The Boyne Valley was one of the first areas settled in Ireland. The world famous tombs at Bru na Boinne constructed over 5000 years ago continue to impress us. County Meath is celebrated as the Royal County, the place from which the high kings of Ireland reigned from their ritual seat on Tara, and the legends of Ireland were written in the nearby fields. In the Boyne Valley St. Patrick first preached the Christian faith in Ireland lighting the Pascal fire on the hill of Slane.
The Boyne Valley is the stunning landscape that rises up around the famous river Boyne, just north of Dublin and is a relatively small area to explore, allowing you to discover many of the major attractions in a day. This book focuses on the highlights of the area but there are many more minor sites along the way. The Boyne Valley is one of Ireland’s most magical and important historical areas made up of County Meath which proudly boasts itself the heritage capital of Ireland and County Louth the land of legends.
The Boyne Valley is a place of history, myths, and legends. The rich valley is home to a range of heritage sites and monuments; places like Tara, Newgrange, Kells and the Battle of the Boyne site are well known nationally and internationally but there are other sites such as Trim, Loughcrew, Monasterboice and Mellifont which would be major attractions in their own right were they not overshadowed by these more recognised locations. The towns of the area including Navan and Drogheda have their own attractions.
Schools of learning were quickly established. Kells is famed throughout the world for its high crosses and illuminated manuscripts. The Viking raiders visited this fertile valley to prey on the easy pickings of the rich monastic settlements. Their descendants, the Normans, constructed their largest castle at Trim to govern the new colony. These talented builders erected castles, churches, monasteries and crosses which are strewn along the banks of the Boyne and its tributary the Blackwater.
Another visitor to the Boyne Valley was Cromwell who wreaked havoc at Drogheda, an event which caused him to be hated in Ireland. The Battle of the Boyne took place at Oldbridge where King William and King James battled it out for the throne of these islands. New conquerors came and the big houses and the mansions of the landlords now sit prettily above the river. The Irish people continued to seek their independence and in 1798 a small battle took place on Tara. The hill was also the site of a monster meeting held by Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator.
I have spent the last forty years in the Boyne Valley and I never tire of revisiting any of the sites in this book. I cannot physically go back in history but my mind travels back when I walk the ground that people inhabited for over five thousand years. I hope you get as much enjoyment from visiting these places as I do.
Try to go off peak as it is at that time the crowds are less and you can get time to enjoy the sites more comfortably. Also at off peak times it is usually the experienced guides that are on site and they have years of knowledge which they love to share with visitors. For this book thanks are due to Fechin Heery, Malachy Hand, Michael Fox, Derek Smith, Michael Farry, Danny Cusack, Paschal Marry, John Devitt, Ethna Cantwell, Vincent Mulvaney and Paula McCaul.
Photographs acknowledgements, Thank you to:
Fáilte Ireland, Ireland’s Content Pool: Re-enactors at the Battle of the Boyne Visitor Centre at Oldbridge House; Mellifont : Chris Hill; Newgrange Entrance; Newgrange Passage: Brian Lynch; Decorated Stone Newgrange: Brian Morrison; Knowth: McMacmillan Media; Knowth;
Aubrey Martin: Hill of Ward, Tlachtga. Loughcrew Cairn T, Mellifont, Tara.
Joe Conlon: Excavations on Tlachtga, Fire Ceremony at Halloween
Seamus Farrelly: Pierce Brosan.
Battle of the Boyne
The Battle of the Boyne was contested between the forces of William of Orange and James II in July 1690. The site of the battle sprawls over a wide area west of the town of Drogheda. The date and the battle are remembered to this day, retaining huge symbolic importance in Northern Ireland, where it is celebrated by the Orange Order every 12 July. What other three hundred year old battle is remembered anywhere else in the world? The battle was the last time two crowned kings of England, Scotland and Ireland faced each other on the battlefield. It was a European battle fought on Irish soil, at stake were the British throne and French dominance in Europe.
- King William of Orange from a mural in Belfast
King James II had succeeded to the throne of Britain and Ireland in 1685. He sought to restore the Catholic religion as the state religion in England and also the absolute power of the king to overrule parliament. Less than forty years previously, his father, King Charles I had lost his head because he wished to be an absolute ruler. The establishment in England seemed to tolerate James’s efforts as long as he was going to be succeeded by one of his Protestant daughters, Mary, who was married to her first cousin William of Orange, or Anne. In 1673 James married for a second time, the bride; Mary of Modena, was 35 years younger than him. Queen Mary became pregnant in late 1687 and in June 1688 gave birth to a healthy boy, James Francis Edward Stuart. This provided for a Catholic succession which was not acceptable to the Protestant Parliament. Rumours arose as to the birth, it was alleged that the real baby had been stillborn and had been replaced by a healthy baby smuggled into the birthing chamber in a bedpan. The English establishment reacted by inviting Mary and William to rule Britain instead of James. William landed in England and was greeted warmly. The final straw for James was when his second daughter, Anne, deserted his cause.
James sought refuge with his old ally, Louis XIV of France, who saw an opportunity to strike at William through Ireland. Louis provided French officers and arms for James, who landed at Kinsale in March 1689. In March 1690 the Jacobite army was strengthened by 7,000 French regulars but Louis demanded over 5,000 Irish troops in return. James saw Ireland as a backdoor to regaining his kingdom in Ireland first, then Scotland and finally England. The Irish who supported him would have been happy to see him as king of Ireland only.
William came in person to Ireland in June 1690 with a large and well-equipped army composed of Dutch, Germans, Huguenot French and many other nationalities as well as English and Scots. James decided to block William’s advance towards Dublin at the River Boyne near Drogheda.
- Battle of Boyne map showing the armies of William and James
William controlled an army of 36,000 men while James had a force of 25,000 men, making it the largest number of soldiers ever deployed on an Irish battlefield. James’s army occupied Drogheda and the Oldbridge area to the west. On the evening of 30 June William’s army began to appear on the north bank of the river. William’s troops were far better trained and equipped than were those of James. William set up camp on the north bank of the Boyne with James at Donore Hill on the south.
William surveyed his troop movements from horseback. A Jacobite gunner seized the opportunity to shoot a cannon ball which grazed William’s right shoulder. A little bit to one side and the end result could have been different.
At his council of war the night before the battle William decided to dispatch 10,000 of his forces up river to attack King James’s forces from the side. James decided to hold half his force on reserve on his west flank to countermand the expected outflanking movement from that side. James had placed his army in a box of land surrounded on three sides by the Boyne. The north bank of the river is bordered by high ground and so James could not see how William was setting out his forces while the gently sloping south bank provided William with a opportunity to see James’s disposition of his troops. On the day of the battle both the forces to the west came face to face across a deep river ravine, neither force seemed to be interested in putting themselves at the disadvantage of having to fight uphill out of a steep valley which resulted in a stand-off. A large force of Jacobite troops were effectively kept out of the battle by a much smaller detachment of Williamites.
3 Donore church where James based his command. At the rear of the photo is a watch house erected to prevent body snatchers
On the morning of the battle the main Williamite force began wading across the river at the ford of Oldbridge, making their attack down a narrow valley now named King William’s Glen. Overcoming stiff resistance from repeated charges of the Irish cavalry the Williamites gained the south bank of the river. The Protestant French regiment fighting for William were urged on to attack their compatriot Catholics by shouts of ‘Onward, those are your enemies.’
When the infantry attack across the Boyne stalled shortly after noon, William personally led cavalry squadrons up Donore Hill. With both armies wearing similar clothing a confusing fight ensued, which almost led to William’s death as one of his men pointed a pistol at him to which he shouted ‘What, are you angry with your friends?’
William’s numerical supremacy in forces and artillery carried the day. The battle was not a massive engagement; about 1,000 Jacobites and 500 Williamites were killed. The Jacobite army pulled back to Duleek and crossed the Nanny river.
When James saw the battle was going against him he fled to Dublin. As he entered the gates of Dublin, the Lord Lieutenant’s wife, Lady Tyrconnel, welcomed him. He declared ‘Madam, Your countrymen run well’ in other words the Irish had run away from the battle. She replied ‘Sire, you must not be a bad runner yourself as I see you have won the race.’ James was one of the first from the battle to reach Dublin, from which he fled to Waterford and thence to France.
William did not reach Dublin for another five days. Why was he reluctant to pursue his victory and his defeated foe? James was a king and James was his uncle and father-in-law. William’s mother was a sister of James. To capture James would have left William in a predicament as if he executed him, he would have been condoning the execution of kings and that left open the possibility that someone could use the execution as a reason for executing him in the future.
The Boyne was truly a European battle with both armies filled with Irish, English, Scots, French soldiers and on the Williamite side Dutch, Danish and German troops. Confusion reigned during the battle as there were no standard uniforms and many on both sides wore similar or the same uniforms. William’s men wore a green cockade or green leaves in their hats, not orange. Today green is seen as the colour of the Irish nationalists. The Jacobite army took the colour white as their colour from the French fleur de lis.
The battle was fought on 1 July yet in our day is remembered on 12 July. At that time Britain and the Protestant world were still using the old Roman calendar devised by Julius Caesar. They refused to adopt the more correct Gregorian calendar as it had been devised by a Catholic pope. In 1752 Britain adopted the Gregorian changes and had to skip ten days in September of that year in order to make the calendar accurate. There were riots in London with protestors declaring they wanted their ten days back as they thought their lives were being shortened by ten days. The year of 1752 had only 355 days in Britain. The new calendar meant that the Boyne should have then been celebrated on the 11 July so it is commemorated on the wrong date.
It was not a straight Catholic versus Protestant battle, there were Protestants and Catholics on both sides but one side was predominantly Protestant and the other was predominately Catholic. The Pope backed the Protestant King William at the Battle of the Boyne rather than Catholic King James. Pope Alexander VIII and the Papal States were part of a Grand Alliance seeking to limit the expansion of France, with one of the areas under competition being the northern states of Italy which were ruled by the Pope. Hailing the success of William at the Boyne the Pope ordered the bells of the Vatican to be rung in celebration. A painting of William arriving in Ireland was purchased sight unseen by the Unionist government of Northern Ireland for the new Stormont parliament in 1933 but when the presence of the figure of the pope blessing William’s endeavour was discovered, first the painting was vandalised and then hidden away. The painting is now on display in the waiting area outside the Speaker’s office. Other leaders of the Grand Alliance included the Catholic Austrian emperor, Leopold, who had High Masses said on news of the victory at the Boyne.
- King Billy on his white horse in a mural in Belfast.
The colour of the horse William rode on the day is traditionally deemed to be white, but this is not true as a white horse would have stood out in the countryside and made its rider an easier target. William rode a dark horse at the Boyne before the poor animal sank to its haunches in riverside mud. William changed horse at least once on the battle site, whilst fording the river at Drybridge.
The victors wrote their story of the battle of the Boyne three years after the conflict while the defeated’s first published account came more than thirty years later. Both are biased accounts – which would you believe more?
The Battle of the Boyne did not mean the defeat of the Irish forces as they fought on for another year, finally being defeated at the Battle of Aughrim and agreeing to the Treaty of Limerick in 1691. The Treaty was a very fair settlement but hardly had the ink dried on the signatures and the Irish soldiers departed for the Continent than the Protestant Parliament commenced passing anti-Catholic laws.
Originally Unionists celebrated King William’s birthday and the 12 July commemoration was that of the Battle of Aughrim which occurred on the 12 July Old Style. It was the later Orange Order that popularised the connection of the Boyne with the Twelfth. The Orange Order grew out of sectarian conflict in the late eighteenth century and was founded in 1795 with the first meeting of the Grand Orange Lodge being held in Dawson Street, Dublin in 1798.
Orange celebrations include huge bonfires, parades and religious ceremonies. Marches have led to conflicts as the Orange Order wishes to march the ‘Queen’s Highway’ on its traditional routes even if the residents of the route now are mainly nationalists. One Orange parade takes place in the Republic.
With the State’s purchase of Oldbridge House and part of the battle site a decision was made to develop a visitor attraction and presentation which commemorated the battle while at the same time being a place of peace and reconciliation between the unionist and nationalist communities on the island. At the opening of the Battle of the Boyne Visitor Centre in 2008 the Northern Ireland First Minister Rev. Ian Paisley declared ‘To the bad old days there can be no turning back. The killing times must end for ever and no tolerance must be given to those who advocate their return. A strong dedication to peace and an intolerance of murder must drive us forward.’ The Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, said ‘In recent years, many of us from the nationalist tradition have come to a greater appreciation of the history, traditions and identity of those of you from the unionist tradition with whom we share this island… We need — all of us — to understand our shared history if we are to build a shared future. The principles and ideals that we hold dear are the same — liberty and equality, democracy and peace. If we hold fast to those shared ideals, our children will have an inheritance to treasure.’ Using original seventeenth century swords the Taoiseach and the First Minister jointly cut the ribbon at the site. I was invited to the opening but had a work commitment on the day and could not go.
The Coddington family were established at Holmpatrick, Skerries before coming to Oldbridge. Captain Dixie Coddington was on the staff of William III at the battle of the Boyne. His son, John, purchased Oldridge from the Earl of Drogheda in 1729. John McCain who ran against Barack Obama in the US presidential election of 2008 was alleged to have had Coddington ancestors. The quickest way to get your Irish roots researched is to run for the presidency of the U.S.
The Battle of the Boyne Visitor Centre is open all year round. An admission charge applies to the display and audio-visual. There is free access to the battle site, parklands and the formal walled gardens. There is a large car park and tea pavilion. Regular weaponry displays take place during the summer months.
5. Re-enactors at the Battle of the Boyne Visitor Centre at Oldbridge House
Bective Hide and Seek
Bective Abbey was established on the banks of the river Boyne in 1147. Nothing remains of the original monastic foundation at Bective, the earliest part of the present range of buildings dates from the thirteenth century with much of the remaining ruins dating from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The fine monastic cloister, a covered passageway which surrounded an enclosed courtyard, separated the world of the monks from the ordinary people. One of the pillars of the cloister bears a figure, possibly an abbot, carrying a crozier. Massive fortified towers were erected on the church’s west façade and on the south-west corner of the monastery, giving Bective the appearance more of a castle than a religious establishment.
Bective was the site chosen for the first daughter house of Mellifont. The first Cistercian monastery in Ireland was founded at Mellifont in 1142 and within a decade there were four daughter houses. Bective was founded in 1147 by the king of Meath. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the monastery was assigned the name, Bective, from De Beatitudine or Beatitudo Dei meaning the blessedness of God.
6 Bective Abbey
Cistercian monasteries were usually located in isolated rural settings and sited along rivers. The Cistercians were industrious farmers with cereals, cattle and sheep being produced. Fisheries were developed and mills, bakeries and other local industries initiated.
Bective was located in the centre of the territory of Mide which was granted to Hugh de Lacy following the arrival of the Anglo-Normans, although there is no record of him making a donation towards Bective. De Lacy was felled by an Irishman at Durrow in 1186. His head and body were recovered nine years later. In 1195 de Lacy’s body was interred at Bective while his head was buried at St. Thomas’s Abbey, Dublin. Communities were anxious to acquire the bodies of their founders or distinguished benefactors and Bective’s claim to de Lacy were challenged by St. Thomas’s Abbey in Dublin where the remains of de Lacy’s wife lay. The fact that de Lacy’s body came to Bective is an indication of its high status at the time. Further controversy over his remains ended in 1205 when judges appointed by Pope Innocent III decreed in favour of removal of the body to St. Thomas’s, where it was buried alongside that of his first wife. In 1217 the Abbot of Bective was accused of participating in a ‘riot’ at Jerpoint Abbey, County Kilkenny and was further charged with imprisoning a man in a tree stump until the man died.
In 1386 men of Irish birth were effectively barred from entering the monastery. A large fortified tower was constructed for protection from Irish attacks into the Pale. The Black Death resulted in the numbers of monks being halved and lay numbers were also greatly reduced. The rebuilding at Bective in the late fifteenth century was prompted by the need to adapt the buildings for the smaller numbers of monks.
Bective Abbey closed after its suppression by Henry VIII in 1536 and the estate was gifted to a loyal civil servant. Lord Dunsany wrote that when the monks left Bective to go to Trim they took up half a mile of road. The new owner, Thomas Agard, began the process of converting the former monastery into a domestic residence, with the cloister transformed into an internal courtyard and the refectory turned into a Great Hall. The complex was converted into a great sprawling Tudor manor house with the insertion of new fireplaces, chimneys and large stone windows. The estate passed though the hands of various civil servants, none of whom had the time to pay any great attention to its development and it eventually fell into ruin.
Bective Abbey was location for two scenes in Braveheart, a movie starring Mel Gibson, filmed in Ireland during the summer of 1994. The abbey served as the courtyard of Longshanks’ castle and also represented the dungeons in which Wallace is imprisoned.
Nearby is Bective House the home of John Watson. Watson, one of the most famous equestrian sportsmen in Ireland is recognised as the ‘Father of Polo’, as he formulated a set of fundamental rules for the game. The name, Bective, is recalled in the first book of short stories by local writer, Mary Lavin, Tales from Bective Bridge.
On the south of the river is Balsoon House which is associated with the Ussher family. James Ussher was rector of nearby Assey from 1611 until 1626. He became Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland in 1625 but is most famous for establishing the time of Creation as around 6 pm on 22 October 4004 B.C. Many older Bibles use this chronology as a side listing on their pages and its accuracy is accepted by some modern day creationists.
Bective Abbey is open all year round with no admission charge. A car park ensures safe parking. It is signposted from the R161 between Trim and Navan and is also a convenient stopping point if you are visiting Tara and Trim. The ruins provide a maze of passageways with dead ends and interrupted staircases, all providing a favourite hide-and-seek venue for my children when they were small. The walled ruins are perfect for a family picnic.
7 Bective Bridge
Drogheda – the First 9/11
Located at the mouth of the River Boyne, Drogheda’s name is derived from the Irish ‘Droichead Átha’, meaning bridge of the ford. The Anglo-Normans created two separate towns on either side of the river in the late twelfth century. The two towns were and are in different church dioceses, Meath on the southside and Armagh on the north, had separate corporations, taxes, tariffs and landing charges. The commercial rivalry between the two towns even led to loss of life as each town sought to undercut the other in order to gain a greater share of the local market. In 1412 the two communities were convinced by Fr. Philip Bennet, a local monk, to unite together and seek a single charter from the king. Drogheda developed as a thriving major port in medieval times. In 1494 Poyning’s Law, which made the Irish parliament subject to the English Crown and English Parliament, was passed at a parliament held in Drogheda. The purpose of this law was to curb the independence of Ireland’s parliament. In recent centuries Drogheda has become a significant manufacturing centre. In the 1930s the Boyne Road Cement Factory was constructed east of Drogheda on the River Boyne. The large open quarry north-west of the town was the source of stone for this plant. In 1977 a new cement factory west of Drogheda opened at Platin with the old factory being taken over by Premier Periclase which produces magnesia products from seawater and limestone.
