Drogheda and the Boyne: Much History in a Small Space

April 21, 2023
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FROM DUBLIN, I decided to catch a train to the town of Drogheda. I left from Connolly Station, close to the Busáras bus station in the middle of Dublin. This area is a real public transport hub.

Connolly Station, with the Busáras building in the background at the right. You can also see a Luas Tram passing just behind the green bus. The Luas trams also pull in at Connolly Station.

And, yes, Connolly Station is named after the executed 1916 rebel James Connolly.

Pronounced ‘Droheda’ or ‘Droida’, Drogheda lies about 40 km north of Dublin at the mouth of the river Boyne and a similar distance south of the border with Northern Ireland.

At 21.10 Euros for my return ticket, the train was more expensive than the bus but worth it. The journey took about an hour. It was a commuter run that stopped at many stations along the way.

Drogheda is the largest town in the Irish Republic that is not a city. A little over 40,000 people inhabit the most built-up part of Drogheda, while about 70,000 people live in the wider urban area.


Spoon and the Stars

I stayed at a hostel called Spoon and the Stars, where I took the photos above. There were people staying there who could not afford Dublin. I met a Kurdish guy from Iraq who had buried a brother and two sons.

There were gay Brazilians who had left because of the former Brazilian President Bolsolnaro’s conservative policies, and a commuter who burned through Diesel, commuting back and forth each day to Dublin.

At the mouth of the River Boyne, Drogheda is a historic town, founded by the Normans in 1194. It has a couple of castles, and a surviving tower gate called St Laurence’s Gate, from the days when it was a walled city.

There are signs that describe the historic sights.

Drogheda is also the gateway to the Boyne Valley, perhaps the most historic part of rural Ireland in some ways: a claim one does not make lightly given that Ireland is such a historic country overall.

There are plenty of things to see and find out about in the Boyne Valley, as well as Drogheda itself. I took a picture of a sort of spiralling display that shows some more of the region’s attractions.

Outside Drogheda, the two places that I explored on this trip were the site of the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, just five kilometres northwest of the very centre of Drogheda, and the ancient stone-age sites of the Brú na Bóinne, in a bend of the river just to the southwest of the town and the battle site.

The first of these is literally within walking distance of town.

The Battle of the Boyne Visitor Centre is organised around a stately Georgian manor called Oldbridge House, with equally stately grounds and a rather alarming collection of cannons.

Oldbridge House

Visitor Centre information panel

An old painting of the battle

OPW is the Irish Office of Public Works

A courtyard behind the cannons

The gardens

The Boyne was the last battle of James II, a Roman Catholic who was the King of Ireland, England and Wales, and Scotland (as James VII), against a successful invasion led by William of Orange, a Dutch Protestant prince, in 1688.

At the Battle of the Boyne, both sides wore coats of several different colours, and were therefore identified by an improvised system whereby James’s troops wore white cockades on their hats while those of William wore sprigs of green on theirs.

A soldier of King James at the Boyne, in effigy

An effigy of a Williamite soldier of 1690 in the visitor centre

Green would later become the colour of Irish nationalism, but it did not have that significance at the time of the Battle of the Boyne. A battle which was in any case a British dynastic squabble being fought in Ireland almost by accident.

The conflict was partly about religion, though not entirely. James’s personal unpopularity was a big factor. And William, though Protestant, even had a degree of support from the Pope, for complicated diplomatic reasons that there is no room to go into here.

When William invaded in 1688, the people of England welcomed him as a liberator. James fled to France, which made it seem like everything was done and dusted.

There was one complication, however.

England and Wales, Ireland, and Scotland were all separate kingdoms in those days. Just because the English went for William did not mean that the coup had succeeded, for James would go on to try a comeback via Scotland and Ireland.

Here’s a map from 1702 that shows the three kingdoms as they were in those times.

‘A new and correct chart of the sea coast of ENGLAND, SCOTLAND and IRELAND’, overall map, 1702. Public domain image from the New York Public Library’s digital collection, via Wikimedia Commons. Interestingly, the Scottish Islands are divided between all three kingdoms.

In 1689, a convention of Scottish nobles met to formally depose James, who was temporarily in exile in France at this point, and ratify the new king and queen in London where William now ruled as a joint monarch with his wife, Mary II, the daughter of James and his heir until the birth of a much younger brother a few months before.

