Monday, August 14, 2023

Brú na Bóinne

 (Day ten recap of my late April Ireland trip.)

Our last full day in Ireland!  For the final hurrah, Kim and I had scheduled a trip to view the ancient passage tombs at Brú na Bóinne, a famous archeological find and also designated UNESCO world heritage site.

Tour-mates Debbie, Kim, and Alicia had also decided to stay an extra day.  We'd had so much fun with these ladies, that at first I was sorry I'd booked this trip.  After ten days in Ireland, Kim and I were nearly toured out, and a free day with our new friends sounded like a much better option.  But our Rick Steves guide Pascal said Brú na Bóinne was fantastic and encouraged us to go.  

Empty Dublin streets on a Sunday morning

So we arose the following morning and walked through the now-familiar streets of Dublin to meet up with our tour.  It happened to be Sunday, and the downtown area was deserted.  After enduring shoulder-to-shoulder pedestrian traffic here for two days, this felt weird!  However, the rubbish from a rowdy Saturday night of partying was everywhere.  Trash and broken glass littered the streets and sidewalks.  Our hotel was right across the street from several popular bars, and we'd heard the revelry until the morning's wee hours.

We said hi to Molly Malone

The meet-up location for our tour group was at the Molly Malone statue.  Kim and I had already passed by here on our first night's orientation tour given by Pascal.  He had informed us that it was good luck to touch a certain part of this statue.  A glimpse at Molly's shiny, well-worn bosoms tipped us off as to where this was!  While waiting for our guide to arrive, I got a kick out of watching people walking up to the statue and giving her a caress.  (And I must admit I did the same - who doesn't need a bit of good luck?)

Entering Brú na Bóinne visitor center

A few months ago I'd booked a trip with a local tour group called Hilltop Treks to visit the ancient burial mounts at Brú na Bóinne.  The tour also included stops at Trim Castle and the Hill of Tara.  Well, about a month before our departure, the company emailed me that due to road construction they were changing the itinerary - now we were only touring Brú na Bóinne and nearby Monasterboice Cemetery.  I was a bit disappointed.  One of the reasons I'd booked with this company was because they offered Trim Castle and Hill of Tara tours in addition to the scheduled burial mounds visit.  But afraid if I canceled I wouldn't find another group with openings, Kim and I opted to keep our reservation.

These ancient burial mounds were older than the pyramids!

Before long a white minibus with the words "Hilltop Treks" emblazoned on the side pulled up.  A thin, strange man wearing knee-high leather boots popped out and introduced himself as our guide.  Kim and I squeezed into two seats of this tiny and very cramped minibus.  The vehicle only held 18 passengers and that's exactly the number of people we had.  After riding in a spacious full-size bus all week that was only half full, this was definitely a downgrade.  To top things off, the lady sitting directly in front of us began hacking a deep raspy cough and didn't stop the entire trip.  Kim quickly donned a mask (and in hindsight, I should've too.)

The River Boyne

After everyone had arrived and squeezed inside the van, our guide hopped into the driver's seat and we were off.  The van wound through the streets of Dublin until it hit a main highway.  We traveled through a long tunnel and then a toll road getting out of the city.  It took about 45 minutes before arriving at the Brú na Bóinne visitor center.

A friendly bird who posed for me

After having such a fabulous guide as Pascal for over a week, today's tour guide was an utter disappointment.  He had the personality of a rock and dismal communication skills.  Once everyone had unloaded from the van, our guide simply said "follow me" and took off towards the visitor center.  When we got inside, he left us by the front door and disappeared.  Our group waited for several minutes, not knowing if we could take a bathroom break or not.  Kim peeped through a nearby door to ask him, and he practically snarled at her to stay put.  Finally the guy emerged with our wristbands.  He said we had 45 minutes to check out the visitor's center before our tour began.  He then motioned us to gather round.  When we didn't get close enough for his liking, the guide admonished us to get closer.  He then stressed we had to be at a certain door by 10:35 or we'd miss our tour.  To make sure no one forgot, he wrote the time down on a notebook and had us repeat it several times. (It felt like I was back in kindergarten!)  His final instruction was that when the tour was over, we were to head straight back to the van, no stopping in the visitor center for anything.

Knowth burial mounds

The visitor center was well done.  It explained that Brú na Bóinne was comprised of three sites - Knowth, Newgrange, and Dowth.  In all three places archeologists had discovered ancient passage tombs.  Today's tour would take us to Knowth and Newgrange.  The tombs were over 5,000 years old - older than the pyramids in Egypt!  Kim and I enjoyed looking at all the exhibits, but we hurried our way through.  Our guide had put the fear of god in us.  Not wanting to miss our tour, we made sure to be at the specified door extra early (as did the rest of our group.)

