Less than an hour from downtown Dublin, step 5000 years back in time.
Of course, there are hundreds of reasons to visit Ireland. Its rich history is enchanting and we’ve blogged several times about what was for a long time our second home, the Emerald Isle. But the River Boyne Valley is a gem amongst gems.
Built-in 3200 BC by Stone Age farmers, Newgrange is a Megalithic Passage Tomb built along the River Boyne in County Meath, Ireland. At 5000 years old, this site is older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza. So why it’s called “New” grange is beyond me. Actually, I do know. Farms in the area were known as “granges”. By 1378, this area was simply called Newgrange.
Originally discovered in 1699 by workers building a road, a major excavation of the site didn’t get underway until 1962. It has since been designated a World Heritage Site by Unesco.
The mound is truly something to behold. Kidney-shaped with a diametre of 85 metres, and a height of 13.5 metres, Newgrange covers just over an acre. Leading into the mound is a 19 metre passageway that takes you to the chamber inside which features 3 alcoves.
Surrounding the main mound are 97 kerbstones. Most of these large stones are engraved with megalithic designs. Probably the most interesting is the entrance stone.
Although archeologists have classified Newgrange as a Passage Tomb, perhaps Ancient Temple is a more appropriate description as this was a site of astrological, ceremonial, religious and spiritual importance. But no one knows for sure why this was built.
And no one knows for sure how the building materials were transported from County Louth, 20 km away.
The event that makes Newgrange truly remarkable is the winter solstice. Just above the main passageway entrance is an opening called the roof-box. Every year from December 19th to the 23rd, the sun shines through the roof-box illuminating the otherwise dark passage and chamber. As the sun rises the inside of the mound becomes brighter. This event lasts 17 minutes. Remarkable when you consider this was built 1000 years before Stonehenge and 500 years before the Pyramids. It’s thought Stone Age farmers marked the beginning of a new year. By taking the tour in the mound, this effect is well replicated with spotlights inside the tomb.
Welcoming 200 000 visitors per year, access to the passageway and chamber is limited to a handful of people at a time. With demand increasing at the winter solstice, the only way to witness the phenomenon is through a lottery which you can enter at the time of your visit. Of course, there is no guarantee of a sunny day given that this is Ireland and it tends to be cloudy and rainy, especially in winter. But it must be an extraordinary feeling to be waiting in the dark, waiting for the sun, as ancients might have done 5000 years ago.
Another incredible site nearby is Knowth and its great mound. There are similarities with Newgrange. 127 mostly engraved kerbstones also circle the base of the mound. With over 200 engraved and decorated stones found at Knowth, this 5000-year-old site contains a third of all megalithic art in Western Europe. It is thought it was built following Newgrange. Although the mound is dwarfed by it’s larger more famous neighbour, it’s just as interesting.
Unlike Newgrange, you can climb to the top of the Knowth mound for incredible views of the Boyne Valley and spot numerous smaller mounds in the distance. This feature, along with 2 passages in the main mound, no less than 18 satellite passage tombs and 16 burial pits excavated surrounding the main mound all make Knowth every bit as impressive as Newgrange. Perhaps even more so in some respects. Truly, you are walking with the Ancients.
Visiting the sites:
If you have a car, Newgrange is a 45-minute drive or so from downtown Dublin via the N2 or M1. If you don’t have a car, there are several tour companies that will take you there with pickup points in the downtown Dublin area.
Once at the modern Bru Na Boinne visitors centre, there are various tour options, each equally as impressive as the next. We took the Newgrange and Knowth tours which probably took 3 hours or so. There are friendly guides at both locations sharing useful information that will enrich your experience. Other than in the passages and chambers, you can walk around these sites at your leisure (you might want to bring a water bottle with you). But don’t miss the shuttle bus back!
In an effort to promote the conservation of these ancient sites, there’s no access to either of these sites other than through the visitor centre. If you have mobility issues, this is perhaps not the adventure for you as there is a lot of walking involved.
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Mike & Dianne