History leaves confusing signals in its trail, even for its earnest pupils. Visitors who arrive on this island at this time of year will hear a lot about Northern Ireland’s marching season, but perhaps wonder why the Orange Order commemorates a battle closer to Dublin than modern day Northern Ireland. Within driving distance of Dublin Airport, near the famous Newgrange, is the site of the Battle of the Boyne. The 1690 battle was the largest to ever take place in Ireland or its neighbouring island, and had a profound impact on politics in both countries and beyond.
Under the diligent care of the Office of Public Works (OPW), a visitor centre offers tourists a re-enactment of events at Oldbridge. It was there that 36,000 of King William of Orange’s soldiers fought a mixture of 25,000 Irish and French Catholic men, fighting for King James. James had been overthrown as king of England in 1688 by William, a member of a ‘Grand Alliance’ of powerful European nations. James’ mobilisation, assisted by King Louis IX, was an attempt to re-gain the English throne and stifle William’s influence in Europe. Soldiers from twelve nations participated.
In the centre’s half dozen rooms, the battle is re-told, including by a laser-illustrated model of the battle field adjoining Oldbridge House (now the visitor centre), and through exhibitions of replica soldier uniforms and weapons.
In a converted coach house beside the centre, a 12-minute video provides more details on the tactics that determined the outcome of the Jacobite-Williamite battle and its repercussions. Replica cannons, in the courtyard, include the 6lb Saker Cannon. With these weapons, an eight-man gun crew fired six pound cannonballs of iron to a maximum range of 4,000 metres. Visitors can also enjoy free self-guided walks through the area of battle. The walled Victoria garden makes for pleasant viewing before a retreat to the site’s café.
Built in the 1740s, Oldbridge House was home to the Coddingtons, an English family who owned the house and estate for some 250 years before selling it in the 1980s. For a site not long open to public visitors (2002), with few remaining artefacts from the battle, the OPW has re-told this important event resourcefully. Visitors can learn much in two hours.
It’s said that two of the Coddington family fought in 1690. Surveying the expansive grounds in front of the house, one can imagine the haunted feeling that must have consumed the family every day in the battle’s aftermath as they reflected on the bloodshed, and the ripples of war – for the British Crown and beyond.
The surprising quirks of history meet visitors here. William of Orange’s men donned green shrubbery in their caps to distinguish themselves to fellow troops. The ultimate defeat of James did not occur by the Boyne, as many assume. These, and other truths, await visitors to Oldbridge.