The rich limestone lowlands of County Meath, bisected by the River Boyne and supporting ample cattle pasturage, have always attracted settlers and invaders. The valley’s Neolithic people somehow found the resources and manpower to construct the huge, ornately decorated passage graves of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, part of the extraordinary landscape of ritual sites known as Brú na Bóinne, which is today one of the country’s most famous and best organized visitor attractions. In contrast, the Loughcrew Cairns, a similarly extensive grouping of burial mounds in the far northwest corner of the county beyond the small market town of Kells, have failed to garner present-day resources for excavation and tourist development, leaving you to explore this mysterious, hilltop landscape unaided and usually in solitude. The Hill of Tara started out as a Stone Age cemetery, too, but evolved into one of Ireland’s most important symbolic sites, the seat of the High Kings of the early Christian period. Meath also caught the eye of the Anglo-Norman invaders, who heavily fortified and held several parliaments at Trim, where you can visit the mighty castle and several other well-preserved medieval remnants. Meath’s other noteworthy sights are on either side of Brú na Bóinne in the northeast of the county: to the west Slane’s historic castle and monastery, which enjoy a picturesque setting on a steep, wooded hillside above the River Boyne; and to the east, the site of one of the most significant battles in Ireland’s history, the Battle of the Boyne, now commemorated by a high-tech visitor centre.
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Fifty kilometres northwest of Dublin, TRIM is one of the most attractive towns within striking distance of the capital. Its imposing Anglo-Norman castle overlooks the curving, tree-flanked River Boyne and some picturesque ruins across on the north bank, while green meadows run downriver to the extensive remains of two medieval churches and a fine bridge. Trim is also the easiest jumping-off point for the Cistercian abbey of Bective, set in lush countryside to the northeast.
The Hill of Tara
Perhaps more than anywhere else in Ireland, the Hill of Tara, on the west side of the N3, is loaded with both historical and mythical significance. It’s best known as the seat of the High Kings of Ireland in the early centuries after Christ, but had been a major ritual site since the late Stone Age, giving it plenty of time to accrue prehistoric legends. The aura of this long, grass-covered hill, covered with mostly circular mounds and ditches, is unmistakable, and the views of the surrounding countryside are magnificent.
Some history – and myth
It’s likely that the site started out in the Neolithic period (c.3500 BC) as a place for burials and for ritual gatherings, with no resident population. Around sixty monuments, mostly barrows, have been discovered on the hill, the latest probably dating to the late Iron Age (c.400 AD). So much for the archeology, but mythology, literature and propaganda have imbued Tara with a far greater significance, as the ritual seat of kings – who did not have to be based here, but derived their authority from association with this revered place.
The earliest Irish sagas portray the hill as the home of the master-of-all-trades Lug, the greatest of the Celtic gods and the divine manifestation of Tara’s kingship, and the goddess Medb (Maeve), who could also legitimize a king, sometimes by getting him drunk and sleeping with him – if she couldn’t find a suitable candidate, Medb would rule herself. Of these legendary kings, the greatest were Cormac Mac Airt and Conaire Mór, semi-divine embodiments of peace, prosperity and righteousness. On somewhat firmer ground, seventh-century historical texts tell of recent struggles between the dynasties of Leinster, Ulster and the Uí Néills (pronounced “Ee-nails”; based in the northwest and the midlands) for the kingship of Tara. The Uí Néills came out on top, but while the title rí Temrach (king of Tara) would have given them special status over the other kings, territorial control over the whole island was not a possibility until the ninth century, when the island became less politically fragmented. In the eleventh century, however, geopolitical reality bit, and Tara lost out to the big city, Dublin.
Tara’s significance continues into modern times: during the 1798 Rebellion some of the United Irishmen made a dramatic last stand on the hill, while in 1843 Daniel O’Connell harnessed the symbolic pull of the site to stage his biggest “monster meeting” here, attended by up to a million people, as part of his campaign to repeal the Union with England.
