County Dublin’s northwestern neighbor once enjoyed far more political influence on the Irish than the tribes living in what is now Ireland’s capital city. The ancient Kingdom of Meath traces its roots back to ancient settlers who had a flourishing society and built lasting structures long before the Ancient Egyptians build the pyramids. For centuries thereafter, the seat of the High Kings of Ireland was at the Hill of Tara, and the kingdom of Meath enjoyed primary status among the ancient provinces of Ireland.
Sadly, when the High Kings fell and Ireland was colonized (by the Vikings, the Normans, the British, and now, the American multinational tech companies), the captiol was moved to the growing port city of Dublin and the kingdom of Meath was absorbed by Dublin’s province of Leinster. But today, the remnants of Ireland’s ancient and medieval people remains in the beautiful river valleys and fertile hills of this county just a few minutes’ drive from Dublin.
In the walled city of Trim, the Normans set up camp in what is now one of the best-preserved castles in Ireland. The keep and the surrounding guard towers are so intact that Trim Castle was used (briefly) for an outdoor castle shot in the 1995 movie Braveheart.
Trim is an easy bus or car trip from Dublin, and the castle tour is definitely worth the nominal admission fee (make sure to get the Trim Castle Keep tour add-on; the courtyard-only ticket isn’t worth making the trip for). Check the castle’s operating days and hours and arrive early to avoid sellouts.
If you have time after your castle tour, take a walk down the River Boyne on the Trim Heritage Trail. In addition to the gorgeous scenery of the idyllic valley, you’ll stop by the ruins of an old cathedral and, a bit farther down the river, a church hospital.
Brú na Bóinne
Ireland’s earliest settlers found the valley of the River Boyne very attractive. The river provided water and salmon through the year and a fertile floodplain for agriculture. The hills surrounding the bends of the river provided shelter from the harshest of the winter winds and plentiful grass for grazing.
Life was so good for these megalithic people that they found the time and energy to build what are some of the oldest still-standing human-made structures on Earth. By carefully stacking stones to create a passage tunnel and a central cruciform chamber and covering the whole things with a ten-foot mound of soil, these ancients created Newgrange, a “building” that is still standing — and still watertight — after 7000 years.
Their engineering was so exact that the entrance tunnel points directly at the spot on the horizon where the sun rises on the winter solstice. For a brief few minutes on this day, the central chamber is illuminated by the rising sun before being plunged back into permanent darkness for the rest of the year.
Your visit to Brú na Bóinne includes the visitor center and Newgrange tour, with an optional upgrade to see some of the other burial mounds in this valley, which are open seasonally.
Hill of Tara
The High Kings — when the ruling was good — ruled from a small settlement atop this windswept hill, high enough to see landmarks in nearly half of the counties in Ireland on a clear day. It’s said that Saint Patrick, during his grand Irish tour, stopped by Tara (which rhymes with “sayonara”) to preach the good word and introduce the Irish to the shamrock (three-leaved clover, not the four-leaved mutation the rest of the world associates with Ireland). Legend has it that he used the three leaves, one stem morphology of the shamrock as an analogue to the Holy Trinity: three equal parts, one God.
Today, your own Hill of Tara visit would best be part of a day trip from Dublin visiting other Meath attractions. As there isn’t much left on Tara today but a few mounds and some small structures, you’ll get the most out of your trip by going along with a guided tour — Mary Gibbons’ Newgrange and Hill of Tara tour is my favorite.
Visitors to Dublin are spoiled for choice of top-notch day trips; tours of Wicklow, stops at the Cliffs of Moher or Giant’s Causeway, or even the way-too-ambitious Ring of Kerry return trips all compete for tourists’ attention. But when making your own choice — especially if you have a few days to spend around Dublin — check out these favorites in historic, beautiful County Meath.