As the man once said: "You can live in many places, but you can only be from one place." And that's certainly true of Navan, the town I’ll always call home.”
So says journalist and radio producer Louise Walsh when we reminisce about our hometown of Navan - County Meath’s principal commercial area, famed for mines, manufacturing and the confluence of two rivers, not to mention the advertising catchphrase, "only an hour from Dublin".
It’s also one of the world's few towns that enjoys a palindromic status - a word that reads the same backward as forwards - a silly boast that gives us locals much pride!
With an urban population swelling close to 40,000 - making it one of the largest towns in Ireland - Navan is where I spent the first 17 years of my life, and as Louise joked, no matter where I’ve lived in the 20-odd years since, it will always be my home. And I continually strive to showcase its spirit whenever possible - especially in my three novels, including my most recent release, Crazy For You.
Amusingly, every time I introduce myself as being from Navan, the first response from Irish people is invariably, “You don’t sound like you’re from Navan!” - a reference to the lighthearted infamy the accent enjoys throughout the Emerald Isle: elongated vowels; nasal sounds; sing-song inflections.
Accents aside, I ask Louise what makes this bustling Norman town so unique for her. Having grown up in the family pub on Market Square, as well as being a producer of LMFM’s award-winning daytime radio show, The Late Lunch with Gerry Kelly, she’s well-positioned to answer my question.
“It's definitely the people,” she immediately replies. “An abundance of characters among a close community of friendliness and wit.”
This viewpoint is echoed by John Donohoe, News Editor of the county’s local newspaper, The Meath Chronicle, and founding member of Love Navan - a newly formed collective that celebrates all the various elements of the area.
“Navan has a very strong community spirit with so much going on,” John reveals, his pride evident. He adds that its self-sufficiency “can be traced back to its status as an industrial, commercial town in the heart of the Boyne Valley.”
John, who names 15th-century Athlumney Castle as a favorite spot here, notes the importance the two rivers once had on Navan’s fortunes – the Boyne and the Blackwater.
“In the 19th century, these great bodies of water provided the energy to run…” he says, before taking a deep inhalation, “…five corn mills, two paper mills, two distilleries, a tannery and a flax mill, flour mills and a factory that manufactured sacks!”
These instincts for productivity continued into the 20th century, which saw Navan flourish in the manufacturing of furniture and carpeting. Today, its prized industry is Tara Mines, Europe’s largest zinc mine.
According to Louise, the main difference she has noticed over the years is the surge in new inhabitants:
“The population, like most commuter towns around Dublin, has spiraled, giving the town a renewed oomph - a cosmopolitan feel packaged in a now-diluted Navan accent!”
It can’t be overstated how successfully the town has embraced modernity. Every time I visit, Navan becomes more diverse and dynamic. Now, it’s an exciting destination in its own right - and not just a base for tourists eager to explore the beautiful countryside of the Royal County of Meath or visit nearby historical sites including the Hill of Tara, Newgrange, the Boyne Valley, Bective Abbey, and Trim and Slane castles.
John credits the many recent additions to the area for this growth in tourism such as the civic plaza area near Kennedy Road and the new Blackwater public park - as well as the recently constructed cantilever bridge over the River Boyne, ideal for walkers and cyclists.
Now sitting alongside nods to the past (the remains of medieval walls, say, or Thubberorum Well, which has connections to both St Patrick and Meath’s very own Robin Hood, Michael Collier) is an impressive trail of contemporary artwork. Market Square’s Bull of Navan sculpture depicts a bull being restrained by two men - a tribute to our marketing heritage.
John praises: “The town council has done fantastic streetscaping and the refurbishment of Watergate Street, now a vibrant street with cafés, restaurants and bars.”
In fact, when it comes to gastronomy, Navan competes with the crème de la crème. Foodies arriving from all over the country are spoilt for choice in terms of festivals and events such as the Love Navan Food Crawl and the Boyne Valley Food Series. There’s also a wealth of dining options - the China Garden, Zucchini, and the recently opened Seven Arches being just a handful of examples.
“Navan boasts an excellent variety of eateries, which caters for all tastes,” Aidan Cosgrove, owner of the award-winning Room 8, tells me.
Aidan explains that it has always been his life-long ambition to set up his own business. After perfecting his culinary skills both at home and abroad, in 2017, he seized the opportunity to fulfill his dream. With the help of his sister, Geraldine, Room 8 was born. Three short years later, their mantlepiece barely remains vertical thanks to the number of awards weighing it down.
