It’s hard to describe the Boyne Valley as anything other than the area of County Meath that is near the River Boyne. Major historical sites, monuments, and larger and smaller settlements follow the sometimes meandering, sometimes winding, always beautiful River Boyne. It really, as far as I can gather, doesn’t have distinct boundaries. The 70-mile River Boyne starts its journey from Lough Ramor, or Loch Ramhar, a natural lake just over the border in County Cavan. It flows gently down the entirety of County Meath and out to the Irish Sea. Along the way to it makes some dramatic turns, and it seems, or so to me when looking at a map, that when it changes direction or makes a wide swath, there is an important town or landmark nearby. Slane and Navan are on such turns, and while Kells doesn’t have the dramatic turn of the River Boyne, it is still nestled near a very gradual change. The UNESCO World Heritage Site Bru na Boinne–a pre-historic (Neolithic) burial ground that is older than the pyramids of Egypt (how many outside of Ireland learned about it in school?) is also notably on a bend of Boyne.
The history of the area stretches back many millennium. During the Neolithic or Late Stone Age, about 5,000 years ago, the people of the Boyne Valley built Brú na Bóinne, a ‘palace,’ as it means in Gaelic, of burial tombs in a wonderfully rounded mausoleum, which contain some of the worlds best pre-historic art. There are also around ninety monuments in the surrounding area that show how important this area of Ireland was at that time. The burial areas and ritual monuments continued off and on over the centuries. With the introduction of Christianity to the area in the Fifth Century, an increased amount of activity was seen around Brú na Bóinne. Other pre-historic tombs in the Boyne Valley are Newgrange and Loughcrew.
The area was ruled by the Kings of Mide, or Middle Kingdom until the 12th Century, but some of the ruling families would remain as nobility until 1690 (see below). High Kings of Ireland, men who claimed to rule over the whole of Eire were installed at the Lia Fail, or Stone of Destiny, which is located on the Hill of Tara, halfway between Dunshaughlin and Navan. Tara is an Iron Age oval hilltop of mythological proportions, it is an incredible looking structure and well worth a stop.
Another hill in the Boyne Valley is the Hill of Slane, just to the north of Slane Village. It is easily accessed from the town, though it is rather steep. A roadway to a parking lot outside of the monastic ruin makes it easily accessible. It is believed that in 443AD St. Patrick defiantly proclaimed Christianity over the pagans on the top of the Hill of Slane, by lighting a forbidden fire. High King Laoire forbid anyone to light a fire on a hill while one was burning on the Hill of Tara for ongoing pagan festivals. But he allowed St. Patrick’s fire because he was so impressed by his defiance and devotion to Christianity. St. Patrick might have chosen Slane because of it was a stronghold for pagan rituals. There are two stones in the graveyard that are believed to be pagan standing stones. From the hill there are commanding views of the Boyne Valley.
Catholic monasteries, friaries, abbeys, churches and colleges dot the landscape of Boyne Valley. Round Towers, used by monks during invasions can be seen in every state, from complete to ruins. St. Columba was also prominent in the Boyne Valley and well-known for taking Christianity to Scotland. St. Columcille, as he is known in Ireland, studied in the Clonard Abbey in Boyne Valley. His house, an unusual oblong stone structure is located in Kells. The historic town of Kells has many intricately carved high crosses, and other Christian sights. The Book of Kells was produced here, though it is now located at Trinity College, Dublin.
In the Twelfth Century, Henry II of England made Hugh de Lacey the Lord of Meath after defeating the Gaelic Irish in the Norman wars in Ireland. Ireland remained in the hands of the British until the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in 1921. Castle Trim, the largest Norman Castle in Ireland was built by de Lacey in 1172. Another significant war was the Willimate War in Ireland, which culminated in the legendary Battle of the Boyne (1690), a stone’s throw from Oldbridge, and just east of Slane. The battle sealed the fate of King James II of England and Scotland, who had fled over to Ireland after being hunted down by William of Orange.
Everywhere in the Boyne Valley there is something of interest, stones arranged in patterns, strange hills that looked carved, crosses and round towers appear out of nowhere, and all of it is wrapped in around small villages, green rolling hills doted with dairy cows or sheep, and the majestic Boyne River. It is a place most glorious.