County Meath (Contae na Mí) lies north of Dublin in the East Coast and Midlands region of Ireland. Traditionally part of the province of Leinster, it's low-lying and fertile, and being so close to the city it's become densely populated. So it has bland tracts of modern suburbs, but beyond those are some of the top visitor attractions in the country.
- 1 the county town is modern, though crumbling turrets guard its approach roads.
- 2 Ashbourne is a modern commuter town. You might visit for Tayto Park funfair.
- 3 Slane in the Boyne valley has a neo-gothic castle.
- 4 Trim has a well-preserved Norman castle and several other historic sites.
- 5 Kells has the remains of the abbey that for 800 years housed the Book of Kells.
- 6 Oldcastle is near the tombs of Loughcrew Cairns, as fine as those at Brú na Bóinne but without the tourist hordes.
- 7 Drogheda is mostly in County Louth with just a few suburbs in Meath, but it's a good base for visiting the Boyne battlefield and Brú na Bóinne prehistoric site.
This area is low-lying and the bedrock is limestone, so it's well-drained and fertile, with easy transport overland and to the coast. "Meath" means "middle" and it's been central to life in Ireland since prehistoric times. The earliest human traces are from 9500 BC but the first flowering of culture was from 3400 BC, when Brú na Bóinne and other ritual complexes were established. So these were already ancient when the Celts arrived from 500 BC and laid their own structures, rituals and legends upon these foundations.
Celtic territories coalesced into several kingdoms, some 7 to 13 in early medieval times. The Kingdom of Meath, larger than the present county, was important through the area's natural advantages. Its kings were inaugurated at the Hill of Tara, to lord it over their vassals and petty kingdoms, and to proclaim the fiction that they were "High Kings of Ireland". They employed media managers and propagandists to that end - their bards and scribes. Only they'd better not make that claim within the hearing of the King of Connacht, or of Tyrone, or of Munster, or there'd be another set-to concerning the precise number of kingdoms in Ireland. Brian Boru and Rory O'Connor were among those with more extensive but never complete sovereignty.
The Normans arrived in the 12th century, commencing a nation-wide land grab. They were later repulsed from much of Ireland but maintained control of the east, including Meath. They fortified their holdings and re-established the monasteries, so this eastern "Pale" has a rich heritage of castles and abbeys. The eastern kings became their subjects, and Meath was absorbed into Leinster, which covered from Dublin to Wexford. The Normans defined shires or counties, but this had little effect until the Tudors resumed the land-grab and crushed the last Irish kingdoms. Thus in practice the first High King of Ireland was James VI of Scotland (1556-1625), who came also to rule England and Ireland.
Leinster and the city of Dublin were thereafter pre-eminent, and Meath stood on their northern approaches, so it remained a site of conflict. Oliver Cromwell marched though in 1649, having massacred Drogheda to send a chilling message to Royalist opposition. In 1690 the Battle of the Boyne was fought here between King William III and the deposed King James II. But Meath was less affected by later turmoils, such as the 1798 rebellion or the Great Famine, and quietly grew as the agricultural and industrial hinterland of Dublin. Railways and later the motorways turned it into a commuter belt for the city. County Meath became densely populated (195,044 in 2016) in a series of small towns, but with no big city itself. Inevitably this development has erased natural habitats and antiquities, but plenty remains once you escape the vicinity of the M2 and M3.
1 Dublin Airport is north of the city with direct buses into the county. Bus routes radiate from Dublin to Ashbourne, Navan and Kells, to Trim, and to Slane. As this is commuter land, they are more frequent on weekday mornings heading into the city, then late afternoon heading back out, but the service is 24 hours to Ashbourne and Kells. For Oldcastle change buses at Kells.
A cross-county bus plies between Drogheda, Slane, Navan and Trim.
The top tourist sights are poorly served by public transport but have day-excursions from Dublin. So if you don't have a car (and in the city you actively don't want one) then consider joining a trip, which will probably visit the Boyne battlefield, Brú na Bóinne, Hill of Tara and Trim Castle. Bus Éireann is one reliable operator.
By road from Dublin follow M3.
The county lacks a railway service, though Drogheda has trains from Belfast, Newry and Dundalk heading for Dublin Connolly. Reinstating trains to Navan is long-promised but long-stalled.
You need wheels for anywhere that's not on the transport corridors described above. The distances are not great so a bike would do, but the roads are busy and ratty this close to the city.
Although the Drogheda-Slane-Navan-Trim bus passes just north of the Boyne valley sights, there's no public entry from north of the river. You need to be on the south bank, and by bus that will mean travelling into Drogheda then out again on the bus for Donore.
- Brú Na Bóinne or Newgrange Archaeological Park is a must-see, but the tomb interiors can fit very few visitors.
- Hill of Tara was where the high kings of Meath were inaugurated.
- Castles: the best by far is at Trim.
- Religious ruins at Trim, Bective and Slane.
- Ancient mounds 2500 years old at Telltown, and megalithic tombs at Loughcrew near Oldcastle.
- High Crosses in Kells, but the famous book is now in Dublin.
- The Battle of the Boyne, fought on 1 July 1690, spelled the end of James II's campaign to keep his throne. Henceforth Britain and Ireland were ruled by the Protestant Hanoverian dynasty of King William III. The visitor centre is on the road to Slane, though it's more easily reached from Drogheda.
- Conyngham Arms Hotel in Slane gets great reviews for dining.
- Bar meals will often be your best option.
- In Trim, eat small children, if you heed the "Modest Proposal" of local church minister and celebrity Jonathan Swift.
- Slane Distillery produces Irish whiskey and offers tours.
- Brú Brewery is in Trim, no tours.
- All the towns and villages have pubs.
- Trim has the best range, and plenty of other amenities.
- Ashbourne and Navan have boxy modern business hotels.
- This isn't an area for camping, and the caravan sites are clustered along the coast.
- Drogheda is a historic city, and north in County Louth are ancient sites such as Monasterboice.
- County Cavan northwest is the drumlin belt, with quiet lakes studded with islets.
- County Dublin has interesting outlying places such as Howth and Malahide, as well as the must-see city.