8 Tholsel Drogheda
The elegant viaduct which carries the Dublin to Belfast railway across the Boyne estuary was completed in 1855, with a span of 430 metres. Upriver is the Mary McAleese Boyne Valley Bridge which carries the M1 Northern Motorway, named after our second female president.
Probably the most hated name in Drogheda, if not all of Ireland, is that of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England. People are familiar with the date 9/11, the first 9/11 was in 1649 when Cromwell broke into the town of Drogheda and slaughtered the defenders. The attack on Drogheda was perhaps the most ferocious sacking of a town in Irish history.
Royalist forces under Governor Arthur Ashton held Drogheda when Oliver Cromwell and his forces laid siege to the town in September 1649. The siege lasted two days before Cromwell’s cannons made a breach in the walls. Cromwell observed the number of his soldiers who had died during the siege and told his troops to take no prisoners. He reported back to Parliament ‘that night they put to the sword about two thousand men.’ There has been and continues to be controversy in relation to this action. On one side the story is that all the inhabitants including innocent men, women and children were slaughtered and certainly there were civilian deaths while the other side asserted that the majority of those killed were soldiers who had caused unnecessary causalities in the Cromwellian army by holding out on a siege that was pointless. The massacre at Drogheda became the symbol for the cruelty of the Cromwellian war in Ireland. What happened at Drogheda was by all accounts a savage affair but it was meant to be a deterrent, to discourage future resistance from other towns. The ferocity of Cromwell’s Army may or may not have succeeded in shortening the Cromwellian war in Ireland but they certainly shocked both Royalist and Irish Catholic opinion.
When the remaining 200 soldiers finally surrendered Cromwell orders decreed that ‘their officers were knocked on the head, and every tenth man of the soldiers killed, and the rest shipped to Barbados.’ Thousands of military prisoners were sold in perpetuity to plantation-owners in Barbados and other islands in the Caribbean, to work in the fields, effectively as slaves. Their descendants continue to reside in the Caribbean, particularly on the island of Montserrat, where Irish surnames such as O’Connor, Fitzgerald and O’Carroll are still to be found. Montserrat is the only country outside Ireland where St. Patrick’s Day is a public holiday. The date also commemorates a failed uprising by Afro-Caribbean slaves and members of the island’s free black community on the same date in 1768. On entering Montserrat a shamrock is stamped on your passport and the crest of an Irish woman with a cross and harp is included on the island’s flag.
The town governor, Aston, had lost part of a leg in a riding accident years previously and had a wooden one fitted. He was beaten to death with his own wooden leg, as Cromwell’s soldiers heard a rumour it contained gold and when it was discovered to be plain wood, Aston was hacked to pieces.
Erected in 1770, the Tholsel was the centre for municipal government but is now the Tourist Office. Public floggings and hangings took place in front of building. The tower which surmounts the building houses a large four-faced clock.
9 St. Laurence’s Gate
St. Laurence’s Gate, standing at the top of Laurence Street, was part of the town walls of Drogheda. It is not a gate but rather a barbican which was a fortified structure used to defend the original gate. One of the finest examples of a barbican in Ireland if not Europe St. Laurence’s Gate was one of ten original entrances which allowed access to the town. The gate led to the Friary of St. Laurence which was located just outside the town walls. The town walls of Drogheda were completed in 1334 enclosing a large area, making it one of the largest fortified towns of the time. The two circular towers of the gate, each with four floors, are joined by an archway which has a groove for a portcullis. Entry is gained up a flight of stairs in the south tower. The lower part dates from the thirteenth century while the upper third was constructed in the fifteenth century. This enormous barbican provided a clear view along the river estuary and would have supplied an early warning to any seaborne invasion force. A portion of the town wall remains to the south of the gate.
Drogheda’s Municipal Art Gallery, the Highlanes Gallery, is housed in the former Franciscan Friary on St. Laurence Street. This gallery houses Drogheda’s important municipal art collection, which dates from the seventeenth century, as well as visiting exhibitions. Admission to the gallery is free. The Franciscan Friary church was constructed in 1829 around an earlier Franciscan foundation.
St. Peter’s Church of Ireland church, is among the finest Georgian church buildings in Ireland and was completed in 1757 on the site of a previous church which dated to the thirteenth century. In 1649 some of the defenders took refuge in the wooden steeple of St. Peter’s Church and it is alleged that Cromwell ordered the steeple blown up. The church building is not open to the public, other than for services and events.
10 Cadaver Tomb Cover
A cadaver tomb cover can be found set in to the churchyard wall at the back of St Peter’s churchyard. It is on the back wall of the north-eastern corner of the churchyard, near a locked gateway. The tomb of Sir Edmund Goldyng and his wife, Elizabeth Fleming, dating from 1556, depicts their decomposing bodies surrounded by shrouds. Edmund is depicted with his bowels spilling out, Elizabeth’s spine is visible through the ribcage. Much of Edmund’s arms and the central section of his legs are missing. His hands are crossed on his waist. The female figure shows a body with clear signs of decaying. The face is more similar to a skull, her abdomen is empty. Her hands rest along her body. The top of each shroud is twisted and tied with a knotted rope. Generally this type of tomb was made when the rich person was still alive, so that they could be aware of what was waiting for them after their death. It is intended to make you think of your own mortality. ‘This is how you will end up!’ Very often worms, maggots, toads and frogs are shown feasting on the rotting flesh. There are a number of these cadaver tombs in this area and date from the fourteenth and fifteenth century when as a result of the mortality rate from plagues people became obsessed with death and the transience of life.
Also within the churchyard and near the north wall of the church is the white tombstone of John Duggan, a private in the 17th Lancers and a survivor of the charge of the light brigade at Balaklava. He served as sexton of St. Peter’s church for ten years. His gravestone bears the motto ‘Death or Glory.’ East of the graveyard is a set of almshouses for clergymen’s widows, The Alleys, erected with funding from Archbishop Narcissus Marsh, who went on to found the first public library in Ireland near St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin in 1707.
11 St Peter’s Church exterior
The shrine of St. Oliver Plunkett is preserved in the west transept of the church side altar in St Peter’s Catholic church, on West Street, the main street of Drogheda. Drogheda was the residence of the Archbishops of Armagh until 1835. St. Oliver Plunkett, who was the Catholic bishop of Armagh and primate of Ireland, was executed in London in 1681, the last Roman Catholic martyr to die in England. Born at Loughcrew, Oldcastle, Oliver trained for the priesthood abroad, was ordained in 1654 and became Archbishop of Armagh in 1669. He was responsible for opening a number of schools in Drogheda and also introducing the Jesuit order to his diocese. Arrested in Dublin in 1679 Oliver was tried for high treason. Due to the large anti-Roman Catholic feeling Plunkett was the last victim of ‘The Popish Plot’, a conspiracy theory which imagined an extensive Roman Catholic conspiracy to assassinate King Charles II. Tried twice, once in Ireland and then again in London, the second trial is generally regarded as a serious miscarriage of justice. Although the charge was never proven he was hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in London in 1681
After his execution his head was thrown onto the prepared fire nearby but was rescued by his friends. Scorch marks from the fire may still be seen on the left cheek of the Head. The Relic of the Head was brought to Rome and other places before ending up in the care of the Dominican Nuns in the Siena Convent, Drogheda about 1725. When Oliver was made Blessed in 1921, the Relic was transferred to St. Peter’s Church. The nuns were ‘very crestfallen’ over the loss of their important relic. In 1975 Oliver was made a saint at a canonisation ceremony in Rome.
12 St Peter’s Church interior
The Relic of St. Oliver’s Head now stands in an impressive new shrine, which was constructed in 1995. The Shrine at Drogheda also includes the left clavicle, left scapula, ninth and tenth rib, left hemi-pelvic bone and sacrum relics of St. Oliver, donated by the Benedictine community, Downside around the time of his canonisation. In a glass cabinet nearby, the door of the condemned cell where St. Oliver was imprisoned before his execution is also preserved. There is a wonderful painting of St. Oliver in his robes above the relics and a more horrible one showing him being dragged through the streets of London.
13 Shrine of St Oliver
14 Cell Door
15 Relic of the True Cross
A relic of the True Cross is also on display in the church. The tiny sliver of the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified was presented to St. Peter’s in 2009 by the Archbishop of Ghent. A letter of authenticity accompanies the relic. You do need to remember that it is a church and visitors are asked to maintain a respectful silence.
Once the belfry of an extensive Dominican Friary, the Magdalene Tower, is a landmark in the northern part of the town as is the tall building of the Loudres Hospital where all the babies for this region are born. The Dominican Church, the Augustinian Church and the remains of the Augustinian Abbey, are down by the river.
Set on a hill high above the river Boyne, Millmount Fort is Drogheda’s most strategic location. The summit of the hill offers a magnificent view of the town and the surrounding countryside. Tradition holds that it is the burial site of Amergin, who was regarded as the originator of the arts of song, poetry and music, the first great Celtic poet. The mound may be a passage grave, dating back to the Neolithic Age. Hugh de Lacy constructed the original fortifications on Millmount in the 1170s, having been granted the kingdom of Meath from the Shannon to the sea by Henry II. A few centuries later a larger stone castle was constructed here. This castle formed part of the defences of the town during the siege of Drogheda during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in 1649. Some of the present buildings, in the courtyard were constructed about 1714. In 1808, the original fortifications were demolished and the complex was re-named Richmond Barracks when the present Martello tower was erected. Martello towers were erected all along the coast by the British to defend Irish soil against a possible French invasion. This fort saw no real action until 1922 when it was considerably damaged when it was shelled by Free State forces during the Civil War. Restored by Drogheda Corporation the building is now a museum open to the public.
The Old Drogheda Society, founded in 1969, established a museum at Millmount in 1974 which hosts a range of exhibits including Guild and Trade banners stretching back two centuries, an industrial exhibition, a geological collection, a recreated nineteenth century kitchen, an archaeological display and a Military Room. On show is a Boyne coracle, a round basket–type boat made from ox-hide on a framework of hazel wands which was used for salmon fishing on the River Boyne until the middle of the twentieth century. The hide of the coracle on display was the skin of a black polly bullock which won a prize at the Drogheda Fat Stock Show in 1943. Millmount Museum, which won an International Gulbenkian Museum Award, is open all year round and admission includes access to the tower.
17 Model of the Fenian Ram, the first successful submarine.
John Philip Holland developed the first submarine to be commissioned by the US Navy and the first submarine for the Royal Navy. Holland had been a teacher at the Christian Brothers’ School in Drogheda. In commemoration of his work a monument was erected at the gates of Scholars Townhouse which was previously the Christian Brothers’ monastery. Born in Clare, Holland joined the Christian Brothers in Cork and in 1865 he took up the position of teacher of mathematics and music at the Christian Brothers in Drogheda. While in Drogheda he designed a submersible duck which could dive into a lake and return to walk on dry land. In 1873 Holland left both the Christian Brothers and Ireland for America. A sculpture of one of his proto-types, The Fenian Ram, was unveiled in 2014 to commemorate the connection of Holland to Drogheda.
Downriver from Drogheda is Beaulieu House, sited on lands originally owned by the Plunkett family. The house, which is still occupied, is open to the public during the summer months and to groups and for events at other times. I have many happy memories of visiting when Mrs. Waddington was the owner. Her husband, Victor, was an early supporter of Jack B. Yeats and many of his paintings were on display in the house in her time. The four acre gardens and the church with its cadaver tomb are also worth visiting. The church grounds are open on an occasional basis. The cadaver stone at Beaulieu House is the best preserved stone of its type in the area. A snake winds its way in one ear of the corpse and out the other. The house, one of the first unfortified big houses in Ireland was erected in the 1660s for Sir Henry Tichbourne and is still occupied by his descendants.
Hill of Ward – Home of Halloween
Located southeast of the town of Athboy, the Hill of Ward or Tlachtga is the birthplace of Halloween. Samhain, the ancient Celtic Festival that we now call Halloween, originated here. A potion of pagan and Christian meanings, lore and legend Halloween was linked with the dead and the otherworld. The Celts lit bonfires to guide and welcome friendly spirits and wore costumes and masks to scare evil away.
The earthworks on the hill include a central raised enclosure surrounded by four banks and ditches, that appear as a series of concentric earthworks on top of the hill. The inner enclosure is approximately fifty metres in diameter. It is one of a very few recognised four bank enclosures, the others occurring at royal sites at Tara and Rathcroghan. The earthworks are approximately 150 metres in diameter. Like Tara to get a real concept of the complex an aerial view is best. Otherwise it is a field with banks, humps and hollows. The earthworks at Tlachtga have suffered much disturbance in their long history and are now a national monument. It is situated on private land.
18 Hill of Ward, Tlachtga. Photo: Aubrey Martin
A high status site Tlachtga possibly originated in the Late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age as a ceremonial enclosure. A royal site associated with the kings of Munster and the high kings of Ireland Tlachtga was one of the important four Celtic hillfort sites along with Tara, Tailteann and Uisneach. King Tuathal, in the second century, chose Tlachtga as his royal residence on being recalled from banishment in Scotland.
Tlachtga is named after a daughter of Mogh Ruith, son of Fergus. Mogh Ruith was a student of Simon Magus, the alleged executioner of John the Baptist. Tlachtga fled from her father’s house and gave birth to three sons, Dorb, Cuma and Muacth, and then died. She was buried in the centre of Tlachtga. Tlachtga buried the roth rámach, the ‘oared wheel,’ on the hill. This machine was a magical flying wheel powered by lightning but in some stories it is an instrument of death which strikes dead all who see it, touch it or hear it on the hill. Another theory is that Tlachtga was founded by the Celtic god Lug and the place dedicated to the cult of the sacred fire. Tlachtga is also translated as earth spear.
Keating’s seventeenth century History of Ireland stated ‘It was there the Fire of Tlachtga was instituted, at which it was custom to assemble and bring together the druids of Ireland on the eve of Samhain to offer sacrifices to all the gods.’
On Samhain Eve, it was believed that a great fire was lit on the site, summoning all ‘the priests, augurs and druids of Ireland to consume the sacrifices that were offered to their pagan gods’. It was decreed that all the fires within the kingdom were to be extinguished and rekindled using the sacred flame of Tlachtga.
The great festival of the dead marked the coming of the long winter nights the beginning of the Celtic New Year. The winter fires were ignited as the sun went down on the eve of Samhain. The tradition of a Halloween fire continues to this day but in the United Kingdom the date has been displaced to 5 November in commemoration of the attempted blowing up of the Houses of Parliament by Guy Fawkes in 1606.
The Celts believed that this was a time of transition, when the veil between our world and the next came down, and the spirits of all who had died during the year moved on to the next life.
With the coming of Christianity the festival was incorporated into the Christian calendar as a time of remembrance for the holy souls so the Samhain festival of the ancestors retained its relevance. Irish immigrants carried the Halloween tradition to North America in the nineteenth century.
19 Excavations on the Hill of Ward Photo: Joe Conlon
The top of the hill was the preserve of the druids only accessible to the ordinary people on the great festival of Samhain. It was suggested that the druids practised human sacrifice and it was thought that Tlachtga was a place of pilgrimage for women who were childless. These women would bring their slave’s children to be sacrificed in the hope that the spirits of the child sacrificed would enter their bodies and be reborn.
A festival has been developed locally around the tradition of Halloween, ‘The Spirits of Meath’ and two local venues have developed scream and scare events.
In 1022 the High King Máel Sechnaill defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Ath Buidhe Tlachtga at the foot of the Tlachtga. There was great slaughter that day and Malachy won back the collar of gold from the Vikings.
In 1166 Ruaidraí Ua Conchobair defeated his rival and became undisputed High King of Ireland. Ua Conchobair sought to unite his people so he summoned ‘the power and the patriotism of the day’ to a great convention at Tlachtga. The prelates and princes of the northern half of the country assembled on the hill. The Annals of the Four Master record ‘They passed many good resolutions at this meeting, respecting veneration for churches and clerics, and control of tribes and territories, so that women used to traverse Ireland alone.’
In the mid-twelfth century Tigernán Ua Ruairc, chief of Breffni, had been granted east Meath by the High King and was not prepared to give this up to Hugh de Lacy who had arrived with the Norman English in the early 1170s. A meeting on Tlachtga was arranged between the two men. Both were to come alone and unarmed to discuss the limits of their territories. Two men went up the Hill to negotiate but only one came back down – Hugh de Lacy. On one side it is asserted that Ua Ruairc produced a battle axe from beneath his robe and attacked de Lacy while on the other side it is alleged that Ua Ruairc was treacherously killed and beheaded. His headless body was sent to Dublin and gibbeted with the feet upwards on the northern side of the city with his head erected over the door of the fortress.
During a recent archaeological survey a medieval settlement was discovered to the east of the hill and also an enclosure and possible cairn site. The geophysical survey revealed the existence of a large enclosure running underneath the visible monument, suggesting that it predates the monument itself. This ditch is approximately three metres in width cut through the limestone bedrock. Constructed without the use of metal tools it is suggested that the ditch was excavated by fire setting. This involved the lighting of large fires on the rock and when they were at peak temperature to cool the rock suddenly using water, thereby splitting and splintering the rock. The remains of a very young child was discovered carefully placed at the base of the ditch and covered with large flat stones. The infant was probably less than ten months old when he or she died and has been radio carbon dated to the fifth century.
20 Samahain Festival Athboy Photo: Joe Conlon
Arriving in Ireland in 1649 it is alleged that Cromwell camped on the Hill of Ward. One story is that Cromwell had his cannon turned on the Plunkett family as they approached the Hill of Ward to discuss truce terms. All the Plunkett family were killed in an instant. Lady Plunkett who was watching from the tower of Rathmore Castle saw what happened and was so shocked that she fell to her death. There is tradition that John Bligh received Rathmore Castle and estate from Cromwell on the Hill of Ward. It was believed that Bligh was granted all the land he could see from the top of the hill. He could see Rathmore, Athboy, Ballivor and Kildalkey, 28,000 acres in all and his descendants held the lands until 1908. Rathmore church is a ruined medieval church on the Athboy-Navan Road. It was constructed by the Plunkett family which were relatives of the Plunketts of Dunsany, Killeen and Loughcrew. The church is similar to those at Killeen and Dunsany. Within the vestry is the effigy tomb of Sir Thomas Plunkett and his wife Mary Ann Cruise. Sir Thomas is dressed in armour and a dog sleeps at his feet, a dog being a sign of fidelity. This tomb originally stood in the church but was moved to the sacristy to protect it from the elements.
