Ireland’s Hill of Tara

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

For the life of me, I don’t know where I first heard about Ireland’s Hill of Tara.

It could have been mentioned in a book or covered in a documentary. All I know is that while visiting Dublin, I wanted to learn more.

What better place to start than a museum dedicated to the country’s archaeology and history?

Ireland’s National Museum of Archaeology & History

Treasures from Ireland’s Neolithic era to modern-day artifacts are well preserved in this carefully crafted collection. I wasn’t overly interested in bog mummies or weaponry from the Viking era.

I went straight for the sparkle – the Tara Brooch.

The Tara Brooch. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

The Tara Brooch is not old – in the sense of Ireland’s Neolithic past – but this 8th century, ring-shaped, cloak fastener is undeniably captivating.

Made of cast and gilded silver, the early medieval brooch has fine, filigreed gold panels and is studded with amber, enamel and coloured glass. It includes animal and abstract motifs.

I never realized that the Tara Brooch didn’t come from the Hill of Tara, located northwest of Dublin. It actually came from a place near the seashore at Bettystown in County Meath. Apparently a dealer attributed its source as being Tara in order to increase its value.

The brooch was a loss leader. Tara itself was the actual gem.

After spending time pouring over the display about the site, I knew we’d have to experience Tara for ourselves.

On the Path of Greatness

It’s a graveyard – true. But the Hill of Tara in County Meath is much more than just that. This famous passage-tomb burial site was used for more than 1500 years.

It is where Ireland’s kings claimed their power.

It is said that this was where St. Patrick announced the arrival of Christianity in Ireland.

It is where Daniel O’Connell – the “Liberator” – rallied upwards of three-quarters of a million protestors in 1843 to seek freedom from Britain.

Tara of the Kings

The Hill of Tara looks non-assuming at first glance. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Teamhair na Rig, or Tara of the Kings, includes a series of graves, tombs and temples.

It is a spiritual sanctuary.

The oldest visible monument is the passage tomb of Drumha na nGiall – the Mound of the Hostages. It dates back to the third millennium BC.

Christian graveyard and church at the base of the hill. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

According to the informational pamphlet I picked up at the visitor centre, Tara’s power declined by the 6th century AD.

Paganism gave way to Christianity, “…and the title of ‘king of Tara’ became a symbolic prize for ambitious kings seeking to become the most powerful ruler on the island.”

Many historical and mythical figures are associated with Tara. The site was central to the creation of an Irish identity.

Today as you walk the grassy mounds, surveying the countryside, the passion and politics of this low-lying hill and its man-made monuments are palpable.

If You Go:

The site is open from mid-May to mid-September, 10 am to 6 pm daily. Tara is located 12 km south of Navan, off the N3.

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Drawn to the Burren

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

What’s in a name?

Why do some place names call so loud and so far that you just have to get there?

Why does the Burren resonate in my soul?

The Burren takes its name from the Irish word ‘bhoireann’. It literally means “a rocky place.” Approximately 260 square kilometres (100 sq mi), this limestone plateau looks devoid of life and purpose at first glance. Give it a few hours and it will capture your imagination.

Stone Legacy

The Burren has been home to humans for thousands of years. Large stone tombs – or megalithic tombs – were built during the Neolithic or New Stone Age. Over 90 megalithic tombs can still be found in the Burren.

A portal tomb. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Poulnabrone Dolmen is a classic portal tomb. ‘Dolmen’ is a Breton word for ‘table.’ Indeed the massive capstone – over 3 ½ metres long and 2 metres wide (12 ft x 7 ft) – gives the appearance of a table. Poulnabrone was built more than 5000 years ago. It was excavated in 1986. In addition to the more than 20 people buried at the tomb, pieces of pottery and jewellery were found. Poulnabrone is only one of dozens of prehistoric stone features found in the Burren.

Life is not always obvious. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

In more recent times, Catholic landowners were evicted from their land in favour of Protestants by Cromwell’s army in the mid-17th century. General Ludlow stated his opinion of the Burren as “a country where there is not water enough to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, or earth enough to bury him.” Little did he know that the magic of the Burren lies in its resilience.

