The Sacred Boyne Valley – Knowth, New Grange and Tara – 52 Ancestors #171

These ancient sacred sites represent so much of Ireland’s distant past. Of course, if you have Irish heritage, Ireland’s ancient past is also your own. We’re beyond fortunate to have these sites, in any state of preservation today. The fact that they are open to the public is absolutely amazing!

What a glorious day.

First, I want to mention that these people were my ancestors, as proven by the work of Trinity College, in Dublin, and thanks to my McNiel cousin whose Y DNA we tested as a descendant of the Reverend George McNiel. The Y DNA from this McNiel line matches the signature attributed to Niall of the Nine Hostages, High King of Ireland, crowned at Tara. You can read more about Niall of the Nine Hostages genetic signature here, here and here, and how males can test at Family Tree DNA to see if you, or one of your male ancestral lines, descends from this noble lineage.

I wrote about Niall in the article about Rev. McNiel, but there is absolutely nothing like standing on that very site yourself, nearly alone, in the late afternoon, with the sun setting in the misty distance. Niall was with me, as he is with all of his descendants. I could feel his presence and that of those long gone, on that high hill, overlooking Ireland in all directions, surveying his domain.

Before I go on, if you have Irish genealogy, then it’s very likely that this is your history too, that Niall of the Nine Hostages or his relatives are your ancestors as well.  You may carry his blood in your veins, and possibly also in your DNA. After all, 3,500 years equates to about 875 generations. That’s 875 opportunities for a descendant to marry into your line – and chances are very good that they did, probably many times. So this isn’t just my ancestral journey, it’s yours too.

Make yourself a cup of coffee or maybe some fine Irish tea, complete with milk of course, in honor of being Irish, and come along on this great adventure of discovery!

Back to the Past

This, my third full day in Ireland is spent once again with Brian, my trusty personal tour guide, and what a wonderful day it has been.

I knew that this day wasn’t just about the history and mystery of Ireland, but about my own ancestral past – my personal connection to this lush green country.

The places we would drive and walk, my ancestors did too, for hundreds and thousands of years.

Their blood watered this soil. Their ashes remain a part of Ireland.

Morning Fog

The morning began with fog. Brian said this was somewhat unusual in this part of the country, but it created a bit of a dreamlike mystical aura to set the stage.

These historic sites are only about an hour or so out of Dublin, without traffic, but they literally inhabit another world. The added dimension of fog creates a sense of timelessness and transports us back to the time that Niall of the Nine Hostages lived.

The roads quickly shrank from those of a modern city to country roads without center lines because they are too small for two lanes simultaneously. However, traffic is still two-way and everyone is simply expected to be courteous and drive with some semblance of sanity. And they do – everyone – everyday – without the angry blaring of horns. Very, very different from the US. Paradigm shift.

Brian and I discovered this beautiful thatched roof house and adjoining barn in the morning fog, as the sun began peeking through.

Thatched roof houses still exist and are in relatively common use today in the countryside. They aren’t simply part of the past in Ireland. This thatched roof farmhouse in Ireland stands right alongside the road, where nearly all of the old buildings are located, and the barn, covered with vines, stands right in front of the house, separated by only a few inches, smack dab up against the wall which physically comprises the edge of the road. The road used to be the old cart path and before that, probably a footpath, trod by the very first settlers in this valley.

Roads and farms here are bordered with walls. In fact, walls are so common you don’t “see them” anymore. They serve multiple purposes, not the least of which is to keep livestock off of the roads.

Where rock walls don’t exist, hedges do the job as well.

The hedges are so dense that farmers install gates.

New Grange wasn’t far distant, winding down the road. I held my breath on some of those curves, driving on the “wrong side” of the road, but Brian knew exactly what he was doing and where he was going.

A spider spun her web on the sign at the entrance of the historical park at Knowth and New Grange.

Even the gate is beautiful, graced with ornamentation inspired by the carved stones at both sites.

