As one sees a welcome and abundant increase in the number of tourists now visiting this island home of ours, a description of a "One Day's Tour from Belfast" may be useful to many of them who, in a short visit, desire to see some of the national monuments of the land, especially as the railway company has now brought it within the reach of all as to time and cost.
Our party consisted of three, and we left by the Great Northern Railway at half-past seven on a cheerful summer morning, laden with our lunch and a camera. A good train service brought us to Drogheda at ten o'clock, when we were met by a young conductor in the service of the company, who at once took charge of us, and as we were the only tourists who had arrived he dismissed the char-a-banc in waiting and engaged a side car, and with us started on our journey.
While waiting to start we saw the children of an orphanage starting on an excursion under the care of some sweet-faced Sisters of Charity, who wore a most picturesque head-dress. The little ones looked so clean and happy, rippling over with expectant pleasure, and all had blue eyes and fair hair. Getting off and driving quickly through the town, and then out by the Boyne, where the road dipped a little, nothing would do our driver but to race another car for some distance. The rival driver was greatly excited, and would not let us pass, but allowed us to approach him, then lashed up the horse and dashed on, waving his whip in triumph over his head!
It was wildly exciting for a time, but we were not sorry when we turned aside so visit the obelisk that marks the spot where King William crossed the Boyne at the time of the famous battle. The guide had pointed out, as we drove along the plains where the armies had encamped the night before, the glen down which the King had brought his men on the eventful morning. This glen is on the left or north side of the river, and is known as King William's side, while the other is known as King James' side. Two sides of the obelisk, which stands on an isolated rock by the river bank, have inscriptions, one stating the reason of its erection and another saying that Schomberg fell there.
Having examined it we turned our attention to the river, where some men were salmon fishing in round tub-shaped affair made of wicker and covered with oilcloth of some description. They were worked by paddles from one side, and the men were very expert in managing them. These coracles are quite different in shape from those in use at Arran, but are somewhat similar to the ones that were used in the Suir at Clonmel.
Having secured some photographs we mounted our car and set off again, driving through a side road that grew prettier and more luxuriant in its 'hedges every moment. It was exactly like the description one raids of a Devonshire lane great high hedges full of bloom, wild roses, woodbine in masse, meadow sweet, ferns, and wild plums, all mingled, and also evidences of a great display of hawthorn and primroses having been there earlier in the year.
Our next stop along this road was at Dowth, to examine a famous souterrain. We girls were all curiosity about this and bent on exploring, and which we commenced with the new experience of climbing down an iron ladder into the modern well-like entrance about 12 feet deep. We were then handed candles, and told to stoop, and follow the guide along a narrow, low passage, wonderfully cool and sweet, into a sort of round chamber or cell, in which we could once more stand upright, in the middle of which was a huge stone slightly depressed in the center; the guide said that was a cinerary basin in which, the bodies of the chiefs and great men were burnt. Off this cell were three smaller ones; the sides and roof of all this were formed of stone, some very large and some with carvings. The cells all had the sides of fiat stones, each one overlapping the last, so that it gradually drew into a round roof.
When retracing our way the guide said there was another passage, but it was very low. However, we were not to be daunted, and we had to bend nearly double, and so go along a narrow passage which contained two small cells. The passage wound round and upwards for a considerable distance, and finally brought us out close by the top of the ladder where we had just got in. it was a very strange experience, and when we remembered that all this was worked in prehistoric ages it made one think with great respect of the wonderful men who lived in the stone age.
But we were told that there was another more wonderful one further on at New Grange, so set off again, making a short stop to go through the gardens belonging to an evicted farm, splendid gardens full of fruit and flowers; it seemed sad to see them all going wild. No doubt a good deal could be said on both sides of this question, like most other questions; but it must have taken a great deal to make one leave a charming home like that.
A short drive through the lanes but now one side of the hedge had been cut down, and showed a stretch of undulating country, highly cultivated and well wooded, peaceful and calm in the extreme we presently caught sight of a large wooded mound in the centre of a field, with a few huge stones standing at its base; that was New Grange. We got off the car and walked, across the field to it.
