Stories of Sinéad de Valera, a heroic sea rescue, Queen Victoria’s favourite stockings, a saint who kept bees, an emigrant who led one of the gangs of New York and the enterprising Baron Hamilton, amongst others.
Said to be the youngest town in Fingal, Balbriggan was a prosperous fishing village in the medieval period. Its Irish name ‘Baile Brigin’ means ‘the town of the small hills’, referring to Clonard Hill, Bremore and other hills.
The Civil Survey of 1656 referred to ‘the Great Farme’ and ‘the Little Farme’ of ‘Balbriggen’ [sic]. The former belonged to Nicholas Barnewall of Turvey and contained one farm house and three tenements, while ‘Little Farme’ belonged to Peter Barnewall of Tyrenure [Terenure] and contained one farm house, ten cottages and a mill. The total are of the two farms was 220 acres.
The 1659 survey recorded 30 inhabitants (26 Irish, 4 English) as compared to 204 for Balrothery (149 Irish, 55 English) and 190 for Balscaddan (167 Irish, 23 English).
The Queen’s Stockings
Balbriggan once produced over 700 pairs of stockings a week. The hosiery business, which started in nearby Balrothery in about 1740, prospered in the Georgian Age by specialising in a popular, low cost stocking called “economies”, in which the foot and ankle parts were made of silk, while the upper portion were cotton. In 1780, it was taken over by Messrs. Smyth and Company, who used the deluxe Orleans and Sea Island cotton on their looms. Their main factory, completed in 1867, was on Railway Street, formerly Freeman’s Row. Queen Victoria was a big fan of Balbriggan stockings. Hers were all hand-woven by Thomas Mangan, a master craftsman who won a Gold Medal for his stockings at the Philadelphia Exhibition of 1853.
The hosiery factory was targeted for destruction by Crown forces during the infamous Sack of Balbriggan in 1920 but brave locals, including Richard Gorman TC, directed them to the other hosiery factory at SeaBanks, namely Balbriggan Hosiery Mills, which was established in 1884 by Deedes Templar and Son.
The Lambeecher housing estate, north of Balbriggan, derives its name from ‘Lann Beachaire’, or the Beekeeper’s Church, with ‘lann’ being an old Irish word for ‘church’. This is a nod to Molaga, a 7th century saint from Cork, who is credited with founding the now ruined church on the hill of nearby Bremore. In his younger years, he was presented with a hive of Welsh bees by St Modomnóc of Ossory, providing a useful supply of wax (for candles) and honey. He died in 664 and was buried in the church of Labba Molaga – St Molaga’s Bed – now Kildorrey, County Cork
The Rooster Corcoran
Born in Balbriggan in 1820, Jimmy “The Rooster” Corcoran might have followed his father and become a fisherman. Instead, he emigrated to the US aged 24. After a stint as a labourer in New Orleans, he relocated to New York City where he worked as a truckman, handling freight. By 1860, he had established a colony for Irish working class immigrants along the Bowery on Dutch Hill, an earth mound in Lower Manhattan. His hut on top of the hill was nicknamed Corcoran’s Roost, while he became known as the “chief of the Irish squatter colony.” The site of the colony is now known as Tudor City.
The Rooster also led the Rag Gang during the Gangs of New York era. Their main adversary was another Irish gang, based at nearby Clara’s Hill, primarily made up of immigrants from the Midlands. Upon his death in 1900, aged 80, he left an estate worth close to $1 million in today’s money, including several roadhouses, and had an enormous funeral. His wife, Kathleen Barnwell was, it is said, equally infamous. It’s speculation, of course, but was she perhaps related to the Barnewalls of Balbriggan!?
In 2020, folk singer Vincent Cross, a descendant of the Corcorans, released a charming album called ‘The Life and Times Of James ‘The Rooster’ Corcoran’, featuring 10 songs charting the Rooster’s life. Some of the songs can be heard here.
The Hamiltons of Hampton Hall
Balbriggan was developed into urban area in the 18th century by George Hamilton, Baron of the Court of Exchequer, who lived at Hampton Hall, south of the town. The lands were purchased by his father, a solicitor, who descended from Ulster Scots planters in County Down.
