Monasterboice was the first brief stop at the beginning of the tour. Some of the largest and best Celtic crosses are there, which is its main claim to fame. Other than that, it's a graveyard, a crumbling abbey wall, and one of the round towers you find around Ireland that were used for hiding from Viking raiders back in the middle ages.
Newgrange was the centerpiece of the day. It's a stone tomb that's 5,200 years old, dating it to before the pyramids. Over 4,000 years ago it fell into disuse, gradually crumbled into the hillside, became overgrown, and was forgotten. Then in the 1700's it was rediscovered and excavated enough to go inside. It was left completely open to the public for 200 years, though, so the rocks now bear various kinds of more modern graffiti as well as the ancient carvings. It wasn't until the last century that it was fully restored and protected.
For the large size of the mound, the interior is actually quite small. You can go inside, but not take photos. A tiny passage way leads into the middle of the mound and opens into a tiny room with three alcoves and a high, domed ceiling. That's it; the rest is solid rock. But on the winter solstice, for 17 minutes at dawn, sunlight will come in through an opening above the entrance, creep down the passage, and fill the entire chamber with light. The chamber currently has electric lights installed that let the guide do a simulation of this, which gets across the concept but not, I expect, the feeling. I was also disappointed that she seemed careful never to let the lights go completely out. Even when turning out the main lights before the simulation, they had just barely faded when the new light came in. I would have liked to have had a few seconds at least to really get the feeling of being completely encased in stone and darkness. But it's a fascinating place to be in, regardless. They're holding a lottery this year to determine who actually gets to be in there at dawn on the solstice.
Our last stop was the Hill of Tara. Since the visitor's center there doesn't open until some time in May, we got a different sort of intro to the area. The proprietor of an antique bookshop squeezed us all in among the shelves, turned out the lights, and gave us a slide show. He had some excellent pictures on cracked and dirty slides, including some of the excavations in the 1950's and of the British Israelites who tore the place up looking for the Ark of the Covenant, all accompanied by dramatic and entertaining narration. Probably more fun that whatever the official visitor's center might have had.
The Hill of Tara itself isn't actually so much to see when you're actually on it, though it's fun to ride the rise and fall in the land like waves. There were also too many people crawling over it to get the proper feel for it, much the way I remember feeling about Glastonbury Tor. But I did go out to see Lia Fáil, the Stone of Destiny, which is said to roar three times if touched by the true high king of Ireland. I touched it, just in case. A sheep bleated somewhere off in the distance, but I don't think that counts.
I also took a short walk down a little road where none of the other tourists were bothering to go. And so I got to see a little holy well there, with no one else around. It had a gate right on the side of the road, and all it was was a trickle of water coming out the side of the hill, down a pipe, and over the edge of a rock. I liked it because it was just sitting there modestly, doing its own thing and letting everyone else get distracted by the main sights.
Overall, this tour was very worthwhile. It was a nice, efficient way to get around to several of the main sites in this area in one day, filled with history, stories and jokes during the bus rides (props to John "His Grace" Bolton, the driver and guide). It was a Bus Éireann tour, if anybody out there is looking to go on one.
- The Battle of the Boyne
- The Boyne Water
- The Soul of the Limestone Rock