Our hostel in Newgrange is situated less than an hour from Dublin, but it is a world away from the hustle and bustle of the capital city. This is the Boyne Valley which UNESCO designated as one of Ireland’s three World Heritage Sites. Unlike Skellig Michel and the Giants Causeway, the Boyne Valley was deemed important because it has been used continuously for over 5000 years. It has been the home of the first Stone Age farmers, Bronze Age warriors, Iron Age High Kings, Celtic druids, early medieval saints, Vikings, Normans, English Kings and Irish revolutionaries – they all managed to put their roots down here and most of them left a lot behind for us to explore.
It is this continual use throughout history which gives it so many attractions. Whether you are a country rambler, a city slicker looking to get some fresh air or a family looking for a few spots to picnic with the kids, this is a great place for history buffs.
1. Brú na Boinne
Across the road from the hostel
The huge monuments of Brú na Boinne are older than the Great Pyramids and they cause lots of arguments among our staff. We know that the people who built these giant mounds were early farmers (3500BC) that used stone tools. We don’t know why they built these elaborate structures or how they managed to transport the giant stones from Co Louth or the white quartz from the Wicklow Mountains when they had not even invented the wheel. We do know that they contain a quarter of the stone carving art in the whole of Europe. We know they were constructed in such a way that at different times of the year, the rising and setting sunlight illuminates the deep interiors and that the mounds also track the movement of the moon and stars. We know that it was a ceremonial pilgrimage site for Celtic people when the Romans were civilising the rest of Europe.
The High Kings of Ireland claimed it in the medieval period and the Vikings attacked it. Even the Normans moved here and built a castle on top of one of the mounds. Go on the tour and make sure you go inside the monuments. Please tell us what you think it was for, before we all drive each other nuts in the office.
Tara is so special in Ireland that all roads were designed to lead there. This is the real capital for history buffs. It certainly has some of the best views in Meath, along with the most amount of prehistoric monuments in one spot (which is something in a land where every field has a story!). No matter which way you turn here you will see something connected to a period of Irish history. The stone age people buried their elite here (in 1600BC) and historians reckon that it has been used as a ceremonial complex ever since. The Celts held their rituals here and the High Kings were chosen here, so it was no surprise that St Patrick chose Tara for his final battle with the druids at this spot. When Ireland was trying to get Emancipation, Daniel O’ Conell held his monster rallies up here to drum up support. Tara was considered so special that a group of Victorian Indiana Jones style archaeologists tried to dig it up to look for the Lost Ark of the Covenant (but all they found was old pennies thrown into the holes at night by local people).
Kids love it because it is full of massive grass covered mounds that are ideal for running up and down on (although be careful of the sheep poo!) and every year the Summer Solstice attracts lots of modern day druids. There are guided tours (audio and the old fashioned ones with real people) and we highly recommend these because every bump in the ground here tells a different story about Ireland.
3. Trim Castle
When the Normans arrived (boo!), they headed upriver and decided that Trim was the place to be. Along with transforming the town from its higgledy-piggledy layout into the straight and narrow streets that are still there today, they also built giant abbeys, town walls to keep the common people out and one of the largest castles of its type in Europe.
The castle tour is fantastic as it tells the story of how it was built, the politics that went on here, the people and the lifestyle of the Normans in Ireland (they had some seriously weird hygiene habits, such as not believing in washing and using poop to fumigate their clothes). They also tell you about how Mel Gibson transformed the castle for the movie, Braveheart. This is about a 40 minute drive from the hostel or you can get a bus from Drogheda.
4. Lough Crew
This is another collection of stone age monuments, only this time they are on the highest spot in the Boyne Valley on a group of three hills that are named after a magical woman called the Cailleach. It is about a half an hour drive from our hostel and involves a gentle climb (with more opportunities for child-rolling) and views as far as Dublin and Northern Ireland.
