Brugh na Boinne
The extensive remains of a huge number of prehistoric burial sites in the River Boyne Valley between Drogheda and Slane are know collectively as Brugh na Boinne. The largest of these amazing monuments are New Grange, Knowth and Dowth.
Bective Abbey near Trim was a small sister house of the main Cistercian Abbey at Mellifont in County Louth, founded in 1147. Ruins of the church, cloister and chapter house remain dating from the 13th to 15th centuries remain.
There are some interesting carved tombs and figures in the ruins of Duleek Abbey. The abbey, which dates from the 12th century also has a round tower and a 10th century high cross. Duleek means stone house, and was named after a church founded by Saint Patrick and built by one of his disciples Saint Cianan around 450AD. Nothing of this church remains but legend says the body of the Irish King Brian Boru who was killed after winning the important 1014 Battle of Clontarf against the Vikings, lay in state here on the way to be buried at Armagh.
Dunsany Castle near Navan is the home of the Lords of Dunsany who are related to the martyr Saint Oliver Plunkett. The house is open to the public in July and August.
Hill of Slane
The Hill of Slane less than a mile away from Slane Village is reputed to be where Saint Patrick confronted the High King of Tara, Laoghaire, to get permission to spread Christianity. Patrick is said to have caught Laoghaire’s attention by lighting a fire on top of the Hill just before Laoghaire had lit his druidic Rite of Spring ceremonial fire on the Hill of Tara in 433AD. Patrick went to Tara to try to convert Laoghaire and used the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity upon which his new religion was based. He did not convert the King, but was given permission to preach in Ireland. One of the King’s attendants, Erc was converted by saint Patrick and became the first Bishop of Slane. The faint outline of Saint Ercs monastery, a small ruined church where Saint Erc is said to have lived as a hermit, a Norman motte and the ruins of a Franciscan friary can be seen on the Hill. A fire is still lit on Slane` by the local priest on Holy Saturday.
Hill of Tara
There is free access to the Hill of Tara, but the Tara Visitors Centre shows a video presentation about the history and legends associated with the Hill and runs tours to the site (Tel: 046 25903 Entry IR1). The Hill of Tara has been an important site since the Stone Age. Burial mounds on the hill date from 2500AD and the site later became the seat of the High Kings of Tara, one of the most powerful kingships in Ireland until the 6th century. Saint Patrick is reputed to have gone to Tara to persuade the High King Laoghaire to allow him to preach Christianity.
The main features visible on the Hill of Tara are the Rath of the Synods, a huge Iron Age ring fort and burial site where a gold torc and Roman glass and pottery (now in the National Museum in Dublin), a large oval Iron Age fort The Royal Enclosure, the Mound of the Hostages a stone age passage grave, the Royal Seat a small ring fort, Cormac’s House a burial mounds with an ancient phallic stone on top which was said to be the coronation stone of the High Kings of Tara, the Enclosure of King Laoghaire where the king is said to be buried, the rectangular Banquet Hall earthwork. Another small burial mound called Grainnes Fort is said to be where Grainne, who supposed to be married to the legendary Ulster warrior Finn McCool is said to be buried. Instead of marrying Finn, Grainne bewitched another warrior Diarmuid to elope with her and they were chased throughout Ireland by Finn McCool.
There is little remaining of Kells Abbey, which was founded in the 6th century, but it is important because monks who fled here from Saint Colmcilles (Saint Columba) monastery on Iona because of Viking raids are thought to have created Ireland’s most famous illuminated manuscript, the magnificent 7th century Book of Kells which is on show in Trinity College Dublin. An 18th century church, Saint Columbas, now stands on the main site of the monastery and it has an interesting exhibition about the monastery and the Book of Kells. It has a tall 10th century round tower and four 9th High crosses outside. The South Cross, the Cross of Patrick and Columba is the best preserved and has carved scenes including Daniel in the Lions Den and the Fall of Adams and Eve. Further away from the church, Saint Colmcilles House was also part of the monastery. Another high cross, Market Cross was moved to Cross Street in Kells to be used as a gallows on which rebels who fought in the 1798 United Irishmen uprising were hung by the English. Two more 9th century high crosses, the Castlekeeran crosses can be seen in the ruins of a church near the Hill of Lloyd.