Baron Hamilton helped develop the town’s cotton, dyeing, tanning and salt industries. He also bred horses at Hampton Hall and built St George’s Church. He expended his profits on a major improvement to Balbriggan Harbour, including a new pier, at which Earl Fitzwilliam landed to commence his term as Viceroy in 1795.
Baron Hamilton’s older brother Hugh, Bishop of Ossory, was ancestor of C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia.
Hampton Hall burned down in 1901, but was rebuilt and is now the home of David and Hazel Pratt.
[Baron H’s portrait is here.]
The 11-arch limestone bridge you can see from the walkways on either side of the railway station is the Balbriggan Viaduct. Built to carry the Dublin and Drogheda Railway over Balbriggan Harbour, it opened in 1844. It was a collaboration between the builder William Dargan, known as the father of Irish railways, and the engineer, Sir. John MacNeill. [Image of viaduct here.]
A temporary railway station opened in Balbriggan in 1844. It was replaced in 1853 by the existing building, designed by George Papworth, whose other works include St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in Dublin.
During an easterly gale in 1858, a large Austrian ship, laden with coal bound for Trieste, was caught between Lambay Island and the mainland. The ship, Tregiste, looked set to crash upon the deadly rocks of Portrane. Henry A. Hamilton of Balbriggan assembled coxswain Joseph Clarke and five oarsman and dashed out with the Skerries lightboat. After a failed first attempt, they overcame the heavy seas and recued all 13 of Tregiste’s crew members. This ‘persevering and determined act of gallantry’ earned Hamilton and his crew a Gold Medal from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
Other ships that have had dramatic days here include Mary Of Caernarvon, The Sarah Of Runcorn and The Belle Hill.
On the night of 20 September 1920, during the War of Independence, the Black and Tans went on the rampage through the small town of Balbriggan, burning more than fifty homes and businesses, looting, and killing two local men. For the full story of this awful event, see my account here. There is a picture of the ruined hosiery factory here.
Clonard Street, west of Balbriggan Station, is named after the nearby hill, Cluan Aird, meaning the high meadow. It shares its name with the monastic school of Clonard, County Meath, onece the finest Christian school in Ireland.
A Woman of Substance
Sinéad de Valera was born in Balbriggan in 1878, the daughter of carpenter Laurence O’Flanagan and his wife Margaret, née Byrne. She was teaching Irish at the Leinster College of the Gaelic League in Parnell Square. One of her students was a maths teacher by name of Éamon de Valera. Married in 1910, she would spend much of her time raising their seven children while Éamon was caught up in the Irish revolution. He would go on to serve as Ireland’s longest-serving Taoiseach (21 years and 2 months), as well as being the president for 14 years. Sinéad and Éamon remained together until her death in 1975, the day before their 65th wedding anniversary.
Sinéad was the author of 31 books and plays, aimed at children, published in both Irish and English.  In 2016, the Balbriggan & District Historical Society installed a plaque to her memory on Quay Street, Balbriggan. It was unveiled at a ceremony by her grandson, Éamon Ó Cuív, TD.
The Murder of Dirrick Huiberts Verveer
One of the most callous events of the 1641 Rising was the murder of Dirrick Huiberts Verveer, a Dutchman, who had been in Ireland since at least 1608. He owned five fishing boats in Skerries. On 1st December, he was attacked, had his head was cut with a skene and was stabbed several times. He died soon afterwards. The following day, a party of raiders attacked his son Anthony’s home near Balbriggan. Anthony may have been unaware of his father’s murder. The night was bitterly cold and frosty, and he was at home with his wife, Elizabeth, and their five young children. The raiders made off with goods worth £500, an enormous amount in those days. The place where this incident occurred was Ballimad, roughly where Hampton Hall Demesne is situated today.
- Jim Walsh, ‘Church of St. Peter and Paul, Balbriggan 1842-1992 – An Historical Perspective’ (Privately Issued, Dublin, 1992).
- Balbriggan A History for the Millennium ( Balbriggan & District Historical Society, 1999)
Ardgillan Castle is viewable from the train line between Skerries and Balbriggan and was built for the Taylor family. See the Taylor family here.
