The Boyne Valley Drive
"Boyne Valley Drive" - signs guiding you onwards on the route through Ireland's East, mainly the county of Meath, are many. But also occasionally far between. And the unsuspecting motorist might just be wondering what Irish road trip is advertised here. In a nutshell, it is a fairly easy route through what occasionally is dubbed "Ireland's Valley of the Kings" (a moniker that has me guffawing at times). Which takes in some of the most important megalithic and medieval monuments, plus an almost mythical battle site. It can all be done in a day, but if you feel the need to explore many of the attractions on the way, you should maybe split the drive into several day trips (or a few days on the route). So let us have a look at the course and the attractions of the Boyne Valley Drive, which traditionally starts in Drogheda.
Drogheda - Medieval Town at the Mouth of the Boyne
The town of Drogheda, nestling at the banks of the Boyne just before the river flows into the Irish Sea (and thus at the most Eastern end of the Boyne Valley Drive), is a bit of a curate's egg to me - not beautiful and/or historic enough to really recommend it as a must-see, but certainly holding some treasures. Like the mediaeval St. Laurence's Gate, old churches, fine Georgian architecture, and (of course) the head of Saint Oliver Plunkett.
This holy man we will encounter again at the very western end of the Boyne Valley Drive. But the question from Drogheda should be - clockwise or anti-clockwise, deosil or widdershins? I suggest clockwise, mainly because the one monument that really requires some time is reached faster. But first, let's see where two kings of England slugged it out.
Site of the Battle of the Boyne at Oldbridge
In 1690, King William III approached Dublin from the north and trying to avoid the fortified town of Drogheda decided to force his way across the river Boyne at Oldbridge. Which was so logical a decision that King James II decided to stop the march of the Dutch upstart right there. But the Williamite army won the day, with the Jacobites fleeing in disarray (the king himself outpacing all others, it is said). While the Battle of the Boyne was neither decisive nor really remarkable in the overall scheme of things, it is enshrined in Loyalist mythology forever.
The battlefield itself was allowed to go to seed, as was the Oldbridge Estate - until finally a museum was placed in the renovated great house, and the battlefield was landscaped into a park-like area that can be easily explored by visitors. Many of which come from "up north", with a preference for the color orange. Recommended for all interested in history, though a short walk around might suffice for the more casual visitor. Because a time-intensive highlight awaits in the form of ancient tombs.
Brú na Bóinne
Most of the delights the Brú na Bóinne, the "Bend of the Boyne", has to offer are only accessible by guided tour starting from the visitor centre - slots for which tend to fill up fast during the high season. And even if you get a convenient slot right when you arrive, the tours literally take hours if you want to see both Newgrange and Knowth (Dowth is freely accessible, but at the visitor centre you are on the wrong side of the Boyne for that). And even though Newgrange might just be more modern than you think, it certainly is one of the top things to see when in Ireland.
So yes, make time for this and if possible see both Newgrange and Knowth, though this will eat into the hours.
For the very hasty ones, leaving the properly signposted Boyne Valley Drive is an alternative - from the Boyne battle site take the N51 west, turn off onto the L1607 and follow this to Dowth (which you can explore), then onwards (take a left at the T-junction, where the L1607 proper turns right) past Newgrange - where you are not allowed to park, and where a tall wall impedes the view just a bit. Knowth will be virtually invisible, though.
Head on towards Navan, a crossroads town on the drive, and follow the directions south from there, towards Tara.
The Hill of Tara
Do not expect too much when the Boyne Valley Drive reaches the famed Hill of Tara simply because its fame has led to a lot of hype, and the reality often does not live up to the expectations of the visitors. They come to see the Banqueting Hall, Cormac's House, the Rath of the Synods, and the Mound of the Hostages. What they get is a more or less natural landscape dotted with a high amount of impressive earthworks, but no actual buildings (if one ignores the encroaching church, now a visitor centre and the small cluster of café, bookstore, and artist's studio besides the Hill of Tara).
Tara is more of a mental experience, and as visitor numbers can be mental in the busy season between May and August, it is best explored in quieter times. April is recommended as the grass is still fresh and green.
But why should you visit at all? All the hype about the "High Kings of Tara" (which would be responsible for the "Ireland's Valley of the Kings" nonsense) might be a reason, as would be the splendid view over several counties, and it is a great walk too (very bracing at times). Leaving all that aside, Tara is part of the Boyne Valley Drive, it is one of the iconic locations of Ireland, and everybody should see it at least once. That's my opinion even if you might come away with a shrug. And head for the more tangible heritage of Trim.