The mounds were fascinating!

When our tour time came, we were ushered out the door, down a series of outdoor walkways and a bridge spanning the River Boyne to a waiting bus.  The bus transported us to our first passage tomb site, Knowth.

Intricate stonework

Once off the bus, our group was handed over to an on-site guide, who led us onto the grounds of Knowth.  This site had one large passage tomb surrounded by several smaller round tombs. 

Sundial outside one of the mounds

The tombs were incredible!  The smaller ones looked like rounded grassy mounds.  They blended well into the green landscape.  Thought to be built in 3,200 BC, our guide told us that all these mounds had been buried over the years, and were recently rediscovered and excavated.

Another burial mound

The largest burial tomb had extensive rock work on its sides.  A wall of small rocks fronted by huge stones encircled the site.  Some of the larger rocks had been inscribed with petroglyphs.

The rocks surrounding some mounds had designs carved into them

We were told the big burial mound had its doorways aligned with the rising and setting sun of the spring and fall equinox.  I thought it was amazing that these primitive peoples had not only figured this out, but were able to build their passages to align perfectly with this seasonal event.

The people give an idea of size

One of the large mound's doorways had a sundial and a large area of white quartz rock on the ground directly outside.  Our guide said that this quartz came from the Wicklow Mountains, over 70 km away.  How these ancient people managed to transport such a large volume of rock so far is just one of the mysteries about this place.

The largest mound had a staircase so visitors could walk on top

Although visitors weren't allowed inside any of these burial chambers, they were allowed to go on top of the largest mound.  For this purpose, a staircase had been built onto one side.  After circling around this tomb, our guide directed us to the path that led to its grassy roof.

The clouds were fantastic that day

On top of the large mound, we were treated to sweeping views of the surrounding green farmland.  A boardwalk led visitors around the tomb's perimeter.  A great place for photos, I took full advantage of my time here.

Kim is ready to go on top of the mound

Again, we lucked out with fabulous weather.  Although the day had started out overcast, during our tour the clouds began to break up.  Blue sky peeped between large, fluffy clouds.  Kim and I both oohed and aahed over the lovely sky.  The clouds were so amazing!  Being on a high point made the sky views even better.

Climbing up....

View from the top

More phenomenal clouds.....

Fabulous views of the surrounding countryside

From this high perch, I even got a nice view of an adjacent smaller burial tomb and the weathered stone building that served as the restroom and visitor center building.

Top view of one burial mound

The last item of interest on our tour of Knowth was a replica of a wooden circle of posts, called a "henge."  Thought to be used as a ritual area, little is known about what activities actually went on here.

Replica of a ceremonial circle or "henge"

Our tour of Knowth took about an hour, and we'd enjoyed every minute.  What an incredible piece of history!

Newgrange burial mound

After our tour of Knowth was over, the group reboarded another bus that took us down a narrow, country road to our next destination, the huge burial chamber called Newgrange.

This mound had white rock on the outside

The most well-known and impressive of the burial chambers at Brú na Bóinne, Newgrange was the star of our tour.  A gigantic, white, stone-faced structure, this particular passage tomb was even more breathtaking in person.

Tomb entrance

As we had at Knowth, our group was assigned a local guide to give us a tour of the site.  She led us up a steep hill and around the side of the mound, until arriving at the tomb entrance.

Another view of the entrance

Although we couldn't walk on top of the Newgrange mound, our tour was allowed inside the burial chamber.  But interior space was extremely tight, so only half of the group could go in at a time.  The guide split our tour into two.  Kim and I were in the second group, so while the first party went inside, we walked around the exterior, taking in the tomb's exquisite rockwork and the fabulous surrounding scenery.

Walking around the perimeter

The exterior was faced with the same Wicklow quartz that we had seen at Knowth.  Again, these ancient people somehow transported all this rock from a far distance to build this tomb.  Newgrange's dimensions were staggering - 279 feet (85 meters) in diameter, 43 feet (13 meters) high, and about one acre in area.

Another stone hut

Looking out towards the adjacent sheep farm, I spotted a low stone hut.  I'm not sure what the hut was used for, or its age, but it was really interesting and made for a great photo op.

The views from here were wonderful

Kim and I wandered the entire perimeter of the passage tomb and then hung out at the entrance, waiting for our turn to go inside.

Close up of the rockwork

When the first group exited, the rest of us lined up by the wooden stairway.  Our guide advised us that the passageway into the chamber was narrow and the floor uneven.  We'd have to wiggle through some of the tighter openings.  She told us to carry our backpacks in our hands and no photography was allowed inside.

Our turn to go inside!

