Best Neolithic Site-County Meath, Ireland

Sitting high on a hill in the Boyne Valley sits Newgrange; one of the ancient wonders of the world. It is an amazing place that sets your imagination on fire as it takes you back to a place so old that most people have never seen anything remotely like it before. Built before both the Egyptian Pyramids and Stonehenge; this burial mound is over 5,000 years old, but like a shy maiden you would never guess her age, for she has aged well.

We drove to the site which overlooks this valley carved out of hills with running streams throughout. This place is truly out in the middle of nowhere. Traveling down a steep road we could get glimpses of the massive site through the trees as we neared the Bru na Boinne Visitor Center. Here we bought the tickets necessary to board the bus that takes you to Newgrange itself. But while waiting we viewed depicting life as it was lived so long ago by the Neolithic people. Most exhibits here focus on how the tombs were built, why they were built, and how they were used. The architecture here is superb with glass walls allowing visitors to take in the picture perfect views of the Valley. In addition, there is a small tea room to sit, take a snack, and just enjoy all that surrounds you.

After about 20 minutes of coffee sipping, we boarded the shuttle bus and were taken to Newgrange. I was amazed at the size of the mound which encompasses about an acre. Spying out of the bus windows you see enormous retaining wall that is surrounded by artfully carved kerbstones. There are many standing stones ringing the mound that add a sense of mystery to the place but it seems that they are a newer addition having been placed there sometime in the Bronze Age.

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From the bus we walked quite a way to the entrance where we were met by a guide who described all we could see and would be seeing inside the chamber, which incidentally, only takes up a small part of the over-all site. But by far the most interesting thing about Newgrange is the roof-box which sits directly over the entrance. The Neolithic people designed this narrow space to align with the sun so that on December 21st (Winter Solstice) the first of the sun’s rays pass through the box, extend down the passage and into the chamber. The chamber then lites up and glows for about 15 minutes before being consumed by the darkness once again.  Both burnt and unburnt bone have been discovered here leading researchers to believe that bodies some bodies had been cremated before being placed in the passage.

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This is a place where the spirit and the intensions of the ancient live on. It is a site where hilly ground keeps treasures and secrets buried but still “seen.” It is a place where those who enjoy the mysterious should venture. Newgrange…remember the name!

 

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Ross Errilly Friary-Headford, County Galway, Ireland

This is one of those stories that show the importance of being spontaneous when traveling. We had never even heard of Ross Errilly Friary when we first saw it in the distance as we were traveling to our next hotel in Ireland. It certainly was not on our agenda.

I said to Dave, “Quick. We have got to go there. Turn us around!” Now he wanted to keep going to our hotel but he indulged my whimsical nature and he turned us around: past a few homey looking come-on-in sort of bars, past a dozen or so Irish cows ripping shoots of new green grass from the earth, and eventually following a small narrow road through the outskirts of Headford. As we came closer the enormity of the place became exceedingly apparent. This place is HUGE.

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As we parked and left the car walking towards the Friary we became engaged in a conversation with a gentleman who was removing out-of-place looking fence posts from the place.  Seems a movie had just been shot using the location less than a week ago. Unfortunately, he couldn’t remember the name.

Ross Errilly is a medieval Franciscan friary and is considered to be one of the best preserved monastic relics in the entire country of Ireland. It is believed that the friary was begun somewhere between the mid 1300’s to the mid 1400’s but when the first stone was laid is a mystery to this day.

The sheer size of the bell tower is the first thing that captures your attention as you walk through a small courtyard-like area.

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A small well preserved central cloister with recent burials contained within its walls. The sun reflecting and resulting shadows make this area magical and mysterious. There is also a second cloister located on the grounds.

At the north area of the complex you will find a huge kitchen complete with a water tank which once held live fish for the evening’s supper and enormous ovens. A massive dining room is nearby.

Huge altars dot the inside of the yard and many gravestones can be found littering the walkways, on walls and covering those altars. One can just imagine those movie actors brandishing swords and jumping from stone to stone as they dueled to the end.

