This was the only event in my entire Irish dream adventure that did not involve a hike or any other significant walking: a day trip via bus and guided tour to the valley of the River Boyne, about an hour north of Dublin in County Meath. Included were visits to the Hill of Tara and Newgrange, both of which are sites of great historical interest and significance.
It turned out to be a beautiful day for the tour. The weather was not quite as clear as it had been the previous day for the half marathon but stayed dry. During the bus ride from the heart of Dublin, our guide provided quite a bit of interesting information. For example, in honor of producing writers such as Joyce, Yeats, Beckett, Shaw, Wilde, and others, Dublin is one of 7 cities that have been designated as a UNESCO City of Literature. Also, one of the towns we passed by was Navan, childhood home of Pierce Brosnan (aka James Bond).
The River Boyne near Drogheda is the site of perhaps the most famous battle in Irish history, the Battle of the Boyne, in which William of Orange and James II, both crowned kings of England, fought each other in 1690. William, who was both son-in-law and nephew of James, won decisively. This battle is said to be the origin of “the troubles” that were part of Irish life for 3 decades in the late 1900’s.
Our first stop was the Hill of Tara (Teamhair na Rí), ancient inauguration site of the High Kings of Ireland. There are numerous monuments at the site, some dating to the Neolithic period, 4000-2400 BC, and most thought to have had a ritual purpose. The hilltop is at an elevation of about 650 feet, with the surrounding valley nearly at sea level. The best overview of this remarkable site is from the air – I can give an impression of it via this photo of one of the excellent interpretive signs.
The monuments are primarily earthworks: mounds surrounded by ditches and outer banks, for example. One of the oldest is called the Mound of the Hostages (Dumha na nGiall) (in the overview photo, the small bump slightly to the upper right of center), originally built as a passage tomb and dating from the Neolithic Age. Although there is now a gate across the entrance to the tomb, you can easily reach through well enough to photograph a side stone that has original carved designs.
The large oval in the overview is the Fort of the Kings or Royal Enclosure (Ráith na Rí). It’s at the top of Tara Hill and is the largest enclosure, with a 1 km circumference. The two circles that seem to form a figure eight are the Royal Seat (Forradh) and Cormac’s House (Teach Chormaic), built in quite different time periods. Here is a view of the Royal Seat, topped with a phallic standing stone called the Stone of Destiny (Lia Fáil), the inauguration stone of the Kings of Tara.
Other major monuments on the hill include the Banqueting Hall (Teach Miodhchuarta), parallel earth banks over 200 meters long, which may actually have been a ceremonial approach to the summit rather than a banqueting hall; and the Rath of the Synods (Ráith na Seanadh), thought to be a ringfort or circular fortified settlement, with 3 concentric earth banks. About a half mile south of the main hill is another hill fort known as Rath Maeve (Medb), which may be associated with the legendary queen or goddess of Tara. Near the location of Rath Maeve there was a flock of sheep, placidly grazing or resting, apparently oblivious to the history of their surroundings. (I was to see many, many more sheep during my hikes!)
The views from Tara were simply lovely.
A church is located near the entrance to the site. The current building is dedicated to St Patrick and dates from 1822, but a medieval church most likely occupied the site previously. The stone wall around the graveyard had a special type of gate known as a kissing gate, which lets people – but not livestock – through and does not require a latching mechanism.
By the way, Tara of Gone with the Wind fame was named after the Hill of Tara.
After leaving this site we continued through the Boyne River Valley to the Palace of the Boyne (Brú na Bóinne), an area of several square miles just inland from Drogheda of such historical and archeological importance that it has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Brú na Bóinne includes the site of the Battle of the Boyne as well as three great passage tombs known as Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth, and several other significant sites. The area lies within a large bend in the river.
Along the way we passed through the town of Shane and past fields with hay harvest in progress.
