Boyne War Walks


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Boyne

Richard Holmes visits the site of the Battle of the Boyne, the defeat of James II by William III in 1690, and shows how the battle could have been over before it was fought.


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Few battles are commemorated as passionately as the Boyne.

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The clash between James II and his son-in-law William of Orange

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still resounds through Irish history.

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This street, in a Protestant area of Belfast,

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is dominated by an image of William of Orange crossing the River Boyne.

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His victory over James II in 1690 became a powerful symbol of Protestant ascendancy.

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It lies at the heart of the divisions and distrust that separate Ireland's two communities.

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BAGPIPES PLAYING The anniversary of the Boyne

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features in the marching season in Northern Ireland every July.

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The parades and bands are a celebration of Protestant identity,

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as William rides triumphantly at the head of his Orange followers.

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King Billy was an unlikely hero - pockmarked, asthmatic, with a thick Dutch accent -

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a prince of the Netherlands with no real interest in Ireland.

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Even this Protestant-inspired statue shows that he was short and stooped.

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Yet he was an experienced soldier. And he was LUCKY.

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Had a Jacobite gunner been more fortunate, William would have died before the battle.

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The roots of the battle lie deep in Irish history.

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Five miles from the banks of the Boyne is Monasterboice.

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The Celtic crosses here were carved

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600 years before William and James were born.

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For Ireland, this war between two kings opened up old, old wounds.

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Ireland had been invaded in Norman times, but wasn't really conquered by the English until about 1600.

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There were Protestant settlers from England and Scotland,

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but most of the Irish were Catholic, with a proud and ancient culture.

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The tension between that ancient culture and the Protestant settlers

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is evident in the fortified houses built by the newcomers.

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Some had been lured by the prospect of land. Others had simply been sent.

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Many Protestants had arrived at the beginning of the 17th century as part of the plantation of Ulster.

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They'd taken land from the native Irish and established their own colonies with plough...and gun,

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like Protestant islands in a Catholic sea.

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In 1641, dispossessed Irish landowners and peasants rose against the settlers

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and massacred several thousand, sometimes with appalling brutality.

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The memory of the 1641 massacres lived on in Protestant nightmares.

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It helped to create a siege mentality.

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From their fortified manor houses,

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many landowners looked out with fear and suspicion at their Catholic tenants and neighbours.

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The divisions between Catholics and Protestants grew deeper still when Cromwell arrived in Ireland in 1649.

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Cromwell behaved ruthlessly towards the Catholic supporters of the executed King Charles I.

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At Drogheda, on the Boyne, he reinforced his fearsome reputation.

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Historian Sean Collins recognises that propaganda was already widening Ireland's religious divide.

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-What brought Cromwell here in 1649?

-He came to suppress the Royalist rebellion -

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the work he had started in England.

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Drogheda was staunchly Royalist, with a garrison of about 3,500 men.

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-He was determined to put them down.

-What happened?

-He stormed the town on the southwest wall.

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Barraged them with cannon. Had a bit of a stand-off for four days.

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They breached the town wall and stormed the garrison at Millmount. It is said 3,500 men were killed.

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A number of local people were also killed. As the legend grew, the numbers of the dead grew...

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until he'd killed everybody!

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The Royalists wanted him to be seen as a baddy and he wanted to be seen as putting the Royalists down.

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It suited everybody to inflate the legend, if you like, and make him appear as bad as possible.

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In 1688, English politics again inflamed Ireland.

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King James II's largely Protestant subjects feared that he planned to reintroduce Catholicism.

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In an extraordinary move, a group of bishops and aristocrats

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invited James's son-in-law, the Protestant Prince William of Orange, to take the throne.

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James fled to France in December.

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Kicked out of England, there was one place where he could be sure of popular support.

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Irish Catholics had lost much of their land to the Protestants and hoped James would restore it.

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James landed near Cork in 1689. He was supported by Louis XIV of France,

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who saw a chance to embarrass his old enemy William of Orange.

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William HAD to challenge James. The Jacobites held the whole of Ireland

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apart from Londonderry and Enniskillen with their Protestant garrisons.

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In mid-August 1689, William sent the Duke of Schomberg to Ireland with about 10,000 men.

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Schomberg's first act was to lay siege to this castle, Carrickfergus.

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The garrison of Carrickfergus fought bravely for a week and then marched out to surrender.

