Peter Berresford Ellis, ‘Bridging the Past: Heritage - The Arts in Co. Louth’ [double article with Joe O’Donovan on the construction of the Boyne Bridge and its historic landscape], in Irish Arts Review (Autumn 2007), pp.103-03, ill.

Millennia before those ‘two foreign monarchs met at the Boyne, each wanting their head on the back of a coin’, the spectacular Boyne Valley was Ireland’s ‘Valley of the Kings’. It had been the dwelling place of the pre-Christian Irish deities, of mythological heroes and heroines, the seat of the historical High Kings, and a place steeped in ancient history and magic. It is still a place in which history emerges from every square yard of soil. That fact was discovered by Dick Roche, as Minister of the Environment, early in May when, the very day after the official start of work on the controversial M3 motorway, he had to tell the contractors to down tools and call in the archaeologists. They had discovered a previously unknown wood henge in Lismullen by the Hill of Tara which is now estimated to cover an area the the size of three football pitches. Should anyone have been surprised?

Nearly three millennia before the Christian era, the sites along the 70-mile long river, such as Newgrange, Dowth and Knowth, with their impressive astronomical alignments, had been built monuments older than the pyramids of Egypt. Soon after, the royal seat of the High Kings, Tara, was also in use. But today, ‘the harp that once through Tara’s halls’ tends to be silenced not only by the sounds of euro cash registers but by contractors’ bulldozers.

Many today seem only to equate the Boyne with the ‘Mexican stand-off’ that was fought around Oldbridge and Donore Hill in July 1690, between asthmatic William of Orange and his father-in-law, James II. Even then, the facts are seen in a glass darkly.

It was not the day when ‘Pope and Popery were overthrown’ by King Billy nor ‘when civil and religious liberty’ triumphed. Under the League of Augsburg, the Pope, as head of the Papal States, was actually in military alliance with William of Orange. Many Catholics troops were fighting for him. Conversely, James II had Protestant troops serving in his army. It was not a significant victory at all because the Jacobite army fought on for over a year until Aughrim of the Slaughter and Limerick ended with their negotiated withdrawal from Ireland. As for bringing about ‘civil and religious liberty’, the Penal Laws introduced in Ireland applied to all Dissenting Protestants as well as Catholics, so no freedom for Presbyterians, nor Baptists or any other sect outside the Episcopalian line. As battles go, the Boyne was only of mythological symbolism. Maybe one day that symbolism will be as irrelevant to all Irish people, of whatever religion, as the historical battle actually was.

It is one of the places that the Greek geographer Ptolemy marked on his map when he came voyaging to Ireland in AD 200. He judged ‘Bouvinda’ to be a very important place. In spite of the coming of the bulldozers, it remains today as a centre of primordial beginnings for Ireland; a place replete with 5,000 years of history and abounding in historic monuments and folklore. Ancient sites proliferate in both Co Louth and Co Meath sides of the river, ranging from passage graves, stone circles, to standing stones and Ogham stones. They are almost too many to count.

Even at the spot where the Boyne rises, at a sacred well by Newbury Hall, near Carbury, Co Kildare, one is immersed in a mythology as rich and vibrant as that of Greece. It was here that the goddess Bóann, she of the white cows, came to the sacred Well of Segais, guarded by her husband Neachtain and his brothers. She defied the magical prohibitions. The Well of Segais rose up and chased her to the sea, forming the great river and its valley. Bóann was drowned at its mouth, beyond Drogheda.

It’s not reported how Neachtain felt about this but Bóann, being a feisty sort of goddess, did have a dalliance with The Dagda, the leader of the ancient deities, and gave birth to Aenghus Og, the god of love, who is said to dwell in Brugh na Bóinne - Newgrange itself.

Today the 18th-century Newbury Hall rises on Sidh Neachtain, the mound into which Neachtain was forced to live when the Irish gods and goddesses were relegated to mere fairies and forced to live in the hills - hence sidh (hill) is now the word for a fairy. And when the great god of arts and crafts, Lugh Larnhfada, was demoted to Lugh-Chronain - little stooping Lugh - that name became transmuted into Anglicised terms as ‘leprechaun’. How the mighty gods have fallen. All this and we are only at the spot where the waters of the Boyne rise but where prehistoric Ireland still dominates the landscape.