Our tour group made a lunch stop at Newgrange Farm. In order to get there we drove down a country road that was barely wide enough for the bus to pass. I took this picture through the windshield of the bus as we drove along.
Newgrange Farm is a working farm. During our lunch stop there was a little time to explore. Among other wildlife (cows, sheep, a couple of horses), I noticed ducks, white doves, barn swallows, and a large and strange-looking type of crow called a rook.
Finally our reserved time slot approached, and we walked a short distance up the hill to the Newgrange site. By the way, this was a special arrangement for tour groups; the normal way to access the site is through the Visitor’s Center.
Newgrange is the best known of the passage tombs in the Brú na Bóinne complex. Simply put, the site is spectacular. Our first view was from the bus before lunch; I took this photo out the bus window as we drove along. Our guide explained that one group was just exiting from the tomb and the next group was ready to enter, so this was the very maximum number of people that is ever present at the site.
The mound covers a chamber with three recesses where people were buried, most after cremation. A passage nearly 19 meters long and lined with large stones leads from the entrance to the chamber. These main features give rise to the term passage tomb. Newgrange dates from the Neolithic period and is believed to be 5000 years old, older than both Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids in Egypt.
Around the base of the mound is a row of 97 retaining boulders called kerbstones, some of which are carved with spirals and other geometric designs. The white quartz stones on the front face are a reconstruction carried out by Professor M.J. O’Kelly, who directed a major excavation of the site in 1962. He used stones that were already at the site. However, this reconstruction is somewhat controversial since no one knows – or can know, now – if it is accurate.
When our designated time slot arrived, we walked up to the entrance area. The very large kerbstone is called the entrance stone, and its triple spiral design (at the left) is thought to have special significance.
Just above the entrance is a rectangular opening called the roof-box. This opening admits sunlight to the chamber at dawn on the winter solstice, and for a few days before and after. The entrance passage is narrow and has curves, so light does not enter that way. And the passage slopes upward such that the light from the roof-box illuminates the floor of the chamber in the back recess. It is thought that Newgrange may be the oldest known deliberately aligned structure in the world. There is no photography allowed inside the mound, but there is a “re-enactment” of winter solstice dawn included in the tour. It is quite amazing! If you want to see the real thing, there is a lottery for tickets for the winter solstice dawn time slot. No guarantee that the weather will be clear enough to see the sunrise.
In front of the mound are other features that are associated with later uses of the site. One is a large circle, roughly 100 meters in diameter (about the same size as the main mound), actually a double circle in which portions of animals were cremated and buried in pits around the circumference of the circle. This area is known as the Pit Circle and was constructed in the Early Bronze Age, around 2000 BC. The posts in this picture indicate the Pit Circle; about half of the circle is on the other side of the hedge. The circle in front of the hedge marks the outline of a satellite tomb.
There are also several large standing stones in at least a partial circle around the main mound. Their purpose is unclear. This circle was constructed after the Pit Circle.
The archeological research at the site indicates that Newgrange has been used in different ways and by different cultures over the centuries. In Celtic mythology, after about 500 BC, the so-called Fairy Mound of the Brú (Síd im Brúg) was the home of Dagda Mor, the greatest Celtic God, and his son Oengus. The reputation of the site apparently persisted for visitors from Roman Britain as late as 400 AD.
The land around Newgrange was acquired by the nearby abbey at Mellifont after its founding in 1142, and it became a grange, or outlying farm, for the abbey. By the late 1300’s it was simply referred to as the “new grange.” This is a view looking down the hill from the area in front of the entrance, toward the River Boyne.
To exit the site we took the on-site shuttle bus back to the Visitor Center. A trio of enterprising young men entertained visitors waiting for the shuttle with traditional Irish music.
The shuttle bus route stops on the north side of the River Boyne, where there is a pretty footbridge crossing the river to the Visitor Center.
The river itself flows serenely past these sites of historical significance.
All in all, this tour was quite remarkable, and included only a small preview of the rich history of Ireland.