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George Storey, chaplain to one of Schomberg's regiments,

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recalls that the townspeople were bitterly hostile to the garrison:

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"the Duke was forced to ride amongst them with his pistol to prevent the Irish from being murdered.

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"The poor Irish were forced to flee to the soldiers for protection

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"else the country people would have used them very severely. Yet they all live in the one country!"

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But Schomberg's campaign became bogged down in the autumn of 1689.

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Starvation and disease killed around half his troops.

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In the spring,

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William decided to take personal command of his army in Ireland.

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William landed at Carrickfergus on the 14th of June, 1690,

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a date still celebrated annually by the town's Protestant citizens.

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He brought with him another 15,000 troops and a train of artillery, giving him a clear edge over James.

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It was the first time William set foot on Irish soil...and the last.

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Local tradition has it that as soon as William landed,

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he embarked upon a round of handshaking and baby-kissing.

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In truth, he set off immediately for Belfast, anxious to finish what had become a troublesome little war.

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William's army was an extraordinary mixture of European nationalities -

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Dutch, Danish, German, French Huguenots, Scots, Irish and English troops.

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Ironically, his Protestant army had a Papal blessing.

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The Pope feared the expansionism of Louis XIV and supported William against James and his French allies.

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From Belfast, William marched south, towards Dublin, gathering Irish Protestant supporters en route.

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James decided to meet him on the Boyne.

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The Boyne was the last major natural obstacle between William and Dublin.

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In 1690, there were few bridges over it.

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One was here at Drogheda, rebuilt since Cromwell sacked it

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41 years before.

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James garrisoned his town

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to stop his enemies from using the bridge.

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So William's men would have to get their feet wet.

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Two miles west of Drogheda, the Boyne is a fast-flowing river through rough pasture and woodland.

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Today there is little sign that anything happened along its peaceful banks.

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James chose to defend the tidal reaches of the river

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and took special care to secure the ford here at Oldbridge.

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In 1690, it was a hamlet standing in rough, open pasture.

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These trees stand where the village then stood, and some of James's men used the houses for cover.

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On Sunday, the 29th of June, his army camped along the slopes leading down to the Boyne,

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sentries on watch along the bank.

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In addition to 6,000 French troops, there were 19,000 Irish Catholics.

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Irish historian Dr Harmen Murtagh believes some of James's troops were unconvinced by their English leader.

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He had, of course, suffered huge emotional setback by being kicked out of England by his subjects

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and betrayed by his own family.

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So he was a man, I would say, who was a little bit on edge as far as his self-confidence was concerned.

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He seems to have oscillated between periods of some optimism - fatalism, anyway - about the Irish situation,

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to periods of depression about it.

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Certainly, at the Boyne, he seems to have been VERY half-hearted

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about his commitment to even the battle here, never mind having any hope or confidence in victory.

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James spent the night of Sunday the 29th of June up here, at the ruined church at Donore.

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He'd shown himself a resolute commander in previous wars, and few questioned his bravery.

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But he must have been filled with foreboding about his chances.

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As James surveyed his army spread out below him,

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he knew that he was outnumbered and outgunned by William.

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He had some good French infantry,

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but many of his troops were raw recruits, poorly trained and badly equipped.

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James's army was much less well equipped than William's.

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By 1690, the matchlock musket,

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which relied on a length of smouldering fuse igniting the charge,

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was being replaced by the flintlock,

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much easier to use and less liable to misfire in wet weather.

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James's men had far fewer flintlocks. And the pike was being replaced by a new weapon.

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Early bayonets simply plugged into the musket's muzzle, converting every musketeer into a pikeman.

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James had few, if any, bayonets

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and many of his men carried medieval weapons like scythes and billhooks.

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The fortune of war can turn on a single shot.

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On Monday morning, a day he considered particularly unlucky,

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William was observing the Jacobite army down by the river,

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wearing the star and sash of the Order of the Garter, and with a mounted entourage,

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he was a prime target for an enterprising Jacobite gunner.

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The first shot killed two horses and a man about 100 yards from William. The next was an extraordinary fluke.

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The ball bounced on the riverbank,

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flew up and hit William in the shoulder, ripping his coat and tearing away the skin.

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The shot caused consternation around William,

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but with masterly coolness he said, "Ce boulet est venu bien pres. Ce n'est rien."

