Co. Meath

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Long before Patrick came to Slane, the hill was a very important site to the pre-Christian Irish.

Newgrange and Knowth as seen from atop the Hill of Slane.

Knowth and Newgrange as seen from atop the Hill of Slane.

The first high king of Ireland is said to have been a fir bolg named Sláine. The Fir Bolg were one of the warrior races who inhabited Ireland before the Celtic tribes conquered the country. Sláine is said to have cleared the land at Bru na Boinne for the construction of the great tumuli of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. When he died, he was buried in a great mound on the top of a hill overlooking the Boyne valley, which was named Slane in his honor. As a consequence of his abilities and good deeds, a well on the hill was said to have the power to restore the dead and heal the wounded. 

The Fir Bolg were later dispossessed by the Tuatha Da Dannan, the god-like ancestors of the Irish Celts, but in these days many quasi-supernatural races are said to have fought over Ireland, and the Tuatha de Dannan then had to contend with the Formorians for possession of the island. During the second battle of Maige Tuired, the Formorians filled in the magic well on the Hill of Slane with stones in order to stop Dian Cecht, the Tuatha’s god of physicians, bringing their warriors back to life. Inside the churchyard you can still see what local tradition says is a holy well stuffed with stones. The same well? Well, that depends on how much credit you want to give to ancient legends.

The burial mound of Sláine is believed to be the “motte” you can see in a wooded area behind the church. The mound is fenced off from the rest of the site as it’s on private land, but new archaeological work has begun in the last few years, expanding what we know about the site. The mound is called the “motte” because in 1170, after the Normans came and quickly conquered the country, the local Norman lord built a bailey (a wooden “castle”) on top of the mound/motte. The countryside was littered with motte and baileys at this time, each probably housing a knight and his family and retainers, who administered the immediate vicinity on behalf of his lord. This motte overlooked another on top of the Knowth mound, and on a fine day would have been visible from a number of other mottes from as far east as Drogheda, and at least as far west as Navan. Both can be seen if you visit those towns, the one at Millmount in Drogheda (which I wrote about recently) now has a fine Martello Tower on top, although the one in Navan is overgrown.

Modern archaeological techniques have revealed the motte stands within a rath or ditch and bank, which was constructed on top of a much earlier ring barrow, a burial tomb possibly dating from the early iron age. An Earth Resistance Survey of the mound itself has revealed a stone layer on top which could have been a foundation for a fortified dwelling, and areas of low resistance inside the mound that point to it being a man-made structure, and raise the possibility of the remains a chamber or passage inside.

Even though visitors can’t explore the motte freely at the moment, the peaceful grassy surroundings of the hilltop churchyard and Friary make for an enjoyable stroll (if you have the weather) and there are plenty of carved stones, picturesque windows and broken but-climbable flights of stairs.

 

Notes
This is my second post about the Hill of Slane. Read the first part, “Exploring the Hill of Slane…
If you are interested in the Hill of Slane, you should also visit The Hill of Tara

 

I’m as likely as anyone to disappear down the YouTube rabbit hole now and then. However, when I do it’s not cat videos I’m looking for (that’s my kids) it’s scenic views of Ireland. I embed many of the best in blog posts on this site from time to time, but here are a few I want to showcase for their own sake. Some are time-lapse views of famous or scenic sites, others are just regular videos of something unusual or notable. Enjoy!

The Sites of County Meath

I’ll start off with something from my home county, County Meath. Home to some of the most-photographed sites in the world, including Newgrange, Knowth, King John’s Castle in Trim, and the Hills of Tara and Slane. This time-lapse was shot during the amazing sunshine of this past July.

 

The Beauty of The Burren

Ever been to The Burren in Co. Clare? It’s an ethereal landscape of limestone karst studded with neolithic monuments, iron-age forts, and rare wildflowers. If you’ve never been, you’ll want to go after seeing this video…

 

Ireland Underwater

Love being on or in the water? Check out what Ireland’s like underwater…

 

And Ireland Over the Water

The final video this week is an internet classic. A murmuration is a flock of starlings, who perform elaborate aerial displays before settling down for the night (rather like kids determined to put off going to bed as long as possible). Two tourists kayaking on the Shannon came across this flock a few years ago, recorded it, and set it to music, so it became an internet sensation for a few days.