It is famous for the stone carvings that can be seen in its upright stones and for its alignments with sunrises. The main monument can be entered at certain times of the year and it has a completely different vibe than Newgrange due to the fact that it is on such a remote location. If you make it for the Equinoxes, you will meet lots of interesting characters who have also made the journey to welcome the changing seasons from this hilltop.
5. The River
The Boyne is a slow moving river that meanders gently through the valley. It was named after a water goddess (Boann) that would not do what she was told and was chased into the Irish sea. It flows through the towns of Trim, Navan and Slane and is the old natural border between North and South Ireland. This is probably why it was the site for so many conflicts over time.
The famous Battle of the Boyne (more about that later!) took place along its route, as did an earlier melee between the fabled hero Cú Chulainn and the King of Tara (in which the King riled Cu Cuchulainn so much that he threw his spear across the river and then used his legendary salmon leap to follow the spear and take the king’s head off before it hit the ground. Lovely!) Today the Boyne is used for more gentle pursuits such as kayaking and white water rafting.
6. Mellifont Abbey
The Cistercians arrived in the Boyne Valley in 1142. These guys were worker monks. They prefered herding sheep to saying mass, although they did both. They owned a lot of the land here during the middle ages and they gave Newgrange its name after their old grange (sheep farm) became too small for their booming business. They built all the river weirs to catch fish for the Dublin market and they were one of the largest exporters of sheep wool at the time. Considering sheep wool was the most commonest form of clothing material in Europe, they were onto a winner.
The monks are still in Mellifont, working away, although the wool industry is not as big as it used to was. They were a thrifty lot though, so any ruins that were left behind, they kept. Mellifont has an octagonal lavabo ( a really fancy place that priests used to wash their hands), plenty of columns and walls and a visitor centre that specialises in medieval masonry. A solid tour.
7. Oldbridge House
Battle of the Boyne
Oldbridge House is just outside Drogheda along the banks of the Boyne. You can walk to it from the hostel. The land all around here was the site of the largest battle on Irish soil and it was the last time that European Kings (James and his son-inlaw William. Talk about a family squabble!) physically fought in battle (1690). It was a proper old fashioned battle with cannnons and muskets and charging cavalry and you can still find musket-shot in the fields. After the mess at the Battle of the Boyne the Kings wisely decided to leave that carry-on to soldiers.
It will always be remembered for changing the course of European history (the balance of power shifted from Catholics to the Protestants in Europe) and it is the reason that the Orangemen march in Northern Ireland every July 12th. Inside the house, there is a cool laser display of the battle grounds and more cannons and implements of war from the 17th century.
Monasterboice is another spot near Newgrange Hostel which is worth a visit if ruins are your thing. It has the remains of two early medieval Irish Churches and a typical Irish round tower. Unlike the later Cistercians, the early Irish monks were more into using art instead of sheep farming, so you will see examples of Irish High Crosses here. Irish monks were famous for using these to keep the faith alive during the Dark Ages and one of the best examples in Europe is situated here in front of the round tower. Muirdeach’s High Cross is 5.8m high, carved out of sandstone and decorated with over 100 figures from the Bible connected by Celtic patterns. See if you can find the unusual carving on it of David fighting Goliath.
9. Irish War Museum
Irish Guards mascot
This is one of the latest attractions in the Boyne Valley. Just about 15 minute drive from the hostel, this park has a living history museum, weapons and artifacts, replica WW1 trenches and tanks. Yes, tanks! This place is a treasure trove of military history.
Drogheda by Night
Image Credit – D. O Mahoney
Drogheda is the nearest large town to the hostel and it is full of historical features, ranging from neolithic mounds to medieval gates and Victorian Iron train bridges. It was famously attacked and burned by notorious king-killer Oliver Cromwell but it bounced back. We love it because it has the preserved head of a marytred saint in its cathedral and locals describe their hangovers with the phrase ” I have a a head on me like Saint Oliver Plunkett”. You don’t hear that too often!
If you think we have missed out on attractions near our hostel, we would love to hear your suggestions.