Standing Stones - Boyne Valley

Daytrip through the Boyne Valley Ireland: Exploring ancient Irish history and religious sites

The Boyne River Valley, north of Dublin, is one of the most picturesque and serene areas in the Irish Republic. Looks can be deceiving however because this region has had such an active history that you can still see the undercurrents today. Along its short 70 mile long course, the river passes ancient tombs, an ancient royal capital, a battlefield, a castle and an abbey. The daytrip to the Hill of Tara and the Newgrange Passage Tomb outlined below is just a sample of what awaits you.

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Home of The High Kings of Ireland

My first thought upon setting foot onto the lush green pasture filled with sheep was one of surprise. This seemed like nothing more than a farmer's field but it was in fact one of the most venerated spots in early Ireland. The Hill of Tara was not only the seat of 142 High Kings of Ireland until 1022 CE but it was also here that St. Patrick first confronted the pagan religion in 433 CE.

Hill of Tara

Over thirty visible monuments are set upon this hill, 155 yards high; these include burial sites, earthworks and stone pillars - many of which were used for ceremonial purposes. The summit of the hill features the Mound of the Hostages and the Royal Enclosure.

Slowly and with very calculated steps, so as to avoid the mud that comes with the abundant rainfall in the Emerald Isle, Diane and I approached the Mound of the Hostages.

The name of this mound arises because the High Kings traditionally ensured the submission of their subject kingdoms by holding important people as "guests" at this site.

The Mound of the Hostages, the oldest monument on the hill dating to 2500 BCE, is a megalithic passage tomb that once held the cremated remains of 40 individuals. The rock-lined passage inside, 4 yards long and 1 yard wide, was not open at the time of our visit. This passage is aligned with November 8 and February 4, the ancient Celtic festivals of Samhain and Imbolc respectively. Visitors should note that this tomb was constructed long before the Celts arrived in Ireland. It would therefore appear the two festival days were later attached to this passage tomb.

The oval-shaped Royal Enclosure, measuring 866 feet east-west and 1043 feet north-south, holds two earthen ring-forts named Cormac's House and the Royal Seat. All that remains of Cormac's House, named for a 3rd Century CE High King, are two earthen banks and two ditches.

The Royal Seat, having both a protective bank and a ditch, houses a menhir known as the "Stone of Destiny". Legend has it that this phallic-like granite coronation stone, approximately 1 yard in height, would roar three times when touched by the true king of Ireland. This stone had been re-located from an earlier site near the Mound of the Hostages to its present location as a memorial to those who died at the Battle of Tara during the Irish Revolution of 1798.

Just north of the Royal Enclosure you find the Rath of the Synods, a ring-fort with three banks. Despite its name, there is no evidence that St. Patrick or any other religious figure ever gathered church leaders here. This site is unique however because Roman artifacts from the 1st to 3rd centuries CE have been found here. While ancient Ireland was not part of the Roman Empire, there was trade with Roman Britain just across the Irish Sea.

As we left the site, two local women came jogging by. We asked them for directions to Newgrange, our next destination. They simply pointed it out in the distance and told us the easiest way to get there. Apparently 40% of the Irish country side is visible from the Hill of Tara on a clear day. This suggests that the Hill of Tara might have had some strategic importance to the Irish High Kings as well.

Ancient Tombs: Newgrange Passage Tomb

"The glistening white quartz on the outer wall" at the entrance to the tumulus "comes from the Wicklow Mountains" south of Dublin said our tour guide, Sioban. The Newgrange Passage Tomb was originally constructed around 3200 BCE by a prosperous farming community that could clearly afford to import the quartz from such a distance away.

Approaching the entrance to the passage tomb, you find a massive kerbstone (10 feet long and 4 feet wide) carved with triple spirals and diamonds that had been patiently carved with a hammer, stone chisel and a flint stone. Such spirals are often found at Neolithic sites.

Sioban points to two openings at the doorway, one on top of the other. The lower one is the entrance and the upper one is a roof-box. The roof-box allows the sun to penetrate the full length of the interior passage all the way to the main chamber at sunrise on the morning of the winter solstice (December 21).

Passing through the doorway in single file, the 15 people in our group struggled along the low, narrow 20 yard long passage lined with stone slabs known as orthostats. Siobhan indicated that this ancient roof has never leaked in over 5,000 years because of special grooves incorporated into the stone slabs by the builders to redirect the flow of rainwater.

Our destination was a cruciform chamber with a corbelled roof. Each of the three small chambers housed a shallow stone basin approximately three feet in diameter. These stone basins were likely used in cremation rituals as ashes and jewelry were once found inside.

With this ghostly back drop, Siobhan suddenly dimmed the lights leaving us in total darkness. A beam of light then appeared to simulate sunrise on the winter solstice. We watched as it gradually extended along the length of the passageway and soon illuminated the room. An actual event such as this would have lasted for 17 minutes but we didn't have that long; the next group was clamoring to enter.

Exiting the tumulus, I took a leisurely walk around the kidney-shaped mound covering one acre. As much as 200,000 tons of rubble had been gathered to build up this sod-covered structure to a height of 13 yards. Lining the periphery of the mound, you find ninety-seven kerbstones, each weighing between two and ten tons; three were noticeably decorated and one of them appeared to feature a snake. I had always been led to believe that there were no snakes in Ireland.

Approximately 1000 years after the Newgrange passage tomb was constructed, residents erected a circle of standing stones around the structure. Twelve of the original 35 stones from the 103 yard diameter circle still remain.

Siobhan pointed out another passage tomb in the distance called Knowth. This tomb with two passages is aligned with the Spring and Fall equinoxes. If the number of kerbstones is an indication of size, then Knowth with 127 is larger than Newgrange. Unfortunately we would have to visit Knowth another day because now we had to return to Dublin.

If You Go

You will need a car to visit the sites. The Hill of Tara is approximately 48 kilometers northwest of Dublin. Take the N3/M3 north and follow the signs to Dunshaughlin. Travel north on the R147 through Dunshaughlin and after 3 kilometers follow the signs for Tara.

Tours to Newgrange are arranged through the Bru na Boinne Visitor Center. From Dublin take the M1 motorway north and turn off using the Donore Exit. At Donore, turn right near the bar and restaurant and travel 1 km to the Bru na Boinne Visitor Center. Tours depart at fixed times during the day. Visitors are not permitted to take photographs inside Newgrange.

You can also purchase the Heritage Pass. This provides discount admission sites outlined here.

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Troy Herrick, a freelance travel writer, has traveled extensively in North America, the Caribbean, Europe and parts of South America. His articles have appeared in Live Life Travel, International Living, Offbeat Travel and Travels Thru History Magazines.

Diane Gagnon, a freelance photographer, has traveled extensively in North America, the Caribbean, Europe and parts of South America. Her photographs have accompanied Troy Herrick's articles in Live Life Travel, Offbeat Travel and Travels Thru History Magazines.

Updated: November 27, 2016

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