It is our first weekend home after the holidays and to keep at bay the melancholy that so often follows the return from a faraway land, we played tourist in our own country. We are lucky to live in Ireland, a place of stunning scenery and history, and today we drove with the kids to a part of Ireland where the two merge into each other with spectacular results: the Boyne Valley.
The river Boyne, born in the centre of Ireland, carves its way to the Irish sea about 100 kilometres North of Dublin. In terms of water capacity, the Boyne is not a powerful river but its banks have seen ages and events that marked the history of this country: here is where you find mysterious prehistoric tombs (you may have heard of Newgrange?), ancient abbeys now carpeted by green grass and a site sadly known for the bloody battle of the Boyne, the aftermath of which cemented protestant rule in Ireland, determined the holder of the British crown and checked growth of French power in Europe.
The valley of the Boyne can easily be reached from Dublin by car and today, despite the pouring rain, we made it the destination of a multigenerational family day trip: two kids, two parents, a stuffed rabbit and two grandparents, left Dublin at about 11 am and made their way to discover Irish history. This is what we found.
If you are looking for more ideas about beautiful day trips from Dublin for the whole family, have a look also at about posts about Howth, Mount Usher Gardens, the Japanese gardens in Kildare and a full list of ideas less than one hour from the city.
Where is the Boyne valley: The Boyne Valley is about 1 hour North of Dublin and can be easily reached by car. If you don’t drive, you can choose among many of the organised tours of the area. When choosing, make sure you pick one that includes the entry ticket to Newgrange: the site is very popular and books out fast, especially in summer and near the time of the winter solstice (more about it later)
Is the Boyne Valley suitable for kids? We visited Boyne valley with our two kids (4 and 6) and they enjoyed the day. The tombs themselves do not bear significance to them but the wide open lawns were sufficient to keep them entertained for a while. If you are on a self-drive tour, you might want to include a kid-friendly stop at Newgrange farm: just in front of the Newgrange building, this working farm has a petting area, a wonderful sandpit, a straw make and play areas.
If you are organising a road trip with kids, you might like my tips here
Day trip to the Boyne Valley with kids: our stops
The Boyne valley is a relatively small area to discover and you can easily visit all the attractions below in one day. If you decide to visit the tombs inside (we didn’t this time), you might need to rearrange the itinerary around the strict visiting slots.
Stop one: Old Mellifont Abbey
Mellifont Abbey is the first Cistercian Abbey built in Ireland and its impressive walls date back to the XII century A.D. (1142). At that time, St Malachy, archbishop of Armagh, invited to Ireland the first group of Cistercian monks and their community flourished for the following 5 centuries, until King Henry VIII suppressed all monasteries in 1539.
Nowadays old Melllifont Abbey is a ruin, but a beautiful and evocative one.
We arrive at Mellifont in the late morning, under pouring rain, and while the weather forced our visit shorter than expected, it seemed to offer the perfect frame for the place. Located just below street level, Mellifont has long ago lost its roof and elaborate floors and now sits on brilliant green grass, grey sky for a ceiling. A small visitors centre give background information about the place and offer guided tours at a small fee.
Discouraged by the rain, we didn’t take a tour but rather walked at our own pace around the abbey: the site is not extensive and the visit doesn’t take more than a few minutes but some parts of the Abbey are still imposing and it is still possible to guess the original size and planimetry of the building.
You can find additional information on the official Heritage Ireland website here
Practical tips for parents visiting Mellifont with kids: the site is not easily accessible by buggies but it has a small visitor centre with handy facilities for a toilet break and if you need to find refuge from the rain.
Battle of the Boyne site
Our eyes filled with beautiful views but nonetheless wet and hungry, we took the car and drove a few minutes down to the site of the battle of the Boyne. This stop was suggested by my dad and, to my shame, I must admit: despite living in Ireland for over 10 years, until today, I had no idea what the battle of the Boyne was, when it took place or what its significance was!
Thanks to this day trip I can say it is fixed, so allow me to explain.
The battle of the Boyne happened in 1690 in Ireland and saw the clash of the opposing armies of English King James II and the Dutch Prince William of Orange, who had overthrown James a couple of years before.
The battle, far from being just one of the many struggles between royal families, bore bigger significance: James was a catholic king and the Irish had turned to him in an attempt to regain the right and liberties that Cromwell had violently taken away. William, on the other hand, was a protestant king and his aim was to maintain protestant rule over both England and Ireland and eradicate any dissent to its rule in either county.