 

If this post proves popular, I’ll try to work a few more roundups of cool videos of Ireland into the rotation in future. Please leave any links to any great videos of Ireland you know of in the comments. Cheers.

 

The Hill of Slane is one of the major archaeological sites associated with early Christianity in Ireland, but recent research has suggested that there may be more truth in the ancient legends about the site than previously thought.

View of the Hill of Slane by Michael Osmenda (via Creative Commons license /Flickr)

View of the Hill of Slane by Michael Osmenda
(via Creative Commons license /Flickr)

The traditional St. Patrick story holds that around 433AD Patrick built a bonfire on the hill to celebrate Easter. However, this coincided with the feast of Beltaine, the spring rite of renewal and rebirth in the Celtic world, and tradition held that all fires must be extinguished and relit from the King’s bonfire on Tara Hill — although in practice, there would likely have been many communal fires around the country, given that the Hill of Tara is not visible from everywhere in Ireland. Tara is visible from Slane Hill, however, and tradition holds that the High King, Laoire, sent for the person responsible for this break with tradition. His druids had warned him that if that fire was not extinguished there and then it would consume the whole kingdom, and figuratively that’s just what it did. Read the rest of this entry »

At Duleek, a small village near Drogheda, a large medieval bell tower stands by a ruined church on the outskirts of the town. The first thing you’ll likely notice about this site is there are two church towers side-by-side. The smaller one belongs to “The Spire” restaurant, which is housed in a deconsecrated church building much younger than the tower that looms over it. This tower marks the remains of Duleek Priory, a 12th century monastery built by the Augustinians. However the site itself is reputed to have been the location of the first stone church built in Ireland around about 472; founded by St. Cianan (c. 442-489), who was converted and consecrated a bishop by St. Patrick himself. Consequently, Duleek has in many ways as strong a claim to historical significance as the nearby monastic sites of Monasterboice and Slane.  The main interest of the site today, however, lies in the ghostly afterimages it retains of its own storied past.

The side view showing the ghostly utline of the round tower that once stood on the site. Note the doorway near what would have been the top of the tower, suggesting the round tower may have served as a staircase for a time. (Original photo credit: ShanClarke23 on flickr via creative commons license)

The side view showing the ghostly utline of the round tower that once stood on the site. Note the doorway near what would have been the top of the tower, suggesting the round tower may have served as a staircase for a time.
(Original photo credit: ShanClarke23 on flickr via creative commons license)

While the remains of the original stone church can be seen in very overgrown condition at the edge of the site (so overgrown that it’s really not possible to explore it anymore) the bulk of the ruins belong to the 12th century abbey built by the Augustinians. Most of one long side wall links the mostly-intact tower with the the skeleton of the great central window at the other end of the main building. A large sarcophagus-type tomb stands inside in what would have been the main alter area of the church. Near the top of the tower the original roof line can be seen, demonstrating by its height and the ornamentation of the windows how far the engineering ability of the Irish church had come since the early days of that first stone church. Near the spire restaurant you’ll find the remains of an old high cross, and throughout the church yard there are broken fragments of others; all suggesting the great center of learning and religious art this once was.

Walk around the corner of the bell tower you’ll note part of the wall is very uneven and dilapidated. However, change your perspective by walking over to the graveyard wall and the scar in the side of the tower might make more sense. Gently tapering to a conical point, the north wall of the tower shows the impression of a round tower, a ghostly image of a tower, carved in its side. Studies have suggested this was the original round tower on the site, which may have been the only part of the abbey still relatively intact after centuries of Viking raids had left the monastery without an abbott and possible uninhabited by the time the Augustinians were granted the land by Hugh de Lacy after the Norman conquest.

The churches annals record that the cloictheach (bell tower or round tower) of Duleek was hit by lightening in 1147 and the roof was demolished. Going by the impression left in the side of the 12th century bell tower, the roof may have been replaced sometime before the Abbey was constructed in 1182, and the builders simply incorporated the round tower into the wall of the much larger bell tower. In fairness, that repair could have been made as the new abbey was going up, but it’s hard to see why the builders would have incorporated a damaged and relatively short round tower into the new bell tower. The incorporation of a round tower into later construction of a bigger building is not completely unknown; the tower at Lusk in Co. Dublin was incorporated into the church there, and continues in use as a bell tower, but that building is no bigger than the original tower, so incorporating it would have saved time, expense and materials. Why the tower at Duleek was so adapted is a bit of a head scratcher.

