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The Boyne Valley in Ireland, land of myth and legend - Adventure Hub Ireland

The Boyne Valley in Ireland, land of myth and legend

The Boyne Valley in Ireland, land of myth and legend
At first glance the Hill of Tara may seem like a rather nondescript place. Many tourists visit every year and possibly scratch their heads in wonder as to the significance of the place. To the unknowing eye it may just seem like the location for yet another collection of Iron Age forts. But in truth the Hill of Tara is Ireland’s most important historical monument and, as well as being one its major tourist attractions, is the ancient capital. Although only 155 metres in altitude, Tara rises high above the County Meath lowlands and commands an outstanding panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. In ancient times there were three levels of kingship, the High King, who ruled over the entire country, the Provincial King, who ruled one of the four provinces, and the Petty King, who ruled over a small settlement. Because of its strategic importance, Tara became the traditional seat for the High King. This small, seemingly insignificant hill holds many of the secrets to Ireland’s ancient past and if it could talk, would have one hell of a story to tell.

The Lia Fail

Tara is easy to reach. It lies just off the N3 between Dublin and Navan. The two most distinctive earthworks on the hill are the Royal Seat and Cormac’s House, both about 152 metres in diameter. Protruding 5 feet from the ground in the centre of the Royal Seat is the Lia Fail, the sacred Stone of Destiny said to have been brought by the Tuatha dé Danann. Ireland’s ancient history has been charted by a series of invasions, the stories of which were written down in the early Christian period by the monks. The Tuatha dé Danann was the fifth tribe to invade Ireland, and were said to be a powerful, magical race that brought many magical artefacts along with them. The Lia Fail was the coronation stone of the High King. When the rightful heir to the throne places his hands upon it, the stone will emit a roaring sound. This stone is now accessible to all visitors, so try touching it, you never know; you might be destined for high kingship. Nearby is a burial mound, one of hundreds found across Ireland. Modern archaeology credits these mounds as having been built by the Neolithic people in order to bury their dead. This one, the Mound of the Hostages, was excavated and found to contain the remnants of over 100 burials. The sixth tribe to invade Ireland were the Milesians (commonly known as the Celts) and when defeated, it’s believed that the Tuatha dé Danann retreated into the otherworld, or fairy world, and while the Celts would now rule the natural world, they would become known forevermore as the fairies, or Sidhe.

The Hill of Slane

All of these monuments are enclosed by a wider circle known as the Rath of the Kings, which encompasses an area of 70,000 square metres. Many other raths dot the area. Although heavily visited, there are times and places on the hill where you can get away from the crowds and revel in the tranquillity of this lush green hill and wonder just how it once was all those centuries ago. A short drive from Tara along the N51 is the small crossroads of Slane, most famous for its annual rock concerts at Slane Castle. The nearby Hill of Slane, upon which sits the ruins of a church, is visible from Tara. It was here that one of Ireland’s most significant moments took place. When the great Saint Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint, travelled Ireland spreading the word of God, a high king known as Laoghaire ruled from Tara. Every year at the start of spring, the Pagan ceremony of Beltaine was performed. Fires were lit on all the hills. St. Patrick angered the king by lighting his paschal fire on the Hill of Slane prior to the time set by the Druids. The king confronted the Saint who famously produced a shamrock and used it to explain the union between the Father, the Son and Holy Ghost. Soon after, the King converted to Christianity and the shamrock became one of Ireland’s national symbols. Heading south from Slane you will come across a turning for Newgrange and soon after following the road for a while will arrive at the Brú na Bóinne visitor centre. Brú na Bóinne is Gaelic for Valley of the Boyne, named after the River Boyne.

A floodplain near Trinity Well, in the grounds of Newberry House, near the village of Carbury, County Kildare, Ireland. Trinity Well, known in ancient Irish legend as the Well of Sergais, is the source of the magical River Boyne.

The birth of the River Boyne has its roots in an ancient legend known as the Well of Sergais. It’s said that a long time ago when the Gods walked the earth there was a well shaded by magical hazel trees bearing crimson nuts. Whomever should eat these nuts would be graced with the knowledge of the world. The nuts fell off the trees and into the well, and were eaten by one of the vividly coloured salmon swimming there. For this reason, it became known as the salmon of knowledge. The God Nechtain was the guardian of the well. Only he and his three cup bearers were allowed anywhere near. But one day his wife, referred to as the Goddess Boann, was overcome with curiosity and went to the well without Nechtain’s permission or knowledge. By violating this prohibition, she caused the well to overflow and gush forth onto the surrounding countryside, forming the Boyne Valley.

The Rosary, celebrated every year at Trinity Well

The well is known today as Trinity Well, having since been christianised. Every year the local priest peforms the annual Rosary the first Sunday in June. It lies in the grounds of Newberry House, near the village of Carbury in County Kildare. The well is also the source of the River Boyne.       The megalithic complex of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth contains some of Ireland’s largest and most magnificent burial mounds. Access is via the visitor centre only, and the only way to view Newgrange and Knowth is by taking the tours. The guide will relate the fascinating story of Newgrange’s construction, explaining how this huge mound covers an area of 1 acre and was built around 3200 BC; making it older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza. The perimeter is lined with 400 giant kerbstones weighing anywhere from 1 to 12 tonnes. All of these stones are intricately carved with what is now known as Boyne Valley art, being unique to the region. The entrance to the chamber is blocked by a giant kerbstone, so that people would have to climb over to enter the mound. However, today the entrance has been modified with steps for easier access, and to preserve the stone itself.

