Sharks, murder and a neolithic ‘spaceship’: the mysteries of Ireland’s new national parks | Ireland holidays

Ireland’s National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) has had a busy time in recent months, adding another two sites to its portfolio of six national parks since last September. First, it announced the state purchase of 223 hectares (551 acres) of land on the Dowth Hall estate in County Meath. Then, on Earth Day in April, it unveiled its first marine park – 566 hectares centering on Corca Dhuibhne – the Dingle Peninsula – and including Conor Pass, a vertiginous narrow laneway that whips around the contours of Mount Brandon in County Kerry.

Brú na Bóinne national park

Just an hour from Dublin, County Meath’s low-lying fertile land, dappled with fern-green hills, has produced bountiful harvests since the dawn of civilisation. To the north of the county, on a bend of the River Boyne, lies Brú na Bóinne (Boyne Valley), a place where several millennia of human endeavour still scar the landscape with a series of massive cairns, castles and ancient relics.

This is now Ireland’s seventh and smallest national park, following the purchase of a large tract of historical land bounded by two miles of the River Boyne, known as the Dowth Hall estate (or demesne). The park will also include the existing state-owned plot that contains Newgrange and Knowth passage tombs to become a vast, ancient necropolis along with dozens of satellite passage graves and Europe’s largest and most prominent concentration of megalithic art. Dowth will bring with it the addition of splendid mansions clustered close to prehistoric sites.

Sites within the park
With so many places to explore in Brú na Bóinne, it’ll take a full day to discover them all. If time is short, these are the major sites open to visitors, starting with the 43-hectare site that’s home to Newgrange and Knowth.

Older than the pyramids at Giza … sunrise at Newgrange, County Meath. Photograph: Bryan Hanna Photography/Tourism Ireland

Newgrange
For most, the target destination in Brú na Bóinne is Newgrange. It’s located in the original state-owned parcel of land and has drawn visitors for centuries – long before Victorian-era tourists scrawled their signatures on its hefty boulders. Its powder-white stone circular walls and domed roof, once buried beneath clay, have sat like an ancient cosmic spaceship over the pastoral setting for more than 5,000 years, making it older than the pyramids at Giza or the standing stones at Stonehenge. Rising 13 metres over the forests and farmlands, it has a diameter of 85 metres, is ringed by 97 engraved “kerbstones” and its materials were sourced from as far away as Wicklow. It’s a major feat of Neolithic engineering, one of the finest prehistoric sites in Europe as well as Ireland’s most impressive passage tomb. Inside, a 19-metre narrow channel leads to the main vault, beneath a corbelled ceiling. The mound also works as a calendar: at dawn, light slips through a slit window to flood the tomb chamber on just one day every year, the winter solstice.

Knowth
Close to Newgrange is Knowth, a burial mound of a similar age with a couple of long passageways and 20 smaller satellite passage tombs or souterrains. The boundary walls are surrounded by carved slabs and an ancient graveyard. Knowth, in many ways, is more remarkable than Newgrange for the sheer scale of ancient artwork discovered since it was first excavated in 1962, making it the premier antiquity of its kind in the world. Life continued here for thousands of years and across cultures, through the bronze and iron ages, which makes this site so fascinating. Archaeological digs are continuing.

Knowth and the Boyne Valley. Photograph: Paul Lindsay/Tourism Ireland

Both Knowth and Newgrange are accessed via bus from an interpretive centre (prebooking recommended) in Donore, which gives an unmissable backstory to Brú na Bóinne.

Dowth demesne
Coupled with Knowth and Newgrange, the 223 hectares of Dowth demesne will also offer access to major archaeological ruins on the property, such as the late Neolithic Dowth henge, Dowth and other passage tombs, a Norman castle, ring forts, a bronze-age field system, Georgian Dowth Hall and Victorian Netterville Manor.

