Towards the end of our Dublin visit, somewhat recovered from Covid, we took a day trip to the countryside to visit the ancient burial tombs of Knowth and Newgrange, and the Hill of Tara. I first read about Newgrange in a historical fiction novel called “Ireland” by Frank Delaney. It is a 5,200 year old passage tomb built in the Neolithic era by stone age farmers. It sounded very interesting to see, so I booked a day tour when we were still back home. Besides Newgrange, other goodies were sprinkled into the day: the Hill of Tara, and more tombs in a place called Knowth. I was so glad we were at least able to keep this tour scheduled. Coincidentally, we met a woman in the breakfast room at our hotel who was booked on our same tour, because she had read the same book I had!
Once on the bus, our tour guide kept up a constant patter of historical information as we rode, all of which was extremely interesting and most of which I’ve already forgotten. I was so happy just to see the countryside after having been in cities for my entire time in Ireland, and enjoyed gazing out the window as I listened. Our first stop was the Hill of Tara.
The bus let us out, and it was a bit of a hike over to the hill. I was giddy with delight about being out of the city and getting some fresh air. I loved seeing little Saint Patrick’s church and graveyard on our hike. It looked like something out of an Austen or Bronte classic to me. I know…I was in Ireland, not England, but still.
The people in the group had gotten ahead of me as I photographed the church. The higher hill that some of them have already reached in this picture is the Hill of Tara.
This area has been inhabited for at least 6,000 years. The earliest peoples built the passage tombs, and the hills here are also burial sites. In the Iron Age, they were still using them. In that era, Tara became the seat of the high kings of Ireland. According to legend, there was a standing stone here called Lia Fáil, Stone of Destiny. It would cry out if touched by a true king, and the stone below is believed to be the one. It has seemed to have lost its magical powers in the modern era.
Later in history, St. Patrick converted pagans to Chrisitanity here. The stone also marks the spot where United Irishmen were attacked and defeated in their camp by British troops in 1798. Four hundred rebels lost their lives that day.
Continuing on in the bus, we learned from our guide that in this area, the Boyne River forms a large protective bend. The ancient peoples lived their lives here in this fertile valley, where food and water were plentiful.
The Battle of the Boyne also happened here in July of 1690. It was a decisive battle between England and Ireland and was the last time two kings were both present on the battlefield: William of Orange and James II. Because of this battle, the ascendency of Anglican Protestantism in Ireland was assured.
For the Knowth and Newgrange tombs, we boarded an ancient school bus and guides were waiting for us at each site. We nabbed a front seat. I entertained myself watching the driver negotiate the narrow road on the left hand side with a right hand steering wheel, and was very glad we had chosen not to rent a car.
Finally we arrived at Knowth, with its many various burial mounds. These are passage tombs, meaning that it is possible to enter the mounds, but the public cannot do so. Knowing nothing about Knowth before this day, I was surprised to see there were so many in various sizes.
At Knowth, this large mound is surrounded by 17 smaller ones. There are two passages inside and it is bordered by 127 kerbstones. In the next picture, I’ve included a picture of our guide to give some perspective on the size of these mounds, and you can see the kerbstones more closely. The stones are covered with megalithic art, and this is a third of all megalithic art known in Europe – all together, 200 stones. The meaning of the shapes on the stones is unknown.
I thought it was interesting that some of the art was done on the backs of stones and was hidden. There are a lot of theories about this. It’s possible that they intended it to stay hidden. Another theory is that they recycled stones and simply used the other side. Makes sense to me!
Later civilizations, not knowing what was underneath the ground, simply built dwelling places and villages on top of the mounds. This picture that I saw in their small museum illustrates this from left to right. Eventually, the smaller mounds were mostly buried.
These ruins in front of the mounds were the foundation of someone’s home in a later era.
This photo gives an aerial view of the mounds:
Finally, our last stop: Newgrange. The ancients had put the white stones all around the burial mounds to prevent erosion. At Knowth, these white stones were left on the ground. At Newgrange, they were put back as they had originally been. This passage tomb is huge.
The fascinating thing about Newgrange is that it is built with a box to let the sun shine through on the exact day of the winter solstice, December 21. On that single day, the sun sends a beam clear through to the center of the tomb. How did they engineer this to have it work so perfectly? In Delany’s book, the design is the work of a single genius in the tribe who was able to direct all of the inhabitants to carry out the plans. Maybe so. The truth has been lost in history.
The light box is just above the entrance. We were able to go in all the way to the center but no pictures were allowed. There were were no lights inside the tomb; it was illuminated only with natural light from the box. In the center, our guide shone her flashlight through to the front to replicate the solstice experience. It was an amazing feeling to be there; even more amazing if you could be here on the solstice.
Most of the bodies in the tombs had been cremated. When Newgrange was exacavated in the ’70’s, the unburnt bones of one man were found in an elaborately carved niche. Aha. Maybe that was the remains of the “genius”!
If you are thinking it would be great to be at Newgrange on the solstice to see this effect for yourself, tickets are extremely limited (and are probably sold out for 2022, although I haven’t checked). You could go through the expense of getting here, and end up with a cloudy day. So, no sun effect for all that effort!
Next time – Edinburgh, Scotland