The Boyne

The Parliamentary Gazetteer 0f Ireland, 1844-1845 Vol. 1

BOYNE (the), a chief and celebrated river of the province of Leinster.  It rises in the Bog of Allen, about l 1/2 mile south east of Carbery, in the barony of Carbery, co. Kildare; and drains that portion of the great bog which lies immediately north of the Grand Canal. It runs about 4 miles, chiefly westward, to the boundary with King's co.; 4 miles north westward and northward between Kildare and King's co.; 6 miles north eastward between Kildare and Meath; about 32 miles, chiefly northeastward, through Meath, cutting that great county into nearly equal parts; and about 6 1/4 miles between Meath and Louth, to the Irish sea.  Its chief affluents before it enters Meath, are the bog streams called the Yellow and the Milltown rivers; and its chief affluents in Meath are the Deel from Westmeath, the Black water from Kildare, and the lower and greater Black water from Cavan.

The river is crossed by the Royal Canal soon after entering Meath, and washes the Meath towns of Trim, Navan, and Slane, and the Louth town of Drogheda.  Over nearly the whole of its connection, either entire or partial, with Kildare, it is a sluggish and almost stagnant stream, and has rarely better scenery than that of a tame plain, and generally none other than a dreary expanse of morass; and even where it is crossed by the great road to Athlone and Galway, it is about as ugly a natural canal as needs be looked at, lazily slumbering amongst sedges and reeds, and appearing but the dark drain of the black waste waters of the Bog of Allen.  But, in its course through the rich champaign country of Meath, and between that county and Louth, it has a delightful variety of both motion and scenery, now much disturbed by sharps and rocks, and now stealing silently along considerable flats, now overhung by steep precipices and bold projecting rocks, and now kissing the margin of a gentle declivity, or of a hanging plain, now majestically rippling along a picturesque and bosky dell, and now reflecting the clouds from a mirrory surface, amidst lawns, and parks, and groves, and all the varieties of ornamented demesne.

Its banks, from the bogs to the sea, however, are in general comparatively high, or at least high enough to form a lowland dell; they, for the most part, slope gradually in wood or verdure to its edge; and they are thickly studded, and in the aggregate profusely embellished by the seats of noblemen and gentlemen.  Tara hill, towns, castles, monasteries, and battlefields on the river's margin, combine to associate its name with multitudinous historical recollections: and the abbeys of Clonard, Trim, Bective, Donaghmore, Slane, Mellifont, Monasterboice, and Drogheda on its banks, have freely sprinkled its name over monastic annals, and given it, rather doubtfully, the designation of "the Boyne of Science."

The river is naturally navigable to Drogheda, 3 1/2 miles from the sea, and is affected by the tide to Oldbridge, 2 1/4 miles above Drogheda; but by artificial deepening, and by canal cuts, effected in 1770, the navigation was extended to Navan, a distance of 19 miles from the sea.  An extension of the navigation to Trim, and even up one of the tributaries to Athboy, was contemplated, hut never carried into execution.  "The Boyne Navigation Company" were incorporated in 1769, and long ruled the trade of the river; but they were discovered to have no strict legal right to levy tolls below Carrick Dexter near Slane, a distance of I2 3/4 miles; and, in 1834, they were succeeded, in the care of that portion of the navigation, by the Board of Public Works. "The Lower Boyne Navigation," as the part below Carrick Dexter is called, yielded £775 11s. 1d. of tolls in 1837; and, in general, affords a sufficient revenue for the purposes both of management and of gradual improvement. Nine miles of it were completed by the old Navigation Board, and local Commissioners, at an expense of £75,000, and subsequent public grant of £12,500.

Salmon, salmon fry, trout, eels, perch, roach, bream, pike, and sea trout, are taken in the river; and all, except the first, the second, and the last, are taken also in its tributaries.  The property of the fisheries is all private; and, except between Drogheda and the sea, and up to Pass, is undisputed.  Salmon go up to spawn in August, September, and October, according to the state of the freshets; the female fish return towards the end of December; and the male fish conduct the fry to the sea, and are in condition after being there 6 or 8 weeks.  A decrease in the salmon has been observed during the last 40 years.  The river has a total descent of 336 feet, and drains an area of about 700 square miles.

The Battle of the Boyne, which annihilated the interest of James II, and rendered the cause of the Revolution triumphant, is known, not only throughout Ireland, but throughout Europe, and needs not to be minutely narrated.  The action extended from the immediate vicinity of Drogheda on the east, to the bridge and village of Slane in the west, a distance of about 7 miles, and has left, at several points, many remains of earthworks and other traces of military works; but it was fought principally in the vicinity of Oldbridge and tbe hill of Donore, 2 1/4 miles west of Drogheda, and is there commemorated by a stately stone obelisk of about 150 feet in height.

The obelisk crowns a rock, which rises abruptly from the river; the ground behind it is acclivitous; the surrounding country, so replete with historical association, abounds in fine features and combinations of landscape; and the river's banks, over some distance, rise gradually on the south toward the hill of Donore, and on the north toward the abbey of Mellifont.

