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Ireland's Historic Heart

Stone Age, Celtic, early Christian, and Norman: the country is scattered with sites that act as signposts in the long and twisting story called "Ireland." But by circumstance of geography and mystical significance many of the great stone ghosts to ancient Ireland are concentrated in the counties immediately surrounding Dublin.

Here, often so closely thrown together as to make an almost Disneyesque mockery of the vastness of time and history, stand the man-made wonders that are impressive but slightly melancholic reminders of more heroic and more savage ages. In fact, a tour down the valley of the River Boyne is a trip into the past, back beyond history, to the Neolithic tombs of Newgrange, the Druidic holy place of the Hill of Tara, the monasteries of early Christianity, and the Norman castles of the chain-mailed invader who brought a bloody end to so much of Celtic Ireland. Not far from Dublin, chart the rise and fall of Irish culture at their glorious monuments.

The High Cross

The Celtic High Cross is an endearing symbol of Ireland, and Monasterboice—a former monastic settlement—has more of them than anywhere in Ireland. Dating to AD 923, the 20-foot-high Muireadach Cross is the best preserved, as its panels depicting the slaying of Abel, David and Goliath, and the Last Judgment prove. The nearby 110-foot round tower gives you a view of the once-glorious monastic site.

Ireland's Historic Heart

Newgrange

Built in the fourth millennium BC, a thousand years before Stonehenge, Newgrange is not only one of the world's pristine surviving passage tombs but also a great granite reminder of the ingenuity, spirituality, and perseverance of modern Ireland's Neolithic ancestors. How did they move 250,000 tons of stone? How did they align it to perfectly capture the first rays of the dawn sun on the winter solstice? The thrill of visiting and entering the somber tomb at Newgrange lies not only in what you discover but in the awesome mysteries that can only be answered by the imagination.

Glendalough

A single early morning hour spent in the isolated and serene Glendalough Valley—green jewel set amidst the Wicklow Mountains—should be enough to convince you St. Kevin the monk made the perfect choice when he was searching for 6th-century solitude and peace. The simplicity, separation, and sparseness that were at the heart of early Christianity in Ireland are sublimely apparent in the hermit's cave called St. Kevin's Bed and the ruins of the tiny Church of the Oratory.

Hill of Tara

Visitors are sometimes disappointed when they finally see the mythical Hill of Tara, spiritual and regal heart of Celtic and Druidic Ireland. It is now just a hill after all—300 feet high with awesome views out over the flat central plains of Ireland and all the way to Galway in the West. But with a little reading at the interpretive center and a lot of imagination, you can picture the Iron Age fort that once stood here and the huge feís or national assembly where Celtic Ireland passed its laws and settled its tribal disputes. It is a place that is both beyond history and made of it.

Mellifont Abbey

As well as war, the Normans brought great stone-church building to Ireland; one of their greatest religious monuments is Mellifont Abbey. Founded in 1142 by St. Malachy, the main parts of the abbey were built a little later in the Norman style, including the two-story chapter house and the octagonal Lavabo, where the monks used to wash. Although much of the abbey is in ruins, it still manages to illustrate the medieval church's rise to wealth and power in Ireland. Incidentally, the term "Celtic" is derived from the tribes that arrived on Irish shores around 700 BC, first called Galli by the Romans and then named Gaels in Ireland.

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