Deaglán de Bréadún: The Boyne has been the scene of old battles and new hopes

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern hands Northern Ireland First Minister Ian Paisley a 300-year-old musket during their visit to the historic Battle of the Boyne site in Co Meath in 2007. Both men returned the following year to open a visitor centre. Picture by Niall Carson/PA Wire
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern hands Northern Ireland First Minister Ian Paisley a 300-year-old musket during their visit to the historic Battle of the Boyne site in Co Meath in 2007. Both men returned the following year to open a visitor centre. Picture by Niall Carson/PA Wire

THE fact that today is the occasion for one of the main communities in the north to celebrate King William's victory in the Battle of the Boyne brings back recollections of a visit I made in 2008 to the location of that game-changing encounter.

Although the date was May 6, not July 12, I still witnessed a highly-significant event where then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who would be stepping down the following day, and Northern Ireland First Minister, Rev Ian Paisley (who was also about to step down), jointly opened the visitor centre run by the Office of Public Works, an agency of the Irish government, at the 500-acre Boyne battle-site, near Drogheda, Co Louth.

For those who might be tuning-in from some far-off land, the Boyne was the location in July 1690 where the 36,000-strong forces of Dutch-born King William III, widely-known as William of Orange, fought and defeated the 23,500 troops backing his predecessor and father-in-law James II who had been deposed a year previously and was trying to get back the British crown.

It was a victory with huge historic implications because it guaranteed that James, the last Catholic monarch of England, Scotland and Ireland, would never get back on the throne and also helped to ensure continued Protestant ascendancy in Ireland.

James, who is said to have taken a balanced approach to both religious communities, fled to France and stayed there for good.

The significance of the 2008 event was that, on one side you had the leader of Fianna Fáil ('Soldiers of Destiny', in English) whose forebears had waged paramilitary war against the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and, on the other side, was the man who threw snowballs outside Stormont's Parliament Buildings at the car which contained then-Taoiseach Jack Lynch, at the time of his meeting with Northern Ireland Prime Minister Terence O'Neill on December 12 1967. When Paisley shouted "No Pope here", Lynch asked the others in the car: "Which of us does he think is the Pope?"

There was a very different mood 41 years later in May 2008, when Bertie Ahern told the attendance of over 1,500 including more than 30 Orange Order members, several of senior rank and wearing their traditional collarettes: "The fact that we have come together here shows us once again that our history need not divide us."

Paisley, whose wife Eileen and son Ian Junior were also present, said in his oration: "The killing times must end forever and no tolerance must be shown to those who advocate their return."

The most memorable words came from Baroness Eileen Paisley who was standing beside her husband and the Taoiseach. She made an impromptu speech which concluded with an expression of gratitude for the "most warm welcome that anyone could ever receive in this part of Ireland. May God bless you all north, south, east and west, every man, woman and child in the future days". There was loud applause and she warmly embraced Bertie Ahern.

Those were the days of 'The Chuckle Brothers', when Dr Paisley was at the head of the power-sharing administration in the north, with Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister. The previous day, McGuinness said: "The IRA have left the stage, they are totally and utterly out of the equation."

Sadly both of these peacemakers, as they became after a long journey, are no longer with us: Paisley living until the ripe age of 86 years in 2014 and McGuinness passing six years ago at 66.

McGuinness wasn't present that day at the Boyne but another Derry native, the late John Hume of SDLP and Nobel Prize fame, was in attendance. We could use people like them at present to bolster a peace process that remains vulnerable to a certain extent.

Last week, I went back to the Boyne battle-site for the first time since that famous day in 2008. It is well worth a visit and gives some insight into the scale of that dramatic event in 1690. Replicas of the cannon used in the battle are on display and their sheer size reflects the ruthless nature of the engagement in which there were 1,500 either killed or wounded.

Looking at the water as it flows past (visitors need to be wary of the depth) helps you to recreate the mindset of the combatants – mostly young men on both sides putting their lives on the line. The combined turnout of 59,500 troops is said to be the biggest ever in any such engagement on this island. Hopefully we will never see anything remotely similar in the future.

Tensions from that time still survive but thankfully in less dramatic form. The recent loyalist bonfire at Moygashel near Dungannon, Co Tyrone, with an Irish tricolour and picture of current Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, was not an encouraging development although credit should go to unionist leaders Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Doug Beattie for criticising the action.

Meanwhile a Green Party member of the Irish parliament, Patrick Costello has suggested that July 12 should be made a public holiday in the Republic. The times they are a-changin'.