Finding Flora

Ephemeral beauty in the Burren. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

It’s hard to put down roots on a rock, but that didn’t stop people from living on the Burren and it definitely hasn’t stopped a unique ecosystem from developing within the cracks and crevices of this stony stronghold. The Burren may look lifeless, but a closer look reveals alpine, arctic and Mediterranean species of plants – all growing side by side.

 

Straddling the grike. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

The region is made up of limestone rock that has eroded into a distinctive pattern known as a karren. It is crisscrossed with cracks called grikes. Water disappears beneath the stone into huge caves – the most famous of which is Aillwee Cave – and underground rivers. Water also nourishes the seeds that fall into the grikes. Over 70% of Ireland’s 900 native plants species are found in the Burren. Take that, General Ludlow!

A rocky place with unique flora and hundreds of prehistoric and historic stone structures. I’m still not sure why the Burren spoke to me in the first place, but I’m sure glad it did.

If You Go:

We drove from Lisdoonvarna northeast on N-67 towards Ballyvaughan, heading south on R-480 to explore Aillwee Caves, Poulnabrone Dolmen, Caherconnell Ring Fort, and Leamaneh Castle. The Burren Centre  was closed on the day we passed through, but you can find it heading northwest of R-476 back towards Lisdoonvarna.

Read more about our Irish adventures at:

The Stone Circles of Cork & Kerry, Ireland

Ireland’s Brú na Bóinne

Towers and Forts: An Irish Treasure Hunt

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Towers and Forts: An Irish Treasure Hunt

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

We often travel a route with the map in hand and randomly choose short historic side trips to investigate while on the way to our actual destination. Sometimes, it’s a wild goose chase. Other times, it’s a treasure hunt that leads to such beauties as the Ring of Kerry’s Staigue Fort and the Dingle Peninsula’s Min Aird Castle.

Staigue Fort

When is a stone defensive structure and home not a castle? When it’s a prehistoric stone fort!

Staigue Fort is one of the largest and finest stone forts in Ireland – according the interpretive panel just outside its walls! The name comes from “An Steig” – which is roughly translated as “the portion of land.” It is found on a small portion of land off the southern leg of the infamous “Ring of Kerry” on Ireland’s Iveragh Peninsula.

Staigue Fort’s impressive walls. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

The stone fort was built in the early centuries before Christianity came to Ireland – somewhere between 500 BC and AD 300. Like more “modern” castles, it was most likely built for a wealthy landowner or chieftain who had a need for security.

The wall rises up to six metres (over 19 feet) high. It is four metres (13 feet) thick and is built entirely without mortar. The wall encloses an area thirty metres (almost 100 feet) in diameter. Several near-vertical masonry joints are visible in the walls. These may indicate that the massive stone structure was built in stages rather than in one continuous act. The fort was entered through a narrow, lintel-covered passage in the wall.

The inner walls have criss-crossing staircases. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

The fort was the home of the chieftain’s family, guards and servants. It would have been full of houses, out-buildings, and possibly even tents or other temporary structures. None of the inner buildings survive today. The top of the wall was reached by a series of steps which criss-cross against the inside of the wall. An earthen bank and ditch around the fort gave further protection.

You say fort, I say prehistoric castle!

Min Aird Castle

Min Aird Castle – also commonly referred to as Minard Castle – is located in Cill Mhuire Bay on the Dingle Peninsula. It is the largest fortress on the peninsula. Cill Mhuire Bay is also known for its geology. Eighty-million-year-old fossilised sand dunes can be seen in its cliffs. It also contains one of the finest storm beaches in Ireland.

Min Aird Castle and its storm beach. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

In the Devonian period, rivers flowed south across a large desert… wait, we’re still in Ireland, right?

Crumbling Cill Mhuire sandstone walls of Min Aird Castle. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Rivers flowed across a large desert, carrying sand and coarse sediments. The crescent-shaped sand dunes in the desert became the pale, yellow Cill Mhuire Sandstone. This same sandstone was used to build Min Aird Castle.

Blocks of sandstone have become rounded by the action of the waves and from knocking against each other. Storms have thrown them towards the back to the beach where they form a ridge called a storm beach.