In the fifteenth century Sir Christopher Cruise held Rathmore together with Moydarragh and Cruicestown. He married late in life and this marriage resulted in a pregnancy and the possibility of a direct heir. His nephews were distressed at this as this meant the child would inherit not them. They plotted to murder Sir Christopher and his wife as they walked along the avenue to Moydarragh Castle. Sir Christopher ordered his wife to make a run for the castle for reinforcements while he held off the ruffians with his sword. When she returned her husband had died. Fearing for her life she ordered that her husband be buried. Lady Cruise had a rumour spread that she was seriously ill. She gathered all the plate and treasures in the castle and had them sunk in the nearby lake. She herself was placed in a coffin as though she were dead and carried to Rathmore. Here she collected all the treasures and placed them in the coffin which was soon buried in her place. Lady Cruise collected all the title deeds to Rathmore and Cruisetown and fled to London. Lady Cruise gave birth to a daughter who was named Mary Anne and they lived on what treasures Lady Cruise had brought from Ireland. These funds ran out and the two women had to make a living washing laundry on the banks of the river Thames. One day while singing a song in Irish which her mother had composed listing all the lands which her family had held in Ireland Mary Anne was heard from a nearby bridge by a young Irish lawyer, Sir Thomas Plunkett. He understood the words of the song and went to meet the singer. Mary Anne impressed him so much that she took him home to her mother who showed the young lawyer the title deeds. Sir Thomas married Mary Anne and secured the return of her lands so he won more than her heart when he married her! A cross commemorating the marriage was erected at Killeen. Rathmore church also has a labyrinth stone and the shaft of a wayside cross.
21 Statue of Fr. Eoghan Ó Gramhnaigh
Athboy was the birthplace of Frederick Harvey, winner of the Victoria Cross and of Fr. Eoghan Ó Gramhnaigh. Ó Gramhnaigh was a founder member of Conradh na Gaeilge in 1893 and his booklets Simple Lessons in Irish did much to promote the language. A statue to Ó Gramhnaigh stands in the grounds of the Catholic church.
The Irish speaking area, the Gaeltacht of Ráth Chairn was founded in 1935 when twenty seven families from Connemara were moved to Meath. Each family was provided with a house and a small farm. The re-settlement aimed to address the poverty of the families on the western seaboard and to introduce the Irish language as a spoken language into an English speaking area. There were later additions of further families from the west. As Irish speakers the newcomers stood out from the local people and it took a while for them to be accepted by some locals. The Irish language and their common roots in Galway were the bonds that enabled the new community to survive. Today the Gaeltacht is a thriving community with a co-op, primary school, secondary school and church.
Kells of the Book
For most people Kells is associated with the Book of Kells, the beautifully illuminated manuscript now on display in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin. The Book may have been written in Iona and possibly only finished in Kells. With the recent discovery of the Donore Hoard at nearby Moynalty, which bears many of the designs displayed in the Book and pre-dating the Book by a century, experts are beginning to examine this theory again. The monastery at Kells was founded in 806 by monks from St. Colmcille’s monastery at Iona in Scotland. One of the great centres of Celtic Christianity, the monastic remains include a wonderful collection of High Crosses, an oratory and a round tower. Kells was a major artistic centre in the early medieval period. The stone work and illuminated manuscripts are matched by the metalwork.
According to later tradition St. Colmcille founded a monastery at Kells about 554 AD. St. Columba is the name given to the saint by the Anglicans while the Catholics call him Colmcille. Even the names of the saints can divide us. Colmcille means the dove of the church. Colmcille founded monasteries throughout Ireland including Derry, Swords, Raphoe and Durrow. While studying at a monastery in Moville Colmcille was reading the beautifully illuminated book of psalms which belonged to his teacher, St. Finian. Colmcille asked for permission to copy the book and when it was refused he copied the book secretly. When this was discovered Finian appealed to the king and King Diarmuid had to decided who owned the copy. Diarmuid made the first copyright decision in the world and decreed: ‘To every cow its calf and to every book its copy.’ Colmcille was dismayed at the decision and a war broke out over the controversy. A large number of people were killed and Colmcille, blaming himself for the loss of life, decided his penance was to leave Ireland and never come back. He left for Scotland where he founded a monastery on the island of Iona.
22 Unfinished Cross and Round Tower
The monastery at Kells was located on the highest point of the hill where the Church of Ireland church and churchyard are located. The site may have previously been a royal residence and the curved streets of the town follow the line of the enclosure. There may have been an inner enclosure centred on the church. The place name derives from Ceannnas Mór or Ceann Lios, meaning great fort so the site might have been a royal residence. The name is sometimes interpreted as head fort which survives as a name of a house, some streets and an hereditary title. Following our independence many old Irish names were restored to place names. In 1929, Ceannanus Mór was made the town’s official name and the Irish form of the name survived until 1993 when the popularly used Kells was restored.
In 793 the monastery at Iona heard the alarming news that the monastery at Lindisfarne in north-east England had been viciously attacked by raiders from across the sea. This first recorded assault by the Vikings sent a feeling of fear into the hearts of the monks and two years later Iona was attacked and destroyed. The abbot and monks decided to move back to Ireland for safety and re-established the monastery at Kells. And in a few short years the Vikings were raiding Ireland and Kells. In Anglo-Norman times the priory of the Hospitallers of Saint John of Jerusalem was established and the site of this monastery may be visited, as it is now a graveyard, just off Headfort Place. In 1315 Edward Bruce, brother of Robert Bruce, burned the town of Kells to the ground. Edward aspired to the kingship of Ireland and his campaign also deflected English forcers from the campaign against Scotland. The Bruce campaign in Ireland lasted three years, three years of unusually bad weather and disastrous harvests. Edward was defeated and killed at Faughart, outside Dundalk in 1318. Kells was on both the route north and the route west from Dublin and bordered the territory of the Irish clan of O’Reillys. Raids by the Irish into the English controlled part of Ireland in the 1400s led to a drop in population in Kells as a result of the high taxation imposed on merchants to maintain the town walls.
Constructed in the tenth century the round tower, cloighteach or bell tower was used as a lookout spot and place of refuge during attacks. The round tower is located in the grounds of the Church of Ireland as are four high crosses. The grounds are usually open to the public and visitors are welcome to visit the graveyard and the church may also be open for visits. The imposing round tower has five windows at its top unlike most other round towers which had four, for each of the four directions, north, south east and west. Kells had five windows to keep a watch on the five approach roads to the monastery. Access to the upper floors was by means of ladders with each floor being illuminated by a single window. The doorway looks quite low as the surrounding graveyard has been raised around it. The doorway faces east, in line with the west door of the associated church. The stonework around the door is different to the rest of the tower. It may date to after 1076 when a claimant for the high kingship of Ireland took refuge in the tower but was removed and murdered. There is a local tradition that any girl who rubbed her skirt against the wall of the round tower will never leave Kells. Folklore says that the round tower was erected in three days by the Gobán Saor, helped by his wife who brought the stone to the site in her apron. The Gobán Saor was a famous craftsman and mason of Irish legend.
Four of the High Crosses are in the church yard with the fifth, the Market Cross, at the Navan entrance to the town. The crosses are dated to the ninth and tenth centuries. Scenes from the Bible decorate the base, shaft and arms of the crosses. It could be said that they are really books in stone and used to educate the illiterate about the Biblical stories. Some suggest that they were painted.
23 Cross of St. Patrick and St. Columba
Near the round tower is the Cross of St. Patrick and St. Columba, also known as the South Cross, which was erected in the ninth century. The dedication to St. Patrick and St. Columba linked Kells to Armagh. Carved from a single block of sandstone on the east face, scenes that are depicted include Adam and Eve, Cain killing Abel, the Three Children in the Furnace and Daniel in the Lions’ Den.
24 The West Cross or Broken Cross
25 Baptism of Christ
26 Adam and Eve
The West Cross or Broken Cross stands at the west end of the graveyard. The scenes on the cross include the Baptism of Christ and on the reverse, Adam and Eve and Noah’s Ark. Christ’s baptism takes place in the river Jordan, the carver showing two springs believing that there were two rivers, the Jor and the Dan!
The East Cross or Unfinished Cross provides an idea into how the great high crosses may have been carved. Carved on site this cross was buried for a long period before being re-erected. Some speculate that the carver may have been killed by a Viking raid or driven far from Kells by a Viking attack never to return. All that remains of The North Cross is the base which is located by the bell tower.
27 The Market Cross
28 Hunt Scene at base of Market Cross
The Market Cross was located in the centre of the town. It was a termon or boundary cross and any criminal reaching the cross was safe from pursuit. It also stood over the commercial market. Among the scenes depicted on the cross are Daniel in the Lions’ Den, the Sacrifice of Isaac, Adam and Eve, and Cain killing Abel. Adam and Eve and the killing of Cain features on many high crosses and seems to have been a popular subject. Non religious subjects also feature as there is a scene depicting either a deer hunt or a man herding animals on the base. The cross bears an inscription ‘This cross was erected at the charge of Robert Balfe of Callierstown, being sovereign of the corporation of Kells, anno domini 1688’ and a biblical panel was removed to accommodate this inscription. The cross was used as a gallows to hang rebels after the 1798 rebellion. Following an accident with a bus the cross was moved to a position of safety in front of the old Courthouse. There is a replica of the cross in the Courthouse while the real one stands outside.
The current church, St. Columba’s, was constructed in 1778 by Thomas Taylor, first Earl of Bective. Lying against the south wall is a sundial. To the north of the church is a medieval bell tower not attached to the building.
29 St. Colmcille’s House
Situated on Church Lane on the outside of the north wall is a stone oratory, St. Colmcille’s House. This church building was strategically positioned at one of the highest points in the town until the modern police station was constructed on a higher location. Dating from the eleventh century, the building is accessible to visitors. Access arrangements are on display on the gate. The building may have once housed the relics of St. Colmcille. The roof is barrel vaulted with three small chambers in the roof space, reached by a long ladder. This space held Colmcille’s Bed, a large stone slab, two metres long and a third of a metre thick. In the 1980s the lock on the entrance was broken and the Bed disappeared. The entrance is modern, the original door was at the west end and about two metres off the ground, the present ground floor being the basement of the building. In the 1830s a poor family were living there and were accused of sheep stealing. The discovery of sheep carcasses in the roof croft confirmed their guilt. Locals believe that a tunnel existed from St. Colmcille’s House to St. Columba’s Church.
The Book of Kells is the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts of the Western World and has been described as ‘The Work of Angels.’ The four Gospels of New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are included together with various charters, texts and tables. The type of script is insular majuscule. Created by monks around 800 AD the Book of Kells was written on vellum made from about 185 calf skins. The monks kept a herd of as many as 1,200 cattle which provided food and milk for the monastery. Rare and expensive dyes were used, some imported from the Mediterranean area or even as far away as Afghanistan. A large well equipped scriptorium would have been required. At least three talented scribes were involved in the decoration. The Book was never finished, for reasons unknown, and some folios are missing. It is believed that the Book of Kells was made for display and ceremonial use, not to be read out loud.
In 1007 the Book of Kells was stolen and discovered two months and twenty days later ‘under a sod’ a few hundred metres away without its jewelled and gold cover and some of its pages missing. Following the dissolution of the monasteries the Book of Kells was held by the retiring abbot and it then passed into the hands of his family, the Plunketts. In 1653 the Book of Kells was sent to Dublin for safe keeping by Charles Lambert, the governor of Kells. It then came into the possession of Archbishop James Ussher and it was donated to Trinity College by his nephew, Henry Jones, in 1661 when he became Bishop of Meath. How the book came into his possession is unclear. The Book is on permanent display at Trinity College Library in Dublin. The library usually displays two of the four volumes at a time, one showing a major illustration and the other showing typical text pages. Every few years a new campaign commences in Kells to have a section returned to the place it was written but so far without success.
The Kells Crosier, dating to around 1000 AD, is on display at the British Museum, London. The crozier was discovered behind the cupboard of a London solicitor’s office in 1850. This cupboard had not been moved for sixty years previously. The crozier subsequently belonged to several owners, including Cardinal Wiseman, before being purchased by the British Museum in 1859. In 2000 a replica of the crozier was made and exhibited in Kells.
The late eleventh century shrine of the Cathach, was created by Sitric of Kells to the order of Cathbarr O’Donnell, and it may be seen in the National Museum of Ireland. An Cathach, possibly written by Colmcille, is a late sixth century copy of the psalms and was a very important relic used by the Clan O’Donnell of Donegal, as a rallying cry and protector in battle.
Distinguished locals include Dick Farrelly composer of ‘The Isle of Innisfree’, a hit for Bing Crosby and theme of ‘The Quiet Man.’ Maureen O’Hara, a native of Kells, is commemorated with a bust at Bective Place in Kells. Maureen was closely associated with the director, John Ford, and actor, John Wayne, and starred in ‘The Quiet Man.’ Jim Connell from nearby Kilskyre, wrote the socialist anthem ‘The Red Flag’ and is remembered each year on May Day in Kells and Crossakiel.
St. Colmcille’s well is located just off the road to Oldcastle, north of the town of Kells. A narrow walkway leads down to the well. In the early part of the twentieth century large crowds assembled on the eve of St. Colmcille’s day and recited the Holy Rosary in honour of the saint. Townspeople assembled there and decorated the well with flowers and candles. People visited the well to pray and brought home water to drink. During the evening the local band played popular tunes. According to local tradition five fish appeared in the well on the eve of St. Colmcille’s day. The annual pattern day is now celebrated on the ninth of June, the anniversary of Columcille’s death in 597 AD.
30 Tower of Lloyd
On the western outskirts of Kells stands the Spire or Tower of Lloyd, the only inland lighthouse in Ireland. Twenty five miles from the sea the tower was erected in 1791 as a folly by the first Earl of Bective, supposedly to honour his father, the Marquess of Bective. The tower was used to view horse racing and the hunt. Others say it was erected to provide employment at a time of economic hardship. It is possible to view five counties from the top. The tower was restored by a mobile phone company and is open to the public at designated times. At the top of the hill is the site of the Paupers’ Graveyard. The area round the tower has been developed as a community park, with a children’s playground, a ring walk and picnics tables. In the summer of 1868 John Abraham ffolliott, discovered a fairy coat as he went for a morning walk near a ‘fairy ring’ at Lloyd. The coat measures sixteen centimetres from collar to hem, fully lined with a velvet collar and made of brownish-grey material in a style for the late eighteenth century.
To the south-east of Kells on the Navan road is Tailteann, the site of games held by the high kings of Ireland and alleged to be the template for the Olympic Games. The Tailteann Games were revived by the new Irish state in 1924 and were held in 1928 and 1932. The Celtic fairs at Tailteann were occasions for trial marriages. A tall wall was constructed with a number of small holes. Girls put their finger though the holes to be admired by the males on the other side. If a man liked a finger he selected its owner as a partner. The couple were married for a year and a day and would return to Tailteann either make it permanent or go back to the wall.
There is a wonderful bog walk at Girley. Located seven kilometres from Kells on the Mullingar road, the trail covers a variety of forest and bog land with a variety of birdlife, plants and animals.
About thirty passage tombs are spread across the Loughcrew hills in north-west Meath. The cairns location on the highest point of the county is striking. The name Loughcrew is derived from the Irish Loch Craobh meaning the lake of the branches, which is a lake at the base of the ridge on which the Loughcrew Cairns were constructed. Dating to before 3000 BC these are one of the four main passage grave complexes in the country and are contemporary or a little older than Newgrange. Although commonly referred to as tombs, they were so much more. They were ritual monuments, places where gatherings took place. These sites were infused with a sense of power, superstition and mysticism. The complex is laid out across three hilltops, Carnbane East, Carnbane West and Patrickstown. There are thirteen cairns on Carnbane West and seven on Carnbane East with the centrepiece being Cairn T. The large stones of the cairns abound with megalithic art, lozenges, circles, dots, chevrons, zigzags, and triangles leaf shapes. Eugene Conwell, who discovered the cairns, hoped that a stone like the Rosetta stone could be discovered which would provide the meaning of the artwork.
Constructed by a community of Neolithic farmers they certainly picked a spectacular site. It was common that a site like this would overlook settlements. The surrounding area is relatively flat and there is a fabulous views to the east and south across the plains of Meath and to the lakelands of Cavan to the north. On a clear day it is possible to make out eighteen of Ireland’s thirty two counties. The hills of Tara and Slane can be picked out on the eastern horizon.
31 Loughcrew Cairn T Photo: Aubrey Martin
It is amazing that the mapmakers of the Ordnance Survey completing the first scientific mapping of the country in the 1830s did not record these monuments. A schools inspector, Eugene A. Conwell, re-discovered the monuments while on a picnic with his wife in 1863 and it was he who then undertook the first thorough exploration and mapping of the tombs, allocating a letter from the alphabet to each tomb. Conwell suggested that the main cairn, Cairn T, was the tomb of Ollamh Fodhla, the ancient lawgiver and king of Ireland. Further research would determine that the tombs were constructed over 2000 years before this legendary figure.
Known in Irish as Sliabh na Cailleach, meaning the mountains of the witch or hag, Jonathan Swift recorded the local folklore describing how the witch filled her apron with stones which fell out on the summits of the three hills and then she plummeted to her death before she reached the final hill. A mound on Patrickstown Hill marks her burial site. The fallen stones formed the cairns. The witch or hag was not the feared creation we dread in the present day – the hag was a respected wise old woman who had gained special knowledge of the natural world and could use it to cure minor ailments and illnesses.
Cairn T dominates the crest of Carnbane East. The mound is thirty five metres in diameter, with a five metre passage ending in a cruciform chamber. The largest of the thirty seven large kerb stones, is the Hag’s Chair, a massive block with imposing armrests carved from the stone and facing north. A deeply-incised cross carved into its seat was noted by Conwell as a mapmaking mark, although others have claimed that the stone was used as a Mass rock during Penal times. It may have served as an altar in pagan times as it provides an unobscured view of the two neighbouring hills with their tombs to the east and to the west. Local lore states that a modern visitor, seated on the chair, will be granted a single wish.
32 Hag’s Chair From Discovery of the Tomb of Ollamh Fodhla by Eugene A. Conwell
Inside Cairn T a cruciform chamber with a corbelled roof and some of the most beautiful examples of Neolithic art in Ireland was constructed. The builders used sandstone for the decorated stones while the local limestone was used for the cairns. A high sill stone has to be stepped over to get into the chamber. The capstone of the chamber is missing and a modern vent shaft allows in light and air. When Conwell first excavated the tomb in 1864 he discovered cremated remains. A quartz wall was discovered behind the kerbstones. The quartz may have have come from the Wicklow mountains. The name of the townland, Carnbane, is translated as white mound.
The passageway is aligned with the rising sun of the spring and autumn equinoxes. During the spring and autumn equinoxes people gather at dawn in Cairn T to watch sunlight enter the chamber and illuminate the inside of the tomb. The sunlight moves from left to right on the back stone highlighting the carved symbols for about sixty minutes. This occurs when the day and night are of equal length about 20/21 March and 22/23 September and on a few days either side. The cairns are opened on three mornings by the OPW staff. Dress warmly if you are going to attend and arrive early as there are usually large crowds. There is no pre-booking of places like the solstice event at Newgrange and the guides try to accommodate as many of the attendance as possible. Around Cairn T are a number of smaller satellite tombs which have been scavenged for stone but many have the stones of the tombs intact, some with decoration.