Newgrange

The tour then leads small groups inside the chamber. Not only was this burial mound an incredible feat of engineering, but also an incredible feat of ingenuity. The entrance is precisely aligned with the rising of the sun at the winter solstice – the sun sets at the entrance to the mound at Dowth – but its designers were also clever enough to realise it would have to be local dawn, and thus calculate where the sun would rise and how high. In the case of the Boyne Valley the sun would rise over the distant hills, so a roof box was fitted above the entrance for the light to shine through. The main entrance below takes you through a narrow passageway that leads uphill to an elevation of two metres. The passageway is 19 metres long. Thus the floor of the inner chamber is exactly level with the roof box. On the morning of the solstice sunlight shines through the roof box and travels along the overhead passage and illuminates the inner chamber. This is illustrated for the tour using a halogen light at the entrance.

Entrance stone at Newgrange

The guide then points to the corbelled roof. No cement or binding agents were used to fix the stones in place, and they had all been stacked like a house of cards. The capstone is the lightest at two tons. Above that lie four metres of loose rock, then earth and grass. All this was to ensure the watertight integrity of the chamber, and to make sure that moisture will not loosen the rocks. It was obvious that these so-called primitive people really knew what they were doing. Inside the chamber are three recesses. In all probability the bodies were cremated outside and then the ashes placed inside the chamber. What this was for, no one really knows. There are many theories, but there is simply no way to know for sure as these people never left any written history. In truth, the race who built these tombs will always remain a mystery. One thing the tour guide will not tell you though, is the legend associated with Newgrange. The story of Newgrange says that it was once the home of the Dagda, the chief God of the Tuatha dé Danann. The Dagda took as his home, the greatest of all the fairy mounds, Newgrange. There in his fairy palace he kept his magic harp, which would fly into his arms upon command. Visitors could feast from the cauldron with a never-ending supply of food, which could be washed down with the ale that would render the drinker immune to all sickness. The harp is also now a national symbol of Ireland.

Knowth

The next tour will take you to Knowth, which is actually more impressive as its large burial cairn is surrounded by 18 smaller mounds. The main tomb is in fact larger than the Newgrange mound, but inaccessible due to years of excavations. There are two passageways aligned with the rising and setting of the sun at the equinoxes. One of the main differences here was that Knowth was used as a settlement for centuries after its usage as a burial mound. There is evidence of a settlement on top of the main mound right up until the arrival of the Normans. It’s unknown as to whether these people were actually aware of what they living on. Dowth isn’t open to the public, but you can drive yourself there or take the bus and wander around. You just cannot go inside. Part of it has collapsed due to an excavation in the late 1800s. Dowth means ‘darkness’ and its chamber is aligned with the setting of the sun at the winter solstice and hence the beginning of the longest night of the year. The Boyne Valley is just a half hour drive from Ireland’s modern capital, Dublin, but is a world away from the hustle and bustle of busy city life. It’s an easy day trip if you are staying there, but to really experience the magic of Ireland’s ancient history it’s best to pack up your bags and go treat yourself to a glamping experience at Emerald Glamping on the Grand Canal near Daingean. The Boyne valley is just a short drive away.

Trinity Well, in the grounds of Newberry House, near the village of Carbury, County Kildare, Ireland. Trinity Well, known in ancient Irish legend as the Well of Sergais, is the source of the magical River Boyne.
The birth of the River Boyne has its roots in an ancient legend known as the Well of Sergais. It’s said that a long time ago when the Gods walked the earth there was a well shaded by magical hazel trees bearing crimson nuts. It was believed that whoever should eat these nuts would be graced with the knowledge of the world. The nuts fell off the trees and into the well, and were eaten by one of the vividly coloured salmon who swam there. For this reason, it became known as the salmon of knowledge. This well was owned by the God Nechtain, who was very possessive of the well. Only he and his three cup bearers were allowed anywhere near it. But one day his wife, referred to as Boann or Boínn (meaning she who has white cows; white cows were considered cows of the otherworld), was overcome with curiosity one day and went to the well without Nechtain’s permission or knowledge. There are various stories as to what she did there, but whatever it was resulted in the well overflowing and gushing forth onto the surrounding countryside and forming the Boyne Valley.
Legend says the Boann inhabits the Fairy Mound where Newberry House now stands.
It’s here that the legendary Irish Giant, Celtic warrior and leader of the Fianna, ate the Salmon of Knowledge and gained the wisdom and power that enabled him to regain his rightful place as leader of teh Fianna and go on to become Ireland’s greatest warrior and protector.
The well was since christianised and is now known as Trinity Well. Every year the local priest peforms the annual Rosary the first Sunday in June.

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