Around 3500 BC, the Neolithic people came to Ireland. One of the lasting features they left behind is the Proleek Dolmen at Ballymascanlon, on the northern side of Dundalk.
Celtic culture arrived in Ireland around 500 BC, having colonised most of Europe. The group that settled in North Louth were known as the Conaille Muirtheimhne and took their name from Conaill Carnagh, legendary chief of the Red Branch Knights of Ulster. Their land now forms upper and lower Dundalk. The poets in Celtic society were known as the fili and were responsible for mythological tales and legends, the most famous being the tales of the Red Branch Knights, the Táin Bó Cuailgne and Cúchulainn.
Dundalk had been originally developed as an unwalled Sráid Bhaile (meaning village; translates literally as "Street Townland"). The streets passed along a gravel ridge which runs from the present day Bridge Street in the North, through Church Street to Clanbrassil Street to Earl Street, and finally to Dublin Street.
In 1169, the Normans arrived in Ireland and set about conquering large areas. By 1185 a Norman nobleman named Bertram de Verdun erected a manor house at Castletown Mount and subsequently obtained the town's charter in 1189. Another Norman family, the De Courcys, led by John de Courcy, settled in the Seatown area of Dundalk, the "Nova Villa de Dundalke". Both families assisted in the fortification of the town, building walls and other fortification in the style of a Norman fortress. The town of Dundalk was developed as it lay close to an easy bridging point over the Castletown River and as a frontier town on the northern extremities of the Pale. In 1236 Bertram’s granddaughter, Rohesia commissioned Castle Roche to fortify the region, and to offer protection from the Irish territory of Ulster.
In the 17th century, Lord Limerick (later James Hamilton, 1st Earl of Clanbrassil) created the modern town we know today. He was responsible for the construction of streets leading to the town centre; his ideas came from many visits to Europe. In addition to the demolition of the old walls and castles, he had new roads laid out eastwards of the principal streets. The most important of these new roads connected a newly laid down Market Square, which still survives, with a linen and cambric factory at its eastern end, adjacent to what was once an army cavalry and artillery barracks (now Aiken Military Barracks). In the 19th century, the town grew in importance and many industries were set up in the local area. This development was helped considerably by the opening of railways, the expansion of the docks area or 'Quay' and the setting up of a board of commissioners to run the town.
The town's first rail links were to Dublin in 1849 and Belfast in 1850, placing the town on the main line between these two cities. Further railway links opened to Derry by 1859 and Greenore in 1873.
The partition of Ireland in May 1921 turned Dundalk into a border town and the Dublin–Belfast main line into an international railway. The Irish Free State opened customs and immigration facilities at Dundalk to check goods and passengers crossing the border by train. The Irish Civil War of 1922-23 saw a number of confrontations in Dundalk. The local Fourth Northern Division of the Irish Republican Army under Frank Aiken tried to stay neutral but 300 of them were arrested by the new Irish Army in August 1922. However, a raid on the barrack freed Aiken and two weeks later he took Dundalk barracks and captured its garrison before freeing the remaining republican prisoners there. Aiken did not try to hold the town, however, and before withdrawing he called for a truce in a meeting in the centre of Dundalk.
In the 20th century, Dundalk's secondary railway links were closed: first the line to Greenore in 1951 and then that to Derry in 1957. In 1966 Dundalk railway station was renamed Clarke. Dundalk continued as a market town, a regional centre, a centre of administration and a manufacturing centre during the first fifty years of Irish Independence. During the Northern Troubles period, it became a key security centre. The introduction of competition after Ireland's joining the Common Market revealed that local manufacturing enterprises were unable to deal with foreign competition, and Dundalk lost much employment. The town had the highest unemployment rate in Ireland's richest province, Leinster. This created numerous social problems. In addition its proximity to the border during the Troubles meant that many people were sympathetic to the cause of the Provisional Irish Republican Army and Sinn Fein. It was in this period that Dundalk earned the nickname 'El Paso', after the American border town of the same name in Texas on the Mexican border.
The emergence of the Celtic Tiger investment boom resulted in rapid economic development in Dundalk since 2000. Harp Lager, a beer produced by Diageo, is brewed in the Great Northern Brewery, Dundalk. Today many international companies have factories in Dundalk, from food processing to high-tech computer components.
Visit the museum in Dundalk for more history of Dundalk town!