Ireland’s Ancient East
The West coast of Ireland has a stunning Coastal drive stretching from Cork to Donegal known as the Wild Atlantic way. With stunning landscapes mountains, sea cliffs and sandy beaches it is no wonder that it is a huge draw for people visiting our country. The landscape in the East is beautiful but it lacks the dramatic contrast of the West but this part of Ireland is steeped in history, Folklore and stories spanning from the Stone age through to modern history. The West Coast of Ireland is carved out by God while the Ancient East is testament to mans conquest.
Ancient sites: Dotted all around the eastern counties there are many ancient neolithic sites including stone circles, Dolmens and most famously passage tombs. The Dolmen is one of the most prolific neolithic structure and it is thought that they where used by the druids as alters and that the grooves on the surface of some of these alters like the Drennanstown Dolmen in Carrickmines are to facilitate the flow of Blood after an animal sacrifice to the Gods.
There are two major sites in the Boyne Valley region which feature some of the most unique megalithic features in Ireland the Passage tomb. The Bru na Boine site is home to Knowth, Dowth and of Course Newgrange passage tomb. All three of these passage tombs is very impressive with stone carvings but it is the alignment of Newgrange with the rising sun on the morning of the winter solstice that sets this site apart. This is an amazing feat of engineering for its time 4000 bc and is the oldest known astronomical structure in the world.
Loughcrew is the other major site in the Boyne Valley area with a collection of Megalithic tombs. It is not as well known as the bru na Boine site but is just as impressive and less touristic. Cairn t is the most impressive passage tomb at this site and it too as a celestial alignment with the passage being lit up by the rising sun on the morning of the Spring and Autumn equinox on the 20th of March and the 23rd of September. It is not known what the purpose of the passage tombs where and there is no doubt that they where used as tombs at some stage. It is hypothesized that the were ritualistic sites and places of worship so they where more similar to ancient temples.
For information on all the megalithic sites and their location megalithic Ireland is a great resource.
Ancient High Kings : Medieval Ireland had Five kingdoms Ulaid (North), Connacht (West ), Mumhan (South) and the two kingdoms in the Ancient East were Laighin and Mide. Each area had its own tribal king and there was a high king who a had his seat in Mide at the hill of Tara where disputes were settled and arbitration took place under Brehon law. The laws were a civil code concerning payment of compensation for wrongs done and settling disputes between individuals.
In mythology Fionn MacCoole is said to have come from the Kildare area and fought a great battle at the hill of Tara against Aileen for which he was awarded leadership of the Fiana. When you travel through the land every area will have a story that is directly connected to this fantastical figure. One of the most famous of these stories is the Salmon of Knowledge which is based around the Boyne River. Fionn was serving an apprenticeship with Finnegas who had been trying to catch a famed Salmon that would bestow great knowledge to the first person who would taste his flesh. After many years he succeeded in catching the fish and asked Fionn to prepare the fish for him. while cooking the fish Fionn burned his thumb on the fish and put it in his mouth. From that moment on when Fionn needed knowledge he only had to suck his thumb and the answer would be clear to him.
Abbeys and Vikings : Christianity took a foothold in Ireland between the 3rd and 5th century and many monasteries and Abbeys were founded throughout the country. Ireland became known as the land of saints and scholars and produced many treasures the best known being the Book of Kells an ornate scripture which is on show in Trinity college. The east coast has an abundance of monasteries including Monasterboice which is home to two of Ireland’s finest high crosses and the second highest round tower in Ireland, Glendalough set in the Wicklow surrounded by mountains valleys and lakes and Mellifont Abbey in co. Louth which is the first European style monastery built in Ireland and used by William of orange as his base in the battle of the Boyne. The church acquired much wealth which brought the attention of the Vikings who raided and pillaged along the east coast from 800 to the early 12th century. During this time the vikings settled on coastal harbors and founded the original Dublin. The vikings gained rule over much of the land and it wasn’t until 1014 and the battle of Clontarf when the Brian Boru had a substantial victory against the vikings that the Irish gained freedom from foreign domination.
Lords and their Castles : Nearly every county will have a castle or a stately home some belonging to ancient Irish lords and many more belonging to English lords who were instated after the many occasions when Ireland was conquered and planted by the English. Ireland’s largest and best preserved Norman castle, Trim castle can be found in Co Meath. This castle was built by Hugh De Lacy in 1173 and completed by his son in 1224. This was a fortress and over looks a fording point on the River Boyne, the occupant of the fortress could control what goods were ferried up and down the river and collect taxes accordingly. It was also occupied by the Cromwellian forces in 1649 during the Confederate wars.
Malahide castle also has a fascinating history. It dates back to 1175 and has stayed in the hands of the Talbot family until 1975 except for a brief spell in the middle of the 17th century when it was granted to Miles Corbert by Cromwell. This was short lived and Corbert was executed and the Talbots reinstated. The history of the castle and that of the Talbot family is one of the same and a guided tour is highly recommended.
There are many other castles to visit some in perfect condition and others in total decay.