Irish memories are notoriously long. Perhaps I should say Celtic memories. Do you remember Canon Sydney MacEwan, the noted tenor and his plaintive ode? ‘Och! he’s gone to school, Wee Hughie…’ Ah cannae write the accent but I felt for the little beggar, every September, for many years. I shared Wee Hughie’s fear and trepidation….’Wi’ Joe’s owld coat upon him, Och! the poor wee man’. Life can be daunting enough for little people. Don’t make it worse.
But sometimes the sun shines and there are long summer days, days when Bob and Ronnie Duff cut the hay. They would occasionally send us ahead of the horses to watch out for corncrakes’ nests. They would leave a little island of hay for the bird or neglect a bit of the headland. They would get a grant from Brussels nowadays, for this small act of courtesy to their raucous neighbours The mowing machine whirred and gathered the hay. The blades moved back and forth, just like the barber’s clipper–but bigger, of course. The swathes lay on the bright green shoots of aftergrass. It dried and was forked into cocks. The cocks were cranked onto the flat hay-bogie. The biggest thrill was to ride on the back of the bogie. The boards were polished by the sliding haycocks. Your feet dangled on the road. There were tar bubbles on the road–for attention later. Butter will remove the tar off sticky hands, but not, alas, off clothes. Anyway it was rationed. That was in the years after the war.
This is where the famous battle took place. William’s army forced the passage of the river at Oldbridge, after hours of cannonading and slaughter. Meanwhile his cavalry went upstream and crossed at Slane to out-flank King James’s troops, despite the best efforts of gallant Patrick Sarsfield. King William’s troops advanced, to drum and fife: ‘An lile ba léir í; ba linn an lá…’ the song that whistled a king out of three kingdoms.
What was that all about? What brought this obscenity into the summer meadows of Meath and the quiet reaches of the Boyne? Why did the Pope, Old Red-Socks, The Scarlet Whore of Babylon, (You’ve heard the rhetoric,) put his money on Protestant William? What wry cynicism prompted the French king to inflict his Dutch war on the misfortunate people of Ireland? Was it just part of the great game?
Dan Snow has explained it all, with holograms marching out of his briefcase and computer graphics designed to make us all strategists. Get men to the bridge! Dig in here! Group your artillery there! But holograms do not cry out. Their limbs are not shorn off by cannon balls. They do not lie in swathes on summer grass, with their brains dashed out by musket balls and their life blood seeping into the river shallows. ‘Fusilade’ Can’t you hear the whistle and the smack of lead in the word itself.
King James heard it, on the heights of Donore. He heard the fifes and drums. The jig was up. He legged it from the battlefield, having instructed the Irish to hold out for as long as possible. Shrewd strategy. Tradition has it that he spent the night at Hacketstown House, near Skerries and then made good time to Duncannon in Wexford to set sail for France. He never came back, despite the legions of Irish poets who lamented the fall of the Stuarts. The Scots lament his grandson, the Bonny Prince, who left his own men standing for hours under cannon fire at Culloden. He came to a sorry and drink-sodden end as a pensioner of the French king. What a shower!
I learned another song when I was in school: ‘An bfhaca tú mo Sheamaisín?’ ‘ Did you see my little Seamus?’ Like Wee Hughie, he was going down the road, I assumed to school. He had a little yellow book in his pocket. He had neither hat nor coat. He went barefoot. I felt sorry for him also, until I learned that this was no little urchin condemned to school. This was little James, in full flight from the battle. At least one Irish poet didn’t buy the Stuart line.
Niall Ferguson argues that the Great Revolution was merely a strategic merger between two commercial empires, the Dutch and the British. It was accomplished without bloodshed in Britain, if you don’t count the poor divils at Derry, Aughrim, Enniskillen and the Boyne, (That’s another song,) plus Athlone and Limerick and the general dismembering of Ireland. It left a long and rancid memory.
Incidentally,Shéamaisín is pronounced phonetically Hay machine. It’s strange what comes to mind when you drive along the Boyne.