EXACTLY 300 years ago, ``the eyes of all Europe were now fixed upon Ireland, in which two warlike kings were to contend, as upon a public theatre, for Empire.'' These words of the 18th century historian, Sir John Dalrymple, describe broadly the events of a war-torn summer in the Ireland of 1690 which has repercussions to this very day. Much of the trouble that bedevils this beautiful country, once described as ``the island of saints and scholars,'' can be traced to this ancient conflict between James II, the last Roman Catholic King of England, and his son-in-law and nephew, King William III of the Dutch House of Orange, who secured a Protestant succession for the English throne. And on the sidelines lurked Louis XIV, the French ``Sun King'' who was locked in a fierce European battle for supremacy with William, and who encouraged James, having fled from England, to carry on the fight in Ireland.
During a prolonged heat wave, rare in Ireland at any time, both armies skirmished along the east coast until they met at the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690. James's forces were defeated and he later left Ireland for the protection of his ally Louis XIV in France. Meanwhile the victorious William gained in strength and a year later his forces won the last decisive battle at Aughim to secure the Protestant heritage.
The Battle of the Boyne was historically crucial in Europe, and noteworthy because it was the last occasion when two rival European kings led their forces personally into battle. But it is still significant in Ireland because the memory, and the victories and hurts, of the Battle of the Boyne remain as fresh as each new dawn. Each year, thousands of Protestants, known as ``Orangemen,'' hold parades to commemorate the ``victory.''
Huge wall pictures of King William crossing the Boyne River are evident on scores of gables throughout Protestant areas of Ulster. In each picture William is riding a white horse, because historical heroes are usually seen astride white chargers. Whether or not William's horse was actually white is another matter - it might have been brown, black, or gray. But the white horse is typical of the myths that still entangle Irish history like a malevolent undergrowth. The symbol of the ``victorious'' Protestants at the Boyne, and the ``defeated'' Catholics, is part of the stereotypes which make reconciliation and peace such difficult objectives in the Ireland of today.
In an attempt to separate fact from fiction - never an easy task in Ireland - the Ulster Museum in Belfast has been staging all summer a truly splendid exhibition titled ``Kings in Conflict.'' In painstaking detail it traces the origin of the Williamite wars, the events at the Boyne and afterward, and the whole context of this complex period of Irish history. It is a credit to its originator, Dr. Bill Maguire, who, five years ago, had the idea not to ``celebrate'' the divisive Battle of the Boyne, but rather to ``commemorate'' it, and in its proper context. The attendances have been good, but not as good as the museum had expected. Perhaps Irish people still prefer the myth to the reality.
One quiet Saturday afternoon I went to see this exhibition in the company of Max, a German student of 18 who was staying in Belfast as our guest. He asked me to ``explain'' to him the Irish situation. This is rather like being asked to unravel the Middle East imbroglio in one easy lesson - but I felt that after he had toured this ``Kings in Conflict'' exhibition he might have been just a little wiser.
For me, it was a curious experience to look at the pictures of all those men in their 17th-century finery and to wonder if, in their wildest dreams, they could ever have imagined that their actions and words would have such a direct effect on the Ireland of today. It is almost as if this Battle of the Boyne is being re-lost and re-won by the propagandists and the men of violence who have forgotten or perhaps have never heard the words of Eric Gill, who wrote, ``Child of God, therefore Children of God, therefore brothers. All wars are civil wars.''
As I walked round the exhibition the reported words of the protagonists in that ancient Battle of the Boyne seemed peculiarly fresh, and suddenly I realized that their language of ``no surrender'' is exactly the language of many people in Ireland today.
And yet another thought slowly and indelibly planted itself in my mind as I shared the exhibition with my young German companion. It is highly likely that his forebears from Germany fought against my forebears from Great Britain in World War I. And yet today young Max and I are fellow Europeans who are being brought together by this exciting reality of a united European Community. And as I looked at him I realized, afresh, that our provincial Irish Battle of the Boyne was only part of a greater European war. Could it be that the Europe which so wounded Ireland in the past might be that instrument of hope and healing for a greater Europe of the future, including all the Irish, from north and south?
Perhaps the words of Charles Colton have a timeless message: ``Men will wrangle for religion; write for it, fight for it; die for it; anything but live for it.'' Maybe in that time of peace when Ireland's wounds are being healed, as I believe they will be sooner or later, by a greater Europe, we will be able to close the book on our divisive Battle of the Boyne and allow its ancient warriors, and our historic hearts, to rest in peace.