Hard up against the wall of the church’s graveyard, the first of the mounds you come to is the 83-metre-wide ring fort known as the Rath of the Synods, the reputed location of ecclesiastical synods in the sixth century. It’s the untidiest of Tara’s mounds: not only has it been partly destroyed by the church graveyard, but between 1899 and 1902 members of a cult, the British Israelites, dug up the rath, believing they would find the Ark of the Covenant. It’s a particular shame that they kept no record of their efforts as this site went through many functions over the centuries: from early Bronze Age barrow, through palisaded ceremonial building, back to cemetery, and finally to ring fort. A Roman seal and lock have been found from this last phase, evidence of contact with the Roman world (probably Britain) in the fourth and fifth centuries AD.
The next tumulus to the south is the earliest on the site, the so-called Mound of the Hostages. It takes its name from the primitive medieval peacekeeping practice of exchanging hostages with neighbouring kingdoms, who were supposedly imprisoned within the mound by Cormac Mac Airt. Built around 3000 BC, it’s actually a Neolithic tomb with a four-metre-long passage that was reputed to have given entry to the other world. Access is no longer possible, but you can admire the typical concentric circles and zigzag patterns carved on one of the portal stones. No fewer than two hundred cremated late-Neolithic burials were found here, to which were added around forty from the Bronze Age, some cremated, some inhumed, the latter including a high-ranking teenage boy wearing a necklace of jet, amber, bronze and exotic faïence beads.
A kilometre-long circular bank, the Royal Enclosure, surrounds the Mound of the Hostages, and two larger, conjoined earthworks: the Forrad, a Bronze Age burial complex, and Cormac’s Residence, an Iron Age ring fort to the east. In the centre of the Forrad is the Stone of Destiny (the lia fail), a phallic standing stone used in the coronation of the High Kings. Tradition states that the royal candidate had to drive his chariot wheel against the stone, and the gods, if they approved, would screech out his name. To the south of the Royal Enclosure lie the crescent-shaped remains of the Enclosure of King Laoghaire, who is said to be buried here standing upright and dressed in his armour, facing his enemies, the Leinstermen.
To the north of the church, the so-called Banqueting Hall is actually two low banks of earth running parallel for over two hundred metres. Though traditionally held to have been an enormous hall into which thousands of men from all over Ireland would have collected on ritual occasions, this was in fact probably Tara’s ceremonial entrance avenue, aligned with the Mound of the Hostages and flanked by tombs and temples.
West of this avenue stands Gráinne’s Fort, a burial mound surrounded by a circular ditch and bank. Like many ancient sites throughout Ireland, it has become associated with the tale of “The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne”: the daughter of Cormac Mac Airt, Gráinne is betrothed to the king’s elderly commander, Fionn Mac Cumhaill, but falls in love with one of his young warriors, Diarmuid, and elopes with him from Tara, with Fionn and his warriors in hot pursuit.
Beyond a line of trees to the west of Gráinne’s Fort, two ring barrows known as the Sloping Trenches cling to the hill’s steep western slope. To explain their unusual location, legend has it that the “trenches” were created when the palace of the bad king, Lugaid Mac Conn, collapsed, after his judgments were shown to be false by a young Cormac Mac Airt.
Sited on a row of four hills at the far northwestern tip of County Meath, the Loughcrew Cairns consist of more than thirty chambered mounds and over a hundred curiously carved stones. Local folklore has bestowed on the hills a colourful name, Sliabh Na Caillighe (as now marked on Ordnance Survey maps, meaning “Mountain of the Sorceress”), and foundation legend: the said witch, believing she would become mistress of all Ireland if she leapt from hill to hill carrying an apron full of rocks, performed the mighty jumps, shedding handfuls of stones on each peak, but fell at the last, breaking her neck (a cairn at the bottom of the easternmost hill is traditionally known as the witch’s grave). The true story of the cairns’ construction is only slightly less amazing: archeologists believe that between approximately 3500 and 3300 BC, Neolithic people travelled considerable distances to build these communal tombs, each of which may have taken anything from four to thirty years to complete. The alignment of the passage tombs and the elaborate carvings on their stone slabs display an association with sun worship, and it’s obvious that this high-status ritual site was meant to be visible from afar. In reverse, the cairns afford a magnificent panorama over quiet lakes and gently undulating farmland, encompassing up to sixteen counties on a clear day.