We don’t know exactly why these Neolithic people constructed these mounds. It’s likely that they initially bore a spiritual significance and we do know that later, a group or groups of people lived on the mounds.

The megalithic tomb tradition began 6000 years ago in Brittany, France, 500 years or so before the first tombs established in Ireland.

It’s easy to speculate that the culture came with the people from continental Europe, and that may well be accurate. Professor Dan Bradley, in his presentation this week at Genetic Genealogy Ireland, speaking about ancient DNA and burials, said very clearly that the Ireland of prehistoric times is not, genetically speaking, the Ireland of today. When comparing the DNA of the earliest burials against modern populations, the ancient results map to the far north, an area Dr. Bradley jokingly called Valhalla, land of the mythical Norse “Heaven.” A second ancient burial maps to an area near Portugal. The only burials that map to the Irish of today occurred much later, after the Neolithic, after the Celtic influence and after the Viking invasions.

These mounds were created hundreds to thousands of years before people actually lived on the mounds as residents. Some dead are interred in the mounds, but not enough for the mounds to be a cemetery for the entire community, as we conceive of cemeteries today. But clearly, everyone died and the bodies had to be disposed of in some fashion.

By the time the tombs began to be catalogued and preserved, people had been “visiting” them for 260 years, so virtually everything above ground, meaning both artifacts and bones, had been disturbed, and who knows how much is missing.

Of course, water played a crucial role in the lives of our ancestors. These sacred sites were all established near the River Boyne, crossed by this contemporary bridge today along the walk from the Visitor Center to the bus that takes visitors to the Knowth and New Grange sites.

The River Boyne, giver of life, connects the sacred sites of Knowth, Dowth, New Grange and Tara.

The carved stones at these prehistoric sites are believed to have been transported from distances far away by barge, then log rolled uphill to the sites where they were installed. Of course, the bridge in the photo is modern, established for tourists to tread the ancestral path.

Whoever these ancient settlers were in the Boyne River Valley, they would probably have selected these sites for their elevation and would have looked over the valley and seen much the same scene as today, except that the hillsides would have originally been forested.

Knowth

Knowth is pronounced something like “note” by the locals, in an Irish brogue.

Most of the mounds, which are likely passage graves and sacred ceremonial sites, have not been excavated at Knowth, this first stop on our journey.

Some of these photos leave me breathless and speechless, and I feel they would be better served without narrative, but I need to let you know what you’re viewing. This is exactly what our ancestors would have seen on a similar misty foggy morning thousands of years ago, standing exactly where I was standing.

At one time, people lived on top of these mounds, farmsteads probably, and the first person to rise in the morning would have had this same view before the activities of the day began. Perhaps a goat bleated in the distance and a dog accompanied our early riser.

This mound has been excavated. The soil eventually covered these carved rocks after the site was abandoned, so the excavation exposed the rocks and the site was reinforced so that the stones remain within view.

The view of the countryside down the path between the mounds (left) and other sites (right).

More beautiful spider webs on the historical signage. The local people tell us that the problem with thatched roofs is that they attract spiders who love to nest there. Then again, spiders eat lots of other insects.

Beautiful carved stones. The carvings were created by picking or pecking at the stones with a hammer and chisel, or their Neolithic equivalent. All of the kurbstones, as they are known, are carved, although the carving is difficult to see on some today and nearly impossible in some light situations.

These stones are massive, weighing tons and about waist high on an adult.

Some stones are curved, as the mounds are round.

Many mounds, which served as homes, butted up against each other.

Some passageways functioned as entrances, some as souterrains, underground storage pits for food. Crawling would have been the only way in and out for most of these.

Some tunnels probably functioned as both. Claustrophobic? You wouldn’t want to be the person sent to retrieve whatever was kept there.

