent of railways in the 1850s and the consequent demise of stage coach traffic, the population began to decline and continued to fall over the next 100 years. Employment was largely dependent on farming and the thriving local equine industry.
Area displayed in 1950s photo
The famous Ward Union Hunt played a large part in village life during the period (1850–1960), having their kennels located where Ashbourne Town Centre is today. A cattle mart was established in the village in the early 1900s by the Russell family.
During the 1916 Easter Rising the only major engagement outside of Dublin took place just 1.5km north of Ashbourne, between the Fingal Volunteers and the Royal Irish Constabulary.
The break-up of large farms and estates around the village by the Land Commission in the 1950s brought vibrant new life to the Community with the coming of farming families from the west and the south of Ireland.
The first major housing development known as the Garden City began in the late 1960s with many families relocating from Dublin and other areas. Over the decades that followed, the assimilation of so many newcomers changed the character of Ashbourne from country village to urban town, though the links to its rural past remain strong. Then from 1999 to 2005 major development of a new commercial centre and many more housing developments took the population to 13,000 by 2012. This capacity to absorb population growth while retaining valued traditions, evidenced again more recently in the arrival of many new friends from overseas, is a distinguishing feature of our town.
Today Ashbourne is the second largest town in County Meath with a growing population and the third youngest population in Ireland according to the 2016 census. Ashbourne and District is a prosperous 21st century town with a strong, sustainable economy, and a uniquely strong network of seventy-plus community covering the full spectrum of community activities. Ashbourne has a rich cultural and sporting tradition that has developed over the decades and generations.