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"The ball came close enough, but it's nothing."

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The Jacobites disagreed. The rumour spread about the army that William had been killed.

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A few days later, in Paris, prints were circulating, showing the death of the Prince of Orange.

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William recovered quickly from his near miss

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and that night he held a council of war in Melhfont Abbey, just north of the river.

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In this tranquil 12th-century monastery, the differences between his commanders emerged.

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Schomberg wanted to send the bulk of the army across the bridge at Slane to get behind the Jacobites.

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Another general wanted to go head-on at Oldbridge, into the teeth of the enemy.

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William, ever the astute politician, compromised.

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Part of the army, under Schomberg's son Meinhardt,

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would cross by the ford at Rosnaree.

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The rest would attack at Oldbridge, head-on.

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Before the meeting broke up, it took an ironic decision.

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To distinguish between the two armies, many of whom wore the same uniforms,

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William's Protestant soldiers would wear sprigs of green in their hats.

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Early on Tuesday morning,

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Jacobite sentries at Oldbridge heard the sound of thousands of men marching westwards.

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In the darkness and mist, they didn't realise it was only part of William's army, heading for Rosnaree.

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10,000 men, led by Meinhardt, marched five miles through the dark.

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It was damp and cold. They had slept little and scarcely had time to eat.

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Schomberg's men arrived at the ford at 5am,

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to meet Colonel Neill O'Neill and his 480 dragoons.

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O'Neill was an inspirational leader, dressed as an Irish chieftain and deeply respected by his men.

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Schomberg sent 100 grenadiers into the river to draw fire, then sent over a regiment of Dutch dragoons.

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O'Neill met them head-on.

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In a vicious skirmish, O'Neill was mortally wounded. Minutes later, his men gave up the unequal struggle.

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The first part of William's army was across the Boyne.

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James now made a critical mistake.

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He saw reinforcements moving west towards Rosnaree.

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Assuming that the entire Williamite army was trying to outflank him,

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he sent many of his best troops to meet the attack, including all his French infantry.

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This was all part of William's plan,

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who ordered an artillery bombardment at Oldbridge in preparation for a full-scale assault across the river.

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Powder, please.

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Martin Macaffrey is Captain of Artillery in an Irish group

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that reconstructs the battles of the Jacobite War.

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Have a care!

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-Martin, tell me about this gun of yours.

-It's a three-pounder cannon -

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called so because the lump of metal that it fires weighs three pound.

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It doesn't sound like much, but a three-pound lump of metal can do a helluva lot of damage,

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-especially with the force that this fires it with.

-What else could you fire?

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Anything that fit down the barrel!

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As well as shot, it fired... Canister and chain were the main things.

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Canister, in particular, went down on top of the ball, and the ball split it as it was going out.

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And it spread across the field.

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It was filled with bits and pieces of metal from all over the place -

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like a huge shotgun, shredding anything that came in front of it.

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-And the noise and smoke were very disorientating.

-How lucky was William's near miss?

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Extremely lucky. The ball was bouncing, ricocheting. That was OK. That was meant to happen.

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Later in the war, a Jacobite general got his head taken off by a very similar shot.

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-His side lost the battle.

-So William was lucky.

-Extremely lucky.

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Ricocheting or not, it still carried a helluva lot of weight, helluva lot of force.

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William then sent some of his best troops across the river.

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The Dutch Blue Guards marched into the Boyne, which came up to their chests.

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Their drums and fifes played Lillibulero,

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a popular song satirising Catholic intentions towards Irish Protestants.

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"Ho brother Teague, dost hear a decree? That we are to have a new deputy.

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"Ho, by my shoul, it is de Talbot, and he will cut de Englishman's throat."

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-#

-Lillibulero bullen ar la...

-#

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Just after ten o'clock, the fighting was at its most intense,

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as the Williamite troops poured across the river

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and their Jacobite opponents fired volley after volley into them.

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For the loss of only 150 men, the Dutch had pushed the Jacobites back from the riverbank.

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The cavalry, the cream of James's army, now rode into the thick of the fighting, against the Dutch infantry.

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17th-century cavalry could wreak terrible damage on disorganised infantry.

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But by the 1690s, there was a new tactic against horsemen - the hollow square.