As I continued my walk around this mound, I noticed this rock which was very unusual and different from the rest. This rock has carving both on top and on the sides. Most don’t although the archaeological reports indicate that some stones are carved in areas that are not able to be seen, like on the bottoms and backs. The wheel-like carving on top of this stone may have been astrological in nature, perhaps a calendar of sorts.

This area in front of the two sided carved rock (above) is believed to be some type of sacred area. The white stones are original, and are not native to this region. I believe the guide said they were quartz and transported, one by one, from a site in the Wicklow mountains 90 km to the south. The black stones are granite and come from about as far away to the North, gathered and carried one by one up the hill from the River Boyne where they would have been transported by boat. Clearly, these stones were important and it’s thought perhaps that the white stones were ceremonial and may have represented the light and warmth of the sun.

This is one if my favorite stones. I have always had an affinity for spirals. The spiral is the oldest carving, with the undulating carving added later.

The guide said that the archaeologists can recognize the work of individual carvers.

The rock second from left is another absolutely amazing stone. This one, if you’ll notice, has a similar carving to the rock with the carving on top. Both resemble a wheel. These two images are surely somehow connected to each other as well as connected to whatever their religion was. No one would spend this much time and effort otherwise.

The stewards of this site have reconstructed an example of what they believe wooden henges would have been like just beside the mound.

Standing stones, and another entrance.

The most remarkable finding discovered in the archaeological excavations was a beautiful carved flint mace head. I saw the actual artifact the following day in the National Museum, but the position of the mace head in the case made it very difficult to photograph.

You can see additional photos here and here, along with the carved bowl from the passage tomb in New Grange.

These passage mounds at Knowth are not open inside to the public, but the one at New Grange is. That’s where we’re headed next.

Think of Knowth and New Grange as a neighborhood of sorts, not adjacent exactly, but within sight from the tops of the hills and dating from approximately the same timeframe.

New Grange

New Grange is a separate site from Knowth, today, but clearly the original inhabitants were part of the same culture and probably the same family grouping too. After all, the number of original settlers or inhabitants was probably small.

All of these sacred sites are located on hilltops, which could be a factor of both religion as well as defensive protection.

This was the entrance to New Grange in the late 1800s. The area had been largely overgrown. I couldn’t help but notice how clear the carvings were only 118 years ago as compared to today.

Standing stones mark the entrance to the tomb.

Because it is off season here (October), complicated by the weather (Hurricane Ophelia), with few tourists, I was able to get generally unobstructed photos, with few or no people.

This is the entrance to the New Grange passage tomb.  Above the entrance, the light enters through the “lightbox” above the top of the lintel stone at dawn on Winter Solstice, assuming no clouds or fog. The stone in front of that passage entrance is the most elaborately carved stone at the site sporting beautiful spirals. Notice that the stones above the lightbox are mostly the light quartz stones. Were they “guiding” the light on the solstice?

Just pretend this shivering park employee is one of the ancient holy priests!

Yes, it was COLD. But then it would have been cold on December 21st each year when the people who lived here celebrated the beginning of the cyclical warming of the earth – when mother earth begins to rejuvenate and come alive once again.

As we entered the small chamber, we walked through an increasingly smaller passageway until we reached the center some 40 feet inside, in the middle of the mound.  The chamber in the center holds about 25 people, so long as they are good friends and don’t mind being close.

Unfortunately, after this site was discovered in 1799, it was open to the curious for decades, until it became protected. By the time the first scientists documented the site, the human remains of at least 5 people had been scattered on the floor, so we don’t know how or exactly where in this mound they were interred. We do know that they were cremated, although some later burials, believed to be Celtic, found on this site but in another location, were buried, not cremated.

For those who are thinking about the next question, I’ll just answer it.

I asked if DNA extraction had been attempted, and the guide sidestepped the question twice, saying lots of information was as yet unpublished after for than 40 years of excavation. I visited the ancient DNA labs at Trinity College and UCD on the Monday following the conference, and was told there that yes, DNA has been extracted and is awaiting publication. However, they have not been successful, at least not yet, extracting DNA from cremains.

