Giant’s Causeway, Bushmills, County Antrim, Northern Ireland

Looking out over the Middle Causeway at sunset.

For our last stop of the day, we made our way from Monasterboice, over the invisible border to Northern Island, through Belfast, and along the island’s northern coast. Thanks to the M-1, we reached our destination well before nightfall.Giant’s Causeway, a natural formation of thousands of basalt, mostly hexagonal columns along the Antrim Coast, is one of Ireland’s three UNESCO World Heritage sites and the only one located in Northern Ireland. It must be reached on foot, but the walk is a pleasant and brief half-mile or so from the parking lot.

Giant’s Causeway consists of three peninsular outcroppings of increasing size which are appropriately dubbed the Little, Middle, and Grand Causeways. Woven into and around the site are still more evocatively named natural features, including Aird’s snout, the Wishing Chair, the Organ, Chimney Stacks, and Giant’s Gate.

According to legend, the causeway was constructed by the Irish warrior and giant, Finn MacCool, so that he could combat his Scottish counterpart, Benandonner. However, upon discovering that Benandonner far surpassed him in size and strength, MacCool retreated to his home where he disguised himself as a baby. When Benandonner crossed the causeway, he found only the Irish giant’s wife and what appeared to be their very large offspring. Thinking that the father of such a child must be enormous, Benandonner retreated back to his homeland. A slightly different version of the myth is also the subject of the opening sequence of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 3 (2002).

In reality, the closely packed, nearly uniform columns were formed around 60 million years ago when Tholeiitic basalt lava cooled, shrank, and cracked into polygonal shapes beneath the ground’s surface. Much later, at the end of the Ice Age, sea ice eroded away the upper layers of earth to reveal the rock formations beneath.

Panorama of the Middle and Grand Causeways by Joshua Albers, May 24, 2013
Photo by Joshua Albers, May 24, 2013

Giant’s Gate and Aird’s Snout
The Organ
Chimney Stacks

Aird’s Snout
Wishing Chair, Middle Causeway

All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 24, 2013, unless otherwise stated.

Monasterboice, County Louth, Republic of Ireland

About seven centuries and 8.5 miles of country roads separate Old Mellifont Abbey from our next stop. The ancient monastic settlement of Monasterboice (Mainistir Bhuithe, or “monastery of Buithe”) was probably founded in the late 5th or early 6th centuries by St. Boyne (St. Buithe), a follower of St. Patrick whose name is now shared by the nearby river and valley. It was an important religious and intellectual center of Celtic Christianity until Mellifont Abbey and the Cistercian order displaced it in the 12th century. Now primarily a cemetery encircled by a low, stone wall, the site includes the remains of two small churches, an imposing but topless round tower, and enormous, heavily decorated Celtic crosses. From a distance, however, these features tend to be subtly camouflaged amongst the cemetery’s full trees and more recent gravestones. Across the street, a gleaming field of bright yellow rapeseed abuts the parking lot.

Monasterboice’s three medieval High Crosses date from the 10th century. Composed of a circle—representing the sun—overlaying the upper portion of a Roman cross, Celtic crosses are tangible examples of the syncretism that occurred between native traditions and the foreign import of Christianity. Like most religious art of the middle ages, their carvings served a didactic purpose and may have been brightly painted for better legibility. No traces of polychromy now exist, however, so theories concerning their original appearance remain purely speculative.

The North High Cross with reconstructed base, Monasterboice.

The North cross, standing closest to the road, is the simplest, most inconspicuous, and most damaged of the three. Only the upper portion of the original, with a central image of Christ, remains.

The West, or Tall, High Cross, with round tower and church (c. 14th century)

The West cross, located closest to the round tower and the ruins of one of the site’s two later churches, is the tallest of the group at 21 ft. Carvings of biblical scenes and abstract patterns envelope its surface, although the details of the figures have largely worn away.

Muiredach’s Cross

Nearby stands Muiredach’s Cross, known for its particularly fine and well-preserved carvings featuring scenes from the life of Christ and the Old Testament. It is named for the inscription at its base, which (according to my DK guide) reads: “A prayer for Muiredach by whom this cross was made.” Despite standing at an impressive 18 ft., Muiredach’s Cross seems almost squat next to the slim, taller forms of the Western cross and round tower.