A caretaker is there appointed by the Board of Works to look after it. We were advised to pin up our skirts, and we obeyed; were given candles; told to stop and enter a low tunnel like passage after the conductor, who, to our amazement and horror, dropped on his knees and crawled along a short and still narrower passage; but nothing daunted we did likewise. Just imagine crawling along, holding a lighted candle in one hand! No wonder we had been told to pin our skirts up. It sounds very bad, but is not really so, and the excitement carries one on. A rug, too, is laid to crawl on, and the passage is very short, and having traversed it, we stood upright once more in a wonderful place, a circular-domed chamber, about 14 feet high, composed of enormous monolithic blocks of un-hewn stones, some about 12 feet high, and large in proportion, and nearly all with beautiful carvings--the circle or spiders web was the favorite device, but the patterns varied; one stone had a fern leaf almost true to nature; there were diamond-shaped and zig-zag patterns and many others. These are actually the earliest known form of ornaments existing in this kingdom, the efforts of an artistic talent untrained and rude, but struggling to give expression to something beautiful.
Off this center chamber were three small ones, each with the same sort of huge stones, and nearly each one carved; they bear evidence that the carving must have been done before they were placed in position, and how they were got into place is a mystery. There were no contrivances in those days for lifting heavy weights as there are now, and again all that carving must have been done by those interesting little flint implements and hammers so well known in Antrim and Down districts. It is wonderful, and if such a monument of long-gone days were anywhere but in Ireland it would be as well-known and visited as the Pyramids of Egypt are. The mound is entirely artificial, and it was no idle boast of the writer who said--"Were it in Egypt, it would be regarded as a Pyramid, and the oldest one of all." Although it was lit by our candles, the air was wonderfully sweet and cool, and the ventilation exceedingly good. The circular base of the mound is marked off by thirty-two high stones, each supposed to mark an epoch in the history of the forgotten race who placed them there.
From this wonderful place we drove to Mellifont, where there are the ruins of a Cistercian Monastery, and where we were to rest for an hour; so we first got luncheon, having brought sandwiches and cakes with us, and tea was made in a cottage near, and we got the good woman to bring it down to the ruins, and enjoyed it resting on the broken bases of the old cloister garth. The guide gave us ample time to explore the ruins. Very little is left of this place, the first of its kind in Ireland; but what is there is well taken care of by the Board of Works. The plan of the church can be easily traced by the remains of the columns of the nave, transepts, and chancel, which must have formed a church of noble proportions. The chapter house, commonly called St. Bernard's Chapel, is in fairly good preservation, richly columned, carved, and grained, and one of its windows remarkable for the graceful lines of its tracery.
Into this house are gathered all the loose stones and carvings found in the excavations, also all the thirteenth century tiles, which have been laid on the floor and railed off to preserve them, and which are a study in themselves. Some of the carvings that belong to heads of columns were most grotesque, especially one, where a man's face is represented with his tongue well out; in fact, the face seemed a favourite, but forbidden, subject for the monks, who were really a puritanical, sober-minded set of master farmers, until wealth made them forget the strict rules of their foundation.
At one side of what was once the cloister are the remains of an octagonal building, called the Baptistry, but which is now known to have really been the lavatory, and the head of the columns there are very fine, a splendid study of the transitional period and its ornament. Like all Cistercian Monasteries, this was built in a quiet nook beside a river; the old monks always choose a good peacefully retired situation for themselves.