While waiting my turn to go in, I admired the large kerbstones lining the entrance.  Petroglyphs had been carved into some of them.  A man was stationed at the doorway and his job was to make sure no one hit their head entering or exiting the low opening.

Another view of the tomb entrance without people

And inside I went!  It was dark and I had to squeeze through a couple of very tight openings.  One of the larger men in our group had a difficult time.  Not for the claustrophobic!  The passage went back into the tomb for about 60 feet before opening up into a central room.  The room had three smaller chambers off to the sides and was topped by a a 20-foot high stone dome.  It appeared the tomb had been constructed using stacked rocks - no mortar.  Ancient carvings had been hewn into the rock walls of the chamber.

Watching a storm come in

The amazing thing about the Newgrange burial tomb is that it was built with an opening above the doorway oriented so that on the winter solstice a beam from the rising sun shines through this window. The light then enters the central chamber, illuminating it for 17 minutes.  Our guide shut off all the lights and demonstrated this event with her flashlight.  It was a very cool phenomenon to witness.

Such an amazing place!

Kim and I filed out of the tomb, jazzed by what we'd just experienced.  Later we learned tours inside of the Newgrange tomb had just recently been allowed again - they had previously been closed for nearly three years due to COVID.

Selfie after touring inside

Both tours had lasted about an hour each.  So it was well past noon when we finally finished up at Newgrange, and I was hungry.  We were supposed to get lunch at our next stop, so after our tours were done, Kim and I hurried back to the van.  I kind of had to go to the bathroom, but remembering our guide's stern instructions, I dutifully skipped the visitor center.  However once back at the van, we found our group was missing two members.  Everyone waited and waited for the errant people to arrive.  Finally, the man of the couple boarded and said his wife (or girlfriend?) had to stop and have a cigarette.  What???  Here I'd bypassed the bathrooms to get back in time.  Needless to say no one on the bus was very happy with her.  When she finally did show up (reeking of smoke -ugh!) our guide didn't say a word to her.  Kim and I gave her lots of stink eye though.  How inconsiderate to make your entire tour group wait!  Our Rick Steves tour-mates would have never done anything like that.  It made Kim and I appreciate our RS group even more.

Shamrock flavored chips?

Now that we finally had everybody, our guide zoomed down the road to our next stop - the Battle of the Boyne visitor center.  Since the place had a cafeteria it was our lunch break spot.  We filed out of the van and our grumpy guide told us we had an hour to eat and look around the place.  

Now starving, Kim and I hurried off to the cafeteria.  However, the food choices were strange, so we ended up sharing a sausage roll.  It wasn't very good, but we were hungry so it got consumed anyway.  I spotted a bag of "Shamrock and sour cream" crisps (what the Irish call potato chips) that I couldn't resist trying.  Not sure what shamrocks are supposed to taste like - the sour cream flavor overpowered everything else.

Gardens at the Battle of the Boyne

There was a lovely garden outside the cafeteria area.  After finishing our lunch, Kim and I walked around checking it out.  It was nice, but nothing spectacular.  However as we were wandering around, I noticed huge thunderclouds building overhead.  It looked like rain was imminent, so we decided to head back to the van.  We were almost back to the parking lot when the skies opened up.

Monasterboice Cemetery

Once everyone was back in the van, our guide decided to give us a history lesson.  As the rain pounded our vehicle, he droned on for several minutes about the Battle of the Boyne, an Irish hero named Thomas Meagher, and something else I don't remember.  Our guide was such a terrible speaker, rambling from one subject to the next, that after a short time I began to tune him out.

This sign explained the Celtic cross inscriptions

Finally, the guy shut up and returned to the driver's seat.  By now the rain shower had passed and the sun was coming out again.  Our guide turned the van towards our final stop of the day, the ancient cemetery at a place called Monasterboice.

The main Celtic cross

Monasterboice cemetery is built on the ruins of an early Christian monastic settlement.  A national monument of Ireland, it features the remains of two churches and a round tower.  But it is most famous for the number of high crosses still in good condition.  

Inscriptions in the cross explained Bible stories to the illiterate

Upon arrival, we all filed out of the van, and followed our guide up a small hill into the cemetery.  The guide stopped at a very tall Celtic cross, full of intricate carvings.  This 5.5 meter high specimen was known as Muiredach's High Cross, and as our guide told us, it was regarded as the finest high cross in all of Ireland.  It's carvings were the best preserved specimens of all the Celtic crosses.

The center carving depicts Christ's crucifixion

Named after a former abbot, Muiredach mac Domhnaill, the cross featured carvings depicting stories from both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.  It dates from the 10th century.  The biblical scenes carved on this cross were used as teaching aids.  Since most people from this time were illiterate, monks used these carved pictures to instruct their flock on Bible stories. 