Even without its roof, the site’s 10th or 11th century round tower stands at 110 ft., although it was once significantly taller. Burials raised the ground level of the cemetery, and as a result the tower’s entrance appears to float just above the earth. When it was first constructed, the same opening would have been installed at least 15 feet up, reachable only by ladder.

Narrow, free-standing structures, round towers were used for both storage and protection against Norse invaders, but were only partially effective in either case. In 1097, Monasterboice’s tower went up in flames, and the medieval manuscripts it contained were destroyed.

Muiredach’s Cross, foreground

All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 24, 2013.

Old Mellifont Abbey, County Louth, Republic of Ireland

The 13th century lavabo at Old Mellifont Abbey once contained a fountain for monks to wash their hands.

The ruins of Old Mellifont Abbey lie only 10-15 winding miles from Brú na Bóinne, but attract far fewer visitors. According to Heritage Ireland, a small entrance fee is required. However, the site is open and I must admit that we, not realizing admission was expected, skipped the visitor center and went in for free.

Although the original Anglo-Norman complex was once one of the most magnificent structures in the country and housed, at its peak, around 400 monks, it is now almost completely reduced to ruin. For an imaginative visitor, the foundation is left to map the extensive edifice, while the remaining walls of the octagonal lavabo (washing house) evoke its former grandeur.

Mellifont’s claim to fame rests dually on the unusual, partially preserved lavabo and on its status as the first Cistercian abbey in Ireland. This latter fact is of both religious and architectural historical importance, for with the introduction of a more formal, continental monastic order came a more formal, continental monastic architecture. Mellifont therefore represents the entrance point in Ireland for a style of medieval architecture that, in structure and format, already dominated in Western Europe.

Mellifont (literally, “honey fountain”) traces its origins to the mid-12th century, when Archbishop (later, Saint) Malachy invited over a group of conservative monks from Clairvaux, France in the hope that their presence would encourage less scandalous behavior in the local orders. Finding themselves unwelcome, the French monks returned home before the abbey’s completion. Yet their brief presence was apparently more influential than their departure. Not only did the construction of Mellifont continue, but several more Cistercian abbeys quickly sprung up around it. Eventually, Mellifont served as the central motherhouse for 21 lesser monasteries.

After centuries of influence and power, Mellifont was demolished in the 1500s following the Dissolution of the Monasteries. In 1556, Edward Moore built a fortified manor house using the abbey’s scavenged remains. William of Orange used the location as his headquarters during the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The site was finally abandoned in 1727.

All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 24, 2013.

Newgrange, Brú na Bóinne, County Meath, Republic of Ireland

After the tour of Knowth, our little group of eight-ish piled into the van and headed back to the rendezvous lot, where we would transfer to another vehicle bound for Newgrange. While the group to Knowth hardly filled a fourth of the van that carried us there, the group to Newgrange could barely fit into two of the same large buses. This disparity in popularity is emblematic of the sites’ relative fame. Between its gleaming wall of quartz and re-enactment of the winter solstice, Newgrange nearly sparkles with tourist readiness and appeal, but loses the intimacy and relative freedom offered by its older neighbor.

Reconstructed quartz and granite retaining wall, Newgrange

The site consists of a solitary great mound, although smaller satellite graves are visible in the fields across the road.

Small satellite mounds across the road from Newgrange

Unlike the primary mounds at both Knowth and Dowth, the tomb at Newgrange contains just one chambered passage, which visitors may enter as part of a guided group. Photography is not allowed inside the tomb, but professional images are readily available on the web, including World Heritage Ireland’s official website.

Newgrange’s interior provides a sense of what the similarly chambered “female” passage at Knowth must have looked like before later changes made it largely impassible. The long narrow tunnel is lined with decorated slate standing stones and opens into a wider room bordered by three niches which once contained cremated remains and burial offerings. The original corbelled ceiling stands intact at a height of about 20 feet.

Entrance to the Newgrange passage with decorated kerbstone and roof box

But perhaps Newgrange’s most impressive feature is the play of light that occurs on the winter solstice. From outside, a second, smaller opening is visible above the entrance. Due to the gradual upward slope of the interior passage, this same opening is actually parallel to the floor of the chambered room. Normally this relationship is imperceptible, and the chamber—at least when empty of tourists—remains pitch black. However, for a few days around the winter solstice a beam of light finds its way through the upper passage and falls across the northern niche, lighting the room for a few brief minutes at sunrise. The site offers a lottery each year to allow a small number of visitors the opportunity to experience this phenomenon in person. For those of us not lucky enough to be among the chosen, the tour recreates an abbreviated but still impressive version using artificial light.