It’s interesting to reflect that the height of the ghostly impression of the Duleek tower would have made this one of the shorter round towers in Ireland. Suggesting that the ground level surrounding the tower may have changed significantly since it was first constructed. Whether this was a change made during the building of the abbey (perhaps to afford direct access to the tower’s door?) or as a result of the cycle of destruction of earlier churches and monastic buildings is unknown, but the riddle of this ghost tower presents some intriguing possibilities.

 

Notes

You may be interested in my earlier post “When is a Round Tower Not a Round Tower?

 

The Brú na Bóinne complex of three neolithic tombs (Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth) on a ridge in the middle of the Boyne Valley is perhaps the most-famous archaeological site in Europe, and Newgrange is its poster child.

newgrange, bru-na-boinne

A side-view of Newgrange passage tomb.
(Photo credit: atriptoIreland.com)

Built around 3200 BC, Newgrange is a huge passage tomb on top of a small hill overlooking the river. On each side stand two other huge passage tombs, and numerous smaller mounds. Excavated and controversially restored in the 1970s, both Newgrange and Knowth contained numerous cremated remains and are decorated with a marvelous array of carved boulders; the interpretation of the images on these boulders still eludes archaeologists — so visitors can play amateur archaeologist trying to make a story out of the characteristic symbols and patterns.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Mound of the Hostages before the current restoration project. (Photo credit: Victor Bayon/formalfallacy @ Dublin via flickr)

The Mound of the Hostages in 2009, before the current restoration project.
(Photo credit: Victor Bayon/formalfallacy @ Dublin via flickr)

The oldest — and perhaps most important — monument on the Hill of Tara is the misleadingly named “Mound of the Hostages,” a neolithic passage tomb of a much smaller scale than Newgrange (which is visible from the top of the hill on a clear day — but you’ll need binoculars). Due to the thick metal bars on the entrance, generations of Irish schoolchildren (and tourists) came away from brief tours of the hill erroneously assuming that this was a prison mound. This small tomb is similar to the satellite tombs that surround the principle cairns at Loughcrew, Newgrange and Knowth, but in rather better condition. The passage is very short (about 13 feet) and the chamber is simply where the passage deadends, rather than an elaborate cruciform chamber with carved bowls like some others. Despite its relative simplicity, the passage has a solar alignment, this time with the “cross-quarter” days (Feb. 4 and Nov. 8) which correspond to the Celtic festivals of Imbolc and Samhain, and boasts some fine carved rocks. Unlike Newgrange, which controls access to the chamber at the solstice by lottery, anyone can walk up to the Mound of the Hostages and observe the solar alignment through the bars on cross-quarter days — weather permitting!

The tomb is called the Mound of the Hostages/Dumha na nGiall after one of the most-famous High Kings of Ireland, Niall Nolligach, who — like all Iron Age kings — took members of other royal families “hostage” to deter aggression, hence his nickname, Niall of the Nine Hostages. The iron bars on the tomb entrance gives the misleading impression that these hostages were thrown into the tomb to rot, but the truth is that the main tribes of Ireland sent children to be fostered by other leading families to create alliances and engender goodwill, so treating them that harshly would rather have defeated the purpose.

The Mound of Hostages during reconstruction. The exposed orthostats and lintels have been protected from the elements with plastic sheeting.

The Mound of Hostages during reconstruction (June 2012). The exposed orthostats and lintels have been protected from the elements with plastic sheeting.
(Photo credit: atriptoIreland.com)

One striking fact about the Mound of the Hostages is that it remained in use centuries after all the other passage tombs had fallen into disuse. Whatever the exact reasons for this change in burial practice were, it appears that Tara was considered more important than the other tombs; when the mound was excavated in the 1950s, the volume of human remains filled the passage and chamber almost to the roof. Indeed, archaeologists have found that our ancestors began interring people in graves around the mound at a certain point; whether this reflects new beliefs or the simple fact that the tomb had reached capacity is open to debate.

