This morning Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and the North's First Minister Ian Paisley have officially opened the re-designed and newly refurbished visitors' centre on the site of the historic Battle of the Boyne in County Meath. Hundreds of invited guests gathered at the Oldbridge Estate for the festive event, which was also the last public appearance of Bertie Ahern as Taoiseach and one of the last official engagements for Ian Paisley as First Minister of Northern Ireland.
Oldbridge in Co. Meath - close to Drogheda in neighbouring Co. Louth - is the location of the main action in the Battle of the Boyne, which took place on July 12th, 1690 (July 1st in the Julian calendar, which was used at the time) between the armies of the recently deposed Catholic King James (VII of Scotland & II of England) and his Protestant son-in-law King William III. Even though the fight was for the throne of England and involved mercenaries from many European countries, it has become one of the most important battles in Irish history.
With 36,000 men in the army of William and 25,000 in the army of James it was also the largest known battle ever to take place on Irish soil.
After the victory of the Williamite forces the battle also changed the life of Irish people, and in particular the Catholic majority, which was subjected to drastic penal laws as well as religious and social discrimination of the worst possible kind for the next 140 years. A century after the event, the battle and its victor became the main inspiration of the sectarian and supremacist Protestant "Orange Order" and have been ever since.
But today there was a new, softer tone between North and South, Protestants and Catholics. It was not only a peaceful gathering, but a highly symbolic one which will be remembered in Ireland for a long time. The 500-acre site in Co. Meath, which borders Co. Louth and was bought by the Irish State in 1999, became the stage for the final act in the northern Peace Process.
After the massive refurbishment, which cost the Irish taxpayers € 10 million, the visitors' centre at Oldbridge House was officially opened by the political leaders of South and North, who also delivered speeches that marked the end of their time in power. And they could not have been more different.
While Bertie Ahern, never the most gifted of orators, kept his speech short and focused mainly on the northern Peace Process, the new friendship between North and South, and the historic implications it all has, Ian Paisley used the occasion for an - unexpected - lengthy history lecture, which ended in a principal political statement that made it clear to everyone that peace has indeed taken over the reigns in all of Ireland, even on the Boyne.
Having observed and analysed Paisley and his political speeches for more than three decades, I would never have expected to hear him say what he stated today. The firebrand preacher cum politician, who was in the olden days dubbed 'Dr. No' and would never, never, never agree to any compromise that involved the Republic, Nationalists or Catholics, has become in his old age a man of peace whose words not only make sense for the first time in 50 years, but are also worth to be remembered. (I hope that someone has the full text of the speech, so everyone can read it eventually.)
Paisley, the panther turned pussy cat, presented Bertie Ahern with a King James edition of the New Testament, which the Taoiseach can certainly use as inspirational reading after he steps down this evening. Then the two leaders used historic swords to cut the ribbon outside the door to the visitors' centre (pictured above - notice the New Testament in Bertie's right breast pocket).
Both were then given a guided tour around the building, the walled garden and the extensive battlefield site on a bright and sunny Irish May day. There were hundreds of invited guests, mostly from the political parties of the two entities, and they included all the main players of the long and difficult process, people who were working hard for peace in the North at a time when all Ian Paisley was contributing were the words "No!" and "Never!". So it is a bit ironic and was taken not without cynicism by some that it is now Paisley, the biggest and most persistent blocker of progress, who is hailed as the new prince of peace.
In support of their leader there were official delegations of the "Orange Order", various loyalist lodges and the "Apprentice Boys" from Derry. Not a very common line-up in the Republic...
But then again, today was a special day, and they were only one of many deputations. In fact, if one would not know them, they would have just blended into the colourful mix of various groups of re-enactment teams, dressed in 17th century uniforms of the regiments participating in the battle.
There was even a contingent of French soldiers - just as in 1690 and wearing the same uniform - in commemoration of the 6,500 troops King Louis XIV of France had sent King James. But for James it was too little too late, and he had really no chance to win. So he left eventually the battlefield and traveled south to Waterford, where he stood for a while on the roof of Reginald's Tower, for a last look over his kingdom. Then he boarded a ship in the port and sailed for France, never to return to either Ireland or England.
Today also marks a departure - that of Bertie Ahern - and we are not yet sure if he will try a come-back at a later time. In his very remarkable speech Ian Paisley nominated him publicly for the position of President. But astute as the old Belfast fox is, he did not specify if he was talking of Bertie as a possible successor to President Mary McAleese, or if he wants to see him as the new permanent President of the EU (a post that would be created under the Lisbon Treaty). Both is of course a possibility, even though not a desirable one.
The Office of Public Works (OPW), which - among other things - is responsible for the national monuments and historical sites of Ireland, had a happy day today, too. Everything went well, as smoothly as they had planned it. (As a former employee of that office I know how important and difficult it is to get big events right...) With their new settings and attractions the Battle of the Boyne site at Oldbridge hopes to triple their number of visitors in the future. Last years only about 30,000 people came to see the historic battlefield, an average of 82 a day.
The Emerald Islander