33 Plan of Carn T From Discovery of the Tomb of Ollamh Fodhla by Eugene A. Conwell
Excavations were carried out by Conwell but he was not an archaeologist and some of the tombs were partly destroyed by him. In 1943 Cairn H was excavated by Joseph Raftery, who discovered a further 3,000 bone fragments, with 300 bearing designs characteristic of the Celtic Iron Age La Tène style so the cairns continued in use from the Stone Age to the Iron Age.
There is a small car park below Carnbane East and from here there is a pathway up the hill. Access to the hill and monuments is free. It is not a long walk but the ground is uneven and steep. There is no wheelchair access. There are benches set beside the route so you can take a rest. During the summer months Cairn T is open to the public and there is a guide who will provide free information and a torch if requested. During the rest of the year Cairn T is locked but the key can be obtained at the nearby Loughcrew Gardens. A deposit against the return of the key is usual. Bring a torch to see the extraordinary art work. Photography is allowed within the tomb. It is possible to be alone on the site and allow your mind to travel back over the millennia to a time when there was magic here at Loughcrew. Carnbane West is private property and permission from the landowner is required for access. Please note the approach roads are very narrow and extreme caution is needed. There are no toilet facilities. On another approach road to Oldcastle there is a viewing point at Patrickstown.
Loughcrew Megalithic Centre is located a short distance from the car park in the traditionally styled home of Maggie Heaney. A tour will bring you back to a simpler time in Irish life. There is also a cosy café, a craft shop, a cottage hostel, a tranquil caravan park and a yurt. Guided tours are also provided to the cairns from the Centre.
34 St Oliver Plunkett
Loughcrew was the seat of a branch of the Plunkett family, whose most famous member became the martyred St. Oliver Plunkett. His feast day is 1 July and so the annual celebration in his honour is held each year in Loughcrew, on the first Sunday of July at 3pm. Loughcrew Gardens are generally open to the public from March to October every year. The ancient yew walk, medieval motte and St. Oliver Plunkett family church ruins may be visited.
Oldcastle is an eighteenth century estate town laid out by the local landlords, the Naper family who were granted the lands confiscated from the Plunkett family. The market house at the centre of the square is now a commercial enterprise. Oldcastle Workhouse, now demolished, was an internment camps for German and Austrian natives during World War 1. In 1902 a newspaper titled Sinn Féin was first published here in Oldcastle, the first prominent use of the words.
To the northwest of Oldcastle is Mullaghmeen Forest, the largest beech forest in Ireland. Along with the beech it has sitka spruce, scots pine and noble fir along with an interesting collection of native trees. Various looped walks are laid out through the forest.
Nearby is Fore Abbey which was founded as an early Christian monastery by St. Féichín but which was replaced by a Benedictine foundation in the twelfth century. Because of its relationship with its French motherhouse, Fore was regularly seized by the English authorities as ‘alien property’ when England was at war with France. Located in a picturesque valley, Fore is well-known for the Seven Wonders of Fore, the anchorite in a stone, the water that will not boil, the monastery built on a bog, the mill without a millstream, the water that flows uphill, the tree which will not burn and the stone lintel raised by the saint’s prayers. The ruins of Fore Abbey are the only remnants of a Benedictine abbey in Ireland. It is well worth a visit and do examine the columbarium or dovecote where the monks raised pigeons to eat.
Founded in 1142 by St. Malachy of Armagh, Mellifont was the first Cistercian monastery in Ireland. This significant event marked the re-organisation of the Irish church and monastic system, bringing it into line with continental Europe. The monastery is located in a quiet river valley between Slane and Drogheda, well beyond the temptations of the world. This site is sometimes calleed Old Mellifont to distinguish it from New Mellifont in nearby Collon, where the Cistercians have re-established a monastery.
35 Mellifont Photo: Aubrey Martin
St. Malachy is best remembered for his prophecies relating to the papacy. It is said that in 1139 when Malachy visited Rome he had a strange vision about the future that foretold the identity of every pope, 112 in all from his time, who would rule until the end of time. Each pope is foretold in a short phrase. Pope John XXIII was described by Malachy as ‘Pastor et Nautas,’ meaning Pastor and Sailor. Pope John was both a profoundly pastoral pontiff and had been patriarch of Venice, a city of sailors. The prophecy described Pope Benedict, as ‘Gloria Olivae,’ which means the glory of the olive. The Benedictine order of monks have an affinity to the olive and one of their branches are named the Olivetan. According to the prophecy Pope Francis is the last pope. The prophecy is: ‘n the final persecution of the Holy Roman Church there will reign Peter the Roman, who will feed his flock amid many tribulations, after which the seven-hilled city will be destroyed and the dreadful Judge will judge the people. The End.’ Francis chose his papal name from Saint Francis of Assisi, whose full name was Francesco di Pietro di Bernardone – Pietro meaning Peter. Pope Francis served on the Curia in Rome. The authenticity of the prophecies is questioned as they were not published until 1595 nearly five hundred years after St. Malachy had died. There are similarities to the Third Secret of Fatima: ‘… before reaching there the Holy Father passed through a big city half in ruins and half trembling with halting step, afflicted with pain and sorrow, he prayed for the souls of the corpses he met on his way; having reached the top of the mountain, on his knees at the foot of the big Cross he was killed by a group of soldiers who fired bullets and arrows at him…’
St. Malachy as Archbishop of Armagh led the reform of the Irish church. While travelling to Rome Malachy lodged at the monastery at Clairvaux in France, where he became friendly with St. Bernard. Impressed by the Cistercian rule and discipline on his return to Ireland Malachy despatched a number of Irish novices to be trained under St. Bernard’s direction. The lands for the new monastery at Mellifont were gifted by the local king, Donnchad Ua Cerbaill. A mixed group of French and Irish monks formed the first community. The original church was constructed in the 1150s under the guidance of a French monk, Robert. The French monks quarrelled with the Irish monks and soon departed back to Clairvaux, provoking St. Bernard to complain to St. Malachy. St Bernard viewed the Irish at this time as being in the ‘depth of barbarism… never had he found men so shameful in their morals, so wild in their rites, so impious in their faith, so barbarous in their laws, so stubborn in discipline, so unclean in their life. They were Christians in name, in fact they were pagans.’
36 Mellifont Photo Chris Hill Ireland’s Content Pool.
The new church was consecrated in 1157 and the High King who was in attendance donated 60 ounces of gold and land near Drogheda to the new monastery. Dervorgilla, wife of Tigernan Ua Ruairc, also attended and presented 60 ounces of gold, a gold chalice for the altar of Mary and nine cloths for the other altars of the church. In 1152 Dervorgilla was abducted by Diarmait Mac Murchada, King of Leinster. As a result Mac Murchada was expelled from Ireland in 1166 by the High King. Mac Murchada travelled to England and then France to seek the support of King Henry II in the conflict. This resulted in the arrival of the Normans to Ireland and the connections and complications which have resulted from the link to England for the last eight hundred years. Dervorgilla is often painted as the scarlet woman whose abduction or elopement with Mac Murchada was the reason the English came to Ireland. Later Dervorgilla entered the monastery at Mellifont, spending the last years of her life there, dying on 25 January 1193, aged eighty five years.
By 1170 Mellifont’s congregation had grown to one hundred monks and three hundred lay brothers. From this initial Cistercian monastery more than thirty daughter houses were established, the first being Bective. By 1216 there had been a general breakdown of discipline and the abbot and monks refused to obey the rules of their superiors. Visitors were appointed to reform Mellifont but in 1217 the abbot refused their admission and barred the abbey gate with a crowd of lay brothers. This event became notorious as the ‘Conspiracy of Mellifont.’ A French abbot was appointed as abbot of Mellifont but he resigned after a short period when he discovered that his monks were plotting to kill him. Contrary to Cistercian Rules, there were women in the monastery. A house of nuns had been established adjoining Mellifont and the abbot’s house was within the courtyard of the nuns. An English abbot arrived to solve the crisis and appointed a new abbot, limited the number of monks and lay brothers and ensured that those who entered could confess in French or Latin. The latter condition was obviously an attempt at limiting the number of troublesome Irish who could become monks. He also ordered the selling of the nun’s house.
Mellifont abbey became one of the wealthiest abbeys in Ireland with vast holdings of land. In 1488 Abbot Thomas Hervey received a royal pardon for his support of the Lambert Simnel rebellion. The Yorkists faction attempted to place the ten year old Simnel on the throne of England. Simnel was crowned in Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin as Edward VI. Supported by the Fitzgeralds of Kildare and Flemish mercenaries Simnel’s army invaded England but was defeated. Henry VII, king of England, pardoned Simnel as he saw him as a pawn being used by older men and provided him with a job of cleaning the pots in the royal kitchen.
The monks lived simply and austerely embracing the order’s rules of silence, prayer, manual labour and seclusion from the world. There were two categories of monks, Lay monks and choral monks. Many lay brothers were illiterate peasants who performed the domestic or agricultural work of the community. Lay brothers were bound by vows of chastity and obedience to their abbot but were allowed to follow a less demanding form of Cistercian life. The lay brothers wore a brown tunic instead of the white worn by the choral monks. For the choral monks daily life was divided between work, worship, reading and rest. Mass had to be said daily, this is the reason for the number of altars.
37 Mellifont Gatehouse
At the Reformation the monastery was dissolved by Henry VIII and came into the possession of the Moore family. Initially the Moores expanded the gatehouse and created a tower house as a home. Then part of the monastery was converted into a fortified manor house, destroying most of the old religious buildings. The Chapter House remained in use and became a banqueting hall for the Moores. In 1603 Mellifont was the site of the surrender of Hugh O’Neill, following defeat at the Battle of Kinsale, which ended the Nine Year War. The English were aware of Queen Elizabeth’s death and were anxious to conclude an agreement before the news became known to the Irish leaders in case O’Neill fought on to secure better terms from the new king. The Treaty of Mellifont granted O’Neill much of what he had asked for but led to the collapse of Gaelic nobility with the Flight of the Earls in 1607 and the Plantation of Ulster which began shortly afterwards.
In 1661 the head of the family at Mellifont, Henry Moore, was created Earl of Drogheda. Henry came into possession of lands in what is now the centre of Dublin and developed a number of streets which bear his name and title: Henry Street, Moore Street, Earl Street and Drogheda Street. A small lane linking Moore Street to Henry Street was called Of or Off Lane. Drogheda Street became Sackville Street and is now O’Connell Street, the main street of the city.
In 1690 the Abbey and Chapter House played host to William of Orange who used it to hold his pre-battle conference prior to the Battle of the Boyne. The Moore family remained in possession of Mellifont until 1727 when the property passed to the Balfour family of nearby Townley Hall. A local story records that about 1755 the then owner gambled the blue marble doorway of the Chapter House in a game of cards. He lost and the winner had it transferred to his residence where it was erected as a fireplace. There is a replica of the doorway in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York where it stands in the chapel of St. Bernard and St. Bridget. The location of the original is not known. By the early nineteenth century the Chapter House had become a pigsty.
In the 1930s the monks of the Cistercian monastery at Mount Melleray in Waterford founded a new Mellifont Abbey at Collon on lands which had been part of the property of the original abbey.
The name Mellifont is derived from the Latin Font Mellis, which means ‘fountain of honey’. The entrance gateway survives along with the Chapter House and Lavebo but what remains of the rest of the monastery are the foundations. Mellifont was the first of the monasteries in Ireland laid out around a cloister or open space and its plan was followed by many of the monasteries which were constructed in medieval times in Ireland. The church was a large aisled building, with side chapels. To the south was the cloister, Chapter House and day rooms for the choir monks, above which was the monk’s dormitory. On the east side beside the Lavebo was the calefactory or warming room where the old and infirm monks went to get warm as there generally only one fire in the abbey, that in the abbot’s quarters. Nearby was the kitchen and the refectory where the monks ate their meals in a communal setting. On the west were store rooms and accommodation for the lay brothers. The Chapter House is the only roofed building surviving. Within this building there are some of the original tiles used for flooring. The Chapter House was where the senior monks met in assembly on a regular basis, the meeting commencing with a chapter of the rule of the Cistercian order. In front of the Chapter House was the Abbot’s Parlour where talk or parlay was allowed. The most unusual feature is the octagonal Lavebo dating to about 1200. A fountain of water issued in jets from a central column and fell into a basin, in which the monks washed their hands, before entering the refectory for their meals. Their sins and grime were washed away. The Lavebo survived as the porch for the entrance hall to the Moore mansion. A section of the cloister has been re-erected. The remains of a small parish church and graveyard sit on a hillside overlooking the abbey, access to it is behind the Visitor Centre. This church probably dates to the post-Reformation period but may have been on the site of an earlier church which the monks used for the local parishioners.
The quiet river valley is an ideal place for a picnic and access to the site is free. A small Visitor Centre operates during the summer displaying fragments of sculptured stones and a model of the abbey. Guided tours are available on request and there is a charge for the tour. The Visitor Centre is fully accessible for visitors with disabilities and a good part of the site is wheelchair accessible. The picnic tables are also wheelchair friendly.
Just north of Drogheda, Monasterboice is one of the oldest and most prestigious religious sites in all of Ireland. Founded in the late fifth century by Saint Buite, the cemetery site encloses two churches, a round tower and the remains of three high crosses. The monastery must have been a rich establishment as it was able to erect and decorate such high crosses and also possess a high status round tower. The early Christian monastery covered a much larger area, spreading out into the neighbouring fields with traces of a larger enclosure being identified in the field to the south.
38 Muirdeachs Cross Monasterboice
The name is derived from Mainistir Bhuithe meaning the monastery of Buite. This is the only early Christian monastery that incorporates the Irish word mainistir. Very little is established of St. Buite. It is said he trained in Wales and return to Ireland via Scotland. While there he brought the king of the Picts back to life. At Monasterboice St. Buite was informed that the High King was about to behead a prisoner. St. Buite decided to appeal to the King for clemency for the criminal. On his journey to Tara he found the River Boyne in flood hampering his attempts to reach Tara. Holding out his staff Buite struck the water and the waters parted like the Red Sea did for Moses. When Buite arrived at Tara the beheading had already taken place but Buite was not to be defeated and he stuck the head back on the body and the man came back to life. However in the rush to put the head back on quickly Buite neglected to check and had put the head on the wrong way round. The man spent the rest of his life as a gardener in Monasterboice. Buite grew to be an old man and died in an unusual way. Walking one day in the monastery cemetery he was filled with a desire for death and he is said to have ascended a ladder provided by angels. The Annals provide 521 AD as the year of his death. Buite later returned to earth in a glass wheel to prophecy the birth of Columcille who was alleged to have visited the site on a later date. A disc of glass obscured Buite’s face and enabled him to see without being seen as viewing an inhabitant of Heaven would have been too much for ordinary human beings.
39 Arrest of Christ Muirdeachs Cross
40 Adam and Eve Cain killing Abel Muirdeachs Cross
In some cases abbacies became secular and administrative, and their succession passed down not only in families but also from father to son. Abbot Corman of the Monasterboice monastery died in 764 and was succeeded by his son Dub-da-inber. Married clergy gave rise to surnames such as McEntaggart from Mac an tSagairt, son of the priest, and MacAnnespy from Mac an Easpaig, son of the bishop.
The Vikings had a settlement at Annagasan on the coast nearby. In 968 Domhnall, the High King, plundered Monasterboice against the Foreigners (Vikings) and burned 300 of them in one house. Obviously the Vikings had taken to living in the vicinity of the monastery as it was the nearest major commercial centre. It is a common misconception that the Vikings raided the monasteries and destroyed them. Often a jealous Irish tribe who had a competing monastery raided any opposition. The monastery at Clonmacnoise in the centre of Ireland was raided forty six times between 700 and 1200 AD; the Vikings came thirteen times, while the native Irish ransacked the site on 27 occasions and the Normans perpetrated six raids. The last recorded abbot of Monasterboice died in 1122. The monastery declined as the Cistercians arrived at nearby Mellifont in 1142.
The cross nearest the graveyard entrance is Muirdeach’s Cross, regarded as the finest high cross in the whole of Ireland. The shaft and arms are carved from a single block of sandstone. The inscription on the base reads ‘Or Do Muiredach Lasernad in Chros,’ A prayer for Muirdach for whom the cross was made. Named for abbot, Muiredach mac Domhnaill, who died in 923, the cross stands 5.5m tall. It features biblical carvings from both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. It is not possible to decipher satisfactorily the meaning of all the panels but the bottom panel of western face of Muirdach’s Cross depicts the arrest or mocking of Christ with the Roman soldiers in the dress of Celtic warriors from the tenth century with their elaborate moustaches. Above that is Doubting Thomas with his finger in Christ’s wound. The centre of the cross on the eastern face depicts the Last Judgment, with the saved led by David with a harp on Christ’s right and the damned on his left. All the good souls face Christ. Archangel Michael is weighing the souls with the scales being tipped by a devil underneath. A devil with a trident pushes the bad souls who have turned away from Christ to eternal damnation. The bottom panel shows Adam and Eve, and Cain killing Abel.
The carver had some fun as well carving two cats fighting with each having the others tail in their mouths, two Irish wrestlers each pulling the other’s beard and two cats with kittens in their paws. The cross is capped with a stone replica of a gabled-roof church similar to the early Christian churches in Ireland. Under the northern crossbar is an image of a hand which is believed to represent the right hand of God.
The South church is the older of the two and it still has the remains of the chancel arch. In the north-eastern corner of the south church there is a bulluan stone possibly a container for holy water. They are also called cursing stones or curing stones. Local folklore often attaches religious or magical significance to bullaun stones, such as the belief that the rainwater collecting in a stone’s hollow has healing properties and these beliefs may pre-date Christianity.
The north church, situated beside the Round Tower, has no trace of a chancel and dates to the fifteenth century. Against its south wall leans the partial remains of an early Christian cross slab. An early Christian grave slab lies on the ground surrounded by a railing near the north wall of the north church and is inscribed Or Do Ruarcan meaning a prayer for Ruarcan. Decorated with a cross it is hidden in the gravestones.
Located near the round tower is the West Cross at a height of 6.5m., making it the tallest high cross in Ireland. This cross was constructed of three pieces and is so weatherworn that it is difficult to distinguish the scenes in the panels.
41 West Cross and Round Tower
The round tower at Monasterboice is the second highest in Ireland, the highest one being on Scattery Island in the Shannon. The round tower was divided into four or more stories inside, connected with ladders. In 1871 the floors were renewed. The top of the tower has been shattered by lightning and so is missing its conical cap. The tower served as a landmark on the great north-south road which passed and still passes close by. The monastery provided a resting point for travellers on that route. As it was a matter of status local chieftains sought to endow their local monastery. The tower emphasised the importance of the monastery, a monastery with a round tower was more important than a monastery with no round tower. The tower at Monasterboice was burned in 1097, destroying the monastic library and other treasures. Towers with their wooden floors and ladders would have made a good chimney if an invader got the opportunity to light a big enough fire. Now the doorway is not far above ground level as in the intervening years the ground level of the cemetery has been raised by burials. The tower is closed to the public.