The battle was part of a wider European struggle, know as the War of the Grand Alliance, between the powerful King Louis XIV of France who was attempting to extend French power across the continent and an alliance of the Pope and northern protestant states who were determined to frustrate him.
The Boyne is the river along which these two visions and houses clashed: despite his expertise and the support of French troops, James’ army lost: 2000 men died and protestant rule took hold. Despite being a relatively small event, in military history, this event carries great significance for a country whose history was marked by the relations between the two denominations for centuries to come. The defeat of the catholic James who was an ally of Louis XIV, marked a key turning point in European history, checking the spread of French power across Europe. Had James been victorious, Irish, British and European history may have been very different.
Tips for families travelling with kids: the site is easily accessible and has a visitors centre with good facilities and a cafe. During the summer, re-enactments of the battle take place (the battle happened in July, on the 1st or 12th depending on the calendar followed) and cannons and historical war machines are sure to attract your kids’ attention.
You can find additional information on the official Battle of the Boyne site here
Prehistoric Ireland: Dowth, Knowth, and Newgrange
This area of Ireland is famous for a series of prehistorical monuments that are so ancient the pre-date both Stonehenge in England and the Giza pyramids: three megalithic passage tombs named Dowth, Knowth and, world famous, Newgrange.
Megalithic passage tombs are a very peculiar sight: from the outside, they look like mounts in the ground, almost natural formations, but their very precise round shape and external walls give away human interventions.
Inside, the man-made nature of these monuments is unmistakable: the mounts are accessible by narrow corridors frames leading to a central chamber, usually one or two depending on the monument.
Something interesting: The Newgrange passage tomb is famous, among the others, for a very peculiar astronomical trait. Its internal chamber is usually dark, but on the day of the winter solstice the sun shines in through its passage, lighting up its interior. Ancient civilizations are known to be particularly tuned into astronomical occurrences but nonetheless, the precision of the orientation of such a large monument never ceases to impress and surrounds the place with a sense of mystery.
There is debate among the experts about the exact origin of these monuments: the burial nature of the mounts seem unmistakable, but it is possible they also worked as temples and places of worship.
The three mounts are similar in shape to each other but the experience for the visitor is very different.
We first visited Dowth, the least known and least kept of the three sites. Driving along, it is easy to miss Dowth: the mount sits just beside a narrow country road and there is no visible parking or visitor welcome structure to alert you of its presence, apart from a small brown sign and a small widening of the road that allows for car parking.
To visit, you need to open a small gate and walk into a grassy field and the mount sits right in front of you, covered in grass and bushes. Your first impression of Dowth can be underwhelming but give it time: if you walk to the right of the mount you will soon see the (now fenced) entrance passages to the tomb and the lack of tourists make for a more personal and, dare I say, authentic experience.
A fun legend: medieval manuscripts say that the King ordered his men to build the tomb and to make sure they would work fast enlisted the help of his sister. With her magical powers, she got the sun to stop in the sky so that the workers believed it was just one working day (albeit a very long one!). While they met premature death because of exhaustion, the king and his sister would engage in exchanges of affection usually exchanged between man and wife… Quite a story (maybe not one I will partake with my young kids quite yet)
Note for families travelling with kids: Dowth is not accessible to buggies and while my kids adored the big lawn, you must be aware of the presence of sheep and of their excrements! Overall, the visit doesn’t take more than a few minutes so if you have very young kids or are scared of the animals, consider getting them to wait for you in the car.
The experience of Knowth and Newgrange are very different. Unlike Dowth, they have both been excavated more recently and transformed into a major tourist attraction. For both, you need to buy tickets in advance and join the many groups quieting up for the experience of entering the mount. This time, we did not enter the monument (we did it years ago and prefer to repeat the experience at a less busy time) but we did stop to marvel at the outside of the tombs: they are a sight to behold.
Knowth looks like a complex made of one bigger mount and three smaller ones, while Newgrange is one, large mount: they are both impressive in their size, precision, and location but get easily overwhelmed by tourists.
If you can’t find tickets or if you are happy to just see the outside of these tombs, my advice is to drive there in the late afternoon (we were there at around 4.30) and wait for the moment in between the departure of one group and the arrival of the next: you will not be allowed in, but the view from the entrance is free and spectacular.
Note for families travelling with kids: the grounds of Newgrange and Knowth are accessible even with a buggy but access to the tomb is on foot only. You can find additional information about the sites and their accessibility here
Have you visited the Boyne Valley or is there one of its attraction you would most want to visit?
If you are driving around Ireland, consider spending the night in this beautiful area. You can find the latest deals on hotel and specialty accommodation on my favourite accommodation booking site (affiliate link)