Dublin Day Trip: Myths and Ghost Stories
By Eileen Gunn
In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, here is a day trip from Dublin that starts with misty Celtic mythology and ends with a good Irish ghost story.
Explore a Celtic Tomb
The day begins at Newgrange (above), a neolithic monument some 35 miles from Dublin in the Boyne River Valley. It dates from roughly 3200 BC, which makes Egypt’s Temple of Giza and Stonehenge seem like recent constructions. It’s a large stone mound with a slim corridor and a chamber that floods with light at sunrise during a handful of days around the winter solstice. It was one of the most unexpected and memorable things about my first visit to Ireland as a teenager. I brought my parents and now-husband there on subsequent trips and it’s the first thing I recommend to anyone traveling to or around Dublin; it’s so worth a visit.
Like similar buildings it was literally buried in time—no doubt with sheep grazing on its grassy top—and was unearthed in the 1800s by farm hands digging for stones. Newgrange and the surrounding Boyne River Valley feature prominently in Ireland’s rich mythology. It was the home of the Tuatha de Danaan, a cast of larger-than-life heros and fools similar to the Greek pantheon. In some stories, one of central heros, Angus, calls Newgrange his home. The front stone and others around the base feature great examples of original Celtic scrollwork.
The visitors’ center caps the number of people allowed into Newgrange each day via guided tour (during the summer it’s a good idea to get there early). The tour is brief and covers how the tomb was built, its possible uses and other facts, and recreates the solstice sunrise with lights. Teenagers with an appreciation for ancient history and mythology will happily go along—they might just like the fact that it’s dark, dramatic and still somewhat shrouded in mystery. Smaller kids will have a hard time grasping its age and significance, of course. But the tour doesn’t take long. Unless they’re very likely to be scared by the dim passageway i would be willing to make they make put up with 30 minutes of possible boredom so that I could see it.
Explore the Boyne Valley
The surrounding valley features prominently in more recent European history, too. The site of the Battle of the Boyne—which sealed WIlliam of Orange’s seat on the British throne and England’s hold on Ireland—is about 5 miles away. There’s a visitors’ center, from which history and war buffs can embark on a self-guided tour of the battle site. Little kids will be happy to run around in the fields while you imagine the sounds and sights of advancing armies in your head.
Slane Castle is also about 5 miles from Newgrange in the opposite direction. My contemporaries will appreciate it as the place where U2’s Unforgettable Fire album was recorded. It’s a 17th century castle, meaning that it’s more Downton Abbey than battle ramparts and towers for sleeping princesses. They give tours on select days of the week and hold an impressive array of outdoor concerts in the summer.
Newgrange, Slane and the battle site form a triangle of points that’s fairly manageable in a day even with kids (though Slane’s genteel opulence and inevitable no-touching rules might be too nerve wracking with a toddler or preschooler).
Say Hello to a Shrunken Head
Drogheda, a small town about halfway back to Dublin, bills itself as the jumping off point for your Boyne Valley site-seeing. It’s come a long way since I last visited, having turned an old church into a collection of art galleries and holding an annual Samba festival. You’ll find restaurants and smart shopping. If you have spiritual inclinations (or kids who revel in the macabre) you can visit St. Peter’s church and say hello to Oliver Plunkett, a local saint whose shrunken head is on display.
Consider a Ghost Story
If you’re not totally exhausted yet, take a small detour on the way back to Dublin to the tiny farm town of Gormanston and visit its castle. The castle (another 17th century manse that’s now a secondary school) is approached via a fantastic tunnel of twisting yew trees that open onto its front steps through a giant hedge with a doorway cut through it. Kids will love wandering around in these ancient woods (and the photo ops are great).
Better still, you can spook them with this local ghost story: During an episode of fox hunting, an empathetic member of the family took pity on the fox and saved it from the hunters. Since then, whenever the current Lord Gormanston is on his deathbed, foxes gather round to keep vigil and howl in lament.
Back in town, over pints of Guinness and a warm dinner, you can discuss whether or not you really believe it…