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Sunday, 11th February 2024

Order of Malta, serving the town of Drogheda for more than eighty years

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Sunday 22nd February 1941 - Members of the first Drogheda Unit of the Order of Malta being inspected by the President of the Ambulance Corps following the unit's inauguration at a ceremony oin St. Peter's Church. (From left): Sgt. BJ McKenna, Volunteer W. O’Reilly. Cpl. D. Healy, Volunteers J. McCabe, JP Madden, E. McKenna and M. McElherron.

By Sean Collins

In Drogheda they’re called the Order of Malta, or perhaps the Knights of Malta, but to give them their full title, they are “The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, commonly called The Sovereign Military Order of Malta”.

That’s a bit of a mouthful but, whatever you call it, it is the oldest Catholic lay order in the world and over the past 900 years, since its foundation in Jerusalem in 1099, it has provided constant service in the alleviation of suffering among the poor and the sick throughout the world.

Thousands of Drogheda people right across the spectrum have been well served by the Order of Malta for over eighty years.

In 1938, the Irish Association’s Chancellor, the Marquis Patrick MacSwiney of Marshanaglass, and Dr. Charles Conor O’Malley, Professor of Ophthalmology and Otology in University College Galway, commenced the Ambulance Corps’ services as the Association’s primary charitable activity. The first unit was established at Galway.

At the same time in Drogheda, the then parish priest at St. Peter’s in West Street, Fr. O’Callaghan, put forward the notion of establishing a Drogheda unit.

Recruitment took place following a meeting in the “Catholic Action Hall” in Fair Street. Members of the C.Y.M.S. and the W.T.A.S. provided the first volunteers.

Following months of intensive study in first -aid skills, overseen by local GP, Doctor Hardy, the volunteers in their first recorded duty covered midnight mass at all churches in Drogheda on Christmas Eve, 24th December 1940.

The Drogheda Corps was formally inaugurated in February 1941 at a ceremony in St. Peter’s. (See photo above and below).

The first listed members were Sergeant Bernard McKenna, (Officer in Charge) Fr. O’Callaghan, {chaplain}. Dr.Hardy, (medical officer). Corporal Des Healy and Volunteers Pat Kelly, Teddy McKenna, Larry Martin, Paddy Closkey, Jimmy Madden, Stephen O’Neill, Paddy Monaghan, Liam O’Reilly, M. McElhesion, Johnny McCabe and Johnny Williams.

The year 1945, proved an important one for the Drogheda unit’s development when they received their first ambulance which greatly expanded their services. 

A women’s unit was established with early members including; Mary Mc Fay, Mary Healy, Una McKenna, Madge Kavanagh, Eileen and Kathleen Blacoe, Sheila Craven and Mary and Betty Millan. The ladies arrived just in time for the Blessed Oliver Plunkett Pilgrimage, held for the first time that year.

Celebrating ten years of the Drogheda Units in 1951, Adjudant Des Healy said the war years had been tough on the unit with five of their original members forced to leave Drogheda and seek employment elsewhere.

Drogheda Order of Malta volunteers march past  the viewing stand during a Patrick's Day parade (date unknown).

When they were two years established their officer Bernard McKenna had passed away. He paid particular tribute to Pat Kelly, E. McKenna, John McCabe and Larry Martin, men who had kept the unit going in really tough times. Medals and Certificates were presented that day for service during the Emergency to the following; Pat Kelly, John McCabe, Stephen O’Neill, James P. Madden, F. Fagan, Des Healy, E.V. O’Brien and H. Heasley.

In 1957, a local paper issued an appeal seeking generous support for the Order of Malta Units at their forthcoming church gate collection. The paper highlighted that next month would celebrate their 17th Anniversary in the town, saying “they have a proud record of unbroken and unselfish service to the sick and injured people of Drogheda for that period.

“Whether it be mass duty, novenas or retreats, processions pilgrimages, football matches, sports fetes, races, the men and women in their grey-green uniforms are always there doing their work quietly and unobtrusively”.

