The fertile Boyne Valley has been inhabited since the Neolithic (4th millennium BC). The remains of ancient sites from this early civilization fill the area, including ringed forts, sacred enclosures, and passage tombs such as the renowned Newgrange. The area is also home to some important medieval monastic sites, such as Monasterboice and Mellifont Abbey.
Archaeological Ensemble of the Bend of the Boyne
The most significant Neolithic monuments in the valley are concentrated around the Bend of Boyne, known as Brú na Bóinne [Palace of the Boyne], and include three passage graves: Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth (cannot be visited as it has not been fully excavated). These tombs reflect the exceptional engineering skills of their builders. Newgrange (c. 3200 BC) is the finest restored Neolithic tomb in Ireland. While Knowth (c. 3000-2300 BC) has the largest collection of megalithic art in Europe. More than 200 decorated megalithic stones were found here during excavations. According to Celtic mythology, the legendary Kings of Tara were buried in these tombs.
Newgrange’s burial grave is protected by a huge mound built of layers of stone, earth and re-deposited turf. About 200,000 tons of soil and loose stones were brought here for its construction. This whole structure is held together by the 97 boulders of the curb ring. The retaining wall around the front of the mound was rebuilt using the white quartz and granite stones found scattered on the site during excavations. The chamber itself can be accessed via a 19-meter-long straight passage. The burial chamber has three side recesses and a corbel-vaulted ceiling. This type of ceiling is made by gradually overlapping layers of large rocks until the opening could be sealed by a single stone, the capstone. The recesses contain large stone basins, which once contained the cremated remains of the dead. Many of the boulders surrounding the mound, and the slabs lining the passage and the burial chamber are decorated with carved spirals, concentric circles and other geometrical motifs. At the dawn of the winter solstice (21 December), a beam of sunlight shines through the opening above the entrance, travels slowly down the long passage and finally illuminates the central recess of the burial chamber for 17 minutes. Every year large crowds gather here to watch this spectacle.
Knowth has one huge mound surrounded by smaller satellite tombs. There are two burial chambers in the main tomb, one with an eastern entrance and the other with a western one. The Eastern Tomb, like Newgrange, has a burial chamber with three side recesses containing stone basins, and a corbelled ceiling. This chamber can be accessed via a 35-meter-long straight passage. The Western Tomb has a single rectangular chamber containing a stone basin. This burial chamber can be accessed via a 34-meter-long passage that bends slightly to the right on two thirds of the way. Knowth’s two entrances are oriented so that at the equinoxes (21st of March and 21st of September) a beam of sunlight illuminates the eastern burial chamber at dawn and the western burial chamber at dusk. This site was occupied for much longer than Newgrange. During the early Christian period (7th-8th century AD), Knowth was an important political center, being the royal residence of the kings of North Brega. Then, a settlement protected by a double ditch was established at the top of the mound. While, in Medieval times (12th to 16th century), Cistercian monks established a farm on the site. As a result of the reformation and the associated changes in political and religious conditions, the farm was abandoned.
The most important monastic sites in the Boyne Valley are Monasterboice and Mellifont Cistercian Abbey. Monasterboice, one of the most famous religious sites in Ireland, was founded in the 5th century by an obscure disciple of St Patrick, St Buithe. Sometime, St Buithe’s name got converted to Boyne. Mellifont Abbey, the first Cistercian monastery to have been established in Ireland, was founded in 1142. Following the formal style of monastic architecture used on the continent, this is the finest example of Cistercian architecture in Ireland.
The ruins of Monasterboice are located in a graveyard. The site features the remains of a round tower typical of Irish Christian architecture built between the 10th and 12th centuries. These tall bell towers served as lookouts for Viking raiders, as well as, vaults and, if necessary, shelters. In 968, Vikings occupied the monastic settlement, only to be expelled by a King of Tara. Records suggest that the tower caught fire in 1097, destroying many valuable manuscripts and other treasures. Today, the monastery is renowned for its High Crosses. Ireland’s High Crosses were mostly carved between the 8th and 12th centuries. Early crosses were decorated with geometric motifs. Later, the carving evolved and biblical scenes were introduced. The 10th-century Muiredach’s High Cross in Monasterboice is the finest of its kind in Ireland. The western face features scenes from the New Testament, and from the bottom depicts the arrest of Christ, Doubting Thomas, Christ giving a key to St. Peter, and Crucifixion. While the eastern face features scenes from the Old Testament, and from the bottom depicts the Fall of Man, David struggling with Goliath, Moses obtaining water, Adoration of the Magi and Last Judgement. Located near the round tower, the 6.5-meter-high West High Cross is one of the tallest crosses in Ireland. Unfortunately, it is much more weathered than the Muiredach’s High Cross. The more distinguishable carvings include the Death of Christ, and David killing a lion and a bear. The North High Cross, which is the least notable of the three, is believed to have been smashed by Cromwell’s troops in the 17th century. It features a Crucifixion and carved spiral pattern. With their carvings, the crosses had an important educational use: they brought religion closer to the uneducated.
Mellifont Abbey was founded by the frustrated Archbishop of Armagh, Malachy, in response to the scandalous and lavish lifestyle of the Irish monastic orders. He invited a group of dedicated monks from Clairvaux, France, to set up an exemplary monastery here. Unsurprisingly, the local clergy did not get along with the newcomers, and the latter soon returned to France. Nonetheless, the construction of Mellifont continued. Over time, an additional 21 Cistercian monasteries were established in Ireland, but Mellifont retained control over them. At one point, as many as 400 monks lived here. In 1539, after the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII, it was closed and transformed into a fortified Tudor manor house. The abbey is in ruins today, but the size and former splendor of the original complex can still be appreciated. Mellifont’s most recognizable building is the 13th-century lavabo, the octagonal washroom where monks came to wash their hands in a fountain before meals. The 14th-century chapter house features an impressive vaulted ceiling and a floor laid with glazed medieval tiles taken from the abbey church.