Professor (and geneticist) Dan Bradley who runs the ancient DNA lab at Trinity said that they have access to all skeletal remains in at the National Museum. I took that to mean there may be many publications in the future that will help us further understand the history of the Irish people.

Photos were not allowed inside the passage tomb, but here’s a great video on YouTube that shows approximately what the ancients would have seen at the Winter Solstice when the shaft of light entered the New Grange tomb.

The precision necessary 5200 years ago to engineer and construct this mound to achieve the Winter Solstice’s rising sunlight striking the back wall of the mound is absolutely mind-boggling to comprehend – especially given that the shaft enters above the opening, but strikes the wall at ground level – meaning that an incline in elevation is involved as well.

Amazingly enough, no water has ever penetrated the chamber in the center this mound, an incredible testimony to the original architects. Keep in mind this mound was built before the pyramids of Giza and that these builders had no cement or any substances except dirt and rock. This mound was watertight due to the angle of the stacked stones and layers of gravel and dirt on top of the mound.

From Knowth.com:

This chamber is roofed by a corbelled vault, which has remained intact and watertight without any conservation or repair. The cairn (stone mound) that covers the chamber is estimated to weigh 200,000 tons and is retained at its base by 97 massive kerbstones.

You can see photos of the vaulted ceiling, along with other artworks of New Grange, here. I must admit, I was just a tad nervous inside that chamber. Still, I wouldn’t have missed this opportunity for anything.

Knowth and New Grange have a few standing stones, but nothing like Stonehenge. However, like Stonehenge, the massive stones were all transported from quite some distance, as measured in many miles, not feet or yards, requiring massive manpower and coordination which implies a complex social structure. Both locations were somehow connected to the solstices as well, with other circles and locations marking the equinoxes. Whoever these people were, they were experienced skywatchers and expert architects.

Ok, indulge me with a selfie as I’m standing beside one of the standing stones. I didn’t come this far, survive a blood clot and a hurricane not to get a photo! Thank goodness for cell phones. It was quite windy on the top of this hill.

The outside of the New Grange passage mound is (re)constructed of the same white (quartz) and black (granite) rocks as were found outside surrounding the mound at Knowth. These are fist sized stones at this site, slightly smaller, and the black are interspersed with the white in the wall built above the carved stones.

This photo shows New Grange around 1900 after the overgrowth had been cleared away. These walls, shown before reconstruction, were in amazingly good condition, considering their age.

Walking around the mound, I noticed this beautiful stone building and of course, the sheep in the background. Sheep are everyplace in both Ireland and Scotland. The wall behind the structure has beautiful vines growing up and along the top. The wall is old but not ancient.

This is probably one of the most famous of the New Grange stones, and the one reproduced in the gates.

A lintel stone is found above this carved stone, and the sun is peeking over the mound. I can’t help but wonder how this stone is different and the significance of the lintel. What did this mean to the builders?

This looks to be a drainage area which is probably part of the reason this tomb has stayed dry for 5000+ years.

The top of the passageway mound.

The function of the free-standing rocks on the site is unknown.  None of the stones are native to the area.

Of course, this site is mowed today, but originally, goats, sheep or other domesticated animals would have been their lawnmowers. There may have originally been so many people that little vegetation grew, but today, these daisies have escaped the mower. They speak to me of the women who were obviously present.

Small standing stones.

The entrance to New Grange today, showing the wall, the stones and a few people in profile. I couldn’t help but think that this scene probably wasn’t too different from what our ancestors saw some 5000 years ago, in this exact same location. People walking between the stones to the entrance. Perhaps at that time, festivities and a procession would have surrounded the anxiously awaited solstice morning – or maybe the site was sacred – reserved only for the holy people who would report to the rest if the sun’s light once again struck the back wall in the chamber.

