Yellow Steeple

rising from a field just over the River Boyne from Trim Castle, the Yellow Steeple was once the bell tower of an abbey. so named for the color the stones appear at sunset, the structure dates from 1368 and the establishment of the Augustinian abbey of St. Mary’s in Trim. the site itself was well known as a pilgrimage destination during the medieval period, as it hosted a statue of the Blessed Virgin.

about three centuries later (around 1649), most of the abbey was dismantled or destroyed. in part, residents did not want the structure to fall into the hands of Oliver Cromwell’s forces for any use whatsoever and dismantled some of the structure to prevent that outcome, as occurred elsewhere for similar reasons. what remained, the Cromwellian forces did plenty to damage themselves. the steeple, reaching to some 125ft and originally part of the easternmost wall, is now all that remains of the original structure.

railroad trestle in Drogheda

the railroad trestle in Drogheda crosses the mouth of the Boyne River, a “great feat of 19th century engineering” as Louth Hospitality Ltd would like you to know. completed in 1855, it is 1,400ft long an comprises 18 arches with 60ft spans. as elsewhere in Europe, rail travel is rather big in Ireland (though I’d argue that Bus Eireann does an even better job of connecting locations; the train is just faster) and the completion of this railroad bridge made rail travel north from Dublin much easier. until the viaduct was built, passengers had to disembark in Drogheda and travel six miles (on their own) to meet up with the train again on the other side of the Boyne.

the importance of viaducts like this came into sharp relief while I was traveling. in the second week of my travels, the viaduct at Malahide (just north of Dublin) collapsed into the sea just after a train passed over it. the driver of the train noticed the problem and alerted appropriate authorities, who suspended operations before the bridge actually collapsed or resulted in real disaster. small consolation to those on board the train that nearly ended up in the sea, and even smaller for the regular commuters that use the line. officials were predicting that service on the line, which runs from Dublin to Belfast and transports some 20,000 passengers a day, would be disrupted for three months. around 90 trains pass over that bridge, some freight, but many carrying passengers.

when Katerina was getting ready to leave Drogheda, she was advised against taking the train from Drogheda to Dublin, as the bridge collapse at Malahide complicated things. (instead, take the bus to Dublin and the train across to Galway.)

here’s the Independent’s article on the bridge collapse (the title is the best bit: ‘My legs turned to jelly as I saw the bridge collapse’)


having some experience with sacred neolitic sites, I was very much looking forward to visiting the monuments at Bru na Boinne. the monument at Newgrange is over 5,000 years old, making it 500 years older than Stonehenge, and a century older than the Pyramids at Giza! it’s a marvel of engineering and complex calculation; the planning that went into ensuring the openings aligned in the way that they do at the precise moment that they do … it’s a cliche to say it boggles the mind, but instances like this necessitate such language.

briefly: at sunrise on the winter solstice, rays of sunlight enter through the opening above the door — the roofbox (the top gap in the photo), filters down a passage some 18m long and into the central chamber. for seventeen minutes on the Solstice (and the one day preceding and succeeding it), the chamber is flooded with sunlight. while this illumination now occurs several minutes after sunrise, calculations indicate that, when the monument was built, illumination coincided precisely with sunrise.

obviously, the calculations to achieve this effect were something complex. there is a hill across the River Boyne that mirrors that on which Newgrange is constructed, and, to start, the architects had to calculate when and how the sun would rise over that hill to know when and how it would hit the hill at Newgrange. the monument itself is built on a slant over the hill. that is to say, the bulk isn’t distributed evenly over the top of the monument, but rather sits oblongly. if you were sitting next to me right now, I’d give you a little demonstration with my hands, but hopefully you get what I’m trying to explain. the chamber inside has a corbelled ceiling and rises to 6m — and has remained more or less intact and sealed against water since its construction 5,000 years ago. it’s often presumed that “neolithic” implies uneducated or unsophisticated, but as our guide pointed out, working out the details of constructing Newgrange and other nearby sites demanded incredible technological sophistication. and unimaginable dedication.

once the architects sorted the physics of where to build the monument, it took 50 years to complete construction. fifty years in a time when the average lifespan was 20 or 25 years. it took three generations to finish this! not only did it take decades to complete, the stones used on the facade were not quarried locally and had to travel rather significant distances in a time before wheels. the white ones (quartzite) came from the Wicklow mountains, some 70km south of Bru na Boinne — on the other side of Dublin. the black granite interspersed with the quartzite came from the Mourne Mountains in the north of Ireland, some 50km away. most impressively, however, the 97 large, carved kerbstones came from 20km up the Boyne valley. it took eighty men four days to transport a stone four kilometers.

