The fifth entry in a series of installments from the travel diary of my journey through the Emerald Isle.
Ireland is far more than her whimsical tales of fairies, or the rain-soaked beauty of her infinite fields. She is more than the late night sessions with overflowing pints at the crowded pubs and the foggy mornings that follow. Her past holds far more than crippling famine and bloody civil warfare. She is a country steeped in the history of Neolithic farmers, Celtic mysticism, Gaels and Vikings. Her countryside is a testament to her past, strewn with ancient castles, crumbling stone circles and Celtic crosses.
Joanna and I had not yet delved into this more historical side of Ireland, focussing mostly on Dublin’s pubs and other tourist attractions. However, it was a new day and a cold and rainy one at that. The kind of day we would have much rather preferred to have found ourselves snuggled up in our beds watching movies. However, to our disappointment we were in the process of packing up our little rental car to leave the warmth of the lovely Radisson Blu St. Helen’s Hotel in Dublin in order to head some 50km north to County Meath.
County Meath is home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site: Brú na Bóinne (The Palace or Mansion of the Boyne), now commonly known as Newgrange, a mysterious passage tomb located in the Boyne Valley and from what we had read a must-see on our trip. As we headed out on the road, we could see that the rain did not look like it would be letting up anytime soon. Surprisingly this was the only day so far that we had encountered what we had begun to think was fabled Irish weather.
After a stop at the nearest petrol station for some breakfast and other road trip staples, we continued on our journey to the elusive Newgrange. This being our first official road trip in Ireland, we naturally got lost. Our dear GPS (which we had fondly named Sandra) incessantly repeated “recalculating” as she attempted to figure out how to reach our destination. So, we stopped at yet another petrol station, this time for some directions. Thankfully the Irish were as friendly and helpful as rumoured to be.
The Brú na Bóinne Visitors Centre, located near the village of Donore, Co. Meath, was the starting point for our guided tour. At the entrance we were greeted by a water feature that contained 330 million year old large oval stones which were found on the site. As the structure of the Visitors Centre was aesthetically designed to mirror Newgrange, it blended in naturally into the surrounding landscape with the base of each level surrounded by a border of white quartz and topped off with a rounded mound of grass. Upon our arrival we purchased our tickets and as we had some time until our tour began, we took in the various historical exhibitions and, of course, the gift shop.
At last, it was time for us to make our way to the shuttle bus that would take us to the Newgrange site. The walk to the bus gave us a one-on-one view of the peaceful Irish countryside and helped us understand why the Neolithic people would have settled here all those thousands of years ago. The place seemed to pulse with a quiet enchantment where ancient myths and folklore are born. A picturesque landscape of lush fields dotted with sheep, a wonderfully gothic forest, complete with ancient gnarled tree trunks, the rich heady scent of earth and the soft dance of rain on the river merely added to the charm.
We finally arrived at Newgrange, a great, round structure with a facade of white quartz. Our Irish tour guide, John, informed us that it is thought to be a passage tomb: a megalithic burial structure with a passageway leading to a chamber. The passage tomb was built by a Neolithic farming community in the area and dates back to approximately 3200 B.C., making it older than Stonehenge and even the Great Pyramids of Giza. It is believed that 5,000 years ago the people who farmed in the lush, fertile Boyne Valley remarkably hauled 200,000 tons of stone from the river bank a mile away and began to build Newgrange. Aside from being a passage tomb, it is still a mystery whether it was used for any other uses, amongst them: for ceremonial and religious rites or an ancient temple. This fact only seemed to add to the indiscernible allure of Newgrange.
John pointed out the ancient carvings of megalithic art which were common in this age and region. He explained that there were wonderful combinations of spirals, lozenges, chevrons, triangles and arrangements of parallel lines and arcs. Amongst this megalithic art, Newgrange remarkably has a rare “triple spiral” (a triskelion of three three-fold spirals) found both on the entrance stone and on the wall inside the tomb, which is known as the most recognizable symbol of ancient Ireland. The meaning of this highly speculated about design of megalithic art is not only a mystery, but it also cannot be found anywhere else in the world, making it truly unique. As we waited for the first half of our group to view the tomb, we wandered the surrounding land taking photographs of the tomb, the stone ruins scattering the property and the luscious valley around us.
Finally, it was our turn to be led through the narrow passageway into the structure and we were asked to abstain from taking any photographs while inside for the preservation and spiritual nature of the site. The centre chamber branched off into three sub-chambers, a common layout; we were told is known as a cruciform passage tomb. John informed us that upon archaeological excavation in the late 1960s archaeologists found several cremated remains that had been interred in the side chambers.
John then shared with us the most extraordinary thing about Newgrange: it was constructed and precisely located with such remarkable accuracy that as the sun rises on the Winter Solstice the passage and chamber are fully illuminated—a perfect astronomical alignment that was undoubtedly deliberately designed this way. Admission to the Newgrange chamber for the Winter Solstice sunrise is by lottery only, so the chance to actually witness the wondrous event is slim. Instead, we suddenly found ourselves plunged into darkness at the heart of the passage tomb and, by the assistance of a strategically set up lightshow, we were shown a simulation of the sacred wonder of the sunrise on the Winter Solstice. Although eerily quiet, the tomb hummed with the whispers of ancient incantations and a mystifying ambience that was nearly tangible.
After the tour Joanna and I headed back to the cozy warmth of the Visitor’s Centre for a deliciously hearty dinner of Guinness Stew. We were grateful for the experience of visiting Newgrange as it left us both with a sense of admiration and awe of the ancient wisdom of the Neolithic people essential in creating such a monument. The remainder of the day we were left with a feeling of connection to something larger than life that could only be credited to the undeniably mysterious air synonymous with Newgrange.
Dept. Environment, Heritage & Local Government. (2010). Brú na Bóinne: Built Heritage: Art. World Heritage Ireland. http://www.worldheritageireland.ie/bru-na-boinne/built-heritage/art/.
“Newgrange in Summary.” Newgrange Neolithic (Stone Age) Megalithic Monument. http://www.newgrange.eu/.
“Brú na Bóinne Visitors Centre.” Brú na Bóinne Visitors Centre. http://www.knowth.com/bru-na-boinne.htm.