Trim Castle and More
Even though Trim has a number of attractions for the medievalist, the one must-see is right there in the centre of the town, conveniently situated right next to the Boyne, and (though partly in ruins) an impressive reminder what was meant by Anglo-Norman rule. Trim Castle. Here the de Lacys built one of Ireland's strongest, most imposing castles, to rule their possessions (which included Meath and, as protectors, Dublin). And the castle still has one message - don't mess with us, we are here to stay!
Granted, this is not your fairytale castle, this is a stout fortress built to defend. Also to impress, but not in some "let's add a picturesque turret here" way. More like "if they breach this wall, the next one will be their downfall". the castle can be visited, and a guided tour through the massive central tower is a treat. With a view to kill for.
If you have some time to spend in Trim, also explore the ruins at Newtown Trim just a short distance downstream, or a bit further the splendid Bective Abbey. You'll be hard-pressed to find so many diverse mediaeval ruins in one place again, so better make the most of it. The carry on towards the Hill of the Witch.
Loughcrew and Oldcastle
At the most westerly end of the Boyne Valley Drive, the cairns on Loughcrew are one of the most spectacular sites in Ireland most tourists never see. Because they are out of the way, and they are not that easily accessible. Mainly because it is a fair old walk up to them. The whole megalithic cemetery is on hilltops that command an impressive view across Counties Meath and Cavan, in fair weather right to the Mourne Mountains and the Irish Sea. An easily accessible alternative is the viewing point at Patrickstown (there is no town here, just a small car park).
But Loughcrew proper needs you to get your hiking shoes on and do a bit of hillwalking - climbing is not involved, but you should be moderately fit and have good shoes. The reward are passage graves in a unique location, many with megalithic rock art to rival Brú na Bóinne. And you can get the key to the main cairn at Loughcrew Gardens, where you can also see the ancestral church of Saint Oliver Plunkett (in ruins, but still worth a look). Told you we would be getting back to him.
And no more so than at Oldcastle, where the Catholic St Brigid's Church just outside the town centre has a relic in the form of a leg bone - and a fine window from the studios of Harry Clarke, depicting the saint himself. We are now at the extreme end of the drive and turn back towards Kells.
The name of the town of Kells is most often combined with "The Book of ...", but that is held in Trinity College Dublin, and budget restraints have even scuppered the presentation of a facsimile copy in Kells proper. But the town is still well worth a visit. Again, mediaeval heritage abound.
Right at the top of the hill, which is the centre of town, you will find a fine old church (St. Columba's) with a separate bell tower and next to it not only a splendid round tower but also a number of high crosses. A short walk through the churchyard will leave you virtually infused with Early Christian heritage, and a look at the nearby St. Colmcille's House, actually a very early church building, will deepen this feeling.
The bad side? Finding a convenient parking space can be a drag, try near the SuperValu and the Garda station for a quick result. Then follow the signs further along the Boyne Valley Drive for Mellifont Abbey.
Once you find Mellifont Abbey (the signposting can be a bit erratic here), you will agree with the founders that this is a great place to live. This was, after all, the first monastery of the Cistercians in Ireland. They were brought here in 1142 by St. Malachy, mainly to bring some order to ecclesiastical life. Irish monasticism was markedly different from the European mainstream, and Malachy (a friend of St. Bernard of Clairvaux), modernized it. The monastery was, however, dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539.
Much of Mellifont Abbey was destroyed or converted in the intervening years - today the octagonal lavabo (where monks washed their hands before meals) is the most impressive remnant of the erstwhile splendor. The chapterhouse has a vaulted ceiling and some fine glazed tiles, they are medieval and were once used for the abbey church. Wandering through the expansive ruins gives you a feeling for the place, though this may be less inspiring then Mellifont would have been in its heyday.
Which, incidentally, came after the heyday of another monastery nearby, namely our last stop on the Boyne Valley Drive, Monasterboice.
Blink and you'll miss the entrance to the car park. Monasterboice is certainly in a secluded place - St. Buite, an obscure Irish monk, and a follower of St. Patrick chose the place in the 6th-century to get away from it all. This solitude later developed into a monastic community, complete with two churches and a round tower. The latter is still impressive, albeit lacking its conical cap.
The real focus of attention should, however, be on two high crosses found here. The Tall Cross (or West Cross) is the (nomen est omen)tallest high cross in existence, standing at an impressive 21 feet. Unfortunately, it also has been carved from stone not very resistant to the elements, the carvings are withered. But just a few yards away you will find Muiredach's Cross - named after its sponsor, commemorated in an inscription. The 18 feet high cross (not bad for second place either) consists of three parts and is complete. Most of the carvings are still well-defined and identifiable - amongst them a crucifixion scene, a "Last Judgement", the passion, the adoration of the magi, Moses smiting a rock, David smiting Goliath, and even the fall of man. The whole bible in an Irish nutshell.