1989:070 - St Mary d'Urso, Drogheda, Louth

NMI Burial Excavation Records

County: Louth Site name: St Mary d'Urso, Drogheda

Sites and Monuments Record No.: N/A Licence number:

Author: Eoin Halpin, 71 Carmel Street, Belfast BT7 1QF.

Site type: Medieval priory and hospital

ITM: E 708504m, N 775497m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 53.717856, -6.356099


The excavations at the priory and hospital of St Mary d'Urso, Drogheda, took place over a thirteen-week period between October and December 1989. The archaeological investigations were in advance of the construction of a Garda station and ancillary buildings on the site and were funded by the OPW. Prior to the 1989 excavations the site had undergone extensive clearance of concrete floors and modern walls. Three sections of medieval walling associated with the hospital and priory survived above ground level. In the north-west corner of the site a wall, containing both a blocked-up entrance and loop, ran south from the south wall of the church for about 8m. These features indicated that the west side was the exterior face. The second surviving piece of medieval walling was situated some 30m to the south of the church wall and ran parallel to it for a distance of 7.5m. The west end of the piece of masonry exhibited evidence of an original opening, possibly a loop, which strongly suggested that the south side of this wall was external. Some 11m to the east a third fragment of medieval wall survived. The slight remains suggested the corner of a possible door or gate jamb which may, originally, have opened to the south. These walls together suggested a quadrangle of buildings attached to the south side of the church.


Area 1

An area of 18m sq. was excavated in the north-east corner of the site. Archaeological deposits of c. 12th- 13th-century date occurred directly on shelving limestone bedrock and undisturbed glacial till. The easternmost shelf of bedrock gave way into a deep – presumably, in places – rock-cut, fosse or ditch. The fosse was cut from the level of the bedrock with areas of glacial till surviving in pockets at the base of each limestone shelf. Excavation of deposits in the fosse was severely limited by the high water-table. A trial pit, dug with mechanical digger, showed rich organic deposits surviving to at least 15m below the water-table, thereby confirming the presence of a substantial fosse. It was impossible to determine with certainty the maximum width of the fosse as it extended beyond the excavated area, but it was apparent that the fosse was colinear with Patrickswell Lane, the eastern boundary of the site. Archaeological deposits overlying the bedrock consisted of redeposited brown clay containing numerous medieval sherds. Two shallow graves were inserted into this deposit probably sometime during the 13th or 14th century.The next phase consisted of a period of some three hundred years which ended, presumably, with dissolution in the mid-l6th century. During that time up to in of archaeologically rich soil developed over the site and can best be accounted for in terms of monastic garden soil.The subsequent phase involved the erection of a terrace of tenement houses backing onto an open yard. A series of subterranean lime pits were uncovered in this open area. Only the L-shaped basement walls survived of these dwellings, which had clay floors and occasionally a fireplace in one corner. The walls were built directly on the monastic garden soils.The tenements were all but completely demolished at the outset of the next phase when the whole area was levelled off in preparation for the construction of two or four large town houses on Old Abbey Lane and Patrickswell Lane, The open yard behind the tenements was partially incorporated by the end walls of the new houses, the remaining area being cobbled-in. These premises were occupied until at least the 1960s.

Area 2

The area of the proposed Garda building was planned to straddle the southern wall of the quadrangle. Thus, with the aid of a mechanical digger and information obtained through the trial trenches investigated in 1986 by Conleth Manning, it was possible to expose the complete west wall and much of the south wall of the quadrangle. At the same time a cutting was opened running south from the south wall of the quadrangle to the edge of the area planned for development. Finally, an area was opened by hand in order to investigate the existence of the east side of the range.

Excavation confirmed the presence of cloistral buildings to the south of the priory church. The external walls of the south and west ranges were exposed for their full length, indicating that the building covered an area measuring 29.6m north-south and 26m east-west. While only limited examination of internal walling took place, enough was discovered to suggest strongly the existence of a cloister garth and ambulatory. The evidence for an east range was very slight, and questions remain about its form and exact position. No clear dating evidence for the cloistral buildings was recovered, but their general character suggests a late medieval (perhaps 15th-century) date. The masonry throughout is of roughly-coursed limestone rubble.

