Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Castles and Culture in The Royal County - a trip to Trim.

Jan and me at Newgrange
 We're just back from a short break in Trim, Co. Meath - known as the Royal County for its association with all things ancient and regal in Ireland's early history. Co. Meath is a veritable hotbed of ancient historical monuments and is best known for the Hill of Tara, a seat of the High Kings of Ireland, and for its UNESCO World Heritage Site at Brú na Bóinne - Newgrange being the best known of the early Neolithic Passage Graves.

Trim Castle

View from Trim Castle and River Boyne
View of models of Trim Castle thru' the ages
We didn't go to Tara on this short visit, and I had diverted there a couple of years ago on the way from Cavan to Dublin, so I wasn't too bothered. Tara is extremely significant historically and is listed by the Smithsonian Institute as a culturally endangered site - mainly due to the motorway developments around the Tara-Skryne Valley which impinged on some of the site, and whereby some henges had to be preserved in images or as maps, rather than as places to visit. There is polarisation on this issue as there are compelling arguments on both sides - I don't think Tara will ever be destroyed by development closer to the actual Hill, but the surrounding roads shouldn't get any closer than they are. The Hill is very low-key when you get there as it is only from the air that it can be fully appreciated in my view. It's like a good walk up a gently inclining hill, and there are stone icons like the Lia Fáil (Stone of Destiny) at the summit, with the hollows and dips listed as the Banqueting Hall and you really have to stretch your imagination to visualise what it might have been like at its prime.

View from Roof of Trim Castle
So instead of telling you what I didn't see I should probably focus on what I did see! We were staying in the Knightsbrook Hotel, a new boom-time purpose-built hotel and golf resort outside Trim, in Co. Meath. It was very bizarre as it was right in the middle of what can only be described as a model dream of suburbia, a housing development of upmarket homes like a mini-Stepford, everything was so picture-perfect, yet it was like a deserted village which was disconcerting. It wasn't ghost estates, as most houses had cars outside, but there were no people. Probably all off earning the mortgages, which could have been pretty hefty, as some of the houses were upmarket 5-bedroom detached. Also there were a number of apartment blocks, coincidentally featured on this week's Irish Times Property Supplement as high-end and pricey. The hotel and housing was from the same developer who seems not to have gone belly-up in the bust, timing is everything. The hotel was a major improvement on our previous hotel experience in Sligo, in that it was cheaper, and had rooms with views - albeit over the houses but to the golf course!

Sheep's Gate at Trim Castle
Hubby emerging from the Passage at Newgrange
The Spiral Megalithic Artwork on the entrance to Newgrange
Norman Tower near Trim Castle
Hubby had a conference of Town Councillors to attend and I had a free day on Thursday, when I went to Trim Castle for the guided tour. It's a great spot and hats off to the OPW and Heritage Ireland for their excellent maintenance and tour guides who never seem to flag in their engaging and enthusiastic presentations and talks. The OPW came in for some high-profile and in my view unwarranted criticism recently  when a UK-based academic slated them for the lack of signage and management of the heritage sites in their care. I didn't see any of that in Meath, and from previous sites I cannot see that either. Either you pave over a site with signage and descriptions or you have a visitor centre with brochures where people with a genuine interest can read up on the site, or have a  guide, or an Audio-Visual presentation, and in my view sensitive understatement is the preferred option. In Trim there were excellent schematic diagrams of the castle through the ages, as well as scale models inside the building. It's the largest Norman Keep in Ireland and dates from the mid-1100s. The Normans came along after the Vikings, and settled in large parts of the country, and it was Hugh DeLacy whose family built and settled in Trim Castle. The guide, Neil, was excellent - an Englishman with a sense of humour and on whom the irony of talking about invaders and occupation wasn't lost as he alluded to the 800 years of oppression when the Irish were under the English yoke.  Can't say British, as the Scots and Welsh were equally oppressed - and an interesting aside for film anoraks among you  - Braveheart was filmed in Trim Castle. We went right to the top, up a narrow spiral staircase with stumble steps - all uneven heights to deter intruders from getting into a rhythm. The views from the roof were great even though it was a dull day. I learnt a lot of my own history with that visit and would encourage every visitor to go there - it's a real step back in time, even if it's only a millenium.

For real ancient history you have to talk about going back 5  or 6 millenia - which is what we did the next day, when we went on a bus tour to Newgrange, the  main passage grave in Brú na Bóinne, the UNESCO World Heritage Site encompassing the passage graves of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, and The Battle of the Boyne site. As they are spread over a large area, we could only visit Newgrange. It had a resonance for me as I always remember by late mother telling me how spooked she was by a trip she had there when she got claustraphobia in the passage on the way to the burial chamber and had to be helped out - she nearly got a panic attack. I had never been there before, although it's been one of the most visited sites in Ireland, so I was delighted to have the chance now. It was a beautiful afternoon, blue skies and 20 degrees. Again, kudos to the OPW - the guide was brilliant, enthusiastic and informative and gave us a great background and sense of the life at that time of the Neolithic people who built the graves. There are a number of satellite mounds of smaller graves in the vicinity but this is the main one. It is famed for its alignment to the sun of the Winter Solstice, and so popular is that event that there is a lottery for 100 lucky winners to get access to the chamber for the sunrise on the five days around Dec. 21st every year. When the sun deigns to shine, and it's not raining or cloudy, it must be a moving sight to see the sunbeam light the floor of the passage for the 19m to the chamber and flood that small space with light for a short few minutes. I found it very moving to think how we were in the footsteps of those ancient Neolithic people, in a place that was holy to them, predating Stonehenge and the Pyramids at Giza.
Sign in Hotel Pool Area!

That was my brush with culture and I hope you like the photos and can vicariously enjoy the journey with me. The break in the hotel was enjoyable and I made full use of the pool, and took this intriguing photo outside the Steam Room! I can only wonder - why did they need to post such a notice?


Stephanie V said...

I'm glad you gave me some more of Castle Trim to enjoy. We really only saw the outside of it when we were there. And, Newgrange...well, it's amazing! I loved it.

I can only guess that shaving is better in the sauna. Wouldn't be too tempted myself :)

Ann said...

What a wonderful trip. I must do that one of these summers. Your post is wonderfully informative. Love the photos!! I too am intrigued by the hotel sign. Makes one wonder, it really does!