Thursday, March 5, 2015

Mary Gibbons Newgrange Tour

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of joining local historian and well-known tour guide Mary Gibbons for her famous tour of the Hill of Tara and Newgrange via Navan, Slane, and the rest of the Boyne Valley.

After our public-transport adventure to Newgrange last year, I was happy to be revisiting the site on a carefree, well-paced tour with a knowledgeable guide. A stop on the famous (but imagination-requiring) Hill of Tara was just a nice bonus.

The tour picked up at a few City Centre hotels while the guide pointed out historical Dublin points of interest—some of which were even new to me! It felt good to be a tourist in my adopted hometown again.

As we left Dublin and entered the hinterlands of County Meath (Dublin's western neighbor), Ms. Gibbons shared her expertise on the last several thousand years of Irish history with a multinational crowd on the tour bus—I told you I felt like a tourist again!

Hill of Tara

The first stop was the famou Hill of Tara. Imagination is required because there are very few physical remains of the simple structures that would have stood on this scenic hilltop centuries ago. Today, it's mostly mounds covering old foundations and a few small monuments. The rolling slopes would make this a challenging pitch and putt golf course, but archaeologists have wisely decided to preserve it as a pleasant, windswept hilltop of history with a 360 degree view of Eastern Ireland.

Hill of Tara Monument Co. Meath, Ireland
Hill of Tara Monument

Hill of Tara, Co. Meath, Ireland
Take a Penalty Stroke

The Hill of Tara was an important strategic and symbolic place for ancient people in Ireland, the High Kings of this part of the country were crowned here, and the gods of life and fertility may have been appeased with offerings and sacrifices.

Now that I've seen it, I need to go back to the National Museum and look at the Tara display there. They have on display a large, 3D model and extensive coverage of the archaeological excavation of the site. Because so little remains, it is difficult to visualize while standing on the hill itself. Without a knowledgeable guide, a visit here would be little more than a nice look at the midlands of Ireland.


The real star of the tour is, of course, Newgrange. This ancient (older than the pyramids) structure is one of the oldest and best-preserved human-made "buildings" in the world. Even though I've visited this monument before, I was excited to see it again.

Access to these ancient structures is by guided tour only, and the tours leave from the Brú na Bóinne Visitors Center on the banks of the beautiful River Boyne. On my last visit, the river was swollen from rain and melting snow on the hilltops.

The Beautiful River Boyne Co. Meath, Ireland
The Beautiful River Boyne

Very briefly, Newgrange is one of several astronomically-aligned structures in this river valley—and one of hundreds or thousands in Western Europe. A narrow passage enters a huge, human-made earthen mound, ending in a small chamber. The passage entrance aligns with the rising sun during the winter solstice, and a specially-designed window-like opening above the door allows a beam of morning sunlight to penetrate down the passage to illuminate the inner chamber for just a few minutes during the midwinter sunrise. 

Newgrange Entrance Co. Meath, Ireland
Newgrange Entrance

The stone age engineering of the structure and the swirly, spiralling carvings are really a sight to behold. The interior tour is meaningful and it ends with a simulated winter solstice sunrise effect, recreated with an electric light.

No photos are allowed within the passages of Newgrange, so if you're curious, get over here and tour it yourself!


Between the Hill of Tara and Newgrange, the tour passes through the village of Slane (and its famous castle) and near the site of the seventeenth-century Battle of the Boyne, the result of which is still sharply felt in Ireland and Northern Ireland today. None of these are really worth a look outside the bus—particularly the battle site, which is now just farmland—so the tour passes through, points out, explains the interesting details, and moves on. 

In my opinion, this is a great choice to keep the tour well paced yet interesting and informative. A little time on the bus, a little time outside, a little time on the bus, etc.

Big thanks to Mary and Newgrange Tours for a great tour. I'll be adding a longer review of the tour (and a few new historical details!) to the next update of The Frugal Guide: Dublin. Even though this day out isn't free (I'd love to see that day trip!) it's a great value, speaking as someone who has fought the battle of Newgrange via public transport. I've you've got a day to spare in Dublin, drop Mary a line and tell her I sent you!

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