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The square allowed the musketeers to fire in any direction,

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and pikes and bayonets prevented the horsemen from getting in amongst the infantry.

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William watched from the north bank of the river, here above Oldbridge.

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He saw the Jacobite cavalry swirling around the Dutch squares down where the corn field now is.

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The battle hung in the balance, and William was heard to say, "My poor guards, my poor guards."

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But the squares held firm, and soon other Williamite regiments followed the Dutch across the river.

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For the next two hours, the Jacobite horsemen charged the squares of Williamite infantry.

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While the battle raged at Oldbridge, James and his French troops stood idly by.

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They'd marched west to meet the threat at Rosnaree,

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but the two forces were separated by the boggy valley behind me.

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For four crucial hours, they watched one another without firing a shot.

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Three miles away, the Jacobite cavalry were breaking themselves against William's troops.

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In the dreadful melee of horseman against horseman,

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one death must have given the Jacobites grim satisfaction -

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William's commander, the Duke of Schomberg was shot in the neck, dying instantly.

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But any jubilation would have been short-lived.

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Early in the afternoon, William ordered a third assault, at Drybridge, which he would lead.

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The bank was boggy where William crossed, and the struggle through the mud brought on an asthma attack.

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He had to lie down for a few minutes before going on.

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At this stage, fate almost intervened again.

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In the confusion of the battle,

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one of William's own men, an Enniskillener, came up to him with pistol cocked.

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William had the presence of mind to say, "What - angry with your friends?" and defuse the situation.

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By now, it was clear that the battle was over for James and his army.

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William's forces were across the river in at least three places.

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The Jacobite cavalry was fighting, but many infantry were fleeing.

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A Jacobite infantry regiment was retreating in good order down a sunken lane,

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when suddenly a fleeing Jacobite cavalry regiment burst through it.

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One infantry officer admitted his men fled, no officer able to stop them once they were broken -

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casting off arms, and even coats and shoes, to run lighter.

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James's men converged on this bridge over the River Nanny, just four miles from the Boyne.

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It was the only route across the boggy river, and beyond it lay the road to Dublin and safety.

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Now, for the first time, James's French troops shot in anger.

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One regiment fired on the fugitives to prevent them clogging the bridge, and helped check the pursuit.

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The Boyne was not a bloody battle by 17th-century standards.

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The casualties on both sides were not much more than 1,000 men.

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But it persuaded James that he'd lost the war.

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There is a romance about being a great loser, going down in flames,

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which is attractive in its own way, something romantic about it.

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But apart from that, I see it as the last stand of the old Catholic civilisation of Ireland.

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And the defeat that they suffered in the Jacobite War was the culmination of setbacks and defeats.

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But they didn't just let it happen.

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They stood and fought for themselves and their faith and fatherland

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and everything that their civilisation was to them. And in the end they were defeated.

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But I think that if you have to go, it's probably better to go with courage and dignity

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than to retreat like a wimp.

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Today, the site of the battle is virtually unmarked and scarcely remembered in the south.

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In the north, the Boyne lives on in Unionist ideology

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as part of William's defence of civil and religious liberties -

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and sometimes more crudely as the victory of one religion over another.

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It's a distortion that historians on both sides of the border find hard to swallow.

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The Battle of the Boyne went from what it was as far as I'm concerned:

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Ireland being used as a chess board in a greater European war -

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it became a battle of a Protestant king to get rid of a Catholic king, which is so far from the truth!

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History has been totally twisted and thwarted and...

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The Boyne is interesting in how it has shaped Ireland's two traditions.

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But we will never have a peaceful Ireland

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until those traditions can sit down,

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and consider each other's traditions and live with each other's traditions.

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The Boyne helped set the pattern for the next 200 years of Irish history.

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Small wonder that Protestants were to revere the memory of King Billy, who won it.

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For Catholics, who fought far harder than their king ever deserved,

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James became "Seamus a chaca" - James the Shit-head.

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Some followed him into exile, but most stayed on, living through the long night of defeat.

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Few battles resound down the centuries as loudly as the Boyne. The defeat of James II by William III in 1690 is commemorated every July, when the Protestant marching season begins in Northern Ireland.

Richard Holmes walks beside the beautiful river where the two kings clashed and shows how the battle was almost over before it was fought - if a Jacobite gunner had been a little luckier, William would have been killed while inspecting enemy positions along the banks.