Did these people think that the solstice sun connected them with their ancestors, or perhaps that the solstice sun was a sign from the ancestors? A promise once again of the warming of the earth? Was this passageway also the passageway between worlds?

New Grange from a distance. The entrance to the passage tomb is to the right, by the standing stones.

I’m so grateful that this area remained undeveloped.

Rescue

And because my adventures in life never seem to be complete without rescuing something – a Goldcrest, the smallest bird in Ireland, flew into the window of the tourist center, which is actually a small building away from the mound. Poor thing. Another man, a young farmer from Virginia, and I rescued the bird and I explained to the employee what to do for the stunned bird.

For those who don’t know, I spent years as a volunteer (licensed) wildlife rehabilitator. For a stunned bird, with no obvious injuries, you simply put it into a dark place, like a grocery bag or box, and let it rest for an hour or so. Generally, they will recover enough to leave, or die, or will need treatment for injuries. The employee promised to do so, which was all I could do for the bird in that time and place. I hope it survived. Based on my experience, it stood a pretty good chance.

Interpretive Center

The visitor center for both Knowth and New Grange includes an interpretive center with a nice movie, restrooms, a snack bar and gift shop.

I’m not generally crazy about gift shops, but they do support the site and this one had some really unique offerings.

I loved this green man journal, but it was heavy! I needed something lighter, so I bought a scarf with the images of the stone carvings which I may use in a quilt.

In the interpretive center, I thought this display was simply beautiful. I would like to have those fabrics! Just saying!

This lovely artwork was created by students.

You really get to know someone after several days in a car together. Brian bought me three lovely gifts as he waited in the cafeteria area while I was traipsing around the sacred sites. Amazingly, exactly what I wanted – books – and a CD to watch when I get back home. Brian is not your typical tour guide. He purchased something else for a former client during our 4-day adventure, as well. I’ll be writing about Brian separately, so be sure to stay tuned.

Now, it’s off to Tara, about 45 minutes away, by car.

The Road to Tara

On the road to Tara, Brian knew of a wonderful quaint cottage type of farm. This farm is different than the rest, but every bit as interesting.

This person seems to like to collect old farm equipment. There are pumps and tractors and other things scattered about the place, creating a very unique ambience.

An older, thatched roof type of cottage adjoins a newer addition.

I particularly like the fact that they utilize the top of their rock wall as a planter.

Next, Brian and I stopped at the local pub for lunch. I’ve been subsisting on soup and bread since I arrived, by choice, as both are wonderful. Their vegetable soup here is much more creamy than ours and the vegetables in the soup are more or less pureed. However, in this case, those mushrooms with garlic dip just won the day.

Love these tables in this pub.

Brian asked me if I would be interested in stopping at a quaint little cottage type shop? He didn’t really need to ask. As if I needed convincing, he mentioned that the shop offered a lot of hand made items, and maybe she had quilt fabric too.

Unlike most older farmhouses, which are located within feet of the road, this house was down a long lane.

Look at that old tree which has probably stood sentinel for hundreds of years and seen many generations come and go.

I didn’t know quite what to expect.

This beautiful old home is packed to the gills with woven works and other items hand made by local artisans.

The owner, Mison Fullam, demonstrated weaving. I’ve always been fascinated by weaving, but quilters brains and weaver’s brains don’t work the same way – although both are fascinated by each other’s work.

There isn’t a sign, but the shop is Boyne Valley Wools and Mison told us the story of the Leck family homestead. This house belonged to her husband’s family for generations.

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and today was one of those days.

I walked up to an incredible piece of artwork, a limited edition print by Colette Gough (collettegough@hotmail.com), picked it up, and knew I had to have it. Thank goodness it was affordable. I would share, but it’s copyrighted.

I turned the print over, looking for the price, and noticed what was written on the back.

“Found on Bettystown beach by school children, the Tara brooch is believed to have belonged to the High King of Ireland as it is so ornate and also the elongated pin. It is now housed at the National Museum.”

