Ancient Ireland

IN 1690, by the River Boyne, the last of the great Celtic chieftains were vanquished by the armies of William of Orange. This battle, waged amid remnants of stone crosses and monasteries, marked the end of an era and the beginning of Ireland under the British. Only nine years later, on a hillside above the Boyne, a road-building crew uncovered the great cairn of Newgrange, built by a pre-Celtic civilization in 3000 B.C. Yet it was another 2 centuries before a complete restoration was attempted, in the 1960s.

The footprints of the past continue to merge with the present across the Emerald Isle, in archaeological wonders as well as in legends and language. To wander among Ireland's ruins and restorations is to time-travel through 5,000 years of civilization.

The Boyne Valley is one of the richest treasure troves. Newgrange, only an hour or so north of Dublin, is considered one of the finest examples of a Bronze Age passage grave - a mound with a narrow passage leading into a central chamber - and is similar to ones found as far away as Egypt. Within a mile are two other major passage gravesites, Howth and Dowth, with several satellite passage graves close to them. Newgrange, however, is the most complete restoration to date.

Historians don't know much about the people who built the sites, except that they were farmers and extraordinary engineers. The chambers were achieved by laying flat stones on top of each other in an overlapping manner, so the ceiling narrows with height and can be topped with a single stone.

Grooves were cut down the rock for water runoff. Some of the stones are decorated with geometric patterns, the earliest examples of art found in Ireland. And all this was done using only flint for tools, dirt for mortar, and no metal at all. Ancient engineering

I visited Newgrange with friends on a cold, misty fall day after the wettest summer in years. The wind whipped ice crystals in our faces as we walked around the soggy grounds in high rubber boots. Yet inside, the chamber was dry and warm. The air was fresh, not at all like the inside of a cave, as one might expect after 5,000 years.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of all is the ``roof box'' over the entrance. It's a narrow slot through which sunlight shines once a year for 15 minutes, at dawn on Dec. 22, the winter solstice. How the angle was measured so precisely, or what meaning was attached to it for the builders, is a mystery. Ireland's Camelot

From Newgrange, you can see across the river and fields all the way to the hill of Tara. It's not hard to see why the ancients picked Tara for their capital city. Five hundred feet might not seem like much of a height, but the hill commands a view of most of the central plain of Ireland.

According to Irish legend, Tara was already an established capital when the island was invaded by the Danaans. Scholars suggest the Danaans might have been the first wave of Celtic Gaels who conquered the country around 500 B.C. and brought in the Iron Age.

Tara became the cultural and political heart of Celtic Ireland. Now a grassy, windswept hilltop, it saw 142 High Kings crowned while the civilization flowered. Sagas written down in later centuries by Christian monks tell us of star-crossed lovers, knights and giants, magic stones and swords, fierce battles, and a Camelot-style code of chivalry. It was here that the chieftains gathered every third year to discuss the laws and customs of the land.

Tara's ``ruins'' are mostly in the form of deep depressions in the ground. But with guidebook in hand, you can trace the location of the ringfort, enclosing 12 acres. You can walk the site of the great banquet hall, 700 feet long and 90 feet wide, and imagine the magnificent assembly of kings and chieftains who feasted here during the festival of Samhain. This was Summer's End, what became our Halloween. Musicians, poets, jugglers, athletes - everyone came from all over the island to celebrate at Tara.

One of the greatest of the kings of Tara, Cormac MacArt, reigned in the third century A.D. He prophesied that there was one God, and proclaimed that all Ireland would one day know it. Ironically, it was the coming to pass of his vision that marked the beginning of the end for Tara. In 433 A.D., St. Patrick met the High King Laoghire, and soon all of Celtic Ireland became Christian. A century later, the festivals at Tara were over, and the city gradually fell to ruin. Cloistered cathedral

Tara has remained a symbol of a free Ireland. The hilltop was a gathering place for the rebellion of 1798. Forty-five years later, Daniel O'Connell, the ``Great Liberator,'' held a mass meeting of 1 million here to protest penal laws.

When Christianity was introduced into mainland Europe, certain towns were designated for cathedrals, becoming centers of worship and learning. In Celtic Ireland, however, Tara was essentially the only city, so monasteries became the Irish answer to the cathedral town.

In the Boyne region, you can see ruins of Kells and Monasterboice, two important monasteries. But the most prominent one was in the geographical heart of the island, on a bank above the River Shannon.

This was Clonmacnois, founded about 548 A.D. by the scholar St. Ciaran. Clonmacnois scholars had a strong impact on continental Christianity for 1,000 years. From its cloisters came philosophers for the courts of Europe, including that of Charlemagne. At its zenith in the 12th century, the monastery had a population of 6,000.

Clonmacnois still carries a feeling of peace and timelessness. The view across the Shannon probably looks much as it did over the last millenium. Cows and sheep graze nearby, as they did then. Only the carved headstones and crosses and the ruins of towers and churches attest to the thousand years of history played out here, some of it anything but peaceful.

After surviving more than 40 assaults over the centuries by Vikings as well as Irish neighbors, the monastery was finally destroyed by the English in 1552. The tower, completed in 1134, was probably used as a hideout or watchtower during Viking raids.

The crosses, from the 9th and 10th centuries, show an evolution from Celtic patterns to Biblical scenes. The headstones in a special gallery offer fine examples of ogham, the first Irish writing, dating from the early Christian era.

If we didn't know its history, we might think Clonmacnois had been built for the photographer. As the sunlight is screened by the clouds, visitors amble among the ruins, lost in thought. Suddenly the sun comes out, and all cameras are clicking. Then the cloud cover returns, the cameras lower, and the present is once more lost in imagination.

If you go

Aer Lingus is Ireland's airline and flies to Shannon and Dublin from New York and Boston. Northwest Orient also has flights from New York and Boston, and Pan American from New York. Delta has service from Atlanta.

Newgrange can be reached by the N2 via Slane. Tara is off the N3 south of Navan. Clonmacnois is in Co. Offaly off the N6. It can also be reached by boat down the Shannon from Athlone.

Newgrange is open 10 to 7 daily in the summer, but avoid Sunday afternoon crowds if possible. Clonmacnois is open 9 to 7:30 daily in summer. Hours vary during mid-September to mid-June.

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