Just to the right of the stairs leading to the door of the round tower is an interesting gravestone. Commemorating the death of Mary, the wife of Nicholas Curran of Cotlerstown, in 1847 it also recalls the death of Nicholas and their three children three years later in New Orleans. Fleeing the Famine in Ireland the family got caught by the Yellow Fever in Louisiana.
The graveyard is one of the longest continuously used burial grounds in the world. Near the south church is the Gartland tombstone erected in 1799 with an inscription in Irish, Latin and English. The use of Irish on a stone at this time is very unusual. At the top of the Gartland stone is a depiction of the dead rising on the day of judgement. Gravestones normally face east as this will be where Our Lord will arise on day of judgement. However you might notice some newer gravestones face west as do those of the parish priests. Even in death the priest faces his flock and keep a wary eye on them. Rev. James Campbell Parish Priest, Fr. Henry McKee and Canon Patrick McCulla are among those keeping watch here in Monasterboice.
In the north eastern corner of the graveyard is the simpler North Cross. The shaft has been replaced with a modern carving. On its east face there is a lovely medallion composed of bosses and swirls. Also in this enclosure is the sundial marked the hours of prayers: 9 am, 12 noon and 3 pm.
Monasterboice is located in secluded countryside eight kilometres northwest of Drogheda just west of the M1. The graveyard is always open and access is free. There is a car park and toilet facilities across the lane from the monastic complex. There is a voluntary guide service which operates at designated times.
Nearby on the side of the old Dublin-Belfast Road is the Papal Cross commemorating the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979. The papal visit occurred at a time of enormous violence in Northern Ireland and while the Pope wanted to visit the north of Ireland security considerations overruled his wishes. Instead he came to Killineer, Co. Louth, which is in the Diocese of Armagh, part of which is in the south and part of which is in the north. On 29 September 1979, 300,000 pilgrims gathered at Killineer. Here the Pope appealed to the men and women of violence ‘On my knees I beg you to turn away from the paths of violence and return to the ways of peace.’ Nearly twenty years later an agreement was signed which finished the terror. The agreement branded by the unionist community as the Belfast agreement is known to the nationalist community as the Good Friday agreement – they could not even agree on the name of the agreement!
Navan spells the same forward and backward and so is a palindrome. The place name may be derived from a cave, An Uaimh in Irish, in a large mound, possibly a stone age passage grave, on the outskirts of the town. Alternatively, it may derived from the name of a Celtic queen who was abandoned by her husband in Spain, travelled to Ireland in the hope of being re-united and died of a broken heart in Navan. On the outskirts of Navan Tara Mines is the largest lead zinc mine in Europe operating entirely underground.
42 Navan Bull
On Market Square, which is in fact a triangle, stands the sculpture of a bull recalling Navan’s previous importance as a cattle dealing town. In the present day Navan is the residence of many Dubliners who chose to make their homes ‘only an hour from Dublin’ as the famous local furniture company ad proclaimed. This rapid expansion has led to difficulties as community facilities are lagging behind the provision of housing.
43 Pierce Brosan Photo Seamus Farrelly.
Navan is the childhood home of Pierce Brosnan, the fifth actor to play the role of James Bond. ‘I’m from Navan and I’m proud to be a “Navan Man”’ said the actor. Pierce Brosan spent much of his childhood at 2 St. Finian’s Terrace in the town. Born in Drogheda in 1953, Pierce lived in Navan for his first twelve years and considers it his home town. In 1950 Tom Brosnan, moved from Tralee to work in the John Hogg furniture factory. Tom met May Smith in the CYMS Hall on the Fair Green in Navan. May, who was much younger than Tom, worked in Navan Carpets. The love-struck couple were married in the local church. Brosnan’s father left the family when Pierce was an infant. When Pierce was four years old, his mother moved to London to work as a nurse. From that point on, he was largely brought up by his grandparents. After their deaths he lived with a grand aunt and then another grand aunt. ‘Childhood was fairly solitary. My mother came home once a year, twice a year.’ Brosnan was educated in the local school run by the de la Salle Brothers and served as an altar boy. It was eventually decided that Pierce would join his mother in London where he went on to study acting and become an international superstar. Pierce Brosnan was made a Freeman of Navan in 1999. ‘I left a Navan boy and came back a Navan man.’ His local cousins are sometimes called 002, 006 and 009. Comedians Dylan Moran and Tommy Tiernan, and television personality, Hector Ó hEochagáin, also hail from the town.
44 Metges Lane Sign
Metge’s Lane, just off the square, is named after a local landed family. Lillian Metge was the wife of Robert Metge. Following her husband’s death Lillian returned to her home town of Lisburn where she threw herself into the suffragette movement. On the night of 31 July 1914 a huge explosion was heard all over Lisburn. Panicked police officers discovered that a bomb had gone off in the cathedral. Glass and masonry were strewn around as were a large number of suffragette flyers. Muddy footprints led the officers to the home of Lillian Metge. A local store owner recalled that Lillian had recently purchased dynamite. There was a clear culprit and an angry crowd gathered as she was brought to jail. A week later she was released under bail of £100. No charges were pursued as World War 1 broke out and the authorities did not wish to upset the womenfolk as their support would be necessary for the war effort.
One of the first Catholic secondary schools in the country, St. Finian’s College, was established in Navan in 1802. The school’s Assembly Hall had rounded rather than square ends and was named Power’s Duck Egg after one of the headmasters. The building still stands at the back of Academy Street but is in poor condition. The school’s most distinguished pupil was Father Nicholas Callan who invented the first induction coil in 1836 while Professor at Maynooth College. An induction coil produces a high voltage output from a low direct voltage input. To test the induction coil he persuaded his students to take shocks from the output. He was eventually creating such high voltages that one of the students was put into a coma. The student, William Walsh, recovered and eventually became Archbishop of Dublin but the College authorities stepped in and insisted Callan discontinue using students in his experiments.
Navan was the home town of Francis Beaufort who devised the scale of wind strengths. The Beaufort family were Huguenots, French Protestants, who fled France to escape religious persecution, in fact the word refugee, was coined to describe those fleeing French harassment at the time. In 1747 Daniel Cornelis Beaufort arrived in Navan. He was appointed rector of the parish, a position he held for eighteen years until he relinquished it to his son, Daniel Augustus. Daniel Cornelius was a noted road-maker, map-maker and topographer. Daniel Augustus was also an architect, designing the new church at Navan, which was completed in 1818. His son, Francis Beaufort, was born in 1774 and joined the Royal Navy at the tender age of fourteen. Francis received nineteen wounds when an enemy vessel was captured under the guns of a Spanish fortress. During his convalescence from this injury, Francis spent two years assisting his brother-in-law, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, father of Maria Edgeworth, author of Castle Rackrent, in the construction of a semaphore line between Dublin and Galway which was capable of transmitting messages across the breadth of Ireland in eight minutes. Beaufort trained Robert Fitzroy, who was in command of the survey ship HMS Beagle during its second voyage. Fitzroy requested that Beaufort suggest a well educated person to be attached to the voyage. Beaufort’s enquiries led to an invitation to Charles Darwin, who subsequently formulate his theory of evolution, The Origin of Species. Beaufort is probably best remembered for his scale of wind strengths. The Beaufort Scale rates the winds from calm to hurricane force. A means of measuring wind speed by visual inspection of indirect factors like waves on water, the Scale was devised to be used at sea and in a time of sailing ships to accurately describe the speed and strength of the wind. The scale indicated the number of canvas sails required for each category of wind forces. The scale has been revised and extended over the centuries. Sir Francis Beaufort, famous son of Navan, died in 1857. A sea north of Alaska is named the Beaufort Sea in his honour. Navan remembers his name in the Beaufort Community College, the Beaufort Mall in the Shopping Centre and a housing estate in the town.
Just outside the centre of the town is the Ramparts car park which is the start of a walk along the river Boyne and the Boyne canal. This walk continues for a distance of eight kilometres from Navan towards Slane along the banks of the River Boyne, parallel with the old canal. The Boyne Navigation Canal covered a thirty five kilometre length of the River Boyne between Navan and Drogheda. The canal was unsuccessful as it was only usable for eight months of the year, there being too much water in the river during the winter months and too little in the summer. The canal barges had to switch from one side of the river to the other as parts of the canal were on different sides of the river with the river itself being used for stretches. This made it difficult for the horses pulling the barges as in the cross river journey they sometimes ended up in the water. The canal was sold to the conservation body An Taisce in 1961 for £1. Sections of the canal are being restored as is the canalside walk.
There is a round tower and church at Donaghmore on the Navan-Slane road. The foundation dates to the earliest Christian period, its name is derived from the Latin word Dominica, which became Domhnach in Irish meaning Sunday. The round tower dates to the tenth century. Over thirty metres tall, there were two windows at the top but these were later removed when the conical cap was replaced in the early nineteenth century. The doorway has a sculpture of the Crucifixion with the figure of Christ crucified and on either side are carvings of human heads, the two thieves. Throughout the centuries these round towers have been ascribed to different peoples or races. It was thought that the native Irish were too dim witted to have erected these towers and it was even thought that they were constructed by heathens or pagans. Henry O’Brien published his book The Round Towers of Ireland in the early nineteenth century. This was subtitled The mysteries of free masonry of Sabaism and of Buddhism for the first time unveiled. He declared that the figure on the Donaghmore tower was ‘symbolic of the departure of Budda.’ O’Brien stated that the round towers were store houses for the idols of Buddha and were as old as the pyramids of Egypt. The remains of the church are medieval. The graveyard at Donaghmore is extremely well kept and there is a car park.
The castle of Dunmoe, also just off the Navan-Slane road, was based on fortresses of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries but probably was not constructed until the fifteenth century. Commanding a high point over the river the castle was erected by the D’Arcy family, lords of Dunmoe. George D’Arcy of Dunmoe, one of the burgesses of Navan in the charter of King James, is supposed to have entertained King James on the night before the battle of the Boyne and King William on the night after. In this way he was sure to be on the right side. It does appear that he did transfer his loyalty from James to William as he managed to retain his lands and escape prosecution.
This change of loyalty was the inspiration for a verse:
‘Who will be king I do not know
But I’ll be D’Arcy of Dunmoe.’
46 Athlumney Castle Oriel Window
To the southeast of Navan town and now surrounded by housing Athlumney Castle was erected by the Dowdall family in the fifteenth century. The castle succeeded an earthen motte which still sits on the riverside. The motte and castle were both constructed with defence as a primary objective. A fortified mansion was added to the castle in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century. The comfort of the building with its large windows and fireplaces contrasts with the earlier defensive castle.
There is a story which assigns the burning of Athlumney Castle to Cromwell’s time. Two jealous sisters were supposed to have lived in Blackcastle and Athlumney Castle – one on either side of the Boyne. Both made an agreement not to give Cromwell shelter and pledged to burn down their houses rather than let Cromwell in. When one lady set her mansion on fire that was the signal for the other lady to burn her house as Cromwell was on his way. The jealous occupant of Blackcastle set a fire of brushwood in one of the turrets. The lady in Athlumney burnt her house on seeing the signal from across the Boyne only to discover her mistake the following morning.
There is much more likely story, which attributes the burning to 1690. Lancelot Dowdall, the owner of Athlumney Castle, sided with King James at the Battle of the Boyne. He vowed that William, Prince of Orange, would never rest or get shelter under his roof. Dowdall set fire to his castle one fine evening and then calmly took his belongings across the river where he sat to watch his home burn. He sat there while the fire grew. Throwing sparks high into the air his home gradually disappeared into a smouldering ruin. Dowdall left for exile and France while the ashes were still hot. The gates to the castle are locked and access details are on display.
Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth
Set on a commanding ridge above the Boyne Newgrange passage grave is Ireland’s most iconic archaeological site and one of the most renowned prehistoric sites in Europe. Newgrange is indelibly linked with the winter solstice. Situated in a loop or bend of the Boyne river, Newgrange is part of a large complex of similar passage graves and is surrounded by smaller satellite tombs which can be seen scattered in the surrounding landscape. The immediate area, Brú na Bóinne, the palace or homestead of the Boyne, is recognised as an UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre, at Donore on the south side of the Boyne, interprets the Neolithic or New Stone Age monuments of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth and is the starting point for visits to Newgrange and Knowth. There is no direct access to Newgrange or Knowth. Dowth is accessed on the north side of the Boyne. The Visitor Centre provides an interpretative display and an audio-visual presentation bringing the tourist back to the time these passage graves were constructed. The guided tour of Newgrange offers an opportunity to enter the passage and tomb chamber. These are outdoor sites so do wear warm clothes on cold days and bring rain gear if necessary. No photography is permitted in the passage or chamber at Newgrange.
47 Newgrange and Ice House
Dating to about 3200 BC Newgrange is a massive mound, constructed of alternating layers of earth and stones, ninety metres in diameter with a ring of ninety seven large kerbstones around the base. Over twelve metres in height the mound covers a nineteen metres passage leading to a central chamber. No one is quite sure of its original purpose. The tombs certainly stood out in the landscape being located on low ridges above the river. According to tradition the high kings of Ireland were buried here but even then Newgrange was 2,000 years old. Predating the great pyramids at Giza in Egypt by some 500 years and Stonehenge by about 1,000 years Newgrange is associated with the fairy people – the Tuatha de Dannan. The place name, Newgrange, dates from medieval times when the surrounding land became one of the outlying farms or granges of Mellifont Abbey.
In 1699 when Scottish settler, Charles Campbell, set about improving his holdings, he instructed his workmen to use Newgrange as a quarry for road building material. As his workmen burrowed they discovered the entrance to what they described as a cave but what was, in fact, the passage. The tomb was open freely to visitors for two hundred years and some of their graffiti still marks the stones.
This enormous cairn was constructed by a Stone Age community who were not acquainted with metal and worked only with stone and wood. Very little is established about the people who constructed these tombs but they could not be described as primitive, in they were quite sophisticated. We do know it would have taken an organised highly stratified society to construct these monuments and also mathematical, architectural and astronomical expertise. The Neolithic Age saw the beginning of farming in Ireland. New ideas about food production were introduced which guaranteed a food supply allowing more time for religious activities. Taking into consideration the average life span of Neolithic Man of about thirty years, it is generally thought that the Newgrange tomb took approximately two generations to construct.
The mound is surrounded by the remains of a great stone circle. Twelve standing stones survive out of a possible original thirty-five. The stone circle dates to after 2,000 BC in the final phase of construction at Newgrange.
The wall around the entrance is a reconstruction, the original entrance to the passage would have been over the front kerbstone. This superbly carved kerbstone with double and triple spirals guards the tomb’s main entrance. Above the entrance is a slit, or roof-box, which allows the light into the central chamber around the time of the winter solstice in December.
There was controversy over the reconstruction of the white quartz wall at the front of the tomb, which was based on the position of the white quartz layers uncovered during excavations between 1962 and 1975. The restoration by its excavator, Professor M. J. O’Kelly, created argument but O’Kelly defended his interpretation and even carried out experiments with similar walls to see where they would fall and end up over time.
The pebble stones used to construct the mound were dragged from the nearby river bed. The major stones are greywacke rock either found locally or quarried. It is difficult to envisage how these large boulders were moved as at that time horses had not yet been domesticated and the wheel had not been invented. The quartz may have been quarried in the Wicklow mountains while the water rolled granite came from Dundalk Bay and the Mourne mountains, both of which would have made for a considerable journey over very difficult terrain. Quartz is associated with the sun and burial in Ireland. Quartz in Irish is grianchloch which translates as sun stone. Visit any modern Irish graveyard and you will see graves decorated with white quartz chippings.
49 Newgrange entrance
Entering the passage is like passing from one world into another. The passage runs nineteen metres into the centre of the mound and is lined by forty three upright stones, a number of which have engravings. Branching off the central chamber are three recesses making a cruciform design with a large basin occupying each recess. The bones of at least five people, some cremated and some un-burnt, were uncovered by archaeologists within the central chamber and recesses. Perhaps these were the remains and the ashes of some great and holy king or priest. The basins would have held funeral offerings of beads and pendants but these were stolen long before the archaeologists arrived. The roof is constructed of a corbelled vault making the tomb almost completely weatherproof. No mortar was used in construction yet it has been bone dry for 5000 years, some feat of engineering, particularly in the wet Irish climate.
The large stone slabs which form the passage and which surround the base of the mound are decorated with engraved designs. The most impressive is the large threshold or entrance stone which is covered in swirls and patterns. This megalithic art consists of lozenges, dot-in-circles, zigzags, star shapes, parallel lines, spirals, diamonds, suns, concentric circles and other geometric designs carved into the stones. The most famous design is that of the triple spiral which is located on the right hand stone in the central recess and is unique to Newgrange.
50 Newgrange Entrance Irelands Content Pool
Many attempts have been made to interpret passage tomb art but the original meaning of these motifs remains unknown, they may have been symbolic, religious, or magical and certainly played a role in the ceremonies carried out at the tomb. The designs could represent movement of the sun and stars, maps of the area, the cosmos, rebirth, reincarnation, the triumph of life over death or even the trade mark of construction company! A British newspaper correlated the occurrence of these marking with the areas in which magic mushrooms grow! What is certainly impressive is that the designs were carved on stone by stone.
51 Passage Photo Brian Lynch
52 Recess in Chamber Irelands Content Pool
At 8.58 a.m. on 21 December, the winter solstice, as the sun dawns over the horizon, the morning light shines through the roof box opening, up the passage and into the central chamber. The floor of the chamber is the same height as the roof box because the passage gradually rises as it makes its way to the centre of the mound. This spectacle also occurs a few days before and few days after the solstice. If the day is clear the chamber is lit up for a total of seventeen minutes. The Earth’s position has changed since Newgrange was constructed and so now the light enters about four minutes after sunrise. Professor O’Kelly was the first person in modern times to witness this phenomena in the 1967, however local folklore always connected the monument to the sun.
The winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year and it appears to have been a time of special significance for the people who constructed Newgrange. It marked the end of the old year and the start of the new one, a time from which the days would gradually grow longer and eventually warmer. The Neolithic people may have viewed it as the death of the old sun and the rebirth of a new sun. A large stone blocked the entrance to the passage so it is not known whether humans witnessed the winter solstice or not. Nowadays our society celebrates the winter solstice festival on 25 December, Christmas Day.
There is no guarantee that there will be sunlight in the chamber on any of the mornings, the event is totally weather dependent. The skies are often overcast so there is not much to be seen but it is still a special feeling to wait in the darkness, as people may have done so long ago, for the longest night of the year to end.
I was there at the winter solstice in 1990, a magical event, waiting for the sun and hoping that the weather would clear up but it didn’t. The dawn was obscured by a damp mist. Apparently there is one good day out of the six days each year the event happens.
A free lottery is held annually for tickets to allow the holder into the tomb to view the actual event. At the end of September each year the draw takes place, usually with over 30,000 entries. You can make as many entries to the draw as you like at the Visitor Centre.