Edmond Joseph O’Toole, who won the Victoria Cross in the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879, had a brother called John O’Toole who lived at 161 Chapel Street, Balbriggan. Edmond and John were sons of Charles O’Toole of Wilford, Bray, while their brother Luke O’Toole ran Toole and Company, Seed Merchants, on Westmoreland Street, Dublin.
What of the 21.3 km² / 5,255 acre parish of Stamullen (Steach Maoilín), formerly Stamolyn, north of Balbriggan and south of Julianstown and Drogheda. The parish is named for the 390 acre townland of Stamullin, by the City North Hotel.
The fabulously named Austin Cooper visited Bremore Castle in 1783 and described it this:
’Bremore, 9th June 1783,the castle of Bremore about a mile N. of Balbriggan is situated on a rising ground very near the sea and commands a delightful prospect therof. It seems rather a modern building with good limestone quoins, window frames, munnions etc, the door on the W. side is particularly neat, ornamented on each side with pilaster wch. support a suitable pediment in the space of wch are two coat of arms parted and pale Vizt-Ermine,a border engrailed on the sinister side-Barnewall and a fess between 5 martins 3 and 2, on the dexter side. The lower part of this castle is very strong and arched in a very irregular manner and the whole appears to me to have been not many years ago inhabited, Besides a number of garden walls and such like enclosures, still to be traced, are the walls of a Chapel in which is nothing remarkable…..‘
With thanks to Gerry Mullins, Maria O’Brien, Victoria House and to Brian Howley and Jim Walsh of the the Balbriggan & District Historical Society (BDHS).
 It was started circa 1740 by a Mr Mathews in an area known as Tanner’s Water. By the 1770s, it was run by a Mr Fulham. Messrs. Smyth and Company continued to sell considerable stock to American and European markets into the late 19th century. For full details of the Balbriggan Hosiery, see the Indian Statesman, 17 December 1872, p. 3, or Balbriggan’s story here.
 The Hamilton’s originally came from Scotland as planters to Bangor in County Down in the early seventeenth century and their association with Balbriggan began in 1718 when Alexander Hamilton acquired the townland of Big Balbriggan and almost twenty years later the townland of Little Balbriggan. The foundation of Balbriggan as an urban area has been credited to Alexander’s son George Alexander Hamilton, Baron of the Exchequer in Ireland, who opened factories there, began a cotton manufacturing industry, and encouraged the breeding of horses. See ‘The Hamilton Family and the making of Balbriggan’ by Stephanie Bourke (Balbriggan and District Historical Society, 2004).
 Balbriggan native Sinéad de Valera (1878-1975), born Jane O’Flanagan, was a teacher and author of children’s books and plays in both Irish and English. Her mother, Margaret Bryne, was also Balbriggan born while her father, Laurence, a carpenter, was a native of Kildare. The couple emigrated to New York City but returned to Balbriggan in 1873.
Sinéad taught first in Edenderry, before taking up a post at a national school in Dorset Street, Dublin. She joined Maud Gonne’s organisation Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughter’s of Ireland) under the English version of her name Jennie Flanagan. In her spare time, she taught Irish at the Leinster College of the Gaelic League in Parnell Square where one of her Irish students was Éamon de Valera, then a teacher of mathematics. On 8 January 1910, they were married at St Paul’s Church on Arran Quay.
Due to a combination of her husband’s imprisonment, political activities, and fundraising tours of the United States, the family saw relatively little him in the 1916 to 1923 period while Sinéad bought up their five sons (Vivion, Éamon, Brian, Ruairi, Terence) and two daughters (Máirín and Emer). Their son Brian was killed in a horse-riding accident in the Phoenix Park, Dublin in July 1935.
When Éamon became head of the government in Ireland in 1932, she began writing. Among her works were plays such as Cluichidhe na Gaedhilge (1935) and story collections such as The Emerald Ring and Other Irish Fairy Stories (1951), The Stolen Child and Other Stories (1961), The Four-leafed Shamrock (1964) and The Miser’s Gold (1970).
Her husband was inaugurated as President of Ireland on 25 June 1959, two days after retiring as Taoiseach, and they immediately took up residence at Áras an Uachtaráin.
She died on 7 January 1975, at the age of 96. Éamon died just under eight months later, aged 92. They are buried together, along with their son Brian, at Glasnevin Cemetery.