Dowth Hall
For a long while, the fate of the historical treasures of Dowth townland, a north-easterly corner of Brú na Bóinne, was at the mercy of the Netterville family. During their six-century tenure of the Dowth estate, they resided in a stone tower house – with colourful backstories of flip-flopping support for the indigenous population and a murder trial (the butler was the victim, the fifth viscount was the alleged perpetrator). John, the sixth and final Viscount Netterville from that direct family line, built Dowth Hall in 1745 on the southern bank of the River Boyne, over a Neolithic passage-tomb. This 970-sq metre country pile is in need of tender NPWS repair – but it has interesting details including a grand hall, cantilevered staircase, a fine cast-iron stove, and intricate rococo plaster and marble-work.

The passage tomb at Dowth. Photograph: Tourism Ireland

Dowth passage tomb
The third significant passage tomb in Brú na Bóinne is 15 metres high and is now finally connected to Newgrange and Knowth through the new national park. It has triumphed over the Netterville’s past endeavours, such as dynamite blasts used for a crude archaeological dig (with a residual crater) or the establishment of a tea house on its summit. The tomb is 5,000 years old and has similar calendar qualities as Newgrange, as the south passage is aligned to the setting sun at the winter solstice.

Netterville Manor
Constructed as an almshouse for widows and orphans in 1877, this handsome red-brick Victorian gothic mansion was refurbished in recent years. It lies within the same complex as the castellated medieval tower house that was the former home of the Netterville family and birthplace of writer, poet and activist John Boyle O’Reilly, who left his mark in both Australia and America, and was occasionally quoted by President John F Kennedy. His statue lies by a mossy, crumbling church to the rear of the complex, close to a rare sheela-na-gig.

Dowth Henge
This massive, egg shaped enclosure lies 1km south-west of Dowth passage tomb. It’s the largest of four in Brú na Bóinne.

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The Hill of Tara in County Meath. Photograph: Tourism Ireland

Sites beyond the park
Little remains of the great palaces of high kings on the Hill of Tara, near Skryne in County Meath, but there are still traces of its regal significance, such as Lia Fáil – the coronation stone; and the views across the countryside are epic, too. A short drive north from the Brú na Bóinne visitor centre, the Battle of the Boyne visitor centre explores a turning point in Irish history, or you can take a boat tour to get a different perspective of the bloodshed. Trim Castle, a scene stealer from the movie Braveheart, is 20 minutes south-west from the Hill of Tara.

Braveheart star … Trim Castle in County Meath. Photograph: Tourism Ireland

Where to stay
Slane, when it’s not playing host to a mega rock act at its music festival, still has elements of a sleepy town in the Pale. The Conyngham Arms hotel offers period-style double rooms from £93 bed and breakfast. It also has reliable fare, or, if you’re feeling flush, head to Brabazon for the Entirely Tankardstown menu – for €90 (£76). If you’re feeling a little rock and roll, try Slane Castle’s Whiskey Tour (€25) – or just sample a snifter at Browne’s Bar.

Kerry Marine national park

May the Force … the monastery island of Skellig Michael, off the coast of County Kerry. Photograph: Tourism Ireland

Páirc Náisiúnta na Mara, Ciarraí, is set to become the eighth and largest national park in the country, following the purchase of 566 hectares at Conor Pass. The land parcel includes lakes and forestry with panoramic views from more than 450 metres over Brandon Bay. It forms just one element of the 28,000-hectare national park that spans the county’s western shoreline from the Kerry Head Shoal in the north to the Unesco-designated monastic site of Skellig Michael (famous as a backdrop to Star Wars: The Last Jedi) in the south.

The park will be dedicated to protecting and restoring biodiversity, including rare and endangered species, and preserving its archaeological heritage. Along the oceanfront, there are islands, magnificent dune systems, limestone reefs and shallow bays where sharks breed. Inland, active blanket bogs and heaths provide a safe habitat for peregrine falcons while the crystal clear rivers offer a haven for the rare freshwater pearl mussel.

Going forward, road improvements and trail development will be fast-tracked under the stewardship of the NPWS.

Where to stay
Pax House has spectacular sea views from its perch on the south coast of Dingle Peninsula with arguably the best breakfast in Ireland. Rooms from €150 a night.

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