Thursday, 15 March 2012

Meandering Through the Ancient Past of Meath

I had about the best sleep I've had in months at Marlinstown Court B&B.  The bed was simply delicious to sleep in   Barbara's breakfast was superb as was everything else about this lovely home

The Gothic-Tudor Style building of St Loman's Psychiatric Hospital, Mullingar

St Loman's Psychiatric Hospital, Mullingar
Heading out of Mullingar a large impressive Gothic-Tudor style building dominates one of  the main approaches out of the town.  Originally built as the then named Mullingar District Lunatic asylum around 1855, to serve counties Meath, Westmeath & Longford, it is still being used today & is known as St Loman's Psychiatric Hospital.
We were heading into County Meath today.  Some of the most important historic sites and monuments are located within County Meath and virtually every important aspect of Irish history from prehistoric times is associated with the county.  

The scant remains of Causestown Castle, nr Athboy, Co. Meath
As we drive on through Co. Meath, we stop briefly to take a look at some ruins standing lonely in a field near the village of Athboy.   They were the scant remains of Causestown Castle, a 16th century tower house now reduced to just one storey.  

We stopped again in Castletown, on the outskirts of Athboy, this time to pay a quick visit to the mother of a friend [married to my 2nd cousin] & meet two of her brothers.  It was nice to see a familiar face as I'd met Brid a couple of years ago when she was in NZ visiting her daughter.   

While we didn't stop long in Athboy we did learn about the towns historic significance.
Overlooking Athboy is the Hill of Ward, an Iron Age fort where the great Celtic Feast of Samhain or Halloween took place. The festival heralded the beginning of Winter. Although the annals record the feast was held as late as 1168, it was in pagan times that the celebrations were at their wildest with the druids offering sacrifices and burning victims on Samhain [Halloween] Eve. To this day the feast of Halloween is celebrated all over Ireland & the world on the night of 31st October, with the younger generations initiating the old Celtic customs.  I must admit, I was surprised to learn this from Brid & her sons, as I'd always believed that Halloween was a goulish fancy dress festival originating from the USA!

Have you noticed my fascination with taking photos of  large animals looking over fences?
Driving on to Slane, I wanted to visit Slane Castle which I'd seen on DVD & TV when watching live concert preformances filmed there. The sloping grounds of Slane Castle form a natural amphitheathre & hold a capacity crowd of 80,000 people. In preparation for their third studio album, Celtic Woman performed at Slane Castle in August 2006. Their live performance at the Castle was released on DVD & immediately hit the Billboard World Music chart at #1. It was this DVD which first introduced me to Slane Castle. This Celtic Woman performance also guest starred our very own Hayley Westenra from Christchurch, New Zealand 

Slane Castle, Co. Meath

The entrance to Slane Castle, Slane, Co. Meath
Sadly, we arrived to find the gates to the Castle firmly locked.  Guided Tours of the Slane Castle are from June to August, Sun - Thurs only.   I was however, determined to get a view of the castle & after much driving backward & forward, eventually found a spot on Main Street [N51] over a high stone wall through dense shrubs & trees, where I managed to  capture the photo above.
Newgrange Stone Age Passage Tomb, Co. Meath
Newgrange was next on our itinerary & is only 5½ km from Slane.  However getting close to the historic Newgrange Megalithic Passage Tomb can only be done via the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre.  There is no direct access to the site.   We did spy it on a distant hilltop while driving to the visitors centre & this grainy photo [below] was taken as close as my digital zoom would allow.
Newgrange, Co. Meath
It seems that unless you are living in the local area, there is no way you'll get to drive close to this site.  Finding those small country lanes close to Newgrange, seems to be a well guarded secret. 
Once at Brú na Bóinne there is a 150 metre walk from the car park to the visitor centre.  As we weren't touring in the height of the tourist season, we were able to get on a guided tour to the site quite quickly.  Tickets were €6 each & from the visitor centre you had another 150 metre walk to where the shuttle buses pick you up.  From there it is a 5km bus ride to the site. 

Newgrange before restoration [photo source unknown]

At over 5,000 years old it is the older cousin of Stonehenge and it predates the pyramids by about 500 years. Little else survives from this period. The tomb itself is massive, roughly circular in shape & covers an area of approx. one acre. Inside, a long passageway leads to a central burial chamber. Only 24 - 26 people at a time can go into the tomb. If you are claustrophobic, this isn't the place for you!

Entrance Stone of Passage Tomb showing the Light-box/Roof-box above it,
Newgrange, Co. Meath
Even after extensive excavation, archaeologists remain unable to uncover the significance the site held for the people who created it or the mysterious spiral, diamond and circular patterns carved into some of the stones that surround the tomb & sit at the passage entrance.

It appears there has been much debate around the reconstruction of the structure, especially the white quartz wall, which was based on the position of the white quartz layers found during excavations in the 60's & 70's.  The eventual reconstruction is an interpretation of remains from a totally collapsed site.  The shape of the front is also not authentic, but was deliberately left indented to emphasise the entrance.  It is these changes which have given the structure the 'modern' feel it has today.
Newgrange Stone Pillar

The recontructed other wall of the Passage Tomb, Newgrange
Keystone, Newgrange, Co. Meath

Stone Hut, Newgrange, Co. Meath
Perhaps the most magical time to tour Newgrange is during the days around the Winter Solstice, when the first rays of sunlight penetrate through the light box into the passageway until they light up the central chamber. The entire event lasts for a maximum of 17 minutes apparently & there is a long waiting list if you want to be in the chamber on the very day.
Trim Castle, Trim, Co. Meath

Not quite done with ancient monuments we drove onto Trim to take a look at Trim Castle.  We found Trim Castle to be closed also, open from November until mid March, for weekends only.  

Trim Castle, Trim, Co. Meath
Trim Castle, Trim
South side of Trim Castle, Trim
Trim Castle, is the largest Anglo-Norman castle in Ireland & was built around the late 12th century. This massive twenty sided tower, which is cruciform in shape, was originally protected by a ditch, curtain wall and moat.

The Ruins of St Mary's Abbey, Trim, Co. Meath

Old Signs, Co. Meath

Crannmor Country Guest House B&B, Trim

We decided to stay put in Trim for the night & booked into the Crannmor Country Guest House B&B 
on Dunderry Road just on the outskirts of the town.    Marc & Anne O'Regan were great hosts & made us feel so welcome in their absolutely stunning home. 

Dining Room, Crannmor Country Guest House B&B, Trim

Anne & Marc jointly run Crannmor Guest house which is the home base for Marc's fishing  business.  Marc is a qualified Game and Pike guide with 40 years of fishing and a wealth of experience on both lake and river.  

Anne recommended we try Brogan's in Trim for a meal, an old hotel that her family used to own.  It was a good choice.

Brogan's Pub, Trim

Brogans Hotel was built nearly two centuries ago using much of the origional stone from the famous Trim Castle.  
One of Brogans specialities is the "Brogans Steak on the Stone" - an 8oz or 12oz fillet or if you're really hungry, a 16oz T-bone Steak.... or a 20oz Porterhouse Steak, served with sauteed mushrooms & onion rings.  Your steak arrives raw, on a smoking hot stone plate.  It literally cooks in front of you, so you can eat it as rare or as well done as you like.  It really was mouth-wateringly delicious!

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