This carving is supposed to be two old men pulling each other's beards

A large sign nearby explained the meanings behind the cross carvings.  Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Abraham, and Christ's crucifixion, were some of the stories depicted.  However, at the base of one side was an image of two old men, pulling each other's beards.  No one knows why this got carved on the cross.

This person obviously loved soccer

After our guide rambled for 10 minutes about the Muiredach High Cross he finally shut up and let our group wander around the cemetery.  Although I'd seen so many burial grounds on this trip, this one still intrigued me.  I roamed through the gravesites, snapping photos of unusual tombstones, and locating the other two large high crosses.  Apparently burials here continue to this day, a fact I noticed when checking dates on some of the headstones.

Round tower and Celtic cross

The round tower on the premises was another interesting specimen.  Although the top appeared to have crumbled away, the rest of the stonework seemed intact.  And there was a doorway on the first floor, something not seen on the other towers I'd visited. 

This cross depicts the crucifixion

After walking around Monasterboice for a good 15 minutes or so, I suddenly realized I was the only person left in the graveyard.  I didn't remember our guide telling us when we had to be back at the van.  Uh-oh!  I snapped one last photo and hightailed it down the hill.  About halfway down I ran into Kim, who had come back to find me and make sure I wasn't left behind.  Kim said she didn't recollect our guide giving us a meet up time either, so we decided to get back to the parking lot.

This round tower had a door near ground level

Lucky for us, the guide seemed to be in no hurry to leave.  So we had time to make a quick potty stop before loading up and heading back to Dublin.  I was quite ready for this tour to be done!  Although we'd visited some very fascinating places, our guide and the behavior of some of our tour-mates put a huge damper on the experience.

One final look as I was hustling back to the van

The ride back was uneventful, save for Kim telling me later that she'd glimpsed our guide's face in the rear view mirror, and he appeared to be struggling to stay awake.  Oh boy!  I've never been so glad to be done with someone as I was with that man!  I surely won't be recommending Hilltop Treks to anyone.

Drinks with our tour buddies!

It was nearly dinner time when Kim and I arrived back at our hotel.  Knowing that our buddies Kim, Alicia, and Debbie were still in town, I texted them all to see if they were interested in joining us for dinner.  The answer was a resounding yes!

The Kims and Alicia trying to locate our restaurant

So we enjoyed the company of our new tour friends for one more evening.  Alicia's Kim made a reservation at a nearby restaurant, and after a quick drink in the hotel bar, we ladies set out to find the place.

Dublin streetscape

Kim's Google maps had us ducking down an alley directly across the street from our hotel.  On the alley's opposite side we were suddenly in a different world, away from the tourist hot spots.  This was the Dublin where the locals hung out.  After more Google consultations both Kims guided our group to the chosen restaurant.

I had a most excellent seafood salad

The place was fairly new.  It didn't serve liquor, but patrons were allowed to bring their own drinks.  The menu was huge and varied.  I ordered lamb chops and the meal came with the most delicious seafood salad.  The salad was a meal in itself!  The other entrees ordered by my friends all looked good too.  After dinner, we walked back to our hotel, and not ready to say goodbye to our friends just yet, we all enjoyed a final nightcap in the hotel's bar.

One final nightcap with our new friends

Ireland was such a wonderful experience!  I'm glad I got to share it with my good buddy Kim.  It was gonna be hard to say goodbye to this magical country tomorrow morning. 

Join me for one final wrap up post - I still have a few thoughts and stories from this trip of a lifetime.  If you're not sick of my Ireland tales yet, please stop by!


  1. ...ah, the beautiful Emerald Isle!

  2. The landscape is so beautiful! I am so glad you went!! Sorry the last tour had such a miserable tour guide:(

  3. Glad you got some enjoyment from this tour. The tour guide definitely sounds like a loser. The mound photos are incredible and so very green. Love the old cemetery. Beautiful photos and sights, thanks so much for sharing.

  4. If only Pascal had been your guide on this tour your experience would have been so different. Meeting up with your mates was a perfect way to end the day and tour. Wonderful photography of these burial chambers that I had not heard of.

  5. I've heard so much about Newgrange. Reminds me so much about our visit to Maes Howe and the other sites on Orkney!

  6. The burial mounds are amazing!

  7. The burial mounds are fascinating!! I also really like the rock carvings.

  8. Hello,
    What a great place to end your tour. The Burial Mounds are amazing and I like seeing the petroglyphs. Sorry your tour guide was not good. Your photos are beautiful. Have a great day and happy new week!

  9. What amazing places. I especially loved your photo of the Round tower can celtic cross and the final shot leaving Monasterboice. What a lousy tour guide!


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