Decorated kerbstones, Newgrange

Outside, Newgrange offers a small number of intricately decorated and well-preserved kerbstones. Chief among these is the impressive (and well photographed) entrance stone. Entrance stones are common features of passage tombs, and tend to be large enough to make entry difficult but not impossible. They were probably intended to demarcate the boundary of the tomb, signifying the divide between the dead and the living, the sacred and the profane.

View of Knowth

All photographs by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 24, 2013, unless otherwise stated.

Knowth, Brú na Bóinne, County Meath, Republic of Ireland

Knowth, Brú na Bóinne, County Meath, Ireland. Panorama by Joshua Albers, May 24, 2013.

At the end of May, Josh and I took an eight day trip to Ireland. We emerged, windswept and damp, with over 5,000 photographs, which I have since whittled down to more reasonable, post-sized selections.

The art and history of Ireland are outside my particular expertise, so the information included in these posts has been culled from guidebooks (DK and Lonely Planet), related websites, our many lovely guides, and a variety of materials provided at the sites themselves.

Passage tombs at Knowth

Our first day outside of Dublin began at Brú na Bóinne, one of the island’s three UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The valley of Brú na Bóinne contains three Neolithic centers—Knowth, Newgrange, and Dowth—each of which possesses a great mound (large passage tomb) and smaller satellite graves. Only Knowth and Newgrange are open to visitors, and these are only accessible through tours provided by the visitor center. Such stringent oversight is unusual in Ireland, but it allows for better preservation of these important, fragile monuments.

Decorated kerbstones at Knowth
Satellite tomb at Knowth

Knowth is the first stop for those who choose to visit both open sites. Of the three centers, Knowth is the oldest, was utilized for the longest period of time (up to about 1400), and is arguably the most complex.

Knowth’s great mound possesses two entrances (referred to as the “male”/western and “female”/eastern chambers due to their relative shapes), but visitors can only go into a contemporary passage and small exhibition space near the less impressive western passage. Chunks of white quartz and dark, rounded granite are scattered on the ground around both entrances of Knowth, while the same kinds of stones have been reconstructed into supporting walls at Newgrange. This discrepancy is probably more reflective of changes in archaeological practices and philosophy towards reconstruction than a difference in original use and placement at the two mounds.

Entrance to the recently built exhibition space by the western, “male” passage at Knowth
Inside the western passage at Knowth. Photo by Joshua Albers, May 24, 2013.
Entrance to the eastern, “female” passage at Knowth. Photo by Joshua Albers, May 24, 2013.

More importantly, Knowth boasts the largest collection of Megalithic art in Europe, most of which is still in-situ. A good sampling can be found on the slabs, or kerbstones, around the base of the central mound, although much of what exists is located in the primary but inaccessible “female” chamber.

Decorated kerbstones around the primary mound at Knowth

Knowth also differs from Newgrange in that the site includes a number of smaller satellite passage tombs clustered closely around the central mound.

Satellite and primary tombs, Knowth

Inside the entrance to one of several small passage tombs at Knowth (visible concrete added as part of reconstruction)
Satellite tomb overlooking the Boyne Valley, Knowth

Although all passage graves contain cremated human remains, it is likely that the great tombs also had additional, ritualistic functions, as suggested by the fact that their passages were tall enough for people to walk through, and each was lit at either a solstice or equinox.

Knowth and Newgrange were also once sites of woodhenges (reconstructed at Knowth), which post-date the mounds by several centuries. Like the large passages, these henges were arranged to correspond to significant dates in the year’s cycle.

Reconstruction of the woodhenge at Knowth

At both sites, archaeological reconstruction was aided by kerbstones which ring the bottom of most passage tombs; similar large stones line the interior passageways of the primary mounds. Abstract imagery—particularly spirals, circles, and undulating lines—has been engraved into the surfaces of over a hundred of the boulders. It is unclear what, if anything, these “symbols” represent, although they may depict aspects of the landscape, particularly the sun, rivers, hills, and even the mounds themselves.

Decorated kerbstones around the primary mound at Knowth

Stairs climbing the great mound, Knowth 
Wind-whipped Josh on Knowth’s great mound
View of the Boyne Valley from the top of Knowth’s great passage tomb

All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 24, 2013, unless otherwise noted.