Diametrically opposite the entrance stone, at the back of the mound, is the second most decorated stone at Newgrange. Excavations and surveys were carried out to investigate the possibility of a second passage from this side of the mound but no evidence of a second passage has been discovered. Just to the east and within the boundaries of Newgrange monument is a folly which was used as an icehouse but its plan is loosely based on Newgrange. It is likely to date from the eighteenth or nineteenth century.
53 Decorated Stone Newgrange Photo Brian Morrison
One kilometre north-west of Newgrange lies a second large tomb at Knowth and a kilometre to the north east is the passage grave of Dowth. The large mound at Knowth covers two passages placed back to back and is surrounded by over one hundred massive kerbstones. Traces of at least eighteen smaller tombs surrounding the larger mound have been discovered during excavations and have been restored. Two of these tombs were constructed before the large tomb. Knowth is more complex and has a larger range of decoration than Newgrange. The decoration at Knowth represents almost half of all acknowledged megalithic art in Ireland and nearly a third of all known megalithic art in Europe. The western passage is thirty four metres long and the eastern passage is forty metre long, ending with a cruciform chamber. It was suggested that the passages were aligned towards sunrise and sunset on the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes but recent investigation seem to disprove this theory. Access to the passages by the public is not allowed at Knowth. Visitors are brought into a specially designed room within the mound where they can see the large ditch excavated in the Early Christian period and also view the eastern passage. The quartz stones uncovered at Knowth have been used to form a pavement in front of the entrances to the passageways. Before each entrance stands a pillar stone. From the top of the mound at Knowth the site of Newgrange is easily visible.
54 Knowth Photo McMacmillan Media
Professor George Eogan began excavating at Knowth in 1962 and the excavations continued for over forty years. A stunning flint macehead was discovered in 1982 and is currently on display at the National Museum. The macehead is created from a single piece of flint, polished and decorated on all six sides. The carvings resemble a stylised human face, with the shaft hole as a gaping mouth. The precision of the markings could only have been created by a rotary drill. The flint originated in the Orkneys and the piece may have been a gift or offering at Knowth. The macehead is not a functional item but was probably used in ceremonies.
55 Knowth Photo Irelands Content Pool
Knowth was continuously occupied from Neolithic times through to the medieval period. In early Christian times the mound was transformed into a fort and about 800 AD it was the residence of the kings of Northern Brega. A large ditch was excavated at its base when it was converted to a fort. An underground passage or souterrain ran from the top of the mound and may have been used as an escape route when the fort was attacked. The Normans created a wooden fortification on top of the mound in the twelfth century while the monks from Mellifont constructed farm buildings on the summit.
Dowth has not been restored or undergone extensive excavations like Newgrange or Knowth. Access to the Dowth site is free. The mound is just off the road. The mound is surrounded by a kerb of 115 stones and has two tombs facing westwards. On the days around 21 December the winter solstice the rays of the setting sun illuminates one of the passages at Dowth. At least thirty-eight of the stones at Dowth display megalithic art, the circle being the most common motif used.
The name, Dowth, comes from Dubad, the Old Irish word for darkness. According to tradition the place got its name when the King of Ireland ordered all the men of the country to construct a tower to reach the heavens in one day in order to cure a plague being suffered by all the cattle in the land. The King’s sister stopped the sun in the sky so the day went on and on. The men realised they had been tricked but had to continue to work until the spell was broken when the King and his sister slept together. The mound is the result of the men’s labour.
In the eighteenth century a tea house was erected on the top by Lord Netterville so he could have a view through a telescope into a nearby church and ‘attend’ Mass without actually being physically present. This might have allowed him to practise his religion without being subject to the anti-Catholic laws of the time. In 1847 extensive digging took place on the mound at Dowth in an attempt to find a central chamber. Subsequently the mound was subject to quarrying.
Dowth Castle, a fortified tower house, stands to the east. The large red brick building is the Netterville Institute which was an alms house for aged women. Lord Netterville’s wishes were that ‘the inmates should live in peace and good feeling with each other; and that they must be clean, tidy and perfectly sober, and that they must attend when able to those who from sickness are unable to do this for themselves.’ Lord Netterville left sixty acres of land for the support of six aged women and six orphan boys.
Martin Brennan was a part owner of the building for a period. Brennan challenged conventional opinion about the function of passage graves and proposed that they were in fact astronomical observatories. His books, The Boyne Valley Vision and The Stones of Time, both published in the early 1980s, continue to hold a fascination with the public.
57 Dowth Castle and Netterville Institute
Near the mound is Dowth churchyard in which the Fenian hero, John Boyle O’Reilly, is commemorated. William O’Reilly was the master at the school in the Netterville Institute. His son, John Boyle O’Reilly, was born at Dowth in 1844. John joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood and was transported to Australia for the crime of treason. He escaped to America where he became publisher of The Pilot newspaper in which he opposed anti-Semitism and prejudice against African Americans. In 1876 he organised the daring Catalpa rescue of six Irish Fenian prisoners from the penal colony of Western Australia. John Boyle O’Reilly is reputed to have coined the phrase ‘It is better to be Irish than to be right.’
Access to the Newgrange and Knowth is via the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre, near Donore on the south side of the Boyne. This centre houses an extensive exhibition including a full scale replica of the chamber at Newgrange as well as a full model of one of the smaller tombs at Knowth. Newgrange and Knowth are on the north side of the river Boyne, visitors buy their tickets at the centre, visit the exhibition and then cross the river by pedestrian bridge and take a shuttle bus to Newgrange or Knowth. At Newgrange the tour enters the chamber and the winter equinox is simulated using artificial light. It can be a tight squeeze and it is a small dark chamber so if you are any way claustrophobic stay at the end of the group so you will not trample anyone getting out. Tickets are sold on a first come first served basis and demand for tours is very high during the summer months. An online booking system is also available. It is advisable to arrive as early in the day as possible to avoid a long wait. I recommend that you go in the off peak season as it will be a more pleasant experience and the guides will have more time to talk to you.
Newgrange Farm, a popular place for children, is open March to early September and features the popular Newgrange Farm Sheep Race on Sundays. It is located on the north bank of the Boyne, near the Newgrange monument and is accessed from that side of the river.
Slane village is positioned on a steep hillside on the main Dublin to Derry road. One of the most picturesque planned villages in Ireland, the settlement was designed in the eighteenth century by the local landlords, the Conyngham family.
58 Sister House
The village is erected around a cross roads on the Dublin to Derry road’s intersection with the Navan to Drogheda Road. In 1788 the local parish appointed a constable to shoot straying pigs in the village. It is very hard to imagine straying pigs in the middle of the busy traffic of Slane of the current day. Four years later the Constable was fined for allowing pigs to continue to wander in the street. It is said that the four identical Georgian houses in the heart of Slane were erected by four Conyngham sisters who were extremely jealous of each other so they all got identical houses looking out on each other so that each could see what the others were up to. Another tale has it that the four houses were for the local representatives of the powers in the country, the priest, the police, the doctor and the magistrate. In fact both stories are untrue but the Conyngham family did order that all four houses be constructed to the same plan. The four houses and four streets form an octagon, although the area is called the Square.
59 Belfry Slane
The Roman Catholic church on the hill was constructed between 1798 and 1802. A decade earlier the then Colonel Conyngham of Slane was taken prisoner in France and the sentence was likely to be execution. As the trial proceeded an appeal was issued ‘Does anyone here know Colonel Conyngham?’ A young priest originally from nearby Dowth, Michael O’Hanlon, spoke up and declared he knew Conyngham and his family for being remarkable in their kindness to the Irish people. Conyngham’s life was spared and some years later Fr. Michael, now parish priest of Slane, needed to replace his old church. Lord Conyngham granted a site and a donation to erect the new church. Over the west door of the building is inscribed ‘Mount Charles Chapel 1802.’ There was a law at the time preventing Catholics erecting belfries for their churches but in this case the rule was circumvented by building it separately from the church. This round tower belfry was the first Catholic belfry erected in the Diocese of Meath after the Reformation.
At the river side stand the remains of two mills. The main Slane mill was developed by local landowners and an engineer with the local canal company. When the mill was completed in 1766 it was the largest flour mill in Ireland. Local farmers supplied the mill with wheat which was made into flour to be sent downriver to Drogheda for export. In the twentieth century it became a textile mill.
Slane Bridge at the bottom of the steep hill, which requires an almost right hand turn, has been the scene of a number of fatal traffic accidents in recent years. In 1969 the brakes of a lorry laden with Bushmills and Cream of Barley whiskey failed and it crashed into river scattering its load on the river bottom. That night many of the bottles were ‘rescued’ by local people before the official divers arrived the following morning to complete the job. Apparently the local butcher was still drinking free Bushmills four years later. Irish whiskeys are sometimes divided by the religious affiliations, Powers and Paddy being Catholic and Bushmills Protestant but that did not worry the good people of Slane. The actual quantity of whiskey rescued by the locals is still known only to the management of Bushmills and the insurance company.
It was on the Hill of Slane, according to tradition, that Saint Patrick lit the Paschal Fire on Easter Eve in 433 AD. St. Patrick’s fire challenged the pagan law that forbade the lighting of any other fire before the festive blaze at Tara was lit. The high king, Lóegaire, was alarmed to see a fire lit on such a prominent hill within sight of Tara. His druids warned him that unless the flame was quenched it would burn forever in Ireland, probably a reference to the introduction of Christianity. Patrick made his way to Tara where he secured the king’s permission to continue preaching. Only one member of the king’s retinue became Christian. Erc mac Dega was converted to Christianity by Patrick and appointed the first Bishop of Slane. Saint Erc’s foundation thrived in Slane and when he was old Erc founded a hermitage on the banks of the river. Erc lived to be 90, engaging in day long prayer while immersed in the river up to his neck. His favourite dinner was an egg and a half and three sprigs of water cress.
60 Hill of Slane
The ruins on the high point of the Hill of Slane include the remains of a parish church, a Franciscan friary and college. The ruins in the graveyard are that of the parish church of Slane, many parishioners were delighted not to have to make the journey up ‘the hill of difficult ascent’ after the new church was erected in the village in 1723. The gate pillar of the entrance to the graveyard has a wonderful carving of a medieval lady. The Norman family of Flemings settled in Slane in the twelfth century and probably erected their first castle on the hilltop, an artificial mound on the western slopes. Access to the Hill is on the northern outskirts of the village. There are regular tours of the Hill of Slane during the summer months but access is free all year round. There is a car park at the top and there are magnificent views across the Boyne Valley, particularly of nearby Knowth and Newgrange.
Slane poet, Francis Ledwidge, was born in 1887. Leaving school at the age of fourteen he worked in various manual labour positions while developing a love for poetry, drawing on the beauty of the nature of the Boyne Valley for inspiration. The writer, Lord Dunsany, became his patron. Despite being a nationalist, on the outbreak of war Ledwidge enlisted in the same regiment as Dunsany, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. He later explained that ‘I joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy of civilisation and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing but pass resolutions.’ Another reason in his decision was that he had been rejected by a local girl, Ellie Vaughey.
In 1915 Ledwidge saw an initial volume of fifty of his poems published as Songs of the Field. Ledwidge was assigned to fight the Turks and travelled to Gallipoli where he saw action at Suvla Bay.
61 Ledwidge Museum
Ledwidge injured his back in the retreat to Salonika and was convalescing in a military hospital in Manchester when he heard of news of the Easter Rising and the execution of its leaders. He had admired Pearse and especially Connolly while MacDonagh had been a personal friend. After the leaders were executed he observed ‘If someone were to tell me now that the Germans were coming in over our back wall, I wouldn’t lift a finger to stop them. They could come!’
Ledwidge returned to the front and was posted in December 1916 to Amiens. The third battle of Ypres began on 31 July 1917. On that day a group from Ledwidge’s battalion were road-laying in preparation for an assault. While Ledwidge was drinking tea in a mud hole with his comrades, a random shell exploded alongside, killing the poet and five others. A chaplain who knew him, Father Devas, arrived soon after, and recorded ‘Ledwidge killed, blown to bits.’
Matt McGoona, a friend of Ledwidge, was a printer at the Meath Chronicle in Navan. On 31 July 1917 he was working at the newspaper when he heard the familiar sound of Ledwidge arriving on his motorcycle. When he dashed out to meet Ledwidge there he was in motorcycle gear. As McGoona approached, Ledwidge and the motorbike disappeared. A few days later a telegraph arrived bearing the news of Ledwidge’s death at the same time as he had appeared to his friend in Navan. The Francis Ledwidge Museum is located on the Drogheda road outside the village. It is a perfect example of a labourer’s cottage and houses the poet’s works and artefacts from World War I.
62 Slane Castle
Slane Castle has been the family home of the Conynghams since 1703. The first member of the family to come to Ireland from Scotland was Rev. Alexander Conyngham, who settled at Mountcharles in Co. Donegal. He and his wife had twenty seven children but only nine survived to adulthood. Alexander’s grandson, General Henry Conyngham, was fighting for James at the Battle of the Boyne when he saw how the battle was going, deserted with his unit of 500 men over to the side of William. A member of his family was already fighting on William’s side. No matter which monarch won the Conynghams were sure to be on the winning side. The family’s coat of arms is a shake-fork, and their motto Over fork over is reputed to have been acquired for saving the life of Malcolm III of Scotland by hiding him in a cock of hay.
The current Slane Castle was principally designed by William Burton Conyngham about 1785. One of its architects, Francis Johnston, was also responsible for the gothic gates on the Mill Hill. The parklands were laid out by the distinguished landscape architect, Capability Brown. Brown dispatched plans for the landscape from England and despite receiving many invitations to come to work in Ireland he is supposed to have replied that he had ‘not yet finished England.’ The round ballroom completed in 1821 has a superb fan vaulted ceiling. The castle sits on the northern bank of the river and from the bridge there is a wonderful view of the castle and its demesne. Slane Castle Whiskey Distillery provides an opportunity for visitors to immerse themselves in the process of making whiskey, from grain to glass. Tours of Slane Castle are also available.
Slane Castle’s sloping lawns form a natural amphitheatre and so it has become the venue for major pop and rock concerts which attract international stars.Set against the stunning backdrop of the River Boyne and the surrounding parkland of the estate, it is an impressive venue for a summer time concert. The open air amphitheatre has an 80,000 person capacity. Internationally renowned acts who have headlined Slane concerts since 1981 include The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Eminem, Guns N’ Roses, Bon Jovi, U2, Queen, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Oasis, Neil Young, Bryan Adams, Robbie Williams, Madonna and R.E.M.
U2 recorded their album, ‘The Unforgettable Fire,’ at the castle in 1984. In 1991 a real unforgettable fire in the castle caused extensive damage to the building and completely gutted the eastern section facing the River Boyne. A third of the building was destroyed and the rest of the castle was severely damaged. The castle re-opened in 2001 after the completion of a restoration programme.
In 1795 the Prince Regent of England, George, married his cousin, Princess Caroline of Brunswick. When he first saw her he called for a large brandy. When she first saw him she thought him ‘very fat.’ George married Caroline in order to acquire an increased allowance from Parliament. They had a tumultuous marriage, George even locking the doors of Westminster Abbey on the day of his coronation so Caroline could not enter and be crowned Queen. Caroline was cheered by the press and the people but after becoming involved with an Italian lover she was accused of adultery by her husband. Eventually a settlement was reached and Caroline was given £50,000 hush money.
Just weeks after the coronation in August 1821 Queen Caroline died and rumours quickly circulated that the Queen had been poisoned. Days later the King began an eighteen-day visit to Ireland, the first peacetime visit of any British monarch. George’s trip to Ireland was a carefully orchestrated public relations triumph. The welcome he received in Ireland was in striking contrast to his unpopularity in England. His arrival at Howth was marked by a carved imprint of his feet where he touched Irish soil for the first time and this carving can still be viewed today. He is alleged to have imbibed an amount of Irish whiskey on board ship and he was in a good mood when he stumbled off the vessel.
The scandal spread that the King was in Ireland to visit his mistress, Elizabeth, Lady Conyngham. Elizabeth’s husband was made a Marquess in 1816 and went on to serve as Lord Steward of George’s Household. Legend holds that the main road from Dublin to Slane was straightened so that the King could arrive at Slane Castle quickly but the straightening had actually been completed by 1812.
George lodged for four nights at Slane Castle from 23 to 27 August. The King toured the local countryside and planned a luncheon visit to nearby Annesbrook, Duleek. The owner, Mr. Smith, did not have a suitable room to accommodate the king’s luncheon so he had a Gothic ballroom added to his house. On the day of the luncheon the sun shone and the king preferred to take his luncheon on the lawns of Annesbrook, never actually entering the house or the special room.
The King also visited Powerscourt House and was exceedingly fortunate that he left without visiting the famous waterfall. A dam had been constructed to ensure a good flow should the King arrive but when the water was released, it gushed out with such force that it washed away the specially constructed platform upon which His Majesty was due to stand.
The King departed from Dun Laoghaire, which was renamed Kingstown in his honour. Lady Conyngham and George retired to the Royal Pavilion in Brighton and she remained his mistress until his death in 1830. When George died, Lady Conyngham moved to Paris where she lived for thirty more years. In 1837, her son, Francis, the 2nd Marquess of Conyngham, was the person who informed Victoria that she was Queen and the first to address her as ‘Your Majesty.’
The Irish Military War Museum is situated on the road to Collon. This is Ireland’s only hands-on museum and specialises in World War I and World War II. The museum recreates examples of trenches of World War I as well as displays of the highly motorized conflict that was World War II. Visitors can even learn to drive a tank, an original FV432 armoured personnel carrier.
Tara of the Kings
The Hill of Tara is one of my special places. Open free to the public with a great wide open space for kids to run wild on, Tara is a magical place – you can walk in the footsteps of saints and heroes. The legendary seat of the high kings of Ireland, Tara, has been an icon of Irish nationhood for centuries. Every decade or so Tara is suggested as a neutral capital of a united Ireland. In 1942 an architect drew up plans for the new city of Tara with a parliament, cathedral, museum, theatre, airport and university. Thomas Moore’s melody The Harp that Once through Tara’s Halls recalls the mythical past of Tara. Located just off the Navan-Dunshaughlin road there are no signs of regal past, nor impressive buildings, only simple earthworks, most of which appear to be only humps and hollows in the ground but if you know the stories this landscape will come alive for you. Tara, the home of the legends, was peopled with druids famed for their wizardry, judges wise in judgement, warriors brave in battle, bards and minstrels. A great assembly place, Tara is associated with legendary people like Fionn MacCumhaill, the leader of the Fianna, Niall of the Nine Hostages, Queen Maeve, Conn of the Hundred Battles, Diarmuid and Gráinne. To enjoy and appreciate Tara it is necessary to use your imagination to see again the heroes and kings of old.
63 Tara Photo Aubrey Martin
The buildings were made of mud and wattle and these have returned to the earth. The shape of the rings and mounds are best seen from the air but the dramatic slopes and changes in ground level can be appreciated by a stroll around the ancient grassy landscape.