Una McKenna, the late Noel McKenna, Peter Connor and Paddy Gerrard at an Order of Malta social event in the Whitworth Hall in 1955.

Two members gave up their annual holidays to serve at the shrine in Lourdes U. McDonnell and Sergeant Gene McKenna. Gene’s Father was the first Sergeant of the Drogheda Unit, and Gene himself would be throughout his life a committed member of the Order of Malta and Drogheda United’s most famous first aider. Three of the original members were still active in the ranks, Des Healy, Pat Kelly and John McCabe.

The 1960s brought much change in Ireland and the Order of Malta certainly rose to the challenge. In 1968 Dermot Kierans and his close colleague Seamus Yelland organised a fashion show to raise funds for the Order of Malta Ambulance unit.

Fashion was supplied by Thomas Matthews of West St, and the young Mrs. Gay Byrne, Kathleen Watkins was engaged as compere at the Palm Court Ballroom in the White Horse Hotel, entry fee 7/6.

The Order of Malta provided First-Aid courses in local factories and Dermot was one of the many instructors. In 1969 Desmond Healy and Dermot Kierans attended a meeting in Navan to set up a Rehab Unit in the town.

Mark Carr of Carr’s Garage in Trinity Street presents the keys of a new Order of Malta ambulance to Doctor William Irwin. Pat Kelly to Mark's left. Mayor Peter Moore in the background.

They posed the question …What about Drogheda? , they returned to Drogheda that night determined to set up something in the town and so with the support of Pat Kelly, Eugene McKenna, and Seamus Yelland, the Community Workshop was established at Laurence Gate and later in Gavin’s Factory on Platin Road.

Tommy Murray, Tommy Connor, Red Fitzpatrick, Mickey Kierans, Matthew O’Connor, Mr. Butler and Mr. Maguire from Patrick Street, were among its early participants. Indeed it could be called the first Men’s Shed in Drogheda to which Pat Kelly devoted a lot of his retirement.

In the 1970s Dermot was promoted as Captain of the Order of Malta in Drogheda.  In 1975 he was congratulated by the Drogheda Independent for his role in organizing “Operation Invalid”, along with a number of local and national organisations he helped bring 500 wheelchair users to the shrine of the newly canonized St. Oliver Plunkett.

The visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979 was a major national event at which the Drogheda Order of Malta units took a leading role.

Eugene McKenna, Tony Carroll, Dermot Kierans, Anna  McKenna, Seamus Yelland with the All-Ireland cadet competition winner Tony Hanlon from Marian Park who went on to become a highly ranked officer in the Irish Army.. 

Under the banner of Malta Services the Boyne Leather Company, the Olde Gate Bakery, Classic Catering, all stemmed from the Community Workshop. The work continues at the day centre in Fair Street.

The humanitarian work of the Drogheda Units of Order of Malta continues of course to this day and they can be seen at sports and other public events. During the Covid 19 pandemic they began a delivery service for elderly and vulnerable people in the area and that service is still running to this day. 

Drogheda families have always been the backbone of the organisation, whether you are a McKenna from Georges Street, or whatever part of Drogheda you come from you will find some family who have given up their time for the Order of Malta.

Names that spring to mind include, Marie Rooney, Kevin and Margaret Reynolds, Joan, Cepta and Ben Kellet, Paula Faulkner, Carl Blacoe, Myles Leonard, Declan Collins, Tony Leech, Peter Leech, Oliver Rice, Declan O’Connor and many more.

The Order of Malta were very busy during the Covid 19 pandemic bringing food, medicines and other items to elderly people and those with a disabilty who were confined to their homes. This service was very well received and continues to this day.

Today the Officer in Charge is Lieutenant Kevin Doyle, his Mother Elizabeth Doyle is the Cadet Officer, and his Dad John is the Ambulance Officer, the family unit is still the backbone of the Ambulance Corps, thank you all and long may your work continue.

Photos courtesy of Eugene and Anna McKenna.


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