Along the valley more modern history begins to dominate with Norman military architecture. Trim Castle became the Norman capital of Meath - the Middle Kingdom, once given to the High Kings as their own territory - Meath was the fifth province and hence the very word ‘province’ in Irish cúige literally means a fifth. Hugh de Lacy took over Meath and built Trim Castle once the High King, Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair, signed the Treaty of Windsor on 6 October 1175. By this treaty Ruadrí recognised the Angevin Emperor, Henry II, as ‘Lord of Ireland’, gave up his title of Ard Rí and retreated back to his own provincial kingdom of Connacht. He finally abdicated the provincial kingship and died in a monastery at Cong in 1198. ‘Royal Meath’ no longer existed except as a faint echo. Trim became the frontier town of the Pale.

Here it was that the son of a Dublin fiddle player, Arthur Wellesley, went to the Diocesan School in Abbey Lane. Young Arthur, whose family had lived Meath since 1174, decided that ‘just because one is born in a stable does not make one a horse’, so the young ass headed for the bright lights of England, joined the army and became the Duke of Wellington.

It’s also in this area, in Laracor, to be precise, that Jonathan Swift was vicar and his love Stella lived. In fact, literary Ireland also demands its fair share of attention along the Boyne Valley but then to single out one writer in this area will have more than a hundred names knocking on the door of literary memory.

The medieval sites are modern intrusions compared with sites like Tara - anglicised from the name of another goddess Tearnhair - in use from 2000 BC. This is a place where there should be an exclusion zone for builders for many miles if not around the whole valley.

You can ignore those fairly modern constructions, such as the Norman pile of Slane Castle. Under the stewardship of Henry, Lord Mountcharles, Slane still resounds to ‘pop concerts’, in spite of the 1991 burning of some ancient sections of the castle when the discotheque night-club caught alight. What would St Patrick and his friends have made of it, fresh from their victories over paganism on the Hill of Slane? They were in consternation at the sound of King Laoghaire’s war chariots, as I recall.

Cast your mind back three-and-a-half millennia before Patrick. Marvel at those three world famous icons of Ireland’s ancient past - buildings that were constructed around 3200 BC. Just remind yourself that Khufit’s Pyramid, the Great Pyramid of Giza, and the oldest pyramid, was only built around 2570 BC.

Knowth - Cnoboga - is a passage grave [Fig.]. Legend has it that lrusain, the King of Cats, dwells in a cave nearby. But the cumulus is associated with Buí, wife to the god of arts and crafts, Lugh. In 1175, Richard de Fleming felt the place was so sacred that he built Slane Castle to exert his association with it. The Flemings lost Slane to the Williamite Coyningham family after -he Battle of the Boyne.

Knowth Megalithic Passage Tomb (Dept. of Environment, Heritage and Local Culture, ROI)

Does one need to write more paeans to the fabulous Newgrange? Consider Dowth - Dubad, the dark place - that ike the others is a magnificent passage grave.

There is now a new arrival on the landscape and the mind has to switch abruptly from 3200 BC to AD 2000. Towering 64, metres above sea level, bestriding the Boyne like something from H G Wells’ War of the Worlds, is the inverted Y-shaped pylon which,rises to support the cable-stay bridge [Fig.] that spans the river to carry the new motorway across this area of outstanding historic and natural beauty.

Even the major town of the valley is by-passed. Drogheda the ford of the bridge - has a strong resonance with history. Drogheda and Cromwell have become synonymous in Ireland. Again history is never black and white because many of those massacred in Cromwell’s storming of the town were not Irish but English royalists. Ironically, when the Irish, led by Phelim O’Neill, tried to capture Drogheda a few years before Cromwell, they were unsuccessful. This is not to exonerate Cromwell for what he did; his deeds not just at Drogheda but elsewhere in Ireland, and especially not to make little of his ‘final solution’ policy for the Irish people.

There is nowhere you can go in the Boyne Valley without encountering Ireland’s ancient history and culture. Yet Irish heritage, its ancient art and culture, its monuments, even knowledge of itself, especially its ancient history, is in danger of being consigned to the waste bin. The chair of Old and Middle Irish, set up 100 years ago at University College, Dublin, is being abolished according to UCD’s president, because it just doesn’t make money. Of all places, the Boyne Valley is particularly vulnerable to the new commercial ideals that are absorbing the country.

Perhaps current and future Irish Governments should read King Cormac mac Airt’s instructions to his son, Cairbre, as recorded in Leabhar Bhaile an Mhóta (The Book of Ballymote), compiled in 1390. Cairbre asks his father what the best quality for kingship is. Cormac answers - it is best for the ruler to take care of ancient lore. That would mean looking after Ireland’s ancient heritage and, especially, the Valley of the Kings.


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