Although little over 150 metres in height, Tara still commands the surrounding countryside and views right across the plains of Ireland can be observed from the summit. On a clear day it is claimed that from Tara it is possible to see half the counties of Ireland, to the north east are the Mountains of Mourne and to the south are the Dublin and Wicklow mountains. To the east is the Hill of Skryne where St. Columcille’s bones were moved for safe keeping from attacks by the Vikings on Iona. The name, Skryne, is derived from the shrine of Colmcille.
The seat of the high kings of Ireland, Tara has been an important site from the late Stone Age. There is continuing discussion as to what being the High King meant and Tara’s role as a centre of assembly. Claiming to be the High King did not give you power over all the island and the role possibly may have been that of a lawgiver or religious figure.
The high kings were connected to the goddess of the land or Earth Mother and when there was a harmonious relationship between them the land prospered. The connection between the king and the goddess was celebrated in different formats. In the twelfth century the inauguration rights of kings of Donegal were recorded. A white mare was killed and boiled in water, and in the same water a bath was prepared for the new king. The king got into the pot and ate the flesh of the mare with his people standing around and sharing it with him. He also drank the broth in which he was bathing, not from any cup, nor with his hand, but only with his mouth. Horse bones were discovered at Tara during excavations in 1997 and knife marks on the bones show that horses were butchered and eaten. A number of local place names are derived from the Irish words for white mare.
The name, Tara, has three possible derivations: sanctuary or sacred area, the place of the great height or from a mythological queen named Tea. According to tradition every three years a festival or Feis was held at Tara. The names currently given to the monuments on the hill were recorded many centuries after Tara was deserted and written by Christians who did not approve of the pagan past which Tara represented.
Tara was a place of ritual and ceremony particularly in the fifth to eight centuries but many of the monuments date back to the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age. He who ruled Tara, ruled Ireland. Legends say that more than one hundred and forty kings are supposed to have reigned in the name of Tara. It is important to note that the high kingship was not hereditary and different families from all over the country held the royal position over time. The kings were not normally resident on Tara and may only have visited on special or ritual occasions. To be the proven king one had to submit to a test. The chosen man sat on the Stone of Destiny and if the stone roared then this was the true king. If the stone remained silent then the man was an imposter.
64 St Patrick Tara
A modern statue of St. Patrick greets the sightseer outside the walls of the Visitor Centre. This is a very traditional view of St. Patrick complete with bishop’s mitre, an article of clothing not used until hundreds of years after Patrick’s death. A statue stood further up the hill but was removed as it was badly damaged. According to tradition Patrick lit the Pascal fire on the Hill of Slane to the north-east and came to Tara to explain Christianity. At this time of year, it was practice to put out all fires before a new one was lit at Tara. High King Lóegaire was furious, demanding that Patrick present himself for questioning. The king’s druids proclaimed that unless the fire was extinguished on this night, it would never be extinguished at all. The fire represented the new religion of Christianity. Lóegaire made peace with Patrick and although he never converted, the king allowed Patrick to continue his preaching. It was on Tara that St. Patrick used the shamrock plant to demonstrate the concept of the Trinity, three leaves yet one leaf, three parts to the one God. The idea of three being an important number already existed in Celtic folklore and traditions. The shamrock remains the national symbol of Ireland and is used as the emblem of Ireland throughout the world except in Germany where a food processor got there first and trademarked the logo as their own.
The Visitor Centre is a converted church dedicated to St. Patrick. The church which dates to 1822 has a wonderful stained glass window. Created by Evie Hone, The East Window, with images of Pentecost interspersed with images of Saint Patrick on the Hill of Tara, was erected to mark the 1,500th anniversary of Saint Patrick’s arrival and his mission to Ireland. Each year the local Church of Ireland community holds an open-air service with music being provided by one of the local silver bands. In the churchyard there are two standing stones, one thought to be a male exhibitionist figure, possibly representing the Celtic fertility god, Cernunnos.
Do note the gravestones to the left of the gate from the churchyard onto the site. A huntsman has been led in, another has gone racing while another remembers a couple where the wife has gone away but the husband has gone fishing.
65 Looking up the Banquet Hall
Plans of the Banquet Hall were included in the Book of Leinster almost one thousand years ago but the monument was more likely a ceremonial entrance to the holy site of Tara. The plans depict the hostages located close to the fire where they would be in everybody’s view rather than at the back of the hall where they could perhaps plan an escape. According to the stories at the centre of the hall was a big cauldron able to hold an entire cow, pig and sheep. Each portion of the meat was allocated to the attendance so it is likely that the king got the steak while the guard at the back door got the shin of the pig. Aligned to the Mound of the Hostages the two parallel banks are over 200m in length. Archaeologists would now describe the Banquet Hall as a processional avenue or cursus, a rare monument in Ireland but common in southern Britain. Gaps in the mound wall on either side are thought to give views to significant sites. Walking up hill to a sacred site must have been impressive, the apprehension rising as you near the holy of holiest places on top of the hill. A bit like Mussolini, a small man he had a huge desk and a huge room, by the time you made the walk from the door to the front of the desk you were intimidated.
To the west lie the Sloping Trenches and Rath Gráinne. These burial barrows are quite large and incorporate older burial monuments into their rings. Rath Gráinne recalls the love story of the Irish when the daughter of Cormac Mac Airt, Gráinne, was betrothed to the king’s elderly commander, Fionn Mac Cumhaill, but falls in love with one of his young warriors, Diarmuid, and forces him to elope with her. The enraged Fionn and the Fianna follow the trail of Diarmuid and Gráinne around the country. The couple could not eat where they cooked, or sleep where they ate. They had to keep moving if they were to stay ahead of their pursuers. Eventually Fionn and Diarmuid made peace but the tale of The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne ends with a wild boar killing Diarmuid.
Beyond a line of trees to the west of Gráinne’s Fort, two ring barrows called the Sloping Trenchescling to the hill’s steep western incline. 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.
The Rath of the Synods was the site of three meetings of churchmen who made changes to the laws of Ireland. At the final synod held here St. Ruadán cursed Tara – ‘May Tara be desolate forever.’ The story was that the High King abused the sanctuary of Ruadán’s monastery by removing an outlaw from its precincts. Ruadán foretold that Tara would be deserted and that it would be grazed by sheep. Nowadays no one lives on Tara and the sheep are here to keep the grass down. Cattle would destroy the ground and interfere with the archaeology while sheep are light enough not to do any damage. Tara was such a significant pagan centre the only way to prevent its influence continuing was to curse it.
In 1810 a boy digging close to the Rath of the Synods discovered two magnificent gold torcs which are now in the National Museum, Dublin. Dating from around 1200 BC the torcs may have decorated wooden idols as they are too large for a king’s neck.
66 Mosiac Plan of Tara
In 1899 the Rath of the Synods was excavated by a cult, the British Israelites, who thought the Ark of the Covenant was buried there. The British Israelites believed they were the lost tribe of Israel, that they were the chosen people. At the time Britain had colonies all over the globe and Britain was the most powerful country in the world. Destroying the Rath of the Synods all they discovered were some rock trenches and a number of bracelets which they threw into the Boyne. They also uncovered a number of wooden boxes buried by the landlord, Gussy Briscoe. Apparently there was a curse on whoever found the Ark of the Covenant and when a digger came upon one of these wooden boxes everyone scarpered and only came back when they thought it was safe. Briscoe would also go up and bury pieces of coal for them to find. Each time they found something it meant that they would stay for longer and Gussy Briscoe got another week’s rent. Gussy Briscoe lived at Bellinter House which is visible from the hill to the northwest. Briscoe is best known for riding his horse from the cellars to the attic of his house to win a bet. Horses go fine going up but not so good going down and the horse had to spend a week in the attic before a pulley could be constructed to get it back to ground level. The large building to the north of Tara is Dalgan Park, the home of the Columban Missionaries who sent priests to China and the Far East. Many were tortured, some to death, when the Communists took over China. There are some lovely walks in the grounds of Dalgan; access is off the Tara-Navan Road, with plenty of parking at the building.
There is a man who lives in Kells, a modern day British Israelite, who claims to know exactly where the Ark of the Covenant is buried on the Hill of Tara, the precise spot, but the Government who now owns the lands refused him permission to dig on this important archaeological site.
The Rath of the Synods was re-excavated in the 1950s when Roman artefacts were uncovered. Excavations produced Roman material from the first and second century which would prove a connection between the royals of Tara and the Roman world. Current evidence indicates that the Rath of the Synods was an open-air temple surrounded by large wooden beams before being converted into a burial ground.
Rath na Rí, the Royal Enclosure, encircles a number of the monuments on the hill, an oval enclosure it measures one kilometre in circumference. This bank and ditch were not defensive as if it was for defensive purposes the ditch would be outside the bank not inside. This arrangement is mirrored at the ritual site of Navan Fort in Armagh.
Crossing the boundary of Rath na Rí a visitor arrives at the oldest monument on the hill. The Mound of the Hostages, dating to about 3350 BC is a megalithic passage tomb, similar to Newgrange. It marks the beginning of Tara’s role as a burial site. One of the most famous names associated with Tara is Niall of the Nine Hostages. Hostages at Tara were very different from our vision of hostages now, they were treated as honoured guests provided their political grouping behaved. The passage is short and aligned on the cross-quarter days of 8 November and 4 February, the ancient festivals of Samhain (Halloween) and Imbolc (the first day of Spring). Just inside the entrance on the left is a large decorated stone. A collection of burnt and unburnt human bone representing over three hundred individuals was uncovered during the archaeological investigation in the 1950s. About a thousand years later the passage and mound were used for individual cremation burials where the remains were contained in pottery urns. A highly decorated axehead, now in the National Museum, probably dates from this period. More than thirty five Bronze Age burials occurred at the Mound. A young man of about 14 or 15, with a necklace of jet, amber, earthenware and bronze was buried within the mound and at his feet were a dagger and bronze awl. His bones were carbon dated to between 1700 and 1600 BC. The presence of amber suggests trading routes to Scandinavia where amber is found while the nearest source of jet is northeast England.
Cormac’s House is described by archaeologists as a ringfort, a domestic settlement from the first millennium AD. Its position within Rath na Rí and attached to the Forrad suggests that the people residing there considered themselves as high status. Cormac mac Airt, as a young prince, gave a famous judgement when sheep belonging to a local farmer broke into the Queen’s garden and ate her woad plants. The Queen demanded that she receive the sheep in recompense for the damage caused. The king as judge agreed but then Cormac spoke up, ‘Shear the sheep and give the wool to the Queen, the queen’s woad like the sheep’s wool will grow back. One shearing for another.’
The Forrad or Royal Seat is a large flat topped mound protected by two ditches. At the centre of the Forrad lies the Lia Fáil, the Stone of Destiny. It is reputed to be the stone of the coronation of the kings of Ireland and to roar when touched by the rightful king of Tara. How would a stone give out a shriek? A medieval manuscript describes how Conaire Mór at his inauguration as high king drove his chariot so close to the stone that the axle rubbing off the stone gave out a loud shriek. Driving a chariot at such a speed at a large stone to create the shriek and avoiding a serious accident meant you had to be a very brave man to attempt this or stupid! To be declared high king you had to be pure in mind, body and spirit. If you were missing any part of your body you could not be king. Other legends say the stone was the pillow of Jacob. The stone is considered by some to have been a fertility symbol. Some say the original stone was taken to Scotland where it was used as a coronation stone by the first Scottish king, Fergus mac Erc, and that Edward I of England moved it to Westminister where it remained under the throne until recent decades. The Lia Fáil was moved to its current position to mark the graves of 400 rebels who died at the Battle of Tara in 1798. It seems to have been marked with a cross at this time.
Inspired by the ideal of liberty, equality and fraternity a rebellion broke out in Ireland in 1798. The rebels of Meath assembled on the Hill of Tara. The rebels numbered about 4000 while the Government forces were much smaller, about 500 men. Poorly led and poorly armed the rebels had only swords, scythes, pitchforks and pikes while the government forces were well armed and trained. The Government forces also possessed a small cannon and a unit of cavalry. It was mainly Irish on both sides and the government yeomanry were captained by the Catholic Lord Fingall of nearby Killeen. Allegedly three cart loads of whiskey from a Navan distillery were diverted by the Government forces to the road which ran by Tara. The inevitable happened, the whiskey was captured by the rebels and drunk. The curse of the demon drink frustrated Ireland’s hopes of freedom. The rebels gathered around the church on the top of the hill and so had a defensive advantage. At the start of the battle the rebels left their strong position and charged downhill. The armed troops opened fire and the rebels were driven back. Another charge was repulsed by cannon fire and eventually the rebels broke and ran. The cavalry unit was then brought to bear and wipe out any remaining pockets of resistance. There were about 400 causalities on the rebel side with thirty government troops killed. Two memorials commemorate the Battle of Tara, one on the Forrrad and the other a granite Celtic cross to the north. It is interesting that when foreign help came to Ireland during our rebellions it always seemed to come to the worst destination possible. In 1798 most of the action was in the south-east and north east of the country, where did the French land – on the west coast. In 1601 when Hugh O’Neill was fighting in the north, where did the Spanish land – at Kinsale on the south coast. In 1916 when the rising was taking place in Dublin, where did the Germans try to land – in Kerry.
To the west of the Forrad can be seen the Fairy Tree, a recent addition to the sights of Tara. The hawthorn or white thorn tree is associated with the fairies and the little people and many visitors come and leave an offering for the fairies in the form of a ribbon or piece of cloth in exchange for some wish.
To the south of the Royal Enclosure lies a ring fort, Ráth Lóegaire, where the king is alleged to have been buried in an upright position with his shield and full arms prepared to defend his palace and kingdom against the Leinstermen even in death.
In 1843, Daniel O’Connell held one of his monster meetings on Tara protesting at the political union of Ireland and England. The meeting attracted nearly a million people and there was no amplification! In 1916 Tara was to be the meeting place of the rebels of Meath and Louth.
68 St Patricks church
Down the road from the shop is a stone covered well, St. Patrick’s Well, which was originally a pagan well. The Christians took the old pagan wells, renamed them with Saints names and incorporated their prayers into the existing rituals, hence Ireland’s lack of martyrs – Christianity adapted itself to the Irish way of doing things. Half a mile south of the Hill of Tara is another hill fort named Rath Maeve, the fort of the legendary queen Maeve, who is more usually associated with Connacht. It is an immense embanked enclosure measuring 230 metres in diameter.
Exciting new research and excavations by the Hill of Tara Discovery Programme research team continue to add to our understanding of the site. Many of Tara’s secrets are hidden underground and these surveys have uncovered at least twice the visible number of monuments under the soil.
Lord Tara, John Brabazon, had a house to the east of Tara in the valley below the farmyard which still stands. Lord Tara won a prize for being the first English pilot to fly more than one mile in 1910.
The Tara Brooch, currently on display in the National Museum, Dublin, was found not in Tara but near the seashore at Bettystown, Co. Meath, in 1850. A poor woman said her children had picked it up on the seashore, if it had been found on someone’s lands they could have claimed it. The woman took it to nearby Drogheda to an old iron shop and the owner there refused to purchase it. She sold it to a watchmaker who cleaned it up and took it to Dublin where he received a price over 200 times what he had paid for it. It was named the Tara brooch rather than the Bettytown brooch as Tara was so well known and the name resonated with people so copies could be sold at a higher price, in other words a good marketing ploy. Queen Victoria ordered two copies of the brooch for herself and now the penannular brooch is often replicated in modern Irish jewellery.
Tara is, of course, the name of the Southern Plantation home of Scarlett O’Hara in the movie and book Gone with the Wind. The book and movie finishes with Scarlett declaring ‘Tara! Home. I’ll go home. And I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all… tomorrow is another day!’ In an horrendous sequel titled Scarlett released by the estate of Margaret Mitchell in 1991 the story continues with Scarlett going home to Tara in Ireland and finding her roots at Ballyhara, just outside Trim (no such place exists!) and some 500 pages later getting back together with Rhett Butler and living happily ever after. The book was panned by critics as was the TV mini-series but the book sold millions and remains in print. Tara continues to be a popular name for girls and for Irish businesses and even Dolly Parton has named her Nashville mansion, Tara.
In the early 2000s a new motorway, the M3, was proposed to go through the Tara valley. The motorway proposal was subject to protests and much controversy. The discovery of a wooden Iron Age temple on the site of the road at Lismullin further escalated tensions. Irish scholars and academics worldwide opposed the planned motorway. The motorway went ahead and opened in 2010.
Tara is free to visit and explore, all year round and all day long. Despite the numbers of visitors it is still possible to be alone and commune with the ancient stories on parts of the hill. Tara can be a wild and windy spot and when the wind is blowing make sure to wrap up warm. There is a free parking area which fills up quickly so prepare for some driving with cars parked on a narrow road. Maguire’s shop has a café and many interesting books and items. Toilets are also part of the shop complex. The church on the hill now houses an interpretive centre where a presentation on Tara’s history is provided along with tours of the site but is only open for the summer months.
The heritage town of Trim is dominated by medieval ruins. The castle formed part of the set for the movie Braveheart. The town’s foundation dates back to the fifth century when a nephew of St. Patrick, Loman, founded a church near the ford of Trim. Bhaile Átha Truim, its Irish name, means the town of the ford of the elder trees. A ford was a shallow place for crossing the river and many settlements grew up around such vital points of communication.
In the twelfth century, the early period of Norman power, the largest castle in Ireland was constructed at Trim as were seven monasteries and three hospitals. This medieval legacy of buildings is not equalled anywhere in Ireland. Steeped in history, the town also played its part in shaping the lives of such historic figures as the Duke of Wellington and Dean Jonathan Swift. Trim, a busy market town, has won the Tidy Towns competition in 1972, 1974, and 1984. That tradition continues to the present with Trim being named as the national winner in the Irish Business against Litter awards in 2011. The most photographed street in the town is Castle Street with its estate cottages and beautiful hanging baskets.
69 Flowers on Castle Street
Trim and the Boyne Valley were listed as one of the top twenty places to visit in the world by BBC History magazine. National Geographic placed Trim and the Blackfriary archaeological dig as one of the top one hundred places in the world that will change a child’s life. CNN refined the list and put Trim as one of the top ten. In 2012 Trim was recognised as one of the top ten tourism towns in Ireland by Fáilte Ireland. As the current mayor of the town I can assure you will be very welcome on your visit to Trim.
The Anglo-Normans arrived in Ireland in the late 1160s. In 1172 Hugh de Lacy was granted the kingdom of Meath by King Henry II and the following year de Lacy constructed a castle at Trim to oversee his lordship. The site chosen was on a major route, crossing the river Boyne and in the centre of his huge grant. The first castle was a wooden structure, now identified as a ringwork castle, which was quickly succeeded by the stone castle. The date of construction of the stone castle at Trim remained a matter for discussion amongst academics until the late 1990s when using the tree rings from timbers in the castle wall the date of the initial construction was firmly dated to 1174-5. The timbers were in the square holes that can be seen in the castle walls, puttock holes, which held large pieces of timber on which scaffolding was erected.