there’s no record as to the precise use for the monument, and there are about as many theories as people who study the site. some are pessimistic as so the intent of the designers (it was built by slaves as a temple for despots) but others are more optimistic. our guide believes it a memorial for spiritual ceremonies that were held once a year. cremanes of community members were taken inside to a place of honor during the three days a year when the monument was used, but the rest of the year the site was left alone. and those who used the site had voluntarily constructed it for their spiritual practices.

whatever it was used for, standing inside is an incredible experience any day of the year. (they do hold a lottery every 1st of October for slots to be present for sunrise on the Solstice. there’s never a guarantee that you’ll get sun, but thousands and thousands of people sign up for the opportunity.) they day I visited was probably the soggiest day I had my entire time in Ireland, but I could not have cared less. even wandering around outside for twenty minutes (our group was far too big for all of us to fit into the chamber at once, so our guide split us in half and we were left to our own devices in the elements in the interim), the place was amazing.

different wall markings

another interesting tidbit our guide shared with us about Trim Castle.

being a Middle Ages construction, the Castle lacked the lavatory amenaties we’ve come to enjoy in the twenty first century. chamber pots were emptied into a pit in the southwest corner of the Castle. one man had the responsibility of agitating the refuse, too prompt the release of gases and encourage decomposition. the gases, strong with ammonia, were handy for killing off parasitic infestations in clothing, which were hung over lavatory holes in bedchambers of an evening to cleanse them.

our guide explained an additional use for the solid waste, and offered one suggestion as to the rationale for the practice. periodically, the solid waste was spread on the exterior of the castle so that it might be seen from great distances. one reason for this, our guide suggested, was to demonstrate the richness in diet — and thus healthiness — of the castle’s inhabitants.  the darker the marks on the exterior of the castle, the richer the diet and the greater the health of those living inside.

graffiti at Trim Castle

as mentioned, Trim Castle was more or less entirely abandoned during the 17th century and fell into disrepair. that didn’t mean, however, that it ceased to be a destination of interest to some. nearly a century later, visiting historical locations became fasionable as a tourist venture. without the watchful eye of OPW guides or the militant defense of historically significant locations, people felt free to leave their mark. sure, you see that kind of stuff all the time at places like Alcatraz or the Statue of Liberty — names and dates scrawled in pencil or Sharpie. on some level, it’s interesting to think about how future historians might look back on the marks that we leave in such places. at Trim, there are marks — graffiti scratched into stone — from people who visited over two hundred years ago. this one, that our guide pointed out, was the clearest to come out in a photograph, but there were marks like this all over the walls. it reads “Campbell 1743” (the marks were about two inches tall).

Trim Castle

there are many, many things to see in the Boyne River valley. Tara, Slane, Newgrange, Knowth, Dowth, Trim, Battle of the Boyne … and as with much of the rest of Ireland, the area is drenched in history spanning thousands of years.

the Castle at Trim was one of the few places where I decided to take the OPW tour, partly because it was the only way to get inside the keep, partly because it was departing the moment I arrived, and partly because I was quite interested in learning more about the site. the Castle was built primarily by Hugh de Lacey, who took possession in 1172 from Henry II, who was interested in stifling the expansionist ideas of Strongbow. it’s on a raised bit of land at a fording point right on the River Boyne. consequently, even though it’s some 25 miles from the Irish Sea, it was still rather accessible by water. initially, it had twenty corners, which made it exceedingly defendable (one of the towers disappeared after the Castle was neglected and left to ruin). the construction of the entrances and staircases, our guide mentioned, was such that it gave patent advantage to a (right-handed) defender. any (right-handed) attacker attempting to overtake the keep would be at a disadvantage because their right side would be open to attack while climbing narrow, circular stairs.

officially, the Castle is “John’s Castle,” after the King of England. fearing that de Lacey was getting to powerful, John showed up with some 5,000 armed men as a reminder of where power rightly lay. de Lacey, suitably cowed by the show of force, offered the Castle up to John, who shortly left and never thought about the place again.

also, during the Middle Ages, the Castle was the northernmost boundary of British control in Ireland–the Pale. to venture beyond Trim was to enter into territory defended and held by Irish clans; not a good idea for an Englishman.

in the 16th century, the last of the family holding the Castle died and it fell into disrepair. after changing hands several more times, including some interesting Cromwellian machinations, the Castle was abandoned and left alone until restoration/excavation work began in the 1990s.

Barbican gate

in addition to the very well-preserved Trim Castle (the top of which this photo was taken), there is a very well-preserved Barbican gate. each side of the gate served as a different location during the filming of Braveheart. one side was York, and I forget the name of the other location.
Barbican gates were designed to give archers an advantage over advancing troops and this one had two drawbridges.