SPRING HAS ARRIVED and the weather is beginning to improve again.
Continuing from last year’s Hidden Heritage series, archaeologist Neil Jackman has more suggestions for great historical sites to visit around the island of Ireland.
In his first article of 2014, Neil gives an overview of some of the major periods in Irish archaeology and history ranging from the Neolithic period to the eighteenth century, by looking at the Boyne Valley region in Counties Meath and Louth.
This region is synonymous with the incredible World Heritage Site of Newgrange and the Brú na Bóinne tombs, but for almost every period in Irish history from the furthest reaches of our prehistoric past to the early modern period, it has a perfect site to encounter the story of Ireland.
The Neolithic period: Ireland’s first farmers (c. 4200-2400 BC)
The Neolithic Period that began around 6000 years ago in Ireland, marked one of the most important changes in all of human history – people began to farm.
When people stopped living as semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, Ireland was almost completely forested. The Neolithic Irish began the laborious process of clearing vast areas of woodland to create fields for pasture and crops. Using only stone tools like flint and polished stone axes, the work would have been incredibly arduous. With the change to farming, groups banded together to create territories.
One of the major developments in Neolithic Ireland is the way that societies treated their dead. The Brú na Bóinne complex is one of the most important prehistoric landscapes in Europe and has been rightly designated as a World Heritage Site.
The tomb of Newgrange is possibly the most famous and iconic, but other major tombs like Knowth, Dowth and Townley Hall are also remarkable examples of the skill and spirituality of the Neolithic Irish.
Newgrange pre-dates Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid of Giza by centuries, and as it is aligned with the Winter Solstice it is also the earliest structure known to have an astronomical function. The great tomb at Knowth nearby to Newgrange has a massive collection of megalithic art – in fact the Boyne Valley has an unparalleled wealth of megalithic art.
The rest of Ireland has 60 stones with art depicted, in the whole of Britain there are only 12 stones with megalithic art, France has 200, the Iberian Peninsula has less than 200. In County Meath alone there around 1,000 stones bearing megalithic art.
But what did the art mean? Archaeologists and enthusiasts have long debated the meaning behind the art, with theories ranging from the artists being in a trance or state of altered consciousness, or the art represents geographical features in the landscape. Looking at the beautiful Equinox Stone from Cairn T at Loughcrew, another c.5,000-year-old tomb at the edge of the Boyne Valley, the images look like representations of natural features like ferns, flowers, the inside of fruit and perhaps trees. What do you think it represents?
Loughcrew megalithic art
Bronze Age and Iron Age (c. 2400 BC – 400 AD)
Metal working began in Ireland in around 2500 BC. The knowledge of working copper spread to Ireland from continental Europe. Early copper working produced simple flat copper axes that were similar in shape to stone axes. Along with working copper and bronze, gold working also became prevalent. In fact the Bronze Age could easily be known as Ireland’s ‘First Golden Age’ as an unprecedented amount of golden artefacts have been discovered across the country.
The Late Bronze Age and Iron Age saw the rise of ceremonial centres where people would have gathered from all over Ireland. The Hill of Tara is one of the most iconic archaeological landscapes in Ireland, and was the setting for rituals and gatherings throughout the prehistoric period.
Hill of Tara
As well as the famous Hill of Tara, the Boyne Valley has two more important ritual centres. Tlachtga, now known as the Hill of Ward, just outside of Athboy is another atmospheric place to visit. At Halloween, hundreds of people still gather on the hill to try to recreate the rituals at Samhain. Near Kells, the area of Teltown is absolutely packed with archaeological monuments, believed by some to be the venue for Ancient Ireland’s version of the Olympic Games.
The Early Medieval Period (400–1200 AD)
The story of the dawn of Christianity in Ireland is often bound up in that of St Patrick, and sites like The Hill of Slane are featured in the tales of Patrick. There are other great monastic sites in the Boyne Valley, like Monasterboice in County Louth; home to a well-preserved round tower and arguably the finest high crosses in Ireland. The South Cross, also known as Muiredach’s Cross, is simply spectacular, and a testament to the skill of the craftsmen who made it sometime in the early tenth century.
The town of Kells also has a rich collection of early medieval buildings and features to discover. It is associated with one of Ireland’s most important saints, St Colmcille (also known as Columba), who established a monastery here in the sixth century. Kells is thought to be the place where the world famous Book of Kells was completed, and by the ninth century the monastery in Kells was gaining in prestige and renown across Christian Europe.
Today you can visit the spectacular round tower that dates to the tenth century. The round tower probably served as a bellhouse and would have been an obvious marker in the landscape to weary pilgrims who were travelling to visit the sacred relics of Saint Colmcille. This tower also has a darker story: it is within this tower that the High King Murchad Ua Máelsechnaill was murdered in 1076.
St Colmcille’s House, Kells
Close to the tower you can see one of the wonderful early-medieval high crosses at Kells. The town has a number of high crosses, the most spectacular one is The Market Cross that you can see outside of the Old Courthouse. As well as the monastic site, Kells also boasts a rare example of an early Irish church. The building is known as St Colmcille’s House, and you can find it on Church Lane.