In late 2011, the National Monuments Service began work to stabilize and repair the front of the mound. The two slopes adjacent to the entrance had become very eroded, and the integrity of the structure was judged to be at risk. Workers removed the earth covering the passage and chamber, affording visitors an unparalleled look at the construction of the passage. Needless to say, this work was very controversial (note protest sign in the photo above right), not least because it began on the day of the winter alignment and blocked the solar alignment during the time when work was underway. (The workers charged with carrying out repairs are said to have had no idea about the alignment — although I learned that nugget of gossip from the protestors, so take with a pinch of salt — which, if true, reminds us of how little-appreciated this monument is.) I have not been able to visit the site thus far in 2013, but a recent picture (below) shows the new facade close to completion. Doubtless there will be a sustained argument over the integrity of the interpretation, as still continues over Newgrange.

Plan to check out the new Hill of Tara on your Irish vacation

The almost-complete new facade of the Mound of the Hostages in spring 2013.
(Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor)

 

Hill of Tara: a must-visit part of any Irish vacation.

Explanatory signage detailing the reasons for reconstruction which was erected during the 2012 conservation work. Click through to a higher resolution image if you want to read the text.
(Photo credit: atriptoIreland.com)

History of the Hill of Tara. Background research for any Irish vacation.

Interpretive signage erected during the 2012 conservation work at the Mound of the Hostages. Click through to a higher resolution image if you wish to read the text.
(Photo credit: atriptoIreland.com)

 

Notes

[This is part two in a series of posts on the Hill of Tara. Part one, dealing with the history of the Hill of Tara can be read here. The third post in this series will deal with the Lia Fail, the fabled stone of destiny.]

A few miles south of Navan, Co. Meath lies the Hill of Tara, the ancient capital of Ireland.

Unlike our modern conception of a capital city, however, Tara appears to have been a symbolic or ritual capital, rather than a large center of commerce, administration, and public life. Evidence of extensive dwelling space or large-scale defensive earthworks have not been found, suggesting its use was primarily ritualistic: it was where one went to be crowned, set down laws, or settle disputes.

The Lia Fail, the phallic stone that is said to scream for the rightful High King

The Lia Fail, the phallic stone that is said to scream for the rightful High King.

The archaeological remains suggest that the settlement was never more than a small cluster of hill-top raths, various wooden buildings and animal enclosures alongside some sacred monuments. The population would have swelled for feasting or other ceremonial occasions, but otherwise the hill may have sustained a much smaller number of inhabitants, possibly druidic caretakers and masters of ceremony.

Seat of the High King

Its Irish name is Teamhair na Rí, the Hill of the King, but it’s important to note that the high kingship was not hereditary — although many high kings would have liked to make it so — and different families from all over the country held the high kingship over time. This was probably only possible because Tara was a neutral or communal space.

When you stand on the top of the hill on a clear day, you can easily see why the site was of such significance to the early Irish. From the hill top one can see the other major hills in the midlands and east of the country, many of which boasted settlements or culturally significant tombs: the Hills of Slane, Skrne, and Tailte, the Hills of the Witch/Slieve na Callaigh near Oldcastle, The Hill of Uisneach in Co. Westmeath, and Slieve Gullion and the Mourne Mountains in Co. Down. A bronze-age chieftain standing on top of his rath would have felt he could see the entire country from that point. It’s no wonder they came to think of themselves as the High King. The passage tombs of Newgrange and Loughcrew (if not others) were specially topped with white quartz to be seen glittering at a distance. On feast nights, the bonfires from these and other hilltops would probably have been easily visible, giving a feeling of solidarity and community to those watching from the best vantage point, the high ground: Temair, the Hill of the King.

Tara was the seat of the High King at least from the Iron Age through to the Norman Invasion (1st through 12th centuries) and a place of importance long before that. Ancient legends name Tara/Temair as the seat of the the king from the arrival of the Tuatha de Danaan, and its symbolic importance endured long after the High Kings were but memory, with the patriot Daniel O’Connell choosing Tara as the site of an enormous political rally (drawing three-quarters of a million people, by contemporary accounts) in 1843. The recent outcry over the encroachment of a new motorway across the hill’s boundary showed that even in the modern world, Tara retains an emotional importance for the country.

Maps are essential when planning an Irish vacation.