70 Trim Castle.
Walter de Lacy succeeded his father as Lord of Meath. However, the de Lacy family became too independent and had a dispute with King John. In 1210 the king came to Ireland to reinforce his rule. Walter and his brother fled to France but were later reinstated. The castle is sometimes called King John’s Castle, even though when he came to Trim he pitched his tents on the far side of the river rather than taking up residence in the castle. In 1317 Edward Bruce, who had been crowned king of Ireland, camped near Trim on his retreat from the south. Edward Bruce was a brother of Robert Bruce, king of Scotland.
In 1465 the country was in such a state of unrest that a parliament at Trim authorised the killing and beheading of all robbers or those thought to be going stealing – zero tolerance for crime in the Middle Ages. A bounty on each head was to be paid by the Portrieffe (Mayor) of Trim. The heads were to be placed on spikes on the walls of the castle of Trim. They would leave the heads up there until the skull fell into the moat. Birds would come along and collect hair for building their nests and crows come along and pluck out the juicy eyeballs. In the 1970s an archaeological dig uncovered the remains of ten headless men. Two of the skeletons showed that the axeman had to strike at least twice before getting the head off. One of the skeletons showed that when the axeman was about to drop his axe the prisoner raised his head and the axe got the back of his head. Trim’s motto then and now was ‘Always Welcome the Visitor.’
But the history of the site is older than the castle. Excavations in the green space to the south of the castle uncovered a number of pig bones which were dated to 370 – 110 BC. The deposit of bones dating to the Iron Age consisted almost entirely of pig forelegs. There was the equivalent of fifty-one pig forelegs which could have been votive offerings deposited as part of a ritual feast or part of an autumn slaughter. What happened the rest of the pigs caracasses is not known.
Hugh de Lacy was killed by an O’Kearney, at Durrow in 1186, President Barack Obama’s Irish ancestor was an O’Kearney, from that particular area. As the families occupying the castle kept dying out or marrying into more important families the castle was left neglected and now offers an excellent example of a thirteenth century castle. In other castle sites the families continued to live in the castle but re-designed and changed the structure every few hundred years.
In 1993 the castle was purchased by the State and the following year became a set for the film, Braveheart. The movie starred Mel Gibson as the Scottish hero, William Wallace, with Sophie Marceau, Patrick McGoohan, Brendan Gleeson and a host of well established Irish actors among the cast. Braveheart employed hundreds of Trim locals as extras. Outside the castle walls was transformed into the thirteenth century city of York which was besieged by William Wallace in the movie. The keep inside the walls became the Tower of London where Wallace was executed in 1305. A local story has it that one of the extras on the set was over enthusiastic when it came to throwing apples at Wallace as he was pulled along to his execution. When Gibson was hit with a good hard throw the actor leaped up and let people know how he felt. When the lunch break that day dragged on for more than the usual hour and the second hour passed the extras discovered what was happening. Mel Gibson was going through the film rushes in an attempt to find out who threw the apple. The culprit was never identified ………. officially. Nineteen years after the movie was made in Trim the local government got around to erecting an information plaque which was unveiled by President Michael D. Higgins. Edward II was portrayed as an effeminate homosexual in Braveheart. In the movie the father kills his son’s lover by throwing him out the window, that window was at Trim castle in the movie. Edward II was killed with a red hot poker shoved somewhere up his body, use your imagination or on second thoughts don’t.
Beside the castle stands a sculpture created from bog oak. Entitled A Hunger for Knowledge, this two thousand year old piece of bog oak recalls the well loved traditional tale of the salmon of knowledge. This salmon was a magical fish which lived in a pool in the river Boyne. The first person to taste the fish would acquire all the knowledge of the world. An elderly bard, Finnegas, devoted his live to catching the fish and eventually hauled the salmon out onto the riverbank. Exhausted by the struggle he set his apprentice, Fionn, to cook the fish. As the fish cooked a blister arose on the side and Fionn thrust in his thumb to burst the blister. As he did so a particle of the fish burned onto his thumb and he naturally reacted by putting it into his mouth and thereby acquired all the knowledge of the world. Fionn later went on to be a great hero, head of the high king’s army and the greatest thumbsucker in history. The inscriptions relate to the work of William Rowan Hamilton on quaternions.
Trim Castle consists of a triangular enclosure of curtain walls defended by flanking towers and has a large keep in the centre. Originally painted white Trim Castle is the largest Anglo-Norman fortress in Ireland and must surely have been designed to intimidate the native Irish and the de Lacy subordinates.
71 Trim Castle.
The main part of the castle, the keep, was a twenty sided structure, cruciform in shape. No other castle has a plan similar to this, again de Lacy may have been trying to impress. It was protected by a ditch, the long curtain walls and the moat. The water supply for the moat came from the ‘Leper Stream’ named after a leper hospital about two hundred metres out the Dublin Road at The Maudlins. In medieval times there were about a dozen leper hospitals scattered around the country, one giving its name to a suburb of Dublin, Leopardstown. The castle moat went out far into the roadway also held the castle waste. Conditions were smelly. People only washed once a year whether they needed it or not. They actually scraped themselves using oil. They were covered in lice and nits. On the side of the Dublingate tower is a sluice through which the inhabitants dumped their household and toilet waste. This made crossing the moat by swimming a very dangerous option. Every few years the moat filled up and had to be cleaned out. At the base of the west tower of the keep is a stone lined pit where all the toilets waste was collected having come down from the garderobes. The garderobes give their name to the modern wardrobe as it was here that the inhabitants of the castle kept their clothes. The smell and the fumes rising from the pit outside kept the clothes free of lice and other infestations. If there were not enough fumes coming up, a man, the gong-scourer, was designated to stir the pit. He was also called a stirrer. Inside the building there were three storeys which housed the living quarters while the Great Hall and a small chapel were to be found in the castleyard along with a royal mint which produced Irish coinage named ‘Patricks’ and ‘Irelands’.
The town gate of the castle has a protecting ‘murder hole’ where the defenders could pour boiling oil or water on anyone attempting to cut through the portcullis. The ‘murder hole’ and the grooves for the portcullis or sliding gate can still be seen. Originally this gateway had been protected by a barbican which has since been destroyed. To the left of the gate was the dungeon or oubliettewhich has been converted into office space for the tour service in the castle. An oubliette gets its name from the French word, oublier, which means to forget. This dungeon consisted of a square hole with no stairs, the prisoners were thrown in there and forgotten. The grounds and the keep are open during most of the year and there is an admission charge. Access to the keep is only by guided tour.
The foundation stone for St. Patrick’s Catholic Church was laid by Dr. Nulty, the Bishop of Meath, in 1891. The altars are the work of Pearse and Sons of Dublin, one of the sons was Padraig Pearse, leader of the 1916 rising. The sanctuary mosaics are based on the Book of Kells. There are two intentional mistakes. On the floor St. Peter has five fingers and a thumb on one hand and on the rear wall one tree has a leaf which is falling while on the other side of the altar the leaf is in its proper place. This is to show that the work was created by imperfect man not the Great Creator himself. The two fine stained glass windows depict St. Patrick on Tara and the statue of Our Lady of Trim. Beside St. Patrick’s church and with a large wall facing the castle is remains of the new gaol of Trim erected in 1834.
73 Russian Cannon
Facing Trim Castle across the Boyne is the remains of the Augustinian monastery of St. Mary’s, which is also called Talbot’s Castle. The Abbey was founded in the twelfth century. The Yellow Steeple, the bell tower for the Abbey, takes its name from the golden colour of the stonework at sunset. This tower was supposedly destroyed by the guns of Cromwell’s army, a scene which is illustrated in a stained glass window in St. Patrick’s Catholic Church.
The Russian cannon situated in the castle grounds was captured by the British forces in the Crimean War in the middle of the nineteenth century. The cannon bears the Tzar’s coat of arms – a double-headed eagle. Most of these cannons came from the besieged port of Sebastopol, whose fall to the British and French in September 1855, revealed a huge arsenal of ordnance stored in artillery parks and foundries around the city. In Trim when the proposal was put at the local government meeting one person declared ‘We do not want this symbol of British imperialism!’ however when it was realised that Ennis, Athy, Galway and other towns were getting one or more the cry became ‘We want one too.’
St. Mary’s was the centre of great medieval pilgrimages to the miraculous statue of Our Lady of Trim. In 1444 ‘Great miracles worked through St. Mary’s Image in Ath Truim to wit, gave his eyes to the blind, his tongue to the dumb, his legs to the cripple or lame and the reaching of his hand to one that had it tied to his side and cats brought forth by a big bellied woman that was thought to be with child.’ Giving birth to cats or animals was a sure sign of witchcraft yet it was regarded as a miracle here. There was only one woman burned for witchcraft in Ireland in medieval times and that was Dame Alice Kytler’s handmaid in Kilkenny but her name was Petronella from Meath, could she have come from Trim? Following torture twelve year old Petronella was burned alive at the stake before a cruel mob as she called in vain for her mistress to come to her aid.
74 St Marys Abbey and the Yellow Steeple
Part of the monastery was converted to a private manor house in 1415 by Sir John Talbot, the king’s representative in Ireland. Talbot had fought the French and succeeded in defeating them. In William Shakespeare’s play Henry VII the following lines appear ‘Is this the scourge of France? Is this the Talbot so much feared abroad, that, with his name the mothers still their babies?’ His coat of arms is inserted in the north wall of the west tower of the building.
In 1717 the building was purchased by Esther Johnson, better recalled as ‘Stella’ for £65. Less than two years later she sold it for £200 – Celtic Tiger inflation even then but she sold it to her friend, Jonathan Swift, author of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ and Rector of Laracor, just south of Trim. Swift was always looking at mechanisms to give Stella funds without directly giving money to her but he sold on the house for a tidy profit less than a year later. Stella is recalled as Mrs. Johnson in a plaque next to Swift’s in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. In those days if an unmarried lady reached a certain age she was automatically given the title ‘Mrs’.
In the latter half of the eighteenth century Talbot’s Castle became the Diocesan School for Meath. Arthur Wesley, the future Duke of Wellington, attended school here as did William Rowan Hamilton, the famous mathematician and discoverer of quaternions. A boy genius, Hamilton was able to speak thirteen languages fluently at the age of thirteen. Hamilton, who later became Astronomer Royal for Ireland, is supposed to have first observed the stars from the little balcony on the western side of the building. The house is open for guided tours at certain times.
A wooden bridge connects the south bank with the Porchfields where a path runs along the riverbank to the ruins at Newtown. The wooden bridge also allows access to the Yellow Steeple and Sheepgate.
The walled town of Trim grew up in the shelter and shadow of the castle. Sheepgate is situated on the north bank of the Boyne and consists of a semi-circular headed arch and appears to have been surmounted by a tower. The Sheepgate is the only surviving medieval gate of Trim’s original five gates which allowed access to the town. The walls kept out the rebel Irish and ensured that tolls and taxes on produce for the local fairs were collected at the gates. The other gates were Navangate (on the road to Navan), Athboygate, Dublingate and Watergate. Watergate protected a crossing on the river.
Situated just outside the town walls, near Athboygate, the Blackfriary at Trim was founded in 1263 by Geoffrey de Geneville and his wife Maude. In 2010 the Irish Archaeology Field School commenced a long term programme of archaeological excavation at the Blackfriary site. Excavation has been carried out by a team including local people from Meath, Irish students from all over the country and international students from all over the world.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral, situated on St. Loman Street, is the remnant of the medieval church of Trim and is supposedly on the site of the first church erected in the area, founded before Armagh or Canterbury. Loman was St. Patrick’s nephew and was assigned the task of guarding the boats at the mouth of the Boyne by his uncle. Patrick was unsure of the response he would receive to his mission and needed to ensure that the boats were ready for a quick escape if necessary. Loman waited forty days and forty nights, a very biblical number, and then waited a further forty before deciding to venture upstream. The furthest he could come up was the ford of Trim. He made camp and the following morning while saying his daily prayers a young boy came upon him and hearing the prayers wanted to be baptised. Instantly believing in Christianity sounds like a miracle but the little boy was actually the son of a British princess who was married to the High King’s son who had a fort at Trim. This boy had probably been raised by his mother to believe in Christianity. There were Christians in Ireland before St. Patrick’s arrival. The street name, St. Loman Street, commemorates this first saint to visit Trim. The street had a previous name, Scarlet Street, supposedly a violent area, believed to have secured its name from the colour of the blood which ran down the middle following fights. The name possibly had another origin from the red coats of the British army. It was a poor area and many joined the army in order to make a living and even in the First World War many of Trim’s causalities came from this street. It was a rough area and it is alleged that when St. Patrick came on his missionary journey to Trim the people there told him they already had one saint and did not need a second. Patrick on his way out of town passed up through Scarlet Street. It was early in the morning and one of the women was cleaning out her house. Normally in a good area it was usual to look left and right outside the door but in Scarlet Street you kept your head in. A lady was emptying the contents of a chamber pot and just threw it out the door, all over St. Patrick! He, being a saint, let on it did not bother him and continued on his way. About a mile out of town on the Navan road Patrick realised that after the incident he had forgotten to bestow his usual blessing to the settlement. However he decided the best thing to do was keep going and never turning around, he blessed Trim with the back of his hand. A mile outside the town on the left hand side of Navan road is the Church of the Back, Kilcooley, commemorating this event.
The church tower of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, probably dates to about 1450 and the clock is the Dean’s clock, recalling the historian of Trim, Dean Richard Butler. Before the clock was electrified about twenty years ago it had to be wound weekly by a large crank handle. I did my turn on it for a few months and it involved climbing narrow stairs and walking over dead pigeons but there is a tremendous view from the top of the tower. In 1584 Trim parson, Robert Draper, recommended Trim as the site for the first university in Ireland and pointed out its many advantages. Eight short years later Trinity College was founded in Dublin.
Dominating the traffic junction at the top of Emmet Street is a Corinthian column, twenty three metres high, erected in honour of the Duke of Wellington. The inscription reads ‘This column was erected in the year 1817 in honour of the illustrious Duke of Wellington by the grateful contributions of the people of Meath.’ The monument was erected on this site as Wellington resided nearby while member of parliament for Trim. No one is sure where exactly Wellington was born or when, he himself did not know. His generally accepted date of birth is 1 May 1769 in the same year which saw the birth of his opponent, Napoleon Bonaparte. Wellington’s birthplace is less easy to pinpoint – some suggest the family’s townhouses at Trim or Merrion Square, Dublin, Athy, various other houses in Dublin or near Trim. A local historian produced a list of sixteen possible birth places in the 1970s but following a conference in the 1990s more claims emerged to bring the number closer to thirty. The most likely places are Dublin or Dangan or maybe in a coach in between which may have given rise to his reputed saying ‘To be born in a stable does not make one a horse’ meaning to be born in Ireland did not make one Irish, but an Irishman would never say such a thing about good horseflesh or would he? No one knows who first said the phrase but it is now thought to have been Daniel O’Connell, who continued ‘It could make him a donkey’ (or a word to that effect). Talbot’s Castle in Trim was the Diocesan School in the eighteenth century and it was here that Wellington received his early education. One of the Duke’s schoolmates told Dean Butler that Richard Crosbie climbed to the top of the nearby Yellow Steeple. At the top he took out a piece of a paper and wrote his will in case he fell on the way down. When he arrived safely at the bottom he found the young Wellington crying. Crosbie told Arthur not to be afraid – that he was down safely. However Wellington told him that was not why he was crying, he was crying because Crosbie had not left him any of his toys or playthings in the will! Locals have a love/hate relationship with the Duke and his column. A proposal from a decade ago suggest the gifting of the column to the city of Wellington in New Zealand. A suggestion to blow up the column as had happened to Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin was vetoed when it was realised that the nearby pub might suffer damage if an explosion was carried out.
74 Newton Cathderal
A mile downstream from the town of Trim Simon de Rochfort, first Norman bishop of the diocese of Meath, founded his cathedral at Newtown in 1206. The largest cathedral in medieval Ireland, constructed in an early Gothic style, the church was assigned into the care of the Victorine Friars of the adjoining monastery and dedicated to SS Peter and Paul. Only a portion of the original nave and chancel of the cathedral survive. Remaining walls of the Victorine abbey stand between the cathedral and the river Boyne.
The late sixteenth century tomb of Sir Lucas Dillon and his wife, Lady Jane Bathe, is located in the small medieval parish church of Newtown, within the graveyard. Known locally as the ‘Tomb of the Jealous Man and Woman’, the effigies portray Sir Lucas and his wife, Lady Jane, in Elizabethan dress with a sword dividing the couple. The reasons for the naming of the tomb seems to have been that the two figures do not touch each other and the sword of state separates the figures. The tomb is associated with a cure for warts. Rub a pin on a wart, place the pin between the couple on the tomb and as the pin rusts and decays so the wart will disappear. Do not take a pin as a keepsake as you will get the warts of the person who left it there.
76 Tomb of the Jealous Man and Woman
On the south side of the river a hospital was founded in the thirteenth century by the Crutched Friars, an order originally established to nurse the Crusaders and redeem Christian hostages. Wearing a cross on their tunic they became identified as the Crossed or Crutched Friars.
Just outside the town on the Dublin road is the Echo Gate. Shout across the river to the ruined Victorine Friary and your voice is returned in a perfectly clear echo.
To the south of the town on the Summerhill Road is the site of Laracor church where Jonathan Swift was rector from 1700 until his death in 1745. Swift introduced a new service on a Wednesday evening for his small number of parishioners. One evening just one person turned up and Swift began his service ‘Dearly Beloved Roger,’ Roger being the parish clerk and in charge of opening and closing the church, who was only waiting for Swift to finish up so he could close up the church again. One Sunday Swift was having a goose for his dinner when someone in the kitchen had torn off the goose’s leg and eaten it. The serving maid was in a quandary and asked the cook what would she do. The cook replied that Swift always had his nose stuck in a book and would not even notice. Eventually convinced the maid brought the goose with only one leg sticking up to the waiting diner. Swift looked up and asked the obvious question; ‘Why has my goose got only one leg?’ The maid thought very quickly and knowing that Swift was a city boy born within the shadows of Dublin Castle replied, ‘That is the South Meath goose and they only have one leg.’ Swift not knowing much about farmyard birds decided not to argue his case. A few days later while out driving with his coachman they came upon a gaggle of geese asleep in a field and geese sleep standing on one leg with the other tucked up under their wing. The coachman, aware of the story of the one-legged goose and possibly the culprit himself, pointed out the birds to the Dean as examples of the South Meath goose. Then he cracked his whip and all the geese put down their second leg and flew away. The Dean then complained that his goose had not produced its second leg but the coachman was quick to explain that the Dean had not cracked his whip at the one legged bird. A good story and certainly told about Swift but a similar story was told about a bishop of Limerick thirty years before Swift was born.
Further out the Summerhill Road is Dangan estate, identified by an obelisk in a field on the right, which was the boyhood home of the Duke of Wellington. Summerhill village is extremely well kept and usually abounds with flowers and well manicured grass.
77 Always a welcome in Trim