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Frederic William Burton - The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
Frederic William Burton
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Royal Meath: County of Kings


trimpanorama

Trim Castle - photo by Frank Courtney, Trim, Ireland

by Suzanne Barrett

Tara in County Meath is a name deeply incised in the hearts and minds of the Irish. It figures prominently in the Fenian Cycle, Ireland's equivalent of Greek mythology, and is at the center of many of her legends. Today, however, the visitor must come with imagination, for all that remains is a green meadow on a low hilltop with barely discernable traces of ruts and markings of its glorious past.

Tara ( Teamhair na Ríogh) was a center for pagan worship from 2100 BC until the sixth century when it was taken over by the ruling Uí Néill dynasty, the most powerful of the five kingdoms of ancient Ireland. It remained a seat of the high kings and a center of political importance until the eleventh century. Interestingly enough, Tara's importance diminished after the rise of Christianity, though it remained a royal until the death of Malachi II in 1022.

"Royal Meath," combined with Westmeath, was once a separate province ruled by the pagan and early Christian kings of Ireland. In addition to Tara, there were other important sites--the Hill of Slane, where St. Patrick is said to have lit a Paschal fire in challenge to the pagan high king; Ceanannus Mór (Kells), with its monastic ruins; Brugh na Bóinne (Newgrange); and the passage graves of Loughcrew.

Slane lies in one of the loveliest parts of the Boyne Valley. On its 500 foot high hill which lies less than a mile north of the town, St. Patrick proclaimed Christianity in the year 433. On the west side of the lie the remains of an ancient circular fort. Little else remains, but the event is considered symbolic of the triumph of Christianity over paganism.

The Georgian village of Slane contains a Gothic revival castle and grounds landscaped by Capability Brown. The castle suffered a fire in 1991 and is now closed.

Kells is an eighteenth-century town, built on a much older site. A round tower and four standing crosses attest to a twelfth-century Christian monastery dedicated to St. Columba. The large vellum manuscript known as the Book of Kells was kept in the parish church until 1654, when the Cromwellian government took it to Dublin and deposited it in the library of Trinity College. Another interesting ruin is St. Comcille's House, a high-roofed building similar in shape to St. Kevin's Kitchen at Glendalough.

Brugh na Bóinne is a pre-Christian cemetery, the burial place of the kings. It consists of a series of Bronze Age tumuli of which the three principal mounds are and Knowth, Newgrange, and Dowth, about one mile apart from one another. Dowth is closed to the public but can be seen from a distance. Knowth, in many respects, offers the visitor more than Newgrange. Its treasures form the greatest concentration of megalithic art in Europe. The site was occupied until the beginning of the fifteenth century.

Newgrange is, however, one of the most important passage graves in Europe. Legend has it that the kings of Tara were buried at Newgrange, but the tomb, built around 3200 BC, predates them. It was discovered in 1699, but it wasn't until the 1960s that archaeologists excavating the tomb discovered that rays of the sun light up the burial chamber on the winter solstice. Newgrange is popular in the summer, but be sure to book ahead as visits are by tour only. Visitors can book at the Brugh na Bóinne Interpretive Centre which handles tours for Newgrange and Knowth. (Tel. 041 24488)

But there's more to Meath than passage graves and hills. Continue on page two.



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