The Tara Brooch. I had never heard of it before, but it was utterly stunning and perfect in every way, and the print looks like it belongs in the Book of Kells. Better yet, it seems to be associated with my ancestors. Something tangible that was actually theirs? Opinions vary – but regardless, both the art and the brooch are incredible.

I took the photo above, of the brooch itself, the next day after stumbling into it by accident at the National Museum. However, the sign below that I spotted when exiting the museum shows the colors much more vividly.

I can’t even begin to explain how utterly stunning this brooch is, nor how much I’d love to have a replica, maybe as a hair barrette?

Brian decided to wait outside and made a discovery of his own.

I walked outside of the shop and noticed that Brian was giving me the thumbs up sign. Curious, I walked over to see what he was looking at, and aside from sheep, an old cemetery was located behind the wall.

You know, I think this genealogy bug is infecting Brian too!

Private family cemeteries are rather unusual in Ireland, as most of the Irish are Catholic and Catholics are buried in consecrated land, in churchyards. This part of Ireland was (and is) heavily Catholic, with the Protestant faction being focused in Northern Ireland in the Ulster Plantation area.

Mison graciously invited us into the cemetery and gave us a tour.

The cemetery is in poor repair, although the family is working to remedy that situation. The sheep have actually helped immensely. It was previously overgrown with briers, and now you can at least walk relatively unobstructed.

This old tree reminds me of a Druid tree. What stories it must have. You can see some cut wood in the background. Hurricane Ophelia last week was not kind to the trees.

One person wrote their entire family history of this stone. Why can’t my relatives do this?

And of course, there has to be a mystery. In this case, a large crypt of a Finnegan man that the family has absolutely no idea why is buried here.

It was time to depart, but not before we noticed the bridge over…nothing, apparently.

On down the road, we noticed another wonderful stone house, with a miller’s stone, an antique car and geese. Those dogs are the friendliest watchdogs ever. One crawled through the fence to be petted. Don’t tell my grandpuppies I was cheating with another dog.

I guess those geese didn’t lay enough eggs today.

Remember the thatched roof house in the early morning fog? We passed it again, and I realized that the thatching was truly unique.

Can you see the pattern? Notice the woven bird on the top right of the crest of the roof.

Tara isn’t far down the road, another of the megalithic mound neighborhood built along the Boyne River, about 45 minutes by car from New Grange.

Thankfully, the site of Tara itself is somewhat protected, but beneath Tara a few shops celebrate the mystical origins of Tara itself.

The Tara gatekeepers, perhaps?

Tara

Before we get there, I have to warn you. Brian explained that Tara is not one of the most exciting sites for tourists. Many have expectations that Tara is much like New Grange, but it isn’t. For the most part, Tara is unexcavated and still in its original condition. The part that has been excavated has been returned to a natural state, so there are no passage graves that you can enter, interpretive center, walkways or anything like that.

In essence, it’s a very large field, albeit a very special field.

The 100-acre site is now government owned, and free, but also virtually unprotected with no government employee presence. That means it’s visually not as striking with little WOW factor, comparatively speaking. Therefore, many visitors are disappointed.

Brian was afraid I might be disappointed as well, but I attempted to convey to him the extent of my insanity as a genealogist.

Brian’s probably saying to himself, “Oy, no wonder her husband didn’t come with her!”

Well, Brian will have a few stories to add to his repertoire after this week too. I wonder if as I write this, on another continent, if Brian is regaling this week’s tourists with stories about the crazy Tara lady😊

This map created about 1900 by William Wakeman shows the layout of the site, including Rath-Laoghaire at the bottom which is the Niall of the Nine Hostages mound.

Beyond the mound, in the center of the barrows, stands the stone known as the Lia Fail, literally “stone of Ireland” in Gaelic, also known as the “stone of destiny,” where the High Irish Kings were crowned. It has previously been vandalized and is now cemented in place.

