Bru na Boinne:
We had left visiting this prehistoric area till last and we were glad we had. It was so good that all other prehistoric sites would have paled by comparison and we would not have enjoyed them as much as we had.
The area is north-west of Dublin. Two main sites are able to be visited - Knowth and Newgrange. These are megalithic burial sites, Passage Tombs, dating back to between 4000 and 5000 BCE. They can only be reached through the visitor centre by tour guide and mini-bus.
Our trip to Knowth was the last one of the day and had only a few people on it. Once we stepped on site, the huge mounds took our breath away. Giant domes of earth and grass were surrounded by rectangular megaliths circling the base. The sizes of the mounds varied as did their ages which ranged over about a thousand years. The site was also used intermittently through the bronze and iron ages and some early Christian houses and souterrains are also to be found. Passages lead in from two sides in the biggest tomb, from one side in the smaller ones. Excavations have unearthed cremated bones, bowls, some tools in the ends of the passages whose sides are lined with huge flat-faced stones almost the height of a man. More flat stones form the ceiling. We could only go a short way into the interior of the big mound but could see further into the passage. But we could climb to the top of the big mound and grasp the extent of the monuments - the views were 360 degrees around as the tombs themselves are scattered around on a hill.
Next day we arrived early to be on the first ride to Newgrange. This enormous Passage Tomb has been thoroughly excavated and the exterior restored to one archaeologist's opinion of its original appearance. This time we could go all the way in to the very centre of the mound. We squeezed along the low, narrow passage lined all around with massive flat stones to the end. The passage is cruciform in shape with three chambers at the end. Inside each were shallow stone bowls on which cremated remains were placed. The roof in this section was a high dome, a corbelled stone ceiling of overlapping rocks with a large capstone at the top. None of this had been restored - it was as it had been since it was built all those thousands of years ago. The stone work was so skilful it has stood up against the weight of the stones piled up over it making up the mound. In addition, there was a 'roofbox' over the entrance. It was positioned so that the rays of the rising sun lit up the far chamber on exactly the day of the winter solstice (as it still does). Such engineering for the time is truly remarkable.
In both sites many of the megaliths are decorated with symbols - swirls, spirals, concentric circles, waves, diamond-shaped lozenges. One looks like a sundial, even with a hole for the stick. The meaning of the symbols has not been determined, and probably never will be, but the art work on the stones comprises by far the largest amount of Mesolithic art to be found anywhere in the world.
Later in the day we visited the Hill of Tara, another famous Passage Tomb site. Arial photos of the site are impressive but at ground level all you do is walk up and down curved undulations in the ground following a printed guide, which is not nearly as interesting as listening to a knowledgeable expert and seeing the tombs as they were thousands of years ago.
The area, on the River Boyne, is also famous for being the site of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 when the Orange King William, a Protestant, defeated his father-in-law King James, a Catholic on July the 12th. This is at the heart of the marches in Northern Ireland on 12th July - can you believe it? The Protestants are still glorifying their victory in a battle over 400 years ago when they march. The battle site now boasts a beautiful house, built after the battle by one of the victors, and now owned by the State. Inside was a terrific exhibition explaining the circumstances around the battle which is the biggest battle to take place on British soil.
And so on the road again and on to Dublin closing the loop we have done around the country. One more day in Dublin then it's back on the ferry to Holyhead in Wales.