The present remains in Glendalough tell only a small part of its story. The monastery in its heyday would have included workshops, areas for amnuscript writing and copying, guest houses, an infirmary, farm buildings and dwellings for both the monks and a large lay population. The buildings which survive probably date from between the 10th and 12th centuries.
First monastery in Glendalough was founded by Kevin or Coemhghein (meaning “fair begotten”), a descendant of one of the ruling families in Leinster. His fame as a holy man spread and he attracted numerous followers. He died in about 618. For six centuries afterwards, Glendalough flourished and the Irish Annals have references to deaths of abbots and raids on the settlement.
In 1111 Glendalough was designated as one of the two dioceses of North Leinster. In 1214 the dioceses of Glendalough and Dublin were united and from that time onwards, the cultural and ecclesiastical status of Glendalough diminished. The destruction of the settlement by English forces in 1398 left it a ruin but it continued as a church of local importance and a place fo pilgrimage. Descriptions of Glendalough in the 18th and 19th centuries include references to occasions of “riotous assembly” on the feast of St. Kevin on June 3rd.
The Kilclooney Dolmen is a fine example of a Neolithic Portal tomb. Built during the middle of the fourth millennium by a people who were farming the land and rearing stock, the portal tombs were the first examples of collective burial. Their size indicatest that they represent the burial site of an important member of local society.
Portal tombs consist of a massive roofstone resting on two uprights, with a supportive backstone. Originally there would have been other slabs of stone creating a walled in effect, but these are usually missing.
Some evidence suggests that the dolmen or portal-tomb was surrounded by a cairn, a mound of earth, with more than one tomb included in the cairn. There is a second, smaller portal tomb at the Kilclooney More site.
Dolmens are also commonly known as “Diarmuid and Grania’s Bed”, referring to the legend of the two lovers who journeyed around Ireland to escape the vengence of the great Fionn McCool and his Fianna. Many dolmens are claimed to mark the site of where the rwo runaways slept on their travels.
Kilclooney Dolmen is a particularly impressive example with the roofstone measuring 4.2 metres. The entrance (the highest point beneath the roof stone) is 5 metres.
Both Dolmens are located behind Kilclooney Chapel and are reached by a rough pathway that starts between the back wall of the church and a house situated to the left. Please keep in mind that the Dolmens are on private land.
Poulnabrone dolmen is a portal tomb located in Co. Clare. It is one of the most famous dolmens in Ireland. The large capstone rises up from the limestone bedrock of the Burren, supported by two portal stones that are 1.8 meters high. The people that were buried in Poulnabrone dolmen were Neolithic farmers. The radiocarbon dates from the bones produced an age of 3800 to 3200 B.C. The name Poulnabrone literally means ‘The hole of the sorrows’. Excavations done in 1986 and 1988 by Ann Lynch produced many interesting finds, in addition to replacing two of the broken orthistat stones. This assures that Poulnabrone will remain a dominant part of the Irish landscape for many years to come.
Knowth is less well known than Newgrange. It is actually slightly bigger, being about 84m in diameter. The great mound of this most spectacular site is outlined by 127 massive kerbstones. There are two passages, aligned to face East and West. The west-facing one is an unbranching curved passage. The east-facing one is cross-shaped and similar to the one in Newgrange. It is claimed that these passages are aligned with the position of the rising and setting sun at the two equinoxes. This claim is not generally accepted and has not been verified.
Knowth has a huge amount of stone carvings. It is reckoned that one quarter of all Europe’s neolithic art is held within Knowth! The same spirals appear throughout Knowth, as well as other patterns based on diamonds and chevrons.
While some people dispute the fact that the primary purpose of these mounds was as tombs, there is no doubt that many people were interred there. The remains of 200 people were discovered in Knowth. The stone age practise was to cremate the bodies outside, then place the remains in a hollow in a special stone within the burial chamber called the basin stone. The basin stone in Knowth’s western passage is no longer in the burial chamber. In 1000 AD, somebody tried to remove it from the mound, not realising it was bigger than the passage. It got stuck in the passage and remains there to this day.
Tours of Knowth are available from the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre. The tour does not allow visitors into the passages themselves.
Newgrange is the best known Irish passage tomb. It was constructed around 3200BC, this makes it more than 500 years older than the Giza Pyramids in Egypt and 1,000 years more ancient than Stonehenge. It is about 80m in diameter and is surounded by a kerb of 97 stones. Some of these are elaborately carved. Inside the mound is a passageway lined with roughly-hewn stone slabs, which leads to a cross-shaped chamber.
The entrance to the passage is a simple doorway formed by two upright slabs and a horizontal lintel. Above the doorway is a hole known as the roofbox. The passageway has an amazing feature: although built from roughly-hewn rock, it is aligned in such a way that the rising sun shines through the roofbox, down the passageway, and lights up the central chamber on the morning of the Winter Solstice (21 or 22 December). This amazing fact was only discovered during the 19th Century and verified scientifically around 1960. While initially dismissed as coincidence, it is now generally accepted that the mound was designed with this in mind. It shows that the people of 5000 years ago were far more sophisticated than we generally think.
Newgrange is open to the public by guided tour only. Visitors must report to the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre on the opposite side of the River Boyne, where they walk across a pedestrian bridge and are brought by coach to the site.