Ireland - Counties Meath, Louth & Dublin - Boyne Valley, Malahide and Howth, 2015

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May 31st 2015
Published: June 2nd 2015
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St. Patrick's ChurchSt. Patrick's ChurchSt. Patrick's Church

Boyne Valley, the noisome crows are to the right just out of the picture
May 8 - Today was my pre-booked tour of the Boyne Valley. A smaller bus with a smaller group. The Boyne Valley is such a beautiful area. If I was going to live in Ireland, this area would be my first choice. The coach didn't leave the meeting spot until 8:00 am so I was able to sleep a little later. No rain this morning but the skies are gloomy. Our driver/guide is called Liam. So far, all the drivers have played traditional Irish music. I don't know if it's a radio station or if it's recorded. All the drivers also comment on having patience with the weather. This time we don't stay on the main highway long but instead turn off into the countryside with lots of hills. First in County Meath, we arrived at an old country church called St Patrick's. There is an interpretive centre there but we did not go in. A statue of Patrick standing on a pedestal, dressed in Archbishop robes sits near the church however, Patrick never had such rich robes. Patrick was always poor but he was also smart by converting Kings and leaders to Christianity who in turn made their people convert.
Statue of St. PatrickStatue of St. PatrickStatue of St. Patrick

In the Archbishop robes he never owned
So when people say he converted thousands, he did so through others. By the church were quite a few trees with a number of crow's nests. The crows were very vocal, keeping up a cacophony of noise the whole time we were anywhere near the trees. In the churchyard are a couple of very old standing stones. One has an extremely faded carving that may be a Sheela na gig. Sheela na gigs are carvings of naked women with exaggerated genitalia, usually found on churches as well as castles and other buildings. Ireland has the highest number of these carvings while Britain has about 1/3 as many. They are also called architectural grotesques and may be precursors to gargoyles. They are supposed to ward off evil and death. Other scholars say it is a carving of a pagan god. The other standing stone on the site is estimated to be from the Bronze Age.

We walked up the Hill of Tara, an easy climb, to the Mound of Hostages where there is a passage tomb. The passage tomb is about 1,000 years older than Stonehenge. Over 100 bodies were found inside. The Stone Age tomb and the Iron Age hill fort look like hollows and grassy mounds. The site of many myths, it was once the political and spiritual centre of Celtic Ireland and the seat of High Kings until the 11th century when Christianity ended its importance. It is located at the junction of 5 ancient roads. Unfortunately the day wasn't clear but when it is, a visitor can see for miles when on the top of the hill. Even on a cloudy day the views over the Boyne Valley are magnificent, a very peaceful spot. Also located here is the Stone of Destiny where kings were crowned. According to legend the stone would scream at the touch of the would-be king. If it did not, the person was not to be crowned and might have even been put to death. There are also a couple of different ring forts and a commemorative stone dedicated to 400 soldiers, part of the United Irishmen, that were killed in the area by British soldiers. This was during the rebellion of 1798. A few meters away is a Celtic Cross marking an important political spot; in 1843, Daniel O'Connell gave a speech that drew about 750,000 people. He was considered an important political leader in the first half of the 19th century. Having the speech here indicates the enduring importance of the site. The shape of the hills and the mounds create excellent acoustics. It is also believed that a magnetic field runs through this area adding to its mystique. A little further down the hill from the cross is an area called the Banqueting Hall although it looks like some kind of avenue or approach to the top of the hill. The dew on the grass was so heavy that by the time I returned to the coach, water has soaked my Sketchers and my socks. Luckily Liam has a little bit of heat running on the coach allowing my feet to dry in no time.

Our next stop was the Bective Abbey. The Abbey ruins are in another beautiful spot. We wandered around here for a bit, taking photos and absorbing the atmosphere. This was another spot used in "Braveheart". Our next destination was Trim Castle. We got off the bus a short distance away so we could walk along the Boyne River to approach the castle from the back and get a full view. It was a short and picturesque walk. I almost enjoyed this walk more than the castle grounds. The river here is not very wide and seems more like a large stream. On one side of the river is a tower house ruin and Trim Castle is on the other side. The Irish word for tower house is caisleán. They were constructed up until the 17th century. There are over 2,000 in Ireland but more in Scotland. They were used for both defensive and residential reasons. I love them. If I had lots of money, this is what I would buy and renovate. I believe many others feel the same way. For some reason people cannot enter the castle during the summer, only in winter. The castle was also a location used in "Braveheart". The castle was founded in the 12th century. The Irish Heritage service restored it as a "preserved ruin". There is an enormous keep with 70 ft turrets and rectangular towers. The outer castle walls are almost 500 yds long and five D-shaped towers survive. We had a nice long walk around the grounds. There were a few other tourists around but not many.

Our driver really flew along the winding country roads in our small coach. A couple of times my stomach flipped when going over inclines. We stopped in Loughcrew for a toilet break then continued on for a look at some passage tombs. We had to climb up a long, steep hill. I thought I was going to burst a lung! Comes from being badly out of shape! When I finally reached the top, everyone else was waiting. On the way up the hill it began to rain and the wind picked up. There are 3 sets of mountains surrounding this hill. They are in the distance but clearly seen even in poor weather. The views are fantastic but not quite clear enough for good photos. The Loughcrew passage tombs are of considerable historical importance dating back to about 3400 BC and are aligned with the Equinox sunrise. The hill is referred to as the "Witches Hill" and on one side of the largest tomb are large slabs of rocks arranged into the "Witches Chair". To enter the tomb I had to bend low. I think the doorway was about 4 ft high then I had to step over a vertical slab of rock about 2 1/2 ft tall to move into the actual pitch black tomb. Only a few people could enter at one time. With a couple of cell phone flashlights we were able to make out carvings in the stone wall. After exploring all of the tombs and listening to historical information from Liam, we walked back down the hill, taking care. There was a single sheep watching us and seemingly calling to us. I think it also wanted to get out of the cold rain.