A timeless view. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

The 16th century tower house that is Min Aird Castle has stood the test of time. It was attacked by Cromwell’s army in 1650 and was structurally damaged. Its crumbling remains have continued to withstand the ravages of a stormy coast for centuries.

Castles, towers, forts – Ireland’s countless historic stone structures beckon.

What are you waiting for?

Read more about our Irish adventures at:

The Stone Circles of Cork & Kerry, Ireland

Ireland’s Brú na Bóinne

Getting to Know Guinness: Going to the Source in Dublin, Ireland

Ireland’s Trim Castle

 

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Ireland’s Skellig Michael: A Storied Past

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

Somewhere between the 6th and 8th centuries, a group of monks sought an isolated locale to practice their religion. They found Skellig Michael.

Skellig come from Sceillic, which means steep rock. Over the next 500 years these Christian monks would develop a precipitous monastic complex that boggles the mind. Perched on a rugged sea crag in the wild Atlantic Ocean, 12 kilometres (8 miles) off of Ireland’s Ivereagh Peninsula in County Kerry, this well-preserved, early medieval ecclesiastical site is quite unlike any other in the world.

The Monastery

The monks chose a sloping rock plateau around 200 metres (650 feet) above the sea to build the monastery. Using a series of dry-stacked retaining walls, they built terraces to level the ground. The retaining walls not only levelled the cliffs, they provided shelter from the prevailing winds. This created a somewhat milder microclimate and allowed the monks to grow some of their food on garden terraces. As there is no fresh water on Skellig Michael, the monks built water cisterns to collect water.

Retaining walls and terraces (Photo: Megan Kopp)

The focus of the inner enclosure was the boat-shaped Large Oratory. This place of prayer was the most important building. It holds a dominant spot in the small compound. A Small Oratory is located on a separate terrace.

Entrance to the Large Oratory (Photo: Megan Kopp)

At the back to the Large Oratory is the Monks’ Graveyard. The series of weathered crosses set into the west side of the graveyard are in their original locations. Over a hundred stone crosses of varying sizes have been recorded on the island.

All of the dry-stacked buildings on Skellig Michael were corbelled. Corbelling is a technique where individual stones are laid flat, with each successive stone placed so that it overhangs on the inner face. This creates a beehive-shaped stone hut.

Beehive-shaped shelters (Photo: Megan Kopp)

There are six dwellings in the monastery. Each includes raised sections for sleeping areas and small cupboards built into the walls. Austere is a kind description of these dark and cold shelters.

In the 13th century the monks moved off Skellig Michael, leaving behind a unique legacy that became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

If You Go:

From the boat dock, today’s visitors head up the early 19th century lighthouse road before ascending the south steps up to Christ’s Saddle and on to the monastery. It’s important to note that a visit to the monastery not only demands a sometimes hair-raising boat ride, it also involves a climb up 618 steps rising over 180 metres (600 feet) above sea level – with some risk of exposure.

Boat trips to Skellig Michael run from May 12th to October 2nd in 2017 (weather permitting). Although access to the monastery itself is free, the 11 ½ kilometre (7 mile) boat trip from Portmagee will cost in the neighbourhood of 70-75 Euros per person. Trips depart from the Portmagee marina around 9:15 am, returning after 2 pm. Most landing tours fill months ahead of time, book in advance.

Read more about our Irish adventures at:

The Stone Circles of Cork & Kerry, Ireland

Ireland’s Brú na Bóinne

Getting to Know Guinness: Going to the Source in Dublin, Ireland

Ireland’s Trim Castle

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Ireland’s Trim Castle

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

Trim – the word sounds precise, with little excess. Trim Castle – on the River Boyne – is just the opposite. It is the largest Normandy castle in Ireland.

Historic stone structures always draw my attention and Trim was no exception. We had to stop and take a look.

Arriving too late in the day to take advantage of a guided tour and entrance to the keep, we strolled the grounds as the clouds lifted and the sun peeked out.

Surveying the grounds. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

The castle was started by Hugh de Lacy in 1173. It was completed in the 13th century. The curtain wall encloses an area of over 1.5 hectares (about the size of one and a half rugby fields).

Interpretive panels through the grounds explain major features of this stone landmark, but we chose to wander at will, trying to get a sense of what life must have been like in Hugh de Lacy’s world.