Having Mary Stuart as joint ruler was insurance against Stuart loyalists. Though having said that it was still Game of Thrones stuff, the daughter taking over from her father and her brother.

As the Scottish convention met, local supporters of James staged an uprising. The uprising was led by John Graham, the 7th Laird of Claverhouse and 1st Viscount Dundee, known as ‘Bonnie Dundee’ since he looked like a long-haired rock star of the 1970s.

Dundee prepared Blair Castle, which I’d seen when I was in Scotland, for the return of King James. Just outside Blair Castle, in the Killicrankie Pass, Dundee then fought a battle with Williamite forces.

Dundee’s forces won that one for James. But Dundee himself was killed as he raised his hat to rally the troops, exposing a chink in his armour through which a musket ball flew at that very instant.

Since my father comes from Dundee, I thought I would include a song about its famous long-haired martyr.

The Battle of the Boyne, the following year, marked James’s final defeat and exile from all the British Isles.

James’s Scottish supporters continued to champion his return. And then the return of his son, the infant of 1688 who had displaced Mary II as heir and came to be known, much later, as the Old Pretender.

And, thereafter, of James’s grandson the Young Pretender, the once-more Bonnie Prince Charlie.

These rebels became known as the Jacobites, from Iacobus, Latin for James. After the union of 1707, the Jacobite cause was identified with the renewal of Scottish independence.

There were Irish and English Jacobites too. But after the Boyne, they weren’t as active as the Scottish ones, who went on to organise successive northern uprisings and re-invasions from France in 1715, in 1719, and, most famously of all, in 1745.

Every time they rose, the Scottish Jacobites were defeated and suppressed by government forces sent up from England, most notoriously at Culloden, which put paid to the rising of 1745.

All through those conflicts of the 1700s, the symbol of the Jacobites remained James’s white cockade, replaced by a white rose in times of repression and defeat when the white cockade was banned.

After Culloden, the Jacobite cause fizzled out. Though I suppose a case could be made for the idea that the SNP is its distant heir.

Along with the Scottish Jacobite song about Bonnie Dundee, in Ireland, there’s a well-known Williamite song called The Green Grassy Slopes of the Boyne — as indeed they are.

The Green Grassy Slopes of the Boyne

(I should add that both songs were composed much later and in a nostalgic vein. Nobody was singing them at the time.)

“Come fill up my cup and come fill up my can,” goes the one about Bonnie Dundee: “Ere I own a usurper, I’ll crouch wi’ the fox.” But you don’t have to rough it these days, for the Battle of the Boyne Visitor Centre even has a tea pavilion.

Carrying on just a little further along the roads to the west of Drogheda, you go back much further in time, not just to the 1600s but to ancient stone-age Ireland.

In this area, the Boyne forms a loop around a unique area of land that is just covered with ancient Neolithic and Bronze Age sites: “an island-like landscape” enclosed “by the bend of the Boyne and the smaller river Mattock,” as one of the displays puts it. Altogether, they form a UNESCO World Heritage Site called the Brú na Bóinne, a phrase that simply means Bend of the Boyne.

UNESCO describes the Brú as follows, referring to ‘megalithic art’, which means art carved on giant stones (megaliths), or made up of megaliths, like Stonehenge in England:

The three main prehistoric sites of the Brú na Bóinne Complex, Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, are situated on the north bank of the River Boyne 50 km north of Dublin. This is Europe’s largest and most important concentration of prehistoric megalithic art. The monuments there had social, economic, religious and funerary functions.

To say that the Brú na Bóinne is Europe’s largest and most important concentration of prehistoric megalithic art is really saying something when you consider that places like Stonehenge are the competition.

I took some photos of the information displays at the Brú na Bóinne, showing the bend in the river and the key sites.

A map showing the bend in the Boyne and the nearby River Mattock

Three of the most important ancient sites in the Brú na Bóinne

The largest of these ancient sites is Newgrange, a “passage tomb,” some five thousand years old, in which the sun shines down central passageways at certain times of the year such as the solstices.

The Newgrange Tumulus

Newgrange prefigures the Egyptian pyramids, which are actually more recent, in its size, and purpose: though it is not as tall, mostly made of dirt, and more rounded-off in appearance.