The stone is reportedly imbued with magical powers of various descriptions and is said to roar with joy when the rightful king puts his feet on the stone.

By Alison Cassidy – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50403087

This aerial photo shows the gift shop area in the bottom left, the church, and behind the church to the right, the mound of Niall of the Nine Hostages which is the oldest known structure of this type in Ireland.

Tara, like other sacred sites, is located on a vista, high above the surrounding countryside.

Unlike other sites, there are no visitor walkways or paths, except for those worn into the soil by the feet of visitors who enter through a gate and simply walk across a field and up a hill, past the church dedicated to St. Patrick.

It was very common for the early Christian churches to “adopt” Pagan sites in an effort to draw the pagan people into the church.

If that didn’t work, they hoped to disrupt their pagan sites and rituals.

A statue of St. Patrick holding a shamrock stands guard near the church today, as well, looking only slightly out of place.

Passing the church and statue, the vista of the open field greets visitors as they emerge from the treed area surrounding the church. The rolling hills, which aren’t hills at all but ancient earthworks, begin. The sides of the barrows are steep and the grass is long and slippery even without mist or rain. No mowing occurs here.

The first sacred site encountered is the mound of Niall of the Nine Hostages. In early times, rival kings, or those who wished to be king, would send one of their sons, preferably their first-born who was in line to be heir and therefore more “valuable” than the rest, to be a hostage. Hostage in this sense means that the son lived with the actual king instead of his parents in order to discourage the rival kings or king-wannabes from attacking the king, knowing their son lived there and would likely be killed.

Niall took hostages from all 9 of his (potential) rivals from the various provinces of Ireland, or Ireland and Scotland, depending on the source .

The inside of this passage mound does have spiral carved rocks at the entrance, but it’s not open to the public and would not be tall enough to enter upright.

I was able to obtain a photo by slipping the camera inside the grate. When excavated in the 1950s, this passage was full of human remains, nearly to the ceiling, with burials occurring contiguously for more than 1500 years.

The items above are a few of the things excavated in the tomb.

Leaving the mound and turning towards the field, you can see the stone of destiny standing in the distance, at left, on the horizon.

Tara is a massive site, and would have been crowded with people when a new king was crowned.

I followed the path, cut into the grassy plain by the pilgrims’ feet that came, and went, before me, in modern times.

The silence and remoteness today belies the hubbub of those ancient feast and festival days. If you listen carefully, you can hear their voices in the wind.

In the center of the plateau on top of the hill, among mounds and barrows, undulating like Neolithic snakes across the land, we climb to the highest point and the stone of destiny where the kings of Ireland were crowned.

I tried, but the stone didn’t speak for me.

Looking outward from the stone, you can see the valley in the distance as the sun drifts toward the horizon.

In the photo above, the Tara fairy tree is directly under the sun.

What’s a fairy tree?

Fairy trees, generally Hawthorne’s, represent a location for pilgrims to leave items or relics representing prayers in sacred places, often for healing.

Some of these are heartbreaking – in particular, things like prayers written on baby bibs tied to the tree.

Tara is large and it took quite a while to thoughtfully walk the entire area. It’s also very hilly, with steep barrows surrounding the higher areas. At one time, these barrow rings, would have offered protection.

Circling back, we see the Niall of the Nine Hostages mound again. On the horizon, you can see this mound from almost anyplace on the site, which means this mound has inadvertently become the gatekeeper. The church which does have a steeple is obscured in the trees when viewed from Tara and is located between this mound and the road. Thankfully the trees obscure almost everything modern.

As I turn to say goodbye to Tara, knowing I will never return to this land of my ancestors in my lifetime, I’m struck by the soft mysticism that connects this landscape with my bloodline, with my family DNA, with those who trod this land so long ago, pioneers on this timeless landscape. I am here because of these people. They are part of me. My history.

No Brian, I wasn’t disappointed. My heart sang. I leave part of my soul here on the hill of Tara.