Old Map of Tara.
(Photo credit: wikipedia commons)

Monuments/Ruins

There are visible remains of almost 30 man-made monuments around the hill, and traces of as many more can be detected under the vegetation using modern non-invasive survey techniques. All of the buildings on the Hill of Tara — except of course the modern church — seem to have been wooden and have now rotted away. Archaeologists have found post holes and evidence to suggest huge structures, possibly for banqueting and hosting important meetings. The remaining evidence of inhabitation are large earthen ditches and banks, known as raths, which were built up around the dwellings.

Ráith na Ríogh/The Rath (Fort) of the Kings is the largest and most-visible of these enclosures, an iron-age hill fort containing two smaller raths. This is thought to have been the most-important rath within the settlement, the house of the king, and this enclosure takes up the summit of the hill. This rath is relatively speaking a latecomer to the hill top, enclosing several much older and more more significant monuments, including the mound of the hostages and the lia fail. I find it curious that in the later days of high kingship, no king attempted to fortify Tara, even the Normans — who built motte and baileys on every high point they could — respected the sanctity of the hill.

Outside the Rath of the Kings lies several other raths, or bank and ditch enclosures. Several are thought to have enclosed the dwelling places, and others to have been tombs. (Unlike Newgrange or Knowth, there has been comparatively little modern excavation at Tara.) Between the walls of the modern churchyard and the mound of the hostages there lies a seemingly chaotic series of mounds and ditches, known as the Rath of the Synods. These are the remains of another mound within a circular rath, which was crudely excavated by British Israelites at the turn of the last century hunting for the Ark of the Covenant. The same group of amateur archaeologists blew up the passage tomb at Dowth during their quest, and probably did more to destroy Ireland’s ancient heritage than any other group since the Vikings.

The church is now a visitor center for the Hill of Tara.

St. Patrick’s Church on the Hill of Tara
(Photo credit: Neil Forrester/wikipedia commons)

Christianity on the Hill of Tara

The importance of Tara is illustrated by the siting of an early Christian church among the more-ancient monuments atop the hill. The early Christians were adept marketers, and knew that they needed to adopt many of the practices and customs of pre-Christian spiritual practices in order to win converts. The usual tactic was to build a church or hold services on sites important to the ancient Celts. The current church is naturally named St. Patrick’s Church, but it has been deconsecrated and currently serves as a visitor center, although a couple of services are still held there annually in continuation of a ritual tradition that spans at least 5000 years.
Tara is the site where St. Patrick is said to have converted the High King Laoire, paving the way for the conversion of the country. In brief, Patrick is said to have lit a pascal fire on the hill of Slane (or possible at Brú na Bóinne), thus incurring the wrath of the High King, who reserved the honor of lighting the first Beltaine fire (the Celtic feast co-opted as Easter). Laoire’s druids are said to have warned him that that fire must be extinguished or it would burn forever, but rather than punish Patrick, the King is said to have been converted by him instead. This tale is generally considered to have been cooked up by Patrick’s hagiographers, rather than being literal fact, but that hasn’t stopped it becoming an important part of the Tara myth.

 

Note
[It would take an immense post to cover all the significant monuments and history of the Hill of Tara. As internet attention spans are short, I’m splitting this topic into a series of posts. Join me tomorrow when I’ll cover the oldest and possibly most-significant monument on the hill, the Mound of the Hostages.]

 

Cairn T, on Carnbane East, near Oldcastle, Co. Meath. The entrance is locked in this picture, but guides are present for much of the summer months.

About 6000 years ago, construction began on a large complex of passage graves atop three hills near Oldcastle, Co. Meath. Known as Loughcrew or more picturesquely as Sliabh na Callighe/The Hills of the Witch, these are relatively small cairns (in relation to the famous passage grave sites at Brú na Bóinne), but what they lack in size they make up for in number (30), several of which feature carvings and contain triple (or cruciform) chambers. One of the largest, known as Cairn T, is illuminated by the sunrise on the spring and autumn equinoxes. The passage is very short, the back of the chamber a mere couple of meters from the entrance, but this tiny chamber is heavily carved, and the slab illuminated by the sun contains many enigmatic images and symbols.