In 1172, when Hugh de Lacy was granted the Liberty of Meath, he occupied this site bounded by the river Boyne to the north and marshy grounds to the south. The hill on which the castle stands was easily defended.

The Keep at Trim Castle. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Three years after choosing the location, de Lacy’s original wooden fortification had been replaced with the Keep. It housed the Lord’s private and administrative apartments. Gazing at its pock-marked façade, it’s remarkably easy to visualize the lords and ladies inside, sitting by wood-burning fires discussing the state of affairs.

The Keep was later surrounded by curtain walls with a simple gate to the north and a bridge across the moat.

Trim Castle’s entrance gate (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Trim Gate was built around 1180. It faces northwest, with its half-round gate-arch set high above the moat. A forward tower or pier would have received a bridge over the moat. The gatehouse was rebuilt early in the 13th century.

Defensive viewpoint on the curtain wall (Photo: Megan Kopp)

The south curtain wall with its D-shaped towers was completed by 1200, when new siege tactics forced a change in the design of castles. Step in close and look through the slotted archery windows.

As the town and roads developed, the barbican gate provided a new entrance from the south. It’s precise design suits Trim.

Though the castle buildings were often adapted to suit changing military and domestic needs, much of the fabric of Trim Castle has remained unchanged since the height of Anglo-Norman power in Ireland.

View from Trim Castle across the river Boyne towards the Augustinian Abbey of St. Mary and its belfry tower, the Yellow Steeple (Photo: Megan Kopp)

P.S. If the castle looks vaguely familiar and it’s been niggling at the back of your mind, but you can’t quite place it, I’ll let you off the hook.

Trim Castle was dubbed York Castle for the 1996 movie Braveheart, starring Mel Gibson.

Read more about our Irish adventures at:

The Stone Circles of Cork & Kerry, Ireland

Ireland’s Brú na Bóinne

Getting to Know Guinness: Going to the Source in Dublin, Ireland

 

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Getting to Know Guinness: Going to the Source in Dublin, Ireland

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

You can’t go to Dublin and not have a pint of Guinness. It would be like going to Italy and not eating pasta or visiting California’s Napa Valley and not having a sip of wine.

I decided my first taste of the dark brew should be as close to the source as I could get – St. James’s Gate brewery. It all started here, more than 250 years ago.

In 1759, 34-year-old Arthur Guinness signed a lease for the rundown St. James’s Gate brewery in Dublin. Perhaps he foresaw the success of his business venture. Guinness leased the brewery for 9,000 years, paying less than $75 a year in rent. The business met and exceeded Arthur’s dreams,  passing from father to son for five successive generations.

One thousand casks were handmade each week. Each was individually numbered. Provided the casks were kept in good condition and could be repaired, they could be used for over 10 years. Oak was eventually replaced by mass-produced metal casks and coopers and their craft disappeared. Photo: Megan Kopp

St James’s Gate brewery was only four acres in size when Arthur took it on. It was not in the best of shape and had little in the way of brewing equipment. Arthur quickly turned it around. By 1769, he was exporting his ‘porter’ beer to England. Porter differs from ale in that it is brewed with roasted barley, giving the beer its distinctive dark colour.

By 1862, the Guinness trademark label was introduced. It included Arthur’s signature, the legendary Guiness harp symbol (a medieval Irish instrument known as the O’Neill or Brian Boru harp) and the Guinness name.

Today, as you walk into the Guinness Storehouse and interpretive centre at St James’s gate, the original, signed paper lease – no longer in affect as the property was purchased before expansion – lies on the floor under a circle of glass.

Wander upward past bins of Irish-grown barley – 100,000 tonnes of which is used at St James’s Gate alone every year. Read about the eight million litres of soft water that flows from the Wicklow mountains into the Guinness brewery every day. Gaze in awe at the copper – a massive metal brewing tank which held up to 600 barrels – or 172,800 pints – of the black liquid. Continue up the seven floors of displays – which from the bottom rise up in the shape of 14-million-pint glass of Guinness.

I raised a glass towards the end of the tour – and took my first sip of the black brew.

Utter perfection! Photo: Megan Kopp

It’s no wonder that Guinness Stout is sold in over 150 countries around the world and that ten million glasses are imbibed daily.