Medieval Ireland (1200–1600 AD)
In the late 1160s the unpopular King of Leinster, Diarmait Mac Murrough decided he needed the aid of a powerful ally to help him to regain the lands he had lost to his rivals. He was alone facing a vast confederation of enemies. He sought help from the Norman King of England, Henry II.
Henry gave permission for some of his knights to travel to Ireland. Richard de Clare, known as Strongbow, was the political leader of the invasion and the powerful, professional and experienced Norman forces quickly seized Waterford, Wexford and Dublin.
The town of Trim in County Meath is the site of the largest Norman Castle in Ireland.
It was built by the powerful Hugh de Lacy in the late twelfth century. It really is a fantastic example of the power of the Norman magnates, and today you can enjoy a great guided tour of the keep of the castle.
Trim is also home to a large collection of fantastic medieval buildings, I strongly recommend taking the River Walk that runs along the banks of the Boyne from the carpark below Trim Castle. You’ll encounter several wonderful medieval buildings within a short 20 minute stroll. See here for more information.
As well as fortifications like Trim, the Norman lords also became the new benefactors of existing monasteries like Mellifont and Bective Abbey and they founded many new monasteries with continental monastic orders like the Augustinians, Benedictines and the Fratres Cruciferi, and the Boyne Valley has a number of examples to enjoy.
One of my favourite heritage sites anywhere in Ireland is the wonderfully atmospheric old church of St Lawrence at Rathmore, just outside of Athboy. This site is a 15th century manorial church that served the now destroyed castle of the Plunkett family.
The tomb of Sir Thomas Plunkett and his wife Marion Cruise at Rathmore
Inside the church you can find lots of great medieval sculpture, and the tomb effigy of Sir Thomas Plunkett and his wife Marion Cruise. At his feet you can see a charming sculpture of a small dog, the dog is a symbol of his loyalty and fidelity to the King.
Post Medieval and Early Modern Period 1600–1800
The Boyne Valley is home to some of the key locations of this later medieval and post-medieval periods in Irish History. The 1500 and 1600s were a time of rebellion, dissension, famine, war and disease in Ireland. The English Crown had begun to tighten its grip on the country, and the policy of plantations, particularly in Munster and Ulster, caused great resentment.
There were widespread revolts like The Desmond Rebellion and the vicious and bloody Nine Years War, but ultimately those rebellions were not successful and ended in the Flight of the Earls in 1607, when Hugh O’Neill, Rory O’Donnell and about 90 other followers fled Ireland.
The year 1641 saw another large rebellion in Ireland. Thousands of Protestant Scottish and English planters were killed in Ulster, and the rebellion soon became an organised political revolt with the Catholic Confederacy fighting to regain independence for Ireland.
This period of unrest also coincided with the English Civil War, and despite some early successes for the Catholic Confederacy, after the Civil War, Oliver Cromwell brought his veteran troops over to Ireland to smash the uprising. The infamous siege of Drogheda in 1649 ended in the slaughter of the garrison and a large number of civilians. Today you can discover the story of the siege at the Millmount Museum.
Drogheda has a wealth of hidden history gems and it’s a place well worth exploring.
After establishing English Parliamentary control over Ireland Cromwell left in 1650. By 1660 it is estimated that famine, fighting and disease had wiped out between a fifth and a quarter of the Irish population. The next generation also suffered. In the 1690s Ireland became a theatre of war for international and religious politics. Catholic forces supporting James II fought with the Protestant supporters of William of Orange to decide who would become the King of England, Scotland, and Ireland.
Local magnates in the Boyne Valley like the D’Arcy family who held Dunmoe Castle (located near to Navan) hedged their bets in the coming conflict. The story has it that D’Arcy hosted King James for dinner the night before the Battle of the Boyne, and his rival and victor King William the night after, inspiring the couplet:
‘Who will be king, I don’t know; But I’ll still be D’Arcy of Dunmoe’
The Battle of the Boyne became one of the key clashes of the war, and although few casualties were suffered on either side (an estimated 1500 Jacobites and 500 Williamites) it still scared James II enough that he decided to flee the battlefield and Ireland, and exiled himself safely in France. The war continued in his absence and became far more bloody. The superb Battle of the Boyne Visitor Centre gives the story of the battle and you can see demonstrations of the weapons and equipment used, please click here for more information.
By October 1691 Jacobite resistance ended and William of Orange became King of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. He introduced the severe Penal Laws that restricted life for Catholics by banning priests and putting strong limits on the amount of land or property a Catholic could own, as well as banning them from voting. This extensive and intricate legislation continued into the 19th Century.
Part of the site of the Battle of the Boyne
So as you can see, this is just the tip of the iceberg of the amazing array of historical sites that cover thousands of years of Irish history in the Boyne Valley. It’s the perfect place to immerse yourself in the story of Ireland.
This is the first of this year’s fortnightly series for TheJournal.ie. In the next edition I’ll be suggesting three great places to visit from around the island of Ireland. I’d love to hear your suggestions, if you have a favourite heritage site please leave a comment below.
You can discover more great heritage sites and places on Neil’s blog, Time Travel Ireland.
Neil has also produced an acclaimed series of audioguides to Ireland’s heritage sites, they are packed with original music and sound effects and a really fun and immersive way of exploring Ireland’s past. They are available from AbartaAudioGuides.com.
All photographs © Neil Jackman /abartaaudioguides.com