The technical term for Newgrange and other, similar, passage tombs of Europe sort of thing is tumulus, the Latin word for mound or small hill. Because they don’t stick up as much as the pyramids of Egypt, the ancient tumuli of Europe were often mistaken for natural hills and only rediscovered for what they were in comparatively recent times.

The entrance to the Newgrange Tumulus

Newgrange first began to be understood as something other than a natural hill in the 1600s and 1700s: an era in which early scientists, such as the founders of the Royal Society, started to take an interest in the ancient ruins of the British Isles.

Before that time, people had been too busy scratching out a living, too religiously narrow-minded to appreciate ‘pagan’ culture, or too busy waging Game of Thrones dynastic wars like the one that led to the Battle of the Boyne, to take much notice.

All the same, nothing much happened at the site until it was excavated in the years 1962 to 1975 by an archaeologist named Michael J. O’Kelly, who saw to it that the tumulus’s stone walls, long since tumbled down and covered over with dirt by the action of plants, worms, and the wind, were cleaned up and re-erected, along with the caved-in passageways.

Even as recently as 2018, 44 new megalithic sites were discovered in the Brú after being exposed in the course of a drought.

Here is a video I made, which rounds off with an encounter with a robin in the same area. This fascinated me because robins in New Zealand don’t have red breasts!

As always with these reconstructions, there are disagreements about whether O’Kelly got it exactly right.

Certainly, the dark stone wall by the entrance is not original. It was added to help tourists gain access to the passageways. But it looks to me like the difference of colour was deliberate for that reason.

A closer view of the entrance to the Newgrange Tumulus

What is definitely original are the megaliths covered with strange spiral designs which put me in mind, as a Kiwi, of the art of the Māori.

Photo of a rock with spiral designs, in the Brú na Bóinne Vistor Centre

A selfie by a stone with spiral designs

As the two cultures are thousands of years and half a world apart, I will not go down the rabbit hole of those who believe in an ancient Celtic New Zealand that was overcome by the Māori but taught the latter how to make spiral designs before dying out.

Yet while there is no evidence that they ever got to Aotearoa apart from the odd artistic coincidence, the tribes of stone-age Europe did wander about over great distances.

The latest DNA studies on the origins of the Irish suggest that many of their ancestors came from as far afield as Russia and the Middle East, a finding that ties in with a similar theory to the effect that the Basques may have come from the Caucasus, where we find countries such as Georgia today.

As to why the ancients often erected great circles of stones and other such monuments, along with their astronomical significance, of lining up with the sun and the stars at certain times of the year, there is another theory as well.

The other theory, which doesn’t rule out other explanations, holds that stone represented permanence in a world of change and decay.

Some tribes may even have taken their megaliths with them when they moved to another part of the country.

It’s long been known that the stones of Stonehenge in England were quarried in far-off Wales, a fact that does not seem to make much sense at first. One theory, for which the evidence is strong, is that Stonehenge was originally erected in Wales and then dismantled and shifted on rafts when the tribe moved to England and re-erected there.

Though it’s a detail, the ancient Irish people who made the spiral designs would not have been Celts. The Celts arose on the mainland of Europe and are thought to have arrived in Britain and Ireland around 1,000 BCE, as long after the erection of Newgrange and Stonehenge as we are from the time of Jesus.

Like onions, the populations of Britain and Ireland are made up of wave after wave of colonists, starting with unknown groups of megalith-builders who moved in after the retreat of the ice, followed by Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans, Anglo-Irish and Scots planters in Ireland, Huguenots, and all the rest.

While wandering around the Brú, at Dowth, I came across something completely different, a monument to a once truly famous Irishman called John Boyle O’Reilly, an Irish freedom fighter and novelist who was sentenced to death for treason at the age of 21 but had his sentence commuted to transportation to Western Australia, where Britain still maintained its last Australian penal colony.

This was in the 1860s, long after the hellholes of Botany Bay, Van Diemen’s Land, and Norfolk Island had been closed down in the east.

The O’Reilly Monument at Dowth

A couple of years after landing on Australia’s fatal shore, O’Reilly and several of his fellow convicts escaped to the island of Mauritius on an American whaling ship, the Catalpa.

From Mauritius, O’Reilly made his way to Boston where he became a leader of the local Irish community, which would generally not have held the small matter of being wanted for treason by the British against him.

You see this sort of thing all over Ireland, a land of larger-than-life characters!

In my next Irish post, I head west to Galway and the Cliffs of Moher.


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