A feature of the architecture was the use of open, segmental foundation arches at the base of the external west and south walls. The west wall rests for the most part on solid foundations, but two foundation arches occur close together near the north end, and a third, much wider, occurs nearly midway, springing from a splayed and battered pier. A fourth arch, now missing, may have sprung from the north side of this pier. The south wall rests mainly on an arcade of five arches springing from splayed and battered piers. Only a short section of the wall was uncovered at the east end and this appears to rest on solid foundations. None of the arches along the south wall are of uniform width. At the junction of the west and south walls, externally, is a splayed and battered clasping buttress. No evidence was found for a similar buttress at the south-east angle. There are two possible explanations for this: either the underlying soil did not pose the problems here which necessitated the use of buttresses, or excavation in this area was simply not deep enough to reveal a buttress.

The west wall is clearly built onto the south wall of the church. Immediately to the south of this junction is a large round-headed doorway or gateway set in a parallel-sided embrasure with segmental rear arch. Beside this is a small, splayed, flat-lintelled loop. At this point the masonry survives to a sufficient height to preserve an apparently original internal ledge, for the support of first floor timbers. Further south little more than foundation levels survive, but the base of a parallel-sided doorway occurs nearly midway along the south wall, while at the extreme south end, internally, are a pair of recesses separated by a pier which preserves traces of arches springing to either side. It is not clear whether this represents the remains of some form of vaulting, or simply of arches over the recesses. The south wall also has a section of upstanding masonry, near the west end. Although heavily rebuilt, it preserves traces of three embrasures with segmental rear arches, apparently for windows. That nearest the west end was clearly a splayed, single-light window. The other two embrasures are wider and taller but both have been rebuilt externally, leaving no trace of any original opes. At the extreme east end, the south wall incorporates the base of a garderobe chute.

Traces of two internal walls related to the south range were discovered. The first wall ran to the north of the external south wall and parallel to it. At its west end it is set into the northmost of the two recesses in the west wall. The second, more massive wall is situated some 2.5m to the north of the first and is clearly bonded into the west wall of the range. At this junction it contains the base of a parallel-sided doorway with dressed jambs. These two walls almost certainly define an ambulatory on the south side of a cloister garth. Interestingly, the northmost wall (the cloister arcade wall) is the more substantial, suggesting that it was the inner wall of the south range and that the ambulatory stood within the range. No traces of a cloister arcade were found.

Manning's trenches in 1986 revealed a similar picture on the west side of the range although his cutting was long enough only to pick up traces of the inner range wall. Excavation of the area between the cloistral buildings and the river revealed that a layer of redeposited boulder clay had been laid directly on top of estuarine sands. A shallow trench was dug into this deposit to mark the line of the cloister's south wall. A deposit of large stones was set directly on the sands beneath each of the buttresses from which the revealing arches sprang, in order to act as pads to take the weight of the wall. Subsequently, a bank of redeposited clay was built up against the feet of the buttresses, in order to prevent flood-water undermining them. Soon after this event the whole area was levelled off and raised by the deposition of some 0.5m of boulder clay. It was onto this surface that the ubiquitous medieval garden soil developed, but in this case only to a depth of some 0.2m. No evidence for domestic occupation of this area was uncovered. In fact, levels containing industrial detritus were found directly overlying medieval deposits.


The earliest evidence of occupation on the site dates to the late 12th century, soon after the foundation of the town by Hugh de Lacy. The evidence took the form of a large, steep-sided ditch which ran north-south along the present line of Patrickswell Lane, Subsequently, in the early years of the 13t century the priory and hospital were founded. At first this foundation consisted of a nave and chancel with an aisle on the north side.

Over the next three centuries the priory grew in wealth and prestige, evidenced by the construction in the 15th century of the bell tower and the range of buildings to the south of the church. At some time over this period, but most likely by the end of the 13th century, the line of the town boundary was moved some 150m to the west to its present position, immediately to the east of the 'Peace' Bridge. Thus the line of the old and new town boundaries to the east and west respectively created the limits of the abbey precinct. The river was almost certainly the precinct's southern limit. The garden soil noted in both Areas 1 and 2 can be readily attributed to the use of the precinct land for gardens and orchards.

The dissolution of the monasteries meant the closure of the priory and hospital and consequently the precinct lands became available for the construction of urban dwellings. It is from this period, the late 16th or early 17th century, that the tenements uncovered in Area 1 date. These houses survived, albeit in a modified form, up to the construction of larger town houses in the early years of the 19th century.