I began the day in the mist and the fog, and I end it the same timeless way, with the sun descending over the Niall of the Nine Hostages mound – feeling the spirits of my ancestors speaking across more than 5500 years, on an emerald green grassy plateau in Ireland, far distant from modern life, yet inextricably connected through the silvery spider web of time.

24 thoughts on “The Sacred Boyne Valley – Knowth, New Grange and Tara – 52 Ancestors #171

  1. Thanks for the lovely tour! I feel like I have been there now.

    P.S. I think your spellcheck interfered and turned wooden henges into wooden hinges 🙂

  2. Hi,Roberta.Fascinated by your blog.Discovered recently that my mother’s mother’s father’s father’s father my great great great grandfather William Macken born Pembrokeshire 1771 died 1853 had Irish parents-born Ireland circa 1745-James Macken and Ann O’Neil.They must have moved to Wales about 1770. Greatgreatgrandfather Richard Macken’s sister married a Patrick Kelly.Her daughter also Eliza married a Thomas ,went to Ireland and later emigrated to Australia.

  3. Roberta, it’s all too beautiful for words! Except yours, of course, which are perfect and a delight to read. So glad that you devote the time and effort to tell the tales of these places, and your ancestors. Thanks so much!

  4. What a wonderful recap of your ancient Ireland tour. I was just at these sites (and the Rock of Cashel) in September and felt much the way you describe walking in the footsteps of our ancestors. It’s a moving experience that you captured so well. Thank you for sharing with us.

  5. Wow! Though I had just opened up National Geographic. I have always been fascinated with corbelled arches and the fact they do not come tumbling down. Now I cannot wait to google Knowth.com for new discoveries. Many thanks!

  6. Oh my…..Roberta, when I first saw the picture of the gate with the artisan crafted spirals and then the perfectly carved spirals on the face of the stones at Grange, I immediately thought of your beautiful labyrinth. Your right, Niall is with you….

  7. Thank you, Roberta. That was a beautiful journey through an area I will never visit in person. Thank you for sharing.

  8. Wonderful photos, Roberta. I’m 70% Irish, but have never been there, so your interpretation and showing of my “homeland” is a treat. That gnarly tree is awesome. Thanks!
    P.S. Thanks also for sharing your knowledge of birds. I do birding as well as genealogy. 😉

    • I did another bird rescue this morning. Flew into the window. Just released it and it flew away fine. Spent a couple hours in the cat carrier (minus the cats of course) in the dark. So glad it’s alright. We “know” our birds around here.

  9. Roberta, I loved going on your tour with you. I have always felt an affinity with Ireland and according to DNA I am 27% Irish. I will probably never get to go there so thank you so much for sharing with us. I had to laugh when you showed the picture of you standing by the stone of destiny and said it didn’t speak to you as I would have done the same thing.

  10. I think we are related. I have a Y-STR match, GD of 7 at 67 markers, with a man whose ancestor is the Rev. George McNeill (1720-1804). I match several other McNeils/McNeills/, O’Neils, and other variations of the name. My closest matches on the Big Y are with an O’Neill and a Neal, on the A5386-A5390 block, a subclade of M222. If you are interested in contacting me, I will send you my email.
    Jim Wilson

  11. I don’t have any Irish in my pedigree chart, but I really like to read about your trip anyway. Maybe I should propose my friend who have some Irish ancestors to go there in a few years from now…

  12. As everyone said, a beautiful travelogue! Thank you for sharing with us all. I have been to Scotland and it has the same feelings of family history long ago. I too have Irish ancestry and my friend who is very Irish wants to visit there, so hopefully off we will go soon!

  13. I have enjoyed your trip to Ireland so very much! I love your writing and photographs. I am primarily Scandinavian but the 25% of me that is Irish loves that country somewhat unreasonably. Perhaps a Viking captured my ancestor from Ireland and I miss my homeland. Thanks for your wonderful travelogue.

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