A feature that always has a deep interest in a Cistercian Abbey is the night stairs that led from the dormitories direct into the church. The rules obliged the monks to rise and pray during the night and in the early mornings, and one likes to try and picture the grey-cloaked figures coming down these stairs to offer up their praise and prayers while the rest of the outside world was still asleep
Then, all too soon, our hour was up, and we were off again, this time to Monasterboice. On the road we passed some prosperous farms, nearly all with well-cultivated gardens, at this time a mass of bloom; but the sight of the round tower soon claimed all our attention, and we were eager to see not only it, but the famous crosses near it, two of which are the peculiar gems of Irish art, and two of the finest crosses the world has ever seen. They stand unrivalled as memorials of a time when Ireland had her own Church, her own beautiful form of art--a time of great learning, and a time when she sent forth her missionaries east and north. One cross is, though not high, a perfect gem. It bears the date 926, and is known as Muerdach's Cross. The carving in some parts is almost as fresh as if done yesterday; the front and back have scenes from Scripture, while the sides are covered with interlacing patterns peculiar to Irish art. One panel is covered with the "trumpet pattern," of which Sir Fredrick Leighton spoke in such glowing terms; the other cross is much higher, not in such good preservation, but, like its companion, rich in interlacing designs and Scripture subjects.
We then turned our thoughts to the round tower. Floors have been put up in the places where they had been originally. A ladder with easy treads and handrail led from one to the other. The climb was not difficult at all, and the view from the top amply repaid us. We were about 110 feet high, looking out over a stretch of lovely country, small hills on one side, and, in the distance, the Irish Channel, lying like a great blue cloud. We again made many guesses as to the uses of these old towers, but, though many theories were discussed, none of them seemed fit, and we concluded that their origin was, like James de la Pinche’s birth, "wrapt in mystery."
After a good long rest there we left, this time to drive straight back to Drogheda. The road was a bye one that joined the main road at the top of an incline, and there the driver drew up his horse, and told us to "look at the Mourne. Mountains." We gazed in the direction he pointed out, and, in the far distance, saw the whole range, clear and distinct, bathed in sunlight, and every peak showed, from the small one beginning the range, which stretches across the country like a wall, to the steep one that ends by Rostrevor and Kilkeel. Seldom had we seen anything more exquisite than that sight. The mountains were like a picture from fairyland, clear and well defined, and yet with a soft blue haze lying over them that enhanced their beauty, and made them look so dreamlike that it was hard to realise that they were stern reality and consisted principally of granite and basalt forming a happy hunting-ground for the geologist. The train from Bedfast to Dublin runs down between them, through a pass, and we could distinguish that opening quite plainly.
Then, on the other hand, was the famous Hill of Tara, so renowned in history and song, but it seemed small, and we preferred gazing at the fairy-like picture of the mountains as long as we could. On the way back to Drogheda we passed the head of the glen down which King William had brought his men before the great battle. We had driven past the foot of it in the morning. On the road, and in the town itself, we were again struck by the blue eyes and pretty fair hair of the children some of them really lovely little things. They formed a great contrast in their colouring to the darker northerners, to whom we are more used. We have been since told that they are descendants of Danes who settled in that part of the country long ago.
After a hasty look at the new Franciscan Church and the round tower of St. Magdalen, which stands like an isolated monument, but once formed the junction of nave and chancel of a church of a once famous monastic establishment We then went to see the old town gate, called St. Lawrence, which reminded us very much of one we had seen in Canterbury; but a time was now pressing, we could only give it a hasty glance, as we had to push up to the station to catch our train for home.
At Dundalk a change was made to the dining saloon attached to that train, and where we had a most welcome and refreshing meal; we enjoyed it all the more, as it was served while the train sped through that pass of the mountains, we mention, on which, the evening sun was now shining, and reflected from the whitewashed walls of its numerous cottage homes, gave the whole scene a cheering, “heartsome" aspect. We reached Belfast at nine, full of stories about the strange ''ups and downs" of life as experienced by us that day, and thinking it a pity that this delightful and well-organised tour was not better known, passing over such a large tract of beautiful country as it. does, being so full of varying and interesting relics of ancient art in every phase, from the crude attempts of prehistoric man to the full perfection of Celtic cultivation, and the more modern forms as exemplified at Mellifont Abbey. It amply repays the tourist for his early start. S. F.