Ireland’s Fascinating History – Passage Tombs
Visiting Ireland should be on everyone’s list, but, as with most European countries, there is so much to see out and away from the major cities. Such is the case with Dublin, an incredible city to be sure, but situated just north of the City is the Boyne River Valley located in County Meath.
On my second full day in County Meath, I planned to visit Newgrange passage tomb which is located about 30 kilometers northeast of Trim near Slane I have to admit that one thing I always do when visiting Ireland is arm myself with a GPS (or Sat-Nav) of some sort…otherwise, I find that it is just a little too easy to get turned about on the twisty country roads and roundabouts. Not that I ever mind getting ‘lost’ because those are some of the best moments of travel. Although I do take the Motorway on occasion when in Ireland, I try my best to stick to the secondary (N) roads as much as possible.
Newgrange is one of a complex of Neolithic mounds, chamber tombs, standing stones, henges and other prehistoric enclosures, some dating from as early as 35th-32nd century BC, predating the Egyptian pyramids. The builders of these sites demonstrated an extensive knowledge of science and astrology. The area is known as Brú na Bóinne (Palace of the Boyne) and is located in a hairpin-like bend of the Boyne River and is surrounded on the east, south, and west by the river.
Other than at the Winter Solstice, the only way to access Newgrange and Knowth (another passage tomb nearby) is by taking a guided tour from the Brú na Bóinne Visitors Centre which is located on the south side of the river Boyne. Inside the visitor center, you purchase a ticket for the tour and these are assigned by shuttle times and sold on a first come first serve basis. I was fortunate that I visited in late September and the wait wasn’t too bad, but I was told that often you have to pick up your ticket hours in advance. I joined my group, crossed the pedestrian bridge, and boarded a small bus for a short ride to Newgrange, which is located on the north side of the river.
Massive, distinct, mysterious – arriving at the tomb area I found myself gazing up to a huge mound of earth graced by what appeared to be a shining wall of white stones. Originally believed to simply be a tomb, most of what is believed about the passage tombs of County Meath is based upon legend and folklore and what has been discovered through archaeological digs. Discovered in 1699, it was not until the1969 refurbishment of the site that the connection with the Winter Solstice was established. The complex of Newgrange was originally built between c. 3200 and 3100 BC.I have to admit that I am awed by being able to visit a significent site that is over 5000 years old! Excavations have revealed deposits of both burned and unburned human bone in the passage,lending credence to its use as a burial ground.
A vast majority of the stones uncovered by archaeologists are covered with megalithic art, including the triple spiral that has come to symbolize ancient Ireland herself. This triple spiral is featured prominently on the face of the entrance stone.
One idea about Newgrange is that the room was designed for a ritualistic capturing of the sun on the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice in order to help the days start to get longer again and ensure the coming of Spring. Because similar alignments have been discovered at Knowth, Dowth, and the Lough Crew Cairns, the idea has grown that these tombs were also used as astronomical devices of some sort.
Once a year, at the winter solstice (around December 21 or 22), the rising sun shines directly along the long passage, illuminating the inner chamber and revealing the carvings inside. The most impressive of these is the triple spiral on the front wall of the chamber. This triple spiral is also quite a prominent feature of the entrance stone. During the tour, we were allowed to enter the inner chamber. The lights were extinguished and a strong flashlight was used to simulate the rising solstice sun. It was an eerie feeling to see the light begin to strike the wall of the chamber. One can only imagine what mystical associations the Neolithic people placed on this once a year occurrence.
During the tour, we entered the inner chamber being careful not to bump our heads on the entrance keystone. The lights were extinguished and a strong flashlight was used to simulate the rising solstice sun. It was an eerie feeling to see the light begin to strike the wall of the chamber. Everyone was quiet and the mystical feeling was palpable.
Access to Newgrange is by guided tour only. Tours begin at the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre in Donore, Co. Meath, from which visitors are bussed to the site in groups. To experience the phenomenon on the morning of the Winter Solstice from inside Newgrange, one must enter a lottery at the interpretive centre. Roughly 100 people are chosen each year, fifty people receive tickets and are permitted to bring a guest per ticket. They are split into groups of five and taken in on the five days around the Solstice in which light does (weather permitting) enter the chamber.
If you find yourself in Dublin and are looking for a ‘something out of the ordinary’ experience, I can highly recommend a visit to the Boyne Valley area. Day tours are offered from Dublin by Boyne Valley Tours. (I have no relationship to nor did I use this group, but it was suggested to me by my airbnb hosts as a possibility).
You may also be interested in: Trim and the Hill of Tara – County Meath, Ireland
If you go:
The Brú na Bóinne Visitors Centre and the actual Newgrange monument are open all year round except for December 24th, 25th, 26th, and 27th. Knowth is open from April 3rd to October 15th for 2014. Last admission to the Visitor Centre is 45 minutes before closing. Last tour of Newgrange and Knowth monuments is 1 hour 45 minutes before closing time of the Visitor Centre.
February – April: Daily 09.30 – 17.30.
May: Daily 09.00 – 18.30.
June – Mid September: Daily 09.00 – 19.00.
Mid – End September: Daily 09.00 – 18.30.
October: Daily 09.30 – 17.30.
November – January: Daily 09.00 – 17.00.
Visitors Centre and Newgrange Megalithic Tomb
Adult: Euro 6.00
Senior/Group: Euro 5.00
Child/Student: Euro 3.00
Family: Euro 15.00
The Visitors Centre and Newgrange are open all year round except for December 24th, 25th, 26th, and 27th.
Average Length of Visit is 2 hours.
All groups of 15 or more must be pre-booked.
Photography / Video not allowed inside the chamber at Newgrange.
World Heritage Site
Newgrange has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and attracts over 200,000 visitors per year.