James II, at the head of 27,000 Irish and French troops, and accompanied by the Dukes of Berwick and Tyrconnel, Generals Hamilton, Sarsfield, and Dorington, and Count Lauzin, lay encamped on the south side of the river; and Lord Iveagh occupied Drogheda, on his behalf, a little to the right, and commanded the main road to Dublin.  James' army extended in two lines, with a difficult morass on their left, with breastworks, hedges, hamlets, huts, rugged banks, and deep and dangerous fords, in their front, and with the village of Duleek, its large but ruinous church, and an excellent pass for a retreating army, in their rear.

William, at the head of 30,000 English, French, Dutch, and Danes, and accompanied by the Duke of Scbomberg, the Earl of Schomberg, Generals Ginkell, Douglas, and Kirk, and many other distinguished persons, arrived at the south bank after his antagonists had fully settled themselves in their strong position; and, while his army were encamping between Mellifont and Drogheda, he advanced, with some officers, to a rising ground about 200 paces west of the ford of Oldbridge, and nearly opposite the extreme west of James' camp, remained there nearly an hour surveying the ground, and received a flesh wound from a cannon shot fired by some of James' party who had observed his motions.  His artillery was now brought up, and commenced a brisk cannonade across the river; and during the night, a resolution was adopted boldly to cross the fords, and attack the enemy in their own strong position.

The grand movements of the battle commenced about 6 a.m., on the 1st of July, 1690. The right wing of William's army, commanded by Count Schomberg and General Douglas, marched toward the bridge of Slane, and eventually passed the ford below the bridge, driving back a regiment of dragoons posted to oppose them, and advancing toward the main body of the enemy.  Of the centre of the army, commanded by the Duke of Schomberg, the Dutch guards first entered the river at the ford of Oldbridge, in front of a strong body placed to resist them; the French Protestants, the Enniskilleners, the levies from Brandenburgh, and the English, entered at fords, or comparatively passable points lower down; and the Danish cavalry entered between the extremes.  They aggregately constituted such a mass as partially to dam up the river, and raise it much beyond its natural level; and many of the infantry waded breast high, and supported their arms above their heads.  All formed, or attempted to extricate themselves, as quickly as possible on the opposite banks; but all were not honoured with success, and some who were, fought severely to attain it.  The Dutch, though warmly received, succeeded in dislodging their opponents; the French were broken by a charge of horse, and lost M. Callemot, their commander; a squadron of the Danish horse was chased back to the south side of the river by a party of Irish cavalry; and Count Nassau's dragoons had difficulty in withstanding several smart attacks of the Duke of Berwick's guards.  The Duke of Schomberg who was at the head of the reserve, perceived the partial disorder, hastily crossed the river to rally and encourage the French, and in a few minutes afterwards was killed; and, about the same time, Mr. Walker, the soldier clergyman, celebrated for his heroic defence of Londonderry, fell. While the conflict was in the hottest and most critical condition, William, accompanied by the Prince of Denmark, and commanding the left wing of the horse, consisting of English, Dutch, and Danes, passed at a dangerous ford, little more than a mile above Drogheda, and careered to the support of his centre.  James, throughout this eventful day, was stationed on the hill of Donore; and, while the crown of the three kingdoms was the object of contest, stood amidst his guards rather as a spectator than as a general.  When William had securely reached the hostile bank of the river, he rode to the head of bis squadron, and presented to them the animating spectacle of a royal general, prepared, with sword in band, to share in all their dangers.

The main body of the Irish retreated towards Donore; but there, the very name of King proving 'a tower of strength',they faced about for the protection of the quiescent James, then standing in peril on the hill, and charged with so much fury that the English were obliged to give ground.  William, preserving perfect equanimity in all fortunes, rode up to the Enniskilleners, and, with the brevity of a soldier at a moment of exigency, asked them 'What they would do for him?' Their chief officer explained to them that it was the King who proposed to lead them; and, advancing with alacrity, they proved themselves to be men worthy of such a leader.  William afterwards led up other troops, and was seen in nearly every part of the field inspiriting his army with a portion of his own determination and bravery.

The event of the day is well known.  After many of those varieties of fortune that are common to every field, in which the numbers and courage of the contending parties bear any resemblance of equality, the Irish infantry were finally repulsed.  Hamilton, an officer of great bravery and skill, made a last and desperate effort, at the head of some troops of horse; but his force was routed, and himself taken prisoner.  Informed by those about him that he was in danger of being surrounded, James now quitted Donore, and retired to Duleek, at the head of Sarsfield's regiment.  His army followed, and effected a retreat, allowed by all to be admirably conducted, through the pass of Duleek.  The loss of the Irish was said to have been 1,500, and that of the King's army not more than 500.  It is obvious that great bravery, if not equal steadiness, was displayed by the defeated power; and posterity will long remember the subsequent speech of Sarsfield, as recorded by Burnet, "Change Kings, and we would fight the battle over again with you."  The party songs, watchwords, usages, and demonstrations, in commemoration of the victory of the Boyne, are too exclusively political to be fairly objects of a topographist's notice.

The Boyne is notable in ancient history by the invasion of Turgosius the Dane, who, in 838, sailed up the river with a fleet of Norsemen, to the plunder of Meath.