Due to political and religious upheaval the Franciscans were forced to abandon the abbey many times during its history but by the end of the 18th century the friary was all but a neglected ruin. By 1866 it has become a well-known site where locals left the remains of the dead without proper burial and mounds of skulls and bones were could be found littered throughout the place.

Today it is operated by the Office of Public Works and is open to the public free of charge.

This one was of the best ruins in Ireland and for some reason it really spoke to my heart. When we arrived it was raining but as soon as we exited the car it stopped and didn’t begin again until we arrived back and hour later. Obviously,  history was kind to us that day and so were the Gods. I am thankful for the discovery it all.

 

A Sport Fit For Kings…School of Falconry

After a short walk past perfectly manicured grounds of Ashford Castle we arrive at the Ireland’s School of Falconry where an elderly gentleman, looking like a character out of Harry Potter, is working with an owl who thinks he is a human. All hawks think this way too, “but they believe they are the superior one in the “relationship,” explains theowner of the school Deborah Knight. While Knight would not part with one of her birds the hawks would unceremoniously dump her for a half a plump chicken leg. For chicken legs are to the hawk like diamonds are to the gold digger and both can never get enough of them. And so this is the most important thing we discover about hawks; they have no sense of loyalty. They do not wish to please nor do they perform out of any sense of affection for the falconer. They only fly and return because they associate the falconer with food. It truly is an one-sided “affair”.

Deborah has been a falconer for over 25 years and is an expert on hawks. Her passion and enthusiasm about “her birds” and the sport of falconry is contagious. Throughout our stay Knight peppers us with tidbits of information. From Knight we learn:

Hawks see in iridescent colors meaning that the world is much more colorful for them than for us

Hawks are the fastest creatures on earth reaching speeds of 234 miles per hour

Hawks pupils are independent of one another which means that they can scope in on one an object while still scanning in the distance with the other eye

 Hawks don’t fly unless they are looking for something to eat

After being introduced all the birds it is time to go on our Hawk Walk. I put on the thick leather glove while Deborah fetches, Uisce, a magnificent Harris hawk. He is a young,handsome and commanding with stout talons and dark feathers which dance in the sunlight. His eyes are dark and twitch constantly as he scans the landscape in a hyper-vigilant sort-of-way .

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As we walk to the hawking grounds I remove Uisce’s jesses which are the leather straps attached to his talons. The bells attached to his leg jingle in anticipation of the hunt. I predict that when Uisce leaves the glove it will feel like a gun recoil. Instead, he pushes away gently, disappearing from sight almost immediately. I place a scrawny chicken leg between my fingers in the glove and wait. The bells give away Uisce’s position as he suddenly appears out of nowhere soaring straight towards me. But its not the way-high-up-in-the-sky kind of soaring but a very low to the ground glide which makes this hawk fly with little effort. Keeping my arm outstretched and steady, Uisce swings upward and alights heavily on my arm. In a split second he grabs his treat and wraps his wings around it (called mantling) to protect it from any creature who thinks they may want it…me included.

We repeat this flight pattern numerous times as we fly through the vast castle grounds learning more with each takeoff and return about how a hawk hunts and maneuvers.  How he does it is fascinating and it makes us somewhat jealous wishing that we too could skim the clouds.

We also barnstorm through the dense forest with Uisce appearing like a ghost out of nowhere, hidden by the trees, until swooping down upon us. Suddenly the bird refuses to return. He has spotted some bicycles nearby and they make him wary of leaving his perch. Finally with the cyclists gone Uisce returns to us feathers ruffled. It is time for him to rest and time for us to take our leave.

If you ever get a chance to participate in some aspect of falconry it is worth your time. You’ll learn so much about the sport and you will never look at these magnificent creatures without a sense of awe.

The School Of Falconry, Ashford Castle, Cong, County Mayo, Ireland

info@falconry.ie