There comes a point when you have to put distance between yourself and the mad, seething world you live in. Last weekend was a moment when a media frenzy, a perfect storm of public outrage and government incompetence, meant that it wasn’t too difficult to leave town. Since then, reports of a London heatwave have further eased my ability to enjoy this absence from the city and further relish the benefits of rural Ireland.
More by accident than design I found myself in the Boyne Valley and discovered a degree of calm and tranquillity that I hadn’t expected with a name so redolent of sectarianism and strife. It helps to be surrounded by massive Neolithic structures that pre-date Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid of Giza; burial mounds estimated to be in excess of 250,000 tons of soil and rock; hundreds of decorative stones and plinths weighing up to ten tons each, and each of them penetrated to the core by narrow access passages illuminated by the rising or setting sun of the winter solstice, or spring, or autumn equinoxes. That sort of history renders current concerns relatively insignificant.
The Boyne valley is verdant, fertile, and the river is fringed by mature trees; it’s barely visible as a natural feature, and it means that the precise site of the infamous battlefield is not evident. There was a monument until Irish independence but it was removed in the 1920s and it was only ten years ago that a museum was opened to embrace the history that the Republic and Northern Ireland share.
The Battle of the Boyne is described in detail elsewhere, but I didn’t know that it was the biggest battle ever fought in Britain or Ireland, with armies containing a total of 60,000 soldiers from thirteen countries. William III’s troops recognised each other by the green foliage they wore in their hats; James II’s wore white paper in theirs.
Today the valley is silent but for birdsong and the shallow river rattling over stones and weirs. There’s no traffic or aircraft noise intruding. There’s not even a breeze to disturb the leaves or grasses. It’s in this space that the spirit of 1690 can be sensed, the senses of victory and defeat, the senses of gain and loss. But there’s also that sense of flint, and grass, and soil that’s so much older. The sense of all that’s gone before, and all that’s still to come.