Fifty kilometres north of Dublin on the N2, the village of SLANE grew up around Slane Castle, whose estate extends westwards from the large Gothic gate by the bridge over the River Boyne. The main entrance for visitors, however, is now round the back of the house, about a kilometre west of the village crossroads. The era’s finest architects – Gandon, Wyatt and Johnston – constructed the castle, with its mock battlements and turrets, from 1785 onwards, while Capability Brown designed the grounds. A devastating fire struck in 1991, however, and it took until 2001 for the castle to open again, with its interior redesigned in largely contemporary style as a venue for conferences and society weddings. Consequently, the guided tour smacks a little of Hello magazine, though there are one or two points of architectural interest remaining, notably the lofty ballroom, with its ornate fan vaulting and an original carved wooden chandelier, which was built by Thomas Hopper for George IV’s 1821 visit to his mistress, Lady Conyngham. The present Conyngham, Henry, Lord Mountcharles, is a friend of rock band U2, who lived here while recording The Unforgettable Fire in 1984, and mounts huge concerts in the grounds most summers.
From the main crossroads in the village, it’s a fifteen-minute walk north up to the Hill of Slane, which affords views over rolling farmland to the Irish Sea at Drogheda and the Wicklow Mountains. Here, in 433, according to tradition, St Patrick lit the Paschal (Easter) Fire for the first time in Ireland, signalling the arrival of Christianity. In this he challenged the pagan Bealtaine fire on the Hill of Tara, 15km to the south, lit by the High King, Laoghaire, to celebrate the arrival of summer. Laoghaire was soon won over, however, and although the king did not take on the new religion himself, he allowed his subjects to be converted. These included St Earc, who became Patrick’s great friend and follower and established a monastery here on the hill, which eventually evolved into a Franciscan house. Today you can see the extensive remains of its sixteenth-century church and fine bell tower, along with an associated college built around an open quadrangle.
Brú na Bóinne
To the east of Slane, between a U-bend in the River Boyne and the N51 to the north, Brú na Bóinne encompasses the spectacular 5000-year-old passage graves of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, high round tumuli raised over stone passages and burial chambers. Entry is funnelled through the impressive visitor centre on the south side of the river, which provides detailed information on the significance of the sites, their construction and artwork, and the Neolithic society that created them, as well as housing a tourist information desk and café. A footbridge crosses from the centre to the north side of the river, where the compulsory minibuses shuttle you to Newgrange and Knowth, which have both been comprehensively excavated and reconstructed, for guided tours. The passage tomb at Dowth, which has been badly damaged by road-builders and cack-handed nineteenth-century archeologists, is closed to visitors.
Newgrange is unquestionably the most striking of the Brú na Bóinne mounds, not least because its facade of white quartz stones and round granite boulders has been reassembled. The quartz originally came from Wicklow, the granite from the Mourne and Carlingford areas, exemplifying the mind-boggling levels of resources and organization lavished on this project, by these farmers who used nothing but simple tools of wood and stone. It has been estimated that the tumulus, which is over 75m in diameter, weighs 200,000 tonnes in total and would have taken around forty years to build. It was the final resting place of a high-status family within the Neolithic community – the cremated remains and grave goods of at least five people were recovered from the burial chamber during excavation – but seems also to have had a wider purpose as a ritual site or gathering place.
