Obelisks in Ireland are more commonly found in very natural locations, often perched as at Oldbridge on a precarious base. Obelisk were introduced to Ireland and England in the early eighteenth century with the first being erected in the market-place at Ripon, in Yorkshire in 1702. The Obelisk at Castle Howard was raised in 1714-15, carries an inscription that commemorates the victories of the first Duke of Marlborough. Obelisks originated in the architecture of Ancient Egypt where it is thought they represented “the pillar of life”. An obelisk consists of a tapering, square section column which is topped with a pyramidon or small pyramid, A true obelisk is monolithic, being carved from one block of stone and requiring great engineering and masonic skill to construct and erect. A number of obelisks were removed from Egypt during Roman times and erected in cities such as Rome and Istanbul. Obelisks came to represent liberty, like the Washington Monument in the United States.
The obelisk commemorated the Battle of the Boyne fought on the site in 1690. A site for a monument was identified as early as 1693 by George Storey, who wrote a description of the Battle of the Boyne.
The Boyne Obelisk was erected in 1738 to commemorate King William III’s victory over James II at the Battle of the Boyne on 1 July 1690. The foundation stone was laid by Lionel Sackville, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland on 17 April 1736. This was the same year that John Coddington’s son drowned in the Boyne. The Coddingtons paid for and were responsible for the supporting base of the obelisk. The obelisk was an important vista from Oldbridge House and would have been visible from its principal rooms and lawns.The obelisk was built at Oldbridge near to the place where William’s men mounted their main attack and on the spot where William himself had been wounded by a cannon ball whist surveying the battlefield the day before.
The Obelisk was made from granite and was built upon a large mound of rock (9 metres/30 ft high) located on the north bank of the River Boyne. At a height of 53 metres (174 ft), it was both the tallest man-made structure in Ireland and the tallest obelisk in Europe at the time of its construction.
The square base of the Obelisk bore an inscription on each of its sides. The north side inscription read: Sacred to the glorious memory of King William the Third, who, on the 1st of July, 1690, passed the river near this place to attack James the Second, at the head of the Popish army, advantageously posted on the south side of it, and did, on that day, by a single battle, secure to us and to our posterity, our liberty, laws, and religion. In consequence of this action James the Second left this Kingdom and fled to France. This memorial of our deliverance was erected in the 9th year of King George the Second; The first stone being laid by Lionel Sackville, Duke of Dorset, Lord Lieutenant of the Kingdom of Ireland MDCCXXXVI. (1736. Dorset Street and Sackville Street, later O’Connell Street were named after him.)
The south side inscription read: Marshal the Duke of Schomberg in passing this river died bravely fighting in defence of liberty.
The east side inscription read: In defence of Liberty, July 1st MDCLXXXX (1690)
The west side inscription read: This monument was erected by the grateful contributions of several protestants of Great Britain and Ireland.
Being constructed of masonry, it is not a true obelisk.
In the early hours of 31 May 1923 a number of loud explosions were heard at Oldbridge, near Drogheda. Three land mines had been placed at the base of the Boyne Obelisk and the monument was toppled and scattered in pieces over a radius of 200 years. It is understood that explosives from the Free State Army were used in the demolition. The destroyed monument became an attraction with large groups of people visiting and taking away pieces of stone.
Its destroyers were not the Irregulars but members of the Free State Army acting on their own initiative. Strangers were observed by locals near the monument at midnight. The rock foundations of the monument were probably bored and land mines placed in the deep holes. Nothing of the obelisk remained apart from its limestone base. Edward Heaney, the owner of the land on which the obelisk stood, was woken from his sleep and told that he should remove himself from his house for his own safety. Before leaving he saw a group of about forty men, who had motor cars and motor bicycles, congregated around the Obelisk. He later sold off the stone rubble to builders.
On 14 December 1731 an advertisement appeared in the Dublin Journal – “Since the memory of the Great King William is, and ought always to be held dear by all who profess the Protestant religion, and since no suitable monument has ever been erected to perpetuate the memory of his most glorious actions, The Battle of the Boyne … it is proposed to erect a monument at the place of battle in memory of same..” Funded by subscription from gentry across the dominions the base of the obelisk was constructed on a mound of granite, with its four sides each containing an inscription. On 1st July 1744 the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne was celebrated in Drogheda with a parade to church that included military, the Mayor and Aldermen, and the Boyne Society and Boyne Club. The sixty three members of the society were accompanied by Master, Chaplain and stewards, drums and music and each wearing orange cockades. The following day the Boyne Society dined at the riverside near the Obelisk, the Boyne Club doing the same at the opposite side. Thirteen cannons on both sides that night ensured the event was remembered by the spectators with the setting off of fireworks.
Two attempts to demolish the obelisk with gunpowder failed in the early 1800s.
In 1919 ambiguity in the grounds of ownership saw the obelisk offered for sale to the Tyrone War Memorial Committee but such was the uproar in Ulster at this prospet the sale was dropped. In the Irish Independent 15 July 1919 Francis Josph Biggar wrote “Is it desirable that such a monument be removed? Is it desirable to remove any monumental phase of our history’s growth, no matter if it should be objectionable to even a considerable setion of our people? If such an argument is admitted, no one can say where it would end or what feelings would be embittered and aggravated” Despite acknowledging that he felt the inscription was undesirable, Biggar with no caveats pleaded “let it remain as a feature on the landscape and a reminder of days and events that have passed away for ever.”
In 2008 the 27 acres site was acquired by a group of Orangemen
King George IV visited the site when he came to Ireland in 1821. While there he received an audience with the Presbyterian Synod of Ulster.
An iron cannonball was found near the Obelisk Bridge in 1860 and it is believed to have come from the Battle of the Boyne.
In May 1894, two young men gathering watercress from the river near the obelisk discovered an old sword under the mud in the water. The hilt was made of bone, the guard of ornamental silver gilt-work, and the blade was notched in several places and severely rusted. It was thought to have been used by a Williamite soldier in the Battle of the Boyne.
Around July 1895, the obelisk was struck by lightning and badly damaged. An appeal was made for donations to fund its restoration (amounting to £100), which was later completed. Colonel Coddington, of nearby Oldbridge House, was one of the leaders of the fundraising appeal.
The Obelisk initially stood adjacent to a wooden bridge spanning the river, which was later replaced by a lattice iron bridge that was completed in 1869 and named the Obelisk Bridge, after the monument.
Divers found no trace of parts of the obelisk in the river in 2001.
During the Home Rule Crisis in 1913, members of the Ulster Flying Column and Despatch Riding Corps travelled to Oldbridge and planted a Union Jack flag and placard on the base of the Obelisk, which were later removed. The placard read: “Rebel hands may tear down this flag but they will never tame the Lion Hearts of Ulster!”
In 2010 the Boyne Foundation proposed the re-erection of the obelisk and the creation of a park. This proposal had the full support of the Orange Order. Three stones from the obelisk went on display in 2016 at the Museum of Orange Heritage in Belfast.