As well as the usual circles surrounded by rays (often thought to represent stars or the sun), and groups of semi-circular lines and various shapes (which some have suggested may be calendars or some form of scale) there are what appear to be child-like depictions of flowers and leaves, perhaps trees. Alright, that’s my own theory; but, given that the equinoxes represent the pivotal points in the natural cycle (spring for planting and autumn for harvesting) it makes sense to me. However, there are probably as many opinions as there are observers, so I’ll reserve judgement until I have a chance to watch the carvings emerge from the darkness with the sunrise on some future equinox.

The rear of the chamber at Cairn T, in the Loughcrew complex in Co. Meath. Somebody seems to have used chalk to better outline the carvings, and the green may be some mold or lichen growing due to the damp conditions in the cairn.

Today, Loughcrew is off the major tourist trail and definitely one of the lesser-known passage grave complexes, but it’s thought that at one time it was extremely important. The hills on which the main cairns are located are called Carnbane East and West; in Irish, that translates as white-cairn. There are walls of white quartz running around some of the fields on these hills, stones that are believed to have been taken from the cairns when the English passed laws requiring the enclosure of agricultural land. As we’ve seen at Newgrange, some passage graves were covered with white quartz, which would have glittered in the sun and drawn the eye for miles around — in the same way that Renaissance Christians built cathedrals to inspire awe at first glance. Perhaps these tombs enjoyed a similar level of importance in prehistoric society? Cairn T is also known as the Tomb of the Ollamh Fodhla, the learned judge who codified Ireland’s ancient Brehon laws, and was presumably an important man who could conceivably have had his ashes interred at a significant site.

The blessing of Loughcrew’s relative anonymity is that anyone can show up at sunrise on the equinoxes and watch the illumination take place. It apparently lasts for almost an hour, and as the rear of the chamber is clearly visible from just outside the entrance, there is no need for a lottery to get inside. In the summer months, an official guide is resident on Carnbane East to admit visitors to Cairn T and tell them the history of the site. I hope whoever manages to be there for the equinoxes enjoys the show, and the rest of us can use the equinox illumination as a reminder that it’s time to get on with our planting or harvesting.

Co. Meath tourism, Visiting Ireland, Ireland with children

Knowth (L) and Newgrange (R) seen from the Friary on top of the Hill of Slane. Could an overgrown mound behind the church be the grave of the man who legend says cleared the site for these famous tombs? (Click through for a better resolution view.)

You can wander around the church and friary/college on top of the Hill of Slane all morning without noticing the mound known as “the motte” because it’s in a wooded area behind the church. I know I (who grew up in Co. Meath) didn’t even know it was there until I read about it somewhere or other. There now seems to be a very interesting project to investigate this mound under way. Archaeologists have been scanning the motte and its surroundings (an earth resistance survey) to discover what it’s made of (a cairn of rocks brought from elsewhere, a built structure, or a mound of local clay?) and detect any subsoil evidence of the remains of buildings on top. The resultant 3D mapping gives a great view of the physical features of the hill and suggests future locations to explore.

Going by the annals, it seems likely that there was an ancient grave of some importance on the hill: reputed to be the Fir Bolg king Sláine, from whom the hill gets its name. (Yes, that’s the same Sláine on whose legends the classic 2000AD comic was inspired. I daresay a generation of British and Irish megalithomaniacs had their imaginations kick-started by that story.)  The type of grave this may have been (cairn, passage tomb, dolmen, etc.) we don’t know. Likewise, whether  that grave site was later exploited to build a Norman motte and bailey-type fortified position or whether the church was originally built on the tomb site is unknown. It seems the use of the motte as a fortified position dates from around 1170AD, but the mound now known as the motte could be much older.  Sláine was reputed to have cleared the site for Newgrange, which would place him circa 3200BC.  However, the preliminary earth resistance survey results from this project are intriguing, suggesting that the mound is man-made and revealing a second earthwork (possibly a ring barrow dating from 2500BC–although all dates seem approximate at this stage in the project) partially overbuilt by a rath surrounding the motte. Given the history of adaptive re-use of sites with strategic or symbolic significance by successive cultures in Ireland, there certainly seems to be a strong case for further investigation.

Fieldwork has been ongoing since 2010, so this is a project to bookmark and watch for future discoveries.

Links:

2010 Research « The Hill of Slane Archaeological Project.

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