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Ireland’s Megalithic heritage


When one thinks of traveling to the ancient archaeological sites of the western world, they often think of the Pyramids of Giza, the Antiquities of Greece and Italy, or Stonehenge.  Tourists, due to the amount of press they receive, often swarm these sites.  However, there is one site, in Western Europe, that predates all of these.   The site is Newgrange in Ireland, predating the Pyramids of Egypt by 600 years and Stonehenge by 1000 years.

On my travels, I’m an avid fan of visiting ancient historical and archaeological sites especially the ones that are often “off the beaten path”.  I had traveled the circumference of Ireland from Dublin around the southern, western, and northern parts of the Emerald Isle.  My last two days found me in Belfast and after a whirlwind tour of Northern Ireland’s capitol city; I debated what to do on the last day of my trip.  I had picked up a pamphlet back in Dublin about Newgrange, a Neolithic archaeological site.  After consulting the tourist center and bus station I found out that Newgrange is two hours south of Belfast and only one hour north of Dublin so it would have been better to make a day trip out of Dublin.  But with nothing else to do, I boarded an early bus heading south out of Northern Ireland back to the Republic.

The bus ride meandered through small Irish villages and breathtaking scenery that captured the essence of Ireland.  Eventually we ended up in Drogheda in County Meath.  From the bus station in Drogheda it is a mere ten minutes east by city bus.  The actual stop on the city bus is Bru Na Boinne (The Boyne Palace).  This is the same vicinity that the Battle of Boyne occurred in 1650.  Bru Na Boinne actually consist of many different sites, the three principle ones being Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth.   Guided tours are available for all three sites however, time only allowed me to visit Newgrange, the most famous of the three.  There is a welcome visitors center containing an extraordinary collection, explanation, and interactive material about the exhibits and history of the Stone Age people.

From the welcome center, I purchased my tour ticket and boarded a shuttle bus taking us out to the ancient sites.  Upon arrival at Newgrange, the initial reaction I had was one of disappointment since it simply appeared to be a flattened, grass covered mound. However, underneath lies the finest Stone Age passage tomb in Ireland and one of the most remarkable prehistoric sites in Europe.

The Megalithic Passage Tomb at Newgrange was built about 3200 BC. The kidney shaped mound covers an area of over one acre and is surrounded by 97 kerbstones, some of which are richly decorated with megalithic art. The inner passage leads to a cruciform chamber with a corbelled roof. It is estimated that the construction of the Passage Tomb at Newgrange would have taken a work force of 300 at least 20 years. 

Megalithic mounds such as Newgrange entered Irish mythology as sídhe or fairy mounds. Newgrange was said to be the home of Aengus, the god of love. A debate rages over the name of Newgrange some claiming that it was a “new granary” for storing wheat and grain for a period of time while other locals believe the name to come from Cave of Grainne in reference to a Celtic Myth.  Over the centuries, Newgrange deteriorated and like other ancient sites was quarried.  The Passage Tomb at Newgrange was re-discovered in 1699 by the removal of material for road building. A major excavation of Newgrange began in 1962.

The white quartzite was originally obtained from Wicklow 160 miles south of the site and some stone from the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland.  It is said that over 200,000 tones of earth and stone went into the making of this mound and remember this was built during the stone age period a time when there was only stone, not metal, used as an everyday material for tools and weapons.

As I entered the chamber I was overcome with awe at how this could have been built so long ago.  Only a small number of people can enter the tomb at one time and the passage is very narrow.  At the end of the chamber there are three recesses, which reminded me of the modern day basilica architecture.  In these recesses are large basin stones that once held cremated bones and funeral offerings such as stone beads and pendants. 

Above these three recesses is the massive vaulted roof. Our tour guide showed us the dome at the end of the passage which is completely made of stone and after 3,200 years not a drop of water has leaked through, nor has a stone fell from the inner chamber. 

In concluding the tour, the docent then turned off the lights and simulated the winter solstice. This simulation was quite a treat, seeing the sun creep across the passage floor and illuminating the tomb.  Although it was only a simulation, it was thought provoking at how these ancient people, like so many other cultures, understood the cycles of the sun and moon.  The passage and chamber of Newgrange are illuminated by the winter solstice sunrise. A shaft of sunlight shines through the roof box over the entrance and penetrates the passage to light up the chamber. The dramatic event lasts for 17 minutes at dawn from the 19th to the 23rd of December. Our tour guide explained that the site has become so popular and only a mere 10 people can fit in this chamber resulting in a lottery system for 50 lucky people to attend this annual event (10 people per day for 5 days).

In 1993, Newgrange and its sister sites Knowth and Dowth were designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO because of their outstanding cultural legacy.

As our tour ended and we were shuttled back to the visitors center I was still amazed how precise and carefully planned and created this site was.   I was even more taken aback realizing that it was not only one of the most ancient sites in Western Europe but also that it had been built by a people who were from the stone age period.  Once again, like Machu Picchu , Tikal, Stonehenge, and the Pyramids, I was confronted with the unanswered mystery of how these people could undertake such a feat and for what purpose did it all serve.  It left me wanting to know more.

For other travelers to Ireland I highly recommend this site.  While it is a feasible day trip from Belfast, it is far more convenient from Dublin.  As of this writing, the admission was 6 Euros for Newgrange alone and 10 Euros for all three sites.  While Stonehenge, The Pyramids of Giza and other famous sites of antiquity may draw hordes of tourist,  Newgrange is beginning to attract a large number of visitors.   In recent times, there have been as many as 200,000 visitors to Newgrange each year, making it the most visited archaeological monument in Ireland.

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