Ancient tombs, historic homes that played backdrop to combat — Ireland boasts loads of history to relish away from the paddock, writes Brendan Manning.

It happens only once a year. As the sun ekes above the horizon, rays of orangey-yellow light cut through blades of the damp, dew-soaked grass that fill the surrounding fields.

The sun then edges up against the sky, the light moving further across the fields and up the large hill the fields surround, before hitting a wall of stark white quartz, each individual stone placed atop the other by the hands of people whose names have long since been forgotten.

The sunlight then breaks through a small gap in the rock, clambering through a narrow stone chamber and hitting the interior wall of the tomb inside, flooding the room with iridescent light.

It's like something out of an Indiana Jones plot and invokes wonder for those experiencing it.

Advertisement

Newgrange, as it is now known, is in the east of the Republic of Ireland in County Meath and is one of the country's best-known passage tombs.

Built around 3200BC, it is older than Stonehenge and the pyramids of Egypt and its true purpose has been debated since its discovery in 1699.

Now a Unesco World Heritage Site, Newgrange is one of 40 passage tombs in the area.

Cremated human remains have been found in the tomb, suggesting it was a designated burial site, but a popular theory is that the tomb served as a place for ritualistic sun-worship. This is because on the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, the sun's alignment in the sky allows it through the narrow chamber that lights the tomb, marking the end of winter and the start of renewed life for crops and people alike.

The site is one of an exhaustive number of historical sites that pepper the Irish countryside, including the impressive Kilkenny Castle, a symbol of Norman occupation. The country's age is well apparent when exploring its multi-layered history.

Just across the valley from Newgrange lies the site of one of Ireland's most significant battles, the Battle of the Boyne.

Named after the river the battle straddled, it took place in July 1690 and was the last time two crowned kings of England, Scotland and Ireland faced each other on the battlefield.

The battle started with William of Orange on the north side of the river, backed by 36,000 men and James II on the south side with 25,000.

Advertisement

James II ultimately lost the battle and 1500 men lost their lives on that day, many more later succumbing to their wounds.

The site today could not be further removed from that bloody scene. Idyllic fields trilling with birdsong have long grown over the muddied cannon carriageways.

All that the remains of the conflict today is a lone lead cannonball embedded in the stone archway of Oldbridge House, which now serves as a visitor's centre.

The Boyne valley is also home to Slane Castle which, built in 1701, has earned its place in more recent history for lending the natural amphitheatre on its grounds to host the annual Slane Concert.

Up to 80,000 people make the pilgrimage to the castle grounds to hear the likes of the Foo Fighters, the Rolling Stones and hometown heroes U2 perform below the backdrop of the majestic castle.

The owners of the castle, the Conyngham family, are converting what was the castle's stables into a whiskey distillery after previously selling a custom blend under the castle's name.

The whiskey will be made using all local ingredients where possible, including water from the bordering river Boyne.

It's an ethos that pervades into the surrounding farms.

After the economic mauling following the death of "Celtic Tiger" boom times, producers in the area responded by banding together to eke out a living.

The result was the formation of the Slane Food Circle, where local organic cheeses, milk, cider and meats are produced by the farmers individually, but then marketed and sold by the collective.

Oldbridge House, the Battle of the Boyne visitor centre. Photo / Supplied
Oldbridge House, the Battle of the Boyne visitor centre. Photo / Supplied

Further south, just past Dublin in the county of Wicklow, stands the postcard-perfect Rathsallagh House, a grand dame of a country house whose ivy-covered walls prove an inviting sight.

Built in the early 1700s, the house was owned by horse-breeding family the Moodys until it was burned down in the 1798 rebellion.

The horses, along with the family fortunes, disappeared with the rebels, leaving the Moodys unable to rebuild and forcing them to move into what was then the stables, now the site of the current iteration of Rathsallagh House.

The estate grounds have been converted into an 18-hole golf course, which a white gravel driveway snakes through to the house, a grey stone archway greeting its guests at the end.

The house's old-world charm permeates throughout the estate.

From the walled garden, to the corridors adorned with oil paintings of regal dogs, through to the peat-fired fireplace in the drawing room, one truly gets a taste of life as an estate owner in the Emerald Isle.

During my stay, on entering the subtly named "blue room" I was met with an apt classical background soundtrack, courtesy of a somewhat dated CD player.

Closing the parallel set of doors to the corridor behind me rendered any interior noise to silence, giving an uninterrupted opportunity to appreciate the finer details of the room - the central king-size bed with padded white headboard, the views across the estate from every window, the bottled water drawn from an on-site well (sparkling and still) and the presidential meeting table - a suitable platform for signing either treaty or merger paper.

A survey of my travelling companions' rooms revealed similar levels of luxury, albeit one including a somewhat questionable carpet floor surrounding the centrepiece bathtub.

Recreation, for those who dare leave such comforts, comes via a range of gentlemanly activities, not limited to horseback riding, falconry and archery.

An ancient boulder at Newgrange. Photo / 123RF
An ancient boulder at Newgrange. Photo / 123RF

We opted for claybird shooting, which took place on a nearby Christmas tree farm under the tutelage of a local veteran gunman accompanied by his two springer spaniels.

Playing the marksman with a semi-automatic Beretta for an afternoon was considerably more difficult than it may appear and one quickly works up a thirst and an appetite.

No country house stay is complete without a feast, and Rathsallagh did not disappoint, with a menu including carrot soup, ham hock terrine, house-smoked salmon and seared sea bass.

If that wasn't enough, the breakfast buffet the morning after rivalled that of any five-star hotel, with steaming silver platters of black and white pudding, house-smoked ham and a generous selection of Irish cheeses.

And if the company of your fellow guests and attentive hosts was not enough, Rathsallagh also boasts its own resident ghost Charlie - the spirit of Charles Pennefather, whose family took custodianship of the estate after the last Moody to hold the deed "took to the drink".

As charming as I'm sure Charlie is, I have to profess the thought of meeting him didn't keep me awake - for that I'm going to blame the food.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand offers daily services to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane connecting with codeshare partner Etihad to Dublin via Abu Dhabi.

The writer travelled courtesy of Tourism Ireland, Air New Zealand and Etihad.