“Our focus is to provide a homely, welcoming environment for all of our customers. We’re proud to say we use only the freshest ingredients and locally sourced produce - most of which comes from within walking distance of our doorstep.”
It’s not just in the kitchens where Navan people excel, but also in the world of arts - and that’s not my bias talking because I’ve forged careers as an actor and writer. The list of local people who’ve achieved national and international acclaim could almost rival Hollywood! In fact, Europe’s first community television, NCTV (later Province 5), was located in Navan. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg…
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Former 007 Pierce Brosnan grew up here, becoming Freeman of the Town in 1999. Comedians like Dylan Moran and Tommy Tiernan, and TV presenter, Hector Ó hEochagáin, all call Navan home. So, too, do Golden Globe-nominated composer Brian Byrne, international DJ John O’Callaghan, The Blizzards’ bass player Louize Carroll, actor Moya Farrelly, screenwriters Arthur Matthews, and Stuart Carolan, and West-end performers William Byrne and Killian Donnelly.
Another claim to fame is that local singer Gloria was the first Irish woman to record in Nashville, where she cut the Kris Kristofferson-penned, "One Day at a Time". In the late 1970s, the song remained on the Irish charts for an incredible 90 weeks - a feat unsurpassed to this day.
When debating the reason for the town’s artistic vigor, people often joke that there must be something in Navan’s water. Or maybe it’s because the design of one of our major landmarks, the 19th-century St Mary’s Catholic Church, was fashioned on a Parisian opera house!
Belinda Quirke, Artistic Director of the Solstice Arts Centre, suggests that County Meath’s rich heritage has played a pivotal role.
“There’s so much history in the area, and that culture and creativity have been in the very soil of the county from ancient times,” she reveals.
Belinda adds that Navan people have always claimed a curiosity and pragmatic way of dealing with personal and societal hardship.
“To me, many of our creatives have kicked against, or responded to, what would now be considered oppressive societal norms of Irish market towns from the last century.”
Brian Darcy, a member of the Irish indie rock band Ham Sandwich, agrees, citing music being his lifeline during some socially awkward teenage years growing up here in the 90s. He adds that his love of music sprung “from hanging around with a bunch of musical lads from Navan.”
To date, Ham Sandwich has released three albums - their latest, Stories from the Surface, topped the Irish charts and received a Best Album nomination at the Choice Music Awards.
When discussing his relationship with Navan, film and television director Eamonn Norris says that “the people are proud to be from here, and I include myself in that.”
Eamonn, a director and colleague of mine on TG4’s long-running, Irish-language television drama, Ros na Rún, credits Navan with being a source of inspiration for scripts he has written and filmed over the years - namely his first short, the period piece Timeless, a hit on the festival circuit.
“We filmed in the Ramparts and Navan town center,” he fondly remembers. “There was great amusement among the locals at seeing an actor walking around in 1940s costume!”
These Ramparts, which I always refer to as the town’s best-kept secret, are often singled out by locals as their favorite spot in Navan, including yours truly. The long and winding route is sandwiched in between an old canal and the majestic River Boyne, and peppered with history, including the ruins of Dunmoe Castle and Ardmulchan Church.
“It’s our very own private heaven,” says PJ Norris, a member of Inland Waterways of Ireland who, along with fellow volunteers, carries out various jobs here like strimming, litter picking, and removing fallen trees.
He adds: “Wildlife, in its many forms, is there for all to be seen - including the elusive kingfisher, the common mallard or waterhen. Others like buzzards, little grebe, and egrets may be less visible.”
PJ also applauds the extensive variety of trees that frame the river and canal, as well as the wildflowers and plants growing along the banks.
It’s hardly surprising that so many locals have worn out their walking and running shoes here - and not because of the lure of the invigorating vistas. When it comes to sport, Navan has a legacy that’s second-to-none.
Nearby is Teltown, the home of the Tailteann Games, which supposedly predate the Olympic Games. John Donohoe also reminds me that the first-ever organized game of camogie - one of Ireland’s national sports - was played in Navan in July 1904.
Not to labor the point about Navan’s many claims to fame, but it’s worth mentioning that Sir Francis Beaufort, inventor of the Beaufort Wind Force Scale that measures wind was also born here in 1774. The acclaimed scientist even has a sea off the coasts of Alaska and Canada named after him.
Interestingly, that’s not Canada’s only connection to Navan. Louise Walsh points out a little-known fact that homesick emigrants there founded another Navan, which even has a St Mary's Church and a Trim Road - a tip of the hat to one of our main routes.