Battle of The Boyne Poem

ON THE MORNING of May 6, 2008, the day that Bertie Ahern tendered his resignation to the President of Ireland, he attended another ‘historic’ occasion. This, his last official function as Taoiseach, was shared with Dr Ian Paisley, First Minister of Northern Ireland, in company with troops of Orangemen, Apprentice Boys, and the usual thirsty crowd of southerners. Together the two men cut a ribbon to declare open the 500 acre estate around Oldbridge House, site of the Battle of the Boyne.

     The speeches of both leaders were memorable, and Dr Paisley’s particularly so. It was oddly moving to hear him remark, for example, that ‘many Princes of Orange were staunch Roman Catholics and the title itself was a Roman Catholic invention,’ or, again, ‘As a matter of fact, Mary Queen of Scots was once offered the title of Princess of Orange.’


     At the end of his speech, he quoted a flurry of verses from three different sources. The first included the striking (but hardly very meaningful?) lines:


But Error, wounded, writhes with pain

And dies among his worshippers.


     Google tells us that this comes from ‘The Battlefield’ by the American romantic poet, WC Bryant. The second poetical excursion recited by Dr Paisley looks like a hymn, but I have failed to discover who wrote it. It is, in its way, quite charming. Does the beginning of the ninth line suggest that it might be an example of ‘Ireland’s Other Poetry’?


Life is more than mere existing,
Drifting aimlessly along;
Yielding to each flitting fancy,
Whether it be right or wrong;

We are building, daily building
For the ages that shall be,
And the structure we are rearing
Shall abide eternally.

‘Tis our future selves we’re building,
And our work will surely stand.
Through unceasing ages ever,
Whether it be vile or grand;

Build, then, wisely for tomorrow:
With today thy work is done;
Haste thou, lest the good intended,
At the eve be not begun.

But if I was baffled by where that came from, I was certain that I had identified the poem with which Dr Paisley concluded. He introduced it with the words: ‘As we say Goodbye I would repeat the following lines from an old poem to the Boyne Water, the ancient name of which was Buvinda:’

Then proudly flow till time is o’er,
And sacred be thy water;
For freedom gilds thy favoured shore,
And dearly we have bought her;
And while her bright and glorious ray
Shall beam on us for ever,
The hearts that she has linked this day,
No fate or time shall sever.


     That was surely, I thought, an extract from the anonymous old ballad, ‘The Boyne Water’, the most famous old Orange song after ‘Lillibulero’ and ‘Croppies Lie Down’, but when I actually looked at the words, I realized that the lines quoted by big Ian were nothing to do with it.


     However,‘The Boyne Water’ is well worth reproducing here anyway, and I do so below.


     (There are so many variants, that I offer two almost entirely different texts of the song. The first incorporates elements from more than one of several ballad-sheet versions; the second is probably the most familiar rendering.)


The Boyne Water (Version One)


July the first at Oldbridge town, there happened a glorious battle,
Where many a man lay on the ground, by the cannons that did rattle;
King James he pitch’d his tents between the lines for to retire,
But William threw in his red shot, and set them all on fire.

Thereat the enemy vowed revenge against King William’s forces,
And oft did cry most vehemently that they would stop their courses,
A bullet from the Irish came, which grazed King William’s shoulder.
They thought his Majesty had been slain, but it did make him still the bolder.


Duke Schomberg with friendly care the king did caution,

To shun the spot where bullets hot retained their rapid motion;

But William said, ‘He don’t deserve the name of faith’s defender,

That will not venture life and limbs to make a foe surrender.’


When we the Boyne began to cross, the enemy they descended,

But few of our brave men were lost, so stoutly we defended.

The horse was the first that marched o’er, the foot soon followed after,

But the good Duke Schomberg was no more by venturing over the water.


When valiant Schomberg he was slain, King William he accosted

His warlike men for to march on, and he would be the foremost.

‘Brave boys,’ he said, ‘be not dismayed for the loss of one commander,

For God will be your king this day, and I a general under.’


Then stoutly we the Boyne did cross to give our enemies battle;
Our cannon, to our foes’ great cost, like thundering claps did rattle.
In majestic mien our prince rode o’er, his men soon followed after:
With blows and shouts put our foes to the route, the day we crossed the water.

The Protestants of Drogheda have reason to be thankful,

For when they were prisoners bound, they were but scarce a handful;

First to Tholsel they were brought and tied at Milmount after,

But good King William set them free by venturing over the water.


The cunning French, near to Duleek, had taken up their quarters,

And fenced themselves on every side, waiting for their new orders,

But in the dead time of the night, they set the fields on fire,

And, long before the morning light, to Dublin did retire.


Then said King William to his men, after the French departed,

‘I’m glad,’ said he, ‘ that none of ye seemed to be faint-hearted.
So sheath your swords, and rest awhile; in time we’ll follow after.’
These words he uttered with a smile, the day he crossed the water.


Come, let us all, with heart and voice, applaud our lives’ defender,
Who, at the Boyne, his valour shewed, and made his foes surrender.

And let us all kneel down and pray, now and for ever after,

And never more forget the day, King William crossed Boyne Water.



The Boyne Water (Version Two)


July the first, of a morning clear, one thousand six hundred and ninety,
King William did his men prepare – of thousands he had thirty –

To fight King James and all his foes, encamped near the Boyne Water;
He little feared, though two to one, their multitude to scatter.

King William called his officers, saying: ‘Gentlemen, mind your station,
And let your valour here be shown before this Irish nation;
My brazen walls let no man break, and your subtle foes you’ll scatter,
Be sure you show them good English play as you go over the water.’

Both foot and horse they marched on, intending them to batter,
But the brave Duke Schomberg he was shot as he crossed over the water.
When that King William did observe the brave Duke Schomberg falling,
He reined his horse with a heavy heart, on the Enniskillenes calling:

’What will you do for me, brave boys – see yonder men retreating?
Our enemies encouraged are, and English drums are beating.’
He says, ‘My boys feel no dismay at the losing of one commander,
For God shall be our King this day, and I’ll be general under.’

Within four yards of our fore-front, before a shot was fired,
A sudden snuff they got that day, which little they desired;
For horse and man fell to the ground, and some hung on their saddle:
Others turned up their forked ends, which we call coup de ladle.

Prince Eugene’s regiment was the next, on our right hand advanced
Into a field of standing wheat, where Irish horses pranced;
But the brandy ran so in their heads, their senses all did scatter,
They little thought to leave their bones that day at the Boyne Water.

Both men and horse lay on the ground, and many there lay bleeding,
I saw no sickles there that day – but, sure, there was sharp shearing.
Now, praise God, all true Protestants, and heaven’s and earth’s Creator,
For the deliverance he sent our enemies to scatter.
The Church’s foes will pine away, like churlish-hearted Nabal,

For our deliverer came this day like the great Zorobabal.

So praise God, all true Protestants and I will say no further,
But had the Papists gained that day, there would have been open murder.
Although King James and many more were ne’er that way inclined,
It was not in their power to stop what the rabble they designed.

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