Tag Archives: History

Looking for a dead horse

10 Sep


I had a couple of hours to kill a few weeks ago and took the opportunity to check out a legend that my mother had told me (or that I thought she had told me). What I remember being told is that the horse that King Billy (King William of Orange) rode at the 1690 Battle of the Boyne was buried in a cemetery in Co. Armagh (Northern Ireland) just to the east of the River Blackwater. King Billy is a divisive figure in Northern Ireland. The victor of the Battle of the Boyne, he is regarded as a key figure in Protestant supremacy – and is often depicted on a white horse. You could just see the tops of a few gravestones as you passed along the M1 motorway and I was always tempted to take time-out to check out the legend. Although the cemetery was visible from the motorway, it proved to be very inaccessible. I had tried to find a route to it a few years ago but gave up after a few wrong-turns.

So, a few weeks ago, I began with an internet search. The area is known as Church Hill – a good start in looking for a cemetery I thought – but I could find no record of a church or cemetery on the map. And the landed family from the area – and their minor stately home – are no more. In my tiny hire-car, I turned off the motorway at what I thought was the nearest junction but quickly reached a dead-end. I then followed my nose and drove a good five or six miles along very narrow country lanes. The trees, tall hedges, tight corners and narrow roads meant that I felt enclosed – watched upon but not able to see very much. At each turn I prayed that I wouldn’t meet another vehicle as the only way out of the two-car traffic jam would be a long reverse. Many of the houses along the roads displayed the Union Jack or Orange Order flags – signifiers that I was in Protestant/unionist/loyalist territory. Although I come from within ten miles of the area, I was unfamiliar with this particular locality. There was a real sense of besiegement in the area. The flags struck me as defensive rather than celebratory – a tenuous holding onto identity rather than a sign of confidence. The place was only a few miles from the site of the founding of the Orange Order in the late eighteenth century and I began to feel a weird sense of history – that I had somehow stepped back in time or – at least – was in a place where history was not very far away.

After a few dead-ends, embarrassed reverses out of people’s driveways, and consultations with a 1986 map, I spied a laneway that looked as though it was headed in the direction of the cemetery. So I drove up the lane until the car exhaust started to scrape on the broken concrete.

eerie lane

Oddly, up this unprepossessing laneway was a modern house with very large gates and a security system. The house looked unoccupied, so I parked at their gate and looked further up the lane. I could see some disused farm building and could hear the motorway and so decided to continue on foot. The farmland, in keeping with the tumble-down farm buildings, was not cultivated. I began to get a really spooky feeling. The farm-buildings turned out to be much more extensive than I originally thought. There were multiple low buildings, mostly roofless now, like an old barracks – although I can find no record of a military base in the area.

Disused (military)? building

Some of the buildings had sectarian graffiti and I began to feel very uneasy. What would I say if someone challenged me: ‘Er, I’m looking for King Billy’s horse’.

Sectarian graffiti

Then I spotted a clump of trees – some of them Lebanese Cedar – a tree that is often associated with cemeteries. So I waded through chest high weeds and grass to the trees. They were surrounded by barbed wire and nettles so I could only peer in – hoping to see a few gravestones or some evidence of a cemetery. I couldn’t see anything apart from woodland. I turned towards the car, thankful that I would be out of this place in a few minutes and then saw another few Lebanese Cedars in the distance. I walked towards them and there it was behind a stone wall – the cemetery!

The small cemetery contained about 20 visible headstones – virtually none of them legible. Occasionally I could make out dates, names and ages but for the most part, the stones were worn. There were a few rocks in the ground too – I took them to be grave markers for those who could not afford a carved headstone. I spent a good 15 minutes going from stone to stone and found the cemetery to be a peaceful place despite the spooky surroundings. So content that I had found the cemetery I walked back through the disused buildings, past the offensive graffiti and back to the car. I was mystified. Why is none of this on the map? What happened to the church that – presumably – Church Hill is named after? Why had this place freaked me out like few other places had?


Afterwards I googled just about everything I could think of to find out more information about where I had been. Then I found a news story from 1953 that mentioned a headstone to a horse that had been at the Battle of Waterloo. So I had misremembered what my mother had told me: Battle of Waterloo not Battle of the Boyne. The stone had been taken away over fifty years for safekeeping, but my afternoon jaunt had gotten me thinking about the frailty of my own memory, and also how others remember and forget. The area was layered with multiple histories – from the Tudor suppression of Irish warlords by building a fort at nearby Blackwatertown in 1575, to the Battle of the Diamond and the foundation of the Orange Order – 200 years later, and the insecurities that persist yet another two hundred years after that.


History: Popular, public, voluntary and shared – just like it should be.

18 Aug

There was a wonderful World War One exhibition in the local kirk (church) in the village in the Scottish Border where I live. It was a small exhibition, staged over a weekend to mark the centenary of the start of the War (a few photos are below). Three features of the exhibition are particularly worth mentioning.

The first is that the event was organized by the local community. It was not a professionally curated event. Instead, a few stalwarts of the community asked community members if they had any memories or artifacts from the period. The parish has two war memorials that commemorate most of those from the area who died in the 1914-18 War. A principal task was to add some detail and colour to the names mentioned on the memorials. The crowd-sourcing of information proved to be the most effective way of doing this. Family letters and photo albums, the archives of the local newspapers, regimental histories and oral histories all provided evidence. As did local history societies. This was a civic, bottom-up form of history. It was popular, public, voluntary and shared – all of those things that academia often talks about but often does not achieve.

The second noteworthy aspect of the exhibition was that there was no consciously created meta-narrative. There was no ‘knowing’ and modern attempt to shoehorn the exhibition into a narrative that fits a political or methodological agenda. A narrative was present but it was driven by the evidence that people had brought forward in terms of letters, diaries and pictures: it was that the War had cost the locality dearly in terms of death, injury and disruption. The letters to the bereaved, the diary entries and the photos had all the poignancy that was needed. The surnames of the fallen, and those who served, were often names that are still to be found in the locality. Visitors to the exhibition did not have to work very hard to put two and two together: this was a War that may have been called a ‘World’ War, but it was also one that impacted on local families.

The third praiseworthy aspect of the exhibition was that it was genuinely educative.

Details of a local man who was killed in WWI.

Details of a local man who was killed in WWI.



Despite having read quite extensively on WWI, I learned new things from the exhibition. For example, I did not know that a Zeppelin jettisoned some bombs nearby (they fell harmlessly onto farmland). Nor was I aware of the impact of men joining the armed forces had on agricultural labour. The exhibition showed how farmers were desperate to retain labour – especially as harvest season loomed – yet their ploughmen or labourers had been issued with conscription notices. Pleading letters showed how crops were at risk of being ruined by the labour shortage.

What was particularly pleasing about the exhibition was that it was humane. It did not deal with the history of Great Powers and illustrious regiments Instead, it dealt with history as comprised of people: sons and daughters, mothers and fathers. There is, of course, space for all kinds of histories and historiographies but I thought that this exhibition could have shown some professionally curated events a thing or two.

Exhibition in kirk.

Exhibition in kirk.