We drove a short time and stopped at a pub called Scanlon's. The coffee was excellent, the best I have had so far. Before climbing the hill I wasn't the least bit hungry. After the hill, my stomach was growling. Everyone seemed to enjoy their lunch and the fire blazing in the fireplace. We headed back to Loughcrew and stopped at St. Patrick's Cathedral there. Inside, displayed in a case, is the preserved head of a 17th century Archbishop. If you look closely you can see hairs on his chin. We were supposed to have a walking tour of the town but due to the heavy rain, we voted to do this from the coach.

Our last stop was in Monasterboice, founded in the 5th century. It is one of the most famous religious sites in the country. Unfortunately, it was cold and pouring rain so I didn't give it the time it deserved. I definitely did not dress warm enough and stood, violently shivering, while listening to our guide. The ruins included one of the tallest round towers in the country. It also has ancient church ruins and excellent high crosses.

Regardless of the rain, I think this has been my favourite bus tour because we spent so much time in the countryside instead of on a highway. I also enjoyed stepping into the past with all the associated history. The views..oh, the views! And sheeps, sheeps, everywhere sheeps! Haha There were constantly white spots dotting the hillsides which were, of course, perfectly manicured by said sheep. Since it is spring, there are a lot of lambs, some quite small. Along the roads I notice trees, I don't know which kind, that seem to have a concentration of leaf growth close to the trunk. From a distance the bare or sparsely leafed branches looked delicate, almost lacey. However, up close they looked like they were ready to bend over and grab a person up from the ground like something seen in a scary movie. Kind of an appropriate end to so much discussion about myths, magic and ancient stories.

May 9 - Today I had breakfast at the hotel (it is actually a guesthouse) then headed off to the Pearse St train station. The lack of street signs caused me to go a little out of my way but not too badly. But, it meant I missed my train so I had to sit until 9:50 for the next one. I am on my way to Malahide to visit the castle there. The ticket was only €3.15 and the whole trip took about 1/2 hour. There were only a few passengers. It was not raining but the sky is kind of grey but it looked like the DART train was headed toward blue sky. Outside the train station was a fellow trying to get passengers for a little "tourist train" on wheels. The "engine" pulled 3 or 4 passenger cars. At first I was skeptical but the price included a ride to and from the castle, an entrance ticket to the grounds as well as a guided tour of the castle. It was only a 15-20 minute walk to the castle but the price seemed right since I wasn't sure exactly where I was going. The train took 3 passengers, including me, on a little tour of the town. Once dropped off in the castle parking lot, there was probably another 10-15 minutes walking along the outer wall. The tour of the castle didn't start for 1/2 hour so I wandered around the gardens. A tree blooming majestically with white flowers gave off a wonderful fragrance. Abbey ruins with a cemetery sit near the castle. The tour of the castle was at least 1 hour long. The castle itself is satisfyingly complete and solid. It was owned by the same family (the Talbots) for 800 years - 30 generations - from the 15th century until 1976 when the last heir sold the castle and grounds to the Irish government for only £600,000, the amount of their debt at the time. Only a few pieces of furniture are original however, the rest is from the correct time periods. Not all rooms are open for viewing but there are still many that are. The guide said there are supposed to be 5 ghosts that appear off and on but said she has only encountered one. One fact I learned was about small screens on a stand that were used by medieval women. Their makeup often contained wax so they would place the screen between their head and the fireplace so the wax would not melt. When it worked, they were "saving face" and when it did not, they were "losing face". After the tour I wandered the grounds a little but had another stop planned for the afternoon so walked back to the little train in order to catch the big train. I understood the miniature train was something children would enjoy and primarily for them, but why play the "Frozen" soundtrack over and over when there are only adult passengers? I had to transfer to a second train to reach the seaside town of Howth ( pronounced Hoe-th, a long o). Each train cost €3.15. Upon arrival my stomach was growling so I stopped at a pub called the "Bloody Stream" to have lunch. Since I was by the sea, I had seafood - fish cakes. The name is not very appetizing but the food was good and the staff friendly. The pub was brick, wood, mullioned glass, dark and smoky. Some of the smoke was from a number of candles burning. Some came in through a door. They must have a smoker out on the patio. All along the main boulevard were restaurants and take-out places. Otherwise, there was just the harbour and the seaside. There were more sites further into town, some abbey ruins and great views, but the town is built on a steep hillside and my injured knee is not up to climbing today. It was a disappointment making me sorry I didn't spend more time at Malahide exploring the extensive grounds. On the plus side, it had been a beautiful sunny day. By the time I got to Howth I had removed my scarf, removed a layer of clothing and unzipped my jacket. I headed back to Dublin for another €6. Once I got back to Dublin, I dropped off my camera and day pack then had dinner at a place called Taste. It started to rain a little when I headed back to my hotel but a whole day without opening an umbrella!

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