The entrance stone is one of the finest examples of the art of the tomb-builders, who carved spectacular but enigmatic spirals, chevrons, lozenges and other geometric designs onto many of the large stones around the mound and up the nineteen-metre passage. The tomb’s pivotal feature, however, is a roof-box above the entrance whose slit was perfectly positioned to receive the first rays of the rising sun on the day of the winter solstice (December 21); the light first peeps into the cruciform burial chamber itself before spreading its rays along the length of the passage. The engaging guided tour provides an electrically powered simulation in the burial chamber, while tickets for the real thing are decided by lottery each year. To prehistoric farmers, this solstice marked the start of a new year, promising rebirth for their crops and perhaps new life for the spirits of the dead.
It seems probable that by around 2000 BC, in the Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age, the mound had collapsed and fallen into disuse, but it still provided a powerful focal point for ritual. During this era, a huge religious enclosure known as the pit circle was constructed here, consisting of a double circle of wooden posts, within which animals were cremated and buried in pits. To this was added a circle of around 35 standing stones, which may have had an astronomical function; about a dozen of them remain upright.
It’s well worth signing up for the lively guided tour of Knowth too, which provides some telling contrasts with the more famous Newgrange – not least in interpretation: the archeologist in charge of this site, for example, thought the white quartz stones discovered around the main passage entrance were to reflect the sun, so left them as a shimmering carpet on the ground. The Knowth mound is pierced by two passages, each around twice the length of the Newgrange tunnel, aligned roughly with sunrise and sunset on the equinox days in March and September and leading to back-to-back burial chambers. Unfortunately, it’s no longer possible to follow the passages themselves, but the tour takes you inside the mound to look along the eastern tunnel, and you can also climb on top of the mound for views of the Hill of Slane and the Wicklow Mountains.
Knowth is even richer in Neolithic art than Newgrange, with about 250 decorated stones discovered here – over half of all known Irish passage-tomb art. The mound is surrounded by over 120 huge kerbstones, one of which supports a carved pattern of crescents and lines that may represent the equinox; elsewhere, patterns of circular and serpentine incisions have been interpreted as local maps, showing the River Boyne and the burial mounds. Hard by the main mound, you can poke around eighteen smaller or satellite mounds, at least two of which were built before the main tomb. The Knowth mound attracted habitation in various eras right up until the sixteenth century AD, and your guide will show you several souterrains, underground tunnels that were dug in the early Christian period for hiding, escape and possibly food preservation.
The Battle of the Boyne Visitor Centre
On July 1, 1690 (July 11, 1690 according to our modern, Gregorian calendar, though it’s celebrated by Northern Protestants on July 12, after some convoluted mathematical interpretation following the eighteenth-century change to the Gregorian calendar), William III met his father-in-law, the deposed King James II, at the Battle of the Boyne, the largest ever set-piece battle on Irish or British soil. At stake were the English throne, now held by the Protestant William with support from the pope and the Catholic king of Spain, and the dominance of Europe by the French, who backed the Catholic James. At the head of an army of 36,000 English, Dutch, Protestant Irish, French Huguenots and Danes, William took up position on the north side of the river just west of Drogheda, while on the opposite bank, James commanded 24,000 men, mostly Irish irregulars, but including seven thousand well-armed French soldiers. To counter William’s flanking movement, upriver and around the Knowth mound, James was drawn into sending most of his force westward, which allowed the main Williamite army to cross the river to Oldbridge and put the Jacobite centre to flight. The Irish and French regrouped to carry on fighting for another year, notably at Aughrim and Limerick, but James kept running, via Dublin and Kinsale, to France, never to return.
Oldbridge House, a fine, 1740s, limestone mansion on the south bank of the River Boyne, has recently been turned into a visitor centre commemorating the battle and the 1500 men who died. It houses an impressive exhibition, delicately worded but marshalling telling quotes from participants in the battle, and an audiovisual, which puts the blame on the French. Admission is free to the surrounding parkland, which features display boards and five signposted battlefield walks of up to fifty minutes, and on summer Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays you can watch a musketeer and a cavalryman giving hourly “living history” displays on the front lawn.