Thursday is field trip day, and today we visited the Bru na Boinne Heritage Centre to see Newgrange and Knowth, travelled on to have lunch on the Hill of Slane, then to Monasterboice, then to Mellifont, before heading home tired and weary via George’s cake shop in Slane Village.
So, first stop the Bru na Boinne visitors centre, and we arrived just in time for the morning tour of Newgrange.
The Brú na Bóinne (the bend of the Boyne), has been an important ritual, social and economic centre for thousands of years. It is renowned for its elaborate Neolithic passage tombs (most famously Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth), and contains the largest assemblage of megalithic art in Europe. Its international significance was recognised in 1993 when it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, only one of three on the island of Ireland.
Newgrange was constructed over 5,000 years ago (about 3,200 B.C.), making it older than Stonehenge in England and the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. Newgrange was built during the Neolithic by a farming community that prospered on the rich lands of the Boyne Valley.
The tour included a trip inside the passage where for week or so around the winter solstice (21-Dec) the rising sun shines through the light box at the front of the passage tomb and dramatically lights up the passage. It being only a few days post the summer solstice we had to make do with a re-enactment, which all the same gave us a sense of the significance and magic of the place.
In 2009 the field school took part in a project with design students and RTE TV to reconstruct the passage way and light box in an attempt to recreate the effect of the passage illumination during the winter solstice (http://lightboxproject.com/). After months of hard work by the model builders, and a frantic day and night building the full scale model on site, the clouds (or rather one annoyingly stubborn cloud) blocked out the sunrise for the two mornings available.
From there the students were brought on to Knowth. The Great Mound of Knowth was built over 5000 years ago, probably after the construction of Newgrange and before the construction of Dowth. Knowth is larger in size than Newgrange and is surrounded by 18 smaller satellite mounds. The Great Mound has two passages with entrances on opposite sides, the western passage is 34m long and the eastern passage is 40m long, ending with a cruciform chamber.
A big thanks to Clare Tuffy and all the staff of the Bru na Boinne centre for making our visit so special.
From Bru na Boinne we drove to Slane to pick up lunch rations and headed up to the Hill of Slane for a picnic in the ruins of the ecclesiastical settlement. The Hill of Slane is a complex of prehistoric, early medieval and medieval monuments located in the townland of Slane just to the northwest of the village. It is situated on a hilltop rising to 120m OD, three kilometres from the edge of the Buffer zone of the World Heritage Site of Bru na Boinne.
The hilltop was clearly a major feature along this important river valley during the prehistoric period. While close to the major centre of Brú na Bóinne there is little known about the prehistory of the hilltop. A large ditched mound, 6m in height and 30m in basal diameter, to the west of the hilltop is enclosed within an outer enclosure with a bank and outer rock cut ditch. Prof Michael Herity has compared it to several other large mounds such as that at Rathcroghan and stressed its possible ritual significance given its proximity to adjacent possible ring-barrows.
Slane was historically identified with an ancient burial site Fertae Fer Feic which was linked by the early medieval hagiographer Muirchú to St Patrick and the lighting of the Paschal fire. Recent analysis has shown that this is a 17th century mistaken identification and that the site may be located somewhere in the vicinity of Navan.
Slane was an important ecclesiastical centre, founded by Erc, a 6th century Bishop. There are frequent annalistic references to abbots, bishops and archinneachs (monastic officials) between 512-1001. There were raids by the Hiberno-Norse in 833 and 948 and by the Irish in 1150 and 1161. There are annalistic references to an oratory and a round tower (Cloigteach) which was destroyed by lightning.
The northern Uì Chellaig Breg kings had an interest in Slane and in 1161 Muirchertach úa Cellaig, Rí Bhreg and his wife Inderb, daughter of the king of the Cenél Lóegaire were killed there by Máel Seachlainn Ua Ruairc as part of a power struggle. The standing remains of the medieval hilltop church to the east are likely to contain a pre Romanesque church and a gable shrine is present in the churchyard. An early medieval well known as Tobar Patraic is also located close by, and several high cross fragments have been found.
It is known that Richard Le Fleming built a substantial castle at the Dumhach Sláine which was then raised to the ground in 1176 by Maol Sheachlainn Ó Lochlainn, king of Cinéal Eóghain with the reported deaths of five hundred people.
From Slane we headed northeast to Monasterboice. Monasterboice Monastery was founded in the late 5th century by St. Buite who died around 521, and was an important centre of religion and learning until the founding of nearby Mellifont Abbey in 1142.
The site houses two churches built in the 14th century or later and an earlier round tower, but it is most famous for its 10th century high crosses.
The round tower is about 35-metres tall, and is in very good condition, although it is not possible to go inside. The passage of time has laid down layers of earth so now the doorway is almost at ground level. The monastery was burned in 1097.
The 5.5-metre Muiredach’s High Cross is regarded as the finest high cross in Ireland. It is named after an abbot, Muiredach mac Domhnaill, who died in 923 and features biblical carvings of both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible (the students were set the task of drawing the cross and describing the scenes from the bible).
Our last stop of the day was to nearby Mellifont Abbey, the site of the first Cistercian foundation in Ireland in 1142 AD.
Founded by Saint Malachy, Archbishop of Armagh, Mellifont Abbey sits on the banks of the River Mattock, approximately 10km north-west of Drogheda.
The Abbey became the model for other Cistercian abbeys built in Ireland, with its formal style of architecture imported from the abbeys of the same order in France; it was the main abbey in Ireland until it was closed in 1539, when it became a fortified house.
An important synod was held in Mellifont in 1152 as recorded in the Annals of the Four Masters, which asserts that the synod was attended by bishops and kings along with the papal legate John Paparo (Saint Malachy having died some ten years beforehand). The consecration of the church took place in 1157.
William of Orange used Mellifont Abbey House as his headquarters during the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
Mellifont Abbey is now a ruin; the best preserved components being a 13th century lavabo (where the monks washed their hands before eating), some Romanesque arches and a 14th century chapter house.
So, another long Thursday tour day ended and the trip home was made brighter by the compulsory stop in the famous George’s cake shop in Slane village.