The Banks of the Boyne

A long stroll beside one of Ireland's most legendary rivers

Irish Times, Oct 19, 2013

 photo: una mcmahon

photo: una mcmahon

Walking a riverbank gives you new perspective on a landscape. While climbing a mountain opens the land up around you, walking a quiet waterway hides you from the world. The river becomes your own private highway through the countryside. Was any Irish river historically more important than the Boyne?

Ancient landmarks line this valley: Newgrange, Knowth, Dowth, Trim Castle, the site of the Battle of the Boyne, the Hill of Tara.

We set out from the car park in Navan and followed the old towpath. Canals were built along the river between 1748 and 1800 to make it navigable for trade. Barges carried grain, coal, flour and other goods between riverside mills and the port at Drogheda.

Pleasure boating later became popular, but the waterway succumbed to competition from roads and rail and grew derelict. An Taisce acquired the navigation in 1969, and its seaward end is now being restored.

Above us the sky was heavy with cloud and the forecast was for rain. But the autumn light was clear and liquid, and the landscape full of colour.

The towpath was lined with tall mixed woodland. Autumn leaves were turning yellow and orange as chlorophyll broke down and other pigments took over. Some ash leaves were lemon yellow, and tall gnarled oaks were laden with acorns. We saw a heron fishing by a weir, and watched a moorhen take cover in canal-side vegetation.

I had only come from Galway, but the change in landscape felt dramatic. The trees were taller and stouter here, the fields wider and greener, their boundaries composed of shrubs rather than stone. The land seemed more colourful, though less wild.

My walking buddy picked up horse-chestnut seeds from the towpath, and we went over the rules of conkers to affirm we still knew how to play. “We used to paint them with nail varnish,” she said – to make them stronger in battle, naturally.

We stopped by the ruins of a lock, bridge and cottage. We passed the impressive red-brick manor of Ardmulchan Demesne, the ruins of Dunmoe Castle – which Cromwell’s forces are said to have fired a cannon ball at – and medieval Ardmulchan church and cemetery.

I knew it was unlikely, but I daydreamed that we might see someone rowing a Boyne currach down the river. Unique to this waterway, these ancient oval vessels were made from woven hazel rods and animal hide. Local artist and currach builder Claidhbh Ó Gibne is now helping to revive this craft. He’s building a 36ft version that he plans to sail from Spain to Ireland to mimic the journey of the ancient Celts.

Soon we arrived at six-arched Broadboyne Bridge – an information panel told us it was once customary to bring cattle across the river nearby to ward off fairies and certain diseases.

Then the rain arrived. We sat under a tree and ate lunch, then turned around for the long walk back to Navan in the fresh autumn drizzle.

GO WALK: BOYNE RAMPARTS WALK, NAVAN Start & Finish: Ramparts car park, Navan, just outside the town centre on the R153. If you have two cars you could finish at the car park/trailhead by Broadboyne/Stackallen Bridge rather than return to Navan.Distance: 16km (8km if going one-way).Map: OSI Discovery Series Sheet 42Suitability: Easy, flat path but there are no facilities or escape points along the way.