Knowth and Dowth
The Knowth and Dowth passage tombs are on the same scale as Newgrange, close by. However, you can not go into their chambers as Knowth, the largest mound, is still being excavated and Dowth has yet to be excavated. All visitors must access Knowth from the Boyne Visitors Centre near Drogheda on the banks of the River Boyne. Knowth is like Newgrange in that its main feature is a huge green grassy mound containing a Neolithic passage grave with distinctive Neolithic carvings, but it does not have the striking white quartz exterior wall.
Knowth also has a number of smaller satellite tombs placed immediately around it. Dowth is still obscured by hundreds of years of tree and plant growth which had also obscured the Newgrange and Knowth mounds before they were discovered. In total there are 40 passage graves, 37 of which are much smaller than Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, within a mile radius of the main site but you will need local farmers’ permission to look at them.
The Ledgewidge Museum near Slane is a tribute museum to the poet Francis Ledgewidge in the small cottage where he was born.
Loughcrew Hills Cairns
Around 30 Stone Age burial cairns dating from 3000BC can be found on top of the Carbane East, Carbane West and Slieve na Caillighe hills in the Loughcrew Hills near Kells. Some of the cairns have been opened up. Some of the cairns on Carbane Easy have been marked with similar spiral patterns to those found on the entrance stone at New Grange.
There is now restricted access to the amazing passage graves of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, and to visit them you have to go on the guided tours from the attractive new Boyne Visitors’ Centre (Bru na Boinne) near Drogheda. While being shuttlebussed to the sites with other tourists takes away from the visual awe of finding these massive circular tombs in the middle of rolling fields looking down on the Boyne River, the tours are informative and you get a chance to have a good look inside the Newgrange tomb in small groups.
Newgrange, 80 metres wide and 13 metres high, was built 500 years before the pyramids and 1000 years before Stonehenge, in 3200BC, and is the only one of three large tombs, which has been excavated and opened. It is a masterpiece of design as its builders created an inner chamber with a stone slab corbelled roof which has let in no rain for over 5000 years.
The Gothic Revival Slane Castle, home of Lord Mountcharles, has allowed concert promoters to run a series of outdoor concerts in the huge natural amphitheatre below the castle. The grounds have hosted performers including Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones and Queen. In 1991, there was a disastrous fire in the Castle, causing extensive damage to the building and completely destroying the Eastern section facing the River Boyne. It took ten years to restore, a programme completed without any public funding. The building was reopened to the public in 2001. It is also available for Receptions, Banquets, Conferences and Accommodation.
Sonairte National Ecology Centre
The Sonairte National Ecology Centre near Laytown demonstrates organic gardening and sources of renewable energy including water, wind and solar power generation. You can also walk along nature trails and through the organic garden.
The grandson in law of Hugh de Lacy who founded Trim Castle, Geoffrey de Geneville was a crusader who came back to found St Mary’s Abbey near the castle. The abbey was converted into a castle by Viceroy of Ireland in 1415, Sir John Talbot, whose exploits in the wars with France are referred to in William Shakespeare’s play Henry IV. The writer and later Dean of Saint Patricks Cathedral in Dublin, Jonathan Swift lived at the castle in the 18th century. The Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo and passed the Catholic Emancipation Act as Prime Minister in 1829 was educated at the castle during a time when it was a school, after he was brought up at Dangan Castle near Trim.
The Anglo Norman Hugh de Lacy built a fort on the site of Trim Castle in 1173. It was burnt by the Irish High King Rory O’Conor, but the de Laceys built further castles on the site which they controlled until it was captured by Catholic Confederate forces in 1647. It was then taken by Cromwell’s forces in 1649 after a battering. The ruins are still well preserved, however, with a large keep and curtain walls. Before gaining the English throne, King Henry IV is said to have been imprisoned in the Dublin Gate of the castle by his cousin the then King Richard II.