Ireland's fascinating ancient monuments conceal more than they reveal, says SHEILA KUMAR

W e stand before the large mounds containing the monolithic graves of the Bru na Boinne. Up at this slight elevation, a banshee wind plucks at our cold weather gear, trying to find gaps into which it can send its icy fingers. This is typical Irish weather, casting its own spell on a landscape of grey and green. A landscape soaked in history, steeped in mystery.
This, then, is the beauty of Ireland; the land is dotted with monuments and ruins, testimony to a people who hewed a life and a lifestyle from rock, in the face of monumental elemental odds. There are the Round Towers that were used to protect the homelanders from invaders; there are the remains of many a grand castle which has seen many a bloody battle; there are the mounds that hold the passage graves with decorated stones inscribed with spirals, lozenges, zig-zags. Dolmens with capstones. Enigmatic stones circles. Ancient burial sites. Add to that a welter of pagan wishing wells, monasteries and Fairy Rings and you have a country where the past continues to be shrouded in the gauzy veil of the unknowable. Here, a random selection of Ireland's mystic sites and sights.

The Newgrange burial chamber in County Meath, is 5,000 years old and here's the real nugget: it is 1,000 years older than Stonehenge. Newgrange, the best known passage tomb in all of Ireland, is a mound of considerable size on a grassy knoll with a stunning white quartz façade, and a kerb of 97 stones, most of them inscribed and worked over.

The giant stone at the entrance to the burial chamber is striking, featuring the much-replicated-over-Ireland triple spiral. Inside the tomb, darkness prevails and then slowly a pencil-slim ray of light starts to creep down from the roof opening and moves to where the tourists are huddled, breathless. It is a simulated performance but exciting for all that, as it recreates what happens on December 21 every year when the sun enters the dark recesses of the chamber through the ‘roofbox`. Equally striking is the reconstructed Timber Circle outside the chamber; the original circle dated back to 2500 B.C.

In County Wicklow lies Glendalough (the glen of the two lakes), a most charming place, a scenic valley that sits between two lakes formed from the alluvial deposits from the Pollanass river. This is where St. Kevin set up his monastery, over 1,400 years ago. Today, the lakes lie still and deep, a Round Tower stands high over a cathedral and a small stone church known as St. Kevin's Kitchen.

Further away, in County Louth is Mellifont Abbey, the site of the first Cistercian Monastery in Ireland, founded in 1142 by St. Malachy of Armagh. The Abbey is a picturesque pile of ruins now, with its most unusual feature being the octagonal Lavabo (where clear waters from a stream once ran), where the monks washed their hands before meals.

Then there is Monasterboice, in the same county, dating back to the 6th Century. Founded by St. Buite, Monasterboice was an important ecclesiastical centre of learning back in the 9th and 10th centuries. Adding to the sense of mystery surrounding most of Ireland's ancient sites, this monastery was plundered soon afterwards and its books and numerous treasures burned. Only the crosses (the highlight being the magnificent carved Muireadach's Cross) and the tower remain, as do the graves in one of Ireland's largest cemeteries, all of them silent sentinels of a tumultuous past.
Poulnabrone or the Hole of Sorrows stands in remote fastness in the moonscape of the Burren in County Clare. Dating back to between 3800 and 3200 BC, this portal tomb was found to contain the remains of 22 adults and six children, alongside personal items such as a polished stone axe, a bone pendant, quartz crystals, weapons and pottery. The tomb was most probably a centre for ceremony and ritual until well into the Celtic period.

The Rock of Cashel, (St. Patrick's Rock) arguably Ireland's top tourist attraction today, is an outcrop of limestone rising 300 feet above the beautiful green meadows in County Tipperary, with its 90-foot-high Round Tower, its turrets, a 13th Century Gothic cathedral, chapels and the requisite High Cross. St. Patrick is said to have preached his Shamrock Sermon here, at what used to be once the seat of the old Munster kings from the 4th Century until the 12th Century.

And up in the north, at Faughart, are the healing stones of St. Brigid, hemmed by the sea in the east and the lush fields of Meath in the south. Each stone is believed to have the power to cure an afflicted part of the body. People rub their head against the headstone, their knees against the kneestone; there are streamers of material tied to scrubs and bushes around …and one can be forgiven for thinking one is at some Indian shrine!