This St. Patrick’s Day it will be ten million and one – sláinte!

Read more about our Irish adventures at:

Ireland’s Trim Castle

The Stone Circles of Cork & Kerry, Ireland

Ireland’s Brú na Bóinne

 

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The Stone Circles of Cork & Kerry, Ireland

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

Think Celtic stone circle and what comes to mind?

Most likely it’s Stonehenge – the granddaddy of all stone circles. Rings of standing stones are more common in the land of the Celts than you’d think.

There are somewhere in the neighbourhood of 235 stone circles in Ireland. Almost half of these are found in Cork and Kerry in southern Ireland.

These circles are different than Stonehenge because a) they’re smaller – sometime only a handful of stones, b) they are numerous – over 100 in Cork and Kerry alone, c) they have a recumbent stone – located in the west or southwest quadrant of the circle and d) they have two to four entrance or portal stones – on the eastern side.

The recumbent stone and the portal stones form an axis, or line. In many of these circles, this axis aligns with specific solar or lunar phenomena – such as the winter solstice, spring equinox, or moonrise or moonset positions during the lunar cycle. Most researchers agree that they may have had a ritual or religious function.

Drombeg comes from “An Drom Beag” meaning “the Small Ridge.” (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Drombeg Stone Circle
This easy-to-access circle – also known as The Druid’s Altar – dates back to the Bronze Age. It’s alignment to sunset during winter solstice was first noted in the 1920s by local Archaeo-astronomer, Boyle Somerville.

The circle – near Rosscarbery in County Cork – has been restored with 13 or the original 17 stones. Drombeg offers a sense of what it might have been like when it was built over 4,000 years ago. Outside of the circle, there are the remains of two prehistoric stone huts.

On the Hunt for Circles
Clodagh, Maughanaclea, Reanascreena, Carrigagrenane, Lissyvigeen – the names of these mysterious monuments elicit excitement for travellers on a quest for adventure outside the norm.

A stone circle on the Beara Peninsula. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

It’s a challenge and an adventure all rolled into one. To aid us in our quest to discover a few more circles, we picked up a copy on our drive across the southern edge of the country of “The Stone Circles of Cork & County Kerry: An Illustrated Map/Guide.” Researched by Jack Roberts, it is a highly-recommended resource!

Read more about our Irish adventures at:

Ireland’s Brú na Bóinne

Getting to Know Guinness: Going to the Source in Dublin, Ireland

Ireland’s Trim Castle

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Ireland’s Brú na Bóinne

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

It means the palace or the mansion of the Boyne – and it is an Irish treasure.


Brú na Bóinne

Brú na Bóinne is the Gaelic name given to an area in Ireland dominated by three immense prehistoric passage tombs – Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth.

Inside one of Ireland’s megalithic passage tombs. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Behind the Stones

Brú na Bóinne is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site in southern Ireland. This cemetery complex flourished during the New Stone Age – or Neolithic period – leaving a priceless legacy.

Overlooking Newgrange and the Brú na Bóinne countryside. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Take a look, by the numbers:

4000 BC         the first of the tombs were built
30                   different mounds visible in Brú na Bóinne
2,000              stones, each weighing several tons, used in the tombs
3-5                  distance in kilometres where large stones were quarried
4                      days for 80 men to bring a large stone from the quarry
115                 number of kerbstones surrounding Dowth
1699               year Newgrange explored by researcher Edward Lhwyd
34                   metres, the length of Knowth’s Western tomb passage
7th                 century AD, Knowth is home to Kings of Northern Brega
600                 number of decorated stones in Brú na Bóinne
60                   % of Western European Neolithic art in Brú na Bóinne
21st                December date light pierces Newgrange’s chamber

Prehistoric art of Brú na Bóinne. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Did You Know?

Most of Ireland’s OPW (Office of Public Works) Heritage Sites are open to the public free of charge on the first Wednesday of each month in 2017. More information can be found at www.heritageireland.ie.

Read more about our Irish adventures at:

The Stone Circles of Cork & Kerry, Ireland

Getting to Know Guinness: Going to the Source in Dublin, Ireland

Ireland’s Trim Castle

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