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Why You Should use an Irish Builder.
Newgrange (County Meath, Ireland)
Member Name: Ali72
Newgrange (County Meath, Ireland)
Advantages: Awesome, thought-provoking UNESCO World Heritage Site
Disadvantages: Not accessible for the physically disabled.
I first visited in 1999, when I was over in Ireland staying with my husband's family. It was a chilly, damp day in April when they suggested we might like to see an area known as Brú na Bóinne - in English, "the dwelling place of the Boyne". This turned out to be a collection of prehistoric sites in County Meath, located in a wide meander of the River Boyne about an hour's drive north of Dublin. The most famous of these antiquities is Newgrange, a megalithic "passage tomb" richly decorated with ancient works of art. (Although there is much debate over whether Newgrange was more than just a tomb - more about that later.)
We headed for the visitor center, which lies between the towns of Slane and Doghedra, near the village of Donore, and found that it was well signposted from a few miles out - or, being Ireland, I should say a few km out - and easy to find. It was easy to park in the ample car park. (Admittedly it was only shoulder-season but we have returned in the peak of summer and still found a space easily). I understand that there is also a bus to the visitor center from Droghedra, which connects with the Droghedra-Dublin service, but I haven't used it.
The visitor centre is on the south side of the River Boyne, and the gateway to the Brú na Bóinne sites; there is no direct access to the sites and visitor numbers are tightly controlled, so if you are visiting during peak season, you should get there early to avoid missing out. As far as I know, it's not possible to book for a future date (except, in the case of Newgrange, around the winter solstice - more about that later) and it's first come, first served on the day.
On approaching the entrance, we learnt that there are three dominant sites in the area: Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. It was not (and still is not as far as I know) possible for the public to visit Dowth, and we discovered that Knowth was only open during the summer months of May to October. Fortunately, Newgrange was open all year round, and we were advised that we should allow around two hours for our visit. Access to the visitor center as well as the tour was included in the very reasonable, pre-Euro, admission price of £4. A cheaper option allowing access to the visitor center only was also available. I have checked current prices and the Newgrange tour is now around 6 Euros per adult.
We were lucky and were informed that a group was leaving for Newgrange imminently. We were directed outside to a suspension bridge across the river and followed the path down to a waiting tour bus. Each tour group comprises a maximum of 24 visitors so that the site does not become overcrowded, and we were relieved to find that our group was actually slightly fewer in number than this.
After a very short drive through the green, gently undulating landscape, we got our first glimpse of Newgrange: a huge grassy mound faced with brilliant white quartz glinting in the low afternoon sun. Another tour group was inside, so we had the opportunity to wander around the monument at our leisure before it would be our turn.
From the outside, Newgrange appears to be just an 11m high grassy mound, faced with quartz stone. It covers over an acre and apparently is constructed from more than 200, 000 tons of stone and earth. Around the edge lie 97 kerbstones, many of which are decorated with carved motifs such as multiple-spirals, concentric circles, and symbols interpreted as the sun and the moon. These huge stones, or "megaliths", are about chest height (I'm nearly 1.8m / 6ft tall) and more than 2m wide.
We walked around the perimeter before coming to a halt again at the front entrance. Newgrange is strategically situated at the top of a raised ridge and we had a clear view all around across miles of patchwork farmland, sparsely punctuated by trees. Other mounds in the distance hinted at archaeological remains yet to be excavated, much like the area surrounding England's most famous megalithic structure, Stonehenge.
At the front of the mound are twelve standing stones, the remnants of what may have been an arc or possibly a complete circle of stones surrounding the mound. The entrance stone itself is very elaborately carved, featuring the well known "tri-spiral" design, which I had always assumed was Celtic in origin, but obviously was actually from this more distant era. Newgrange was built more than 5,000 years ago, during the Neolithic (New Stone) Age - which makes it older than the Egyptian Pyramids.
Finally it was time for us to go inside. We mounted one of the two sets of wooden steps over the kerbstones to the left and right of the entrance stone, and followed a sloping wooden platform on the other side down into the passage entrance. Incidentally, between the wooden steps the white façade of quartz stone has been cut away to allow this access, so if you see any photos of this area, it has a dark background rather than white - which I thought was a bit of a shame, but I imagine that it would be impossible to have any volume of visitors without it.
We had to stoop to enter through the low doorway, but were able to straighten up as we made our way along the narrow passage, lined by now-upright megaliths. As we shuffled along the dirt floor, it was impossible not to brush against the stones, some bearing the by-now familiar carved symbols, visible with the modern addition of low-level electric lighting. The passage extended for about 20m into the mound, before opening into a small chamber branching off in three directions, in a cruciform shape. Here the ceiling height was highest, with a corbelled roof above which has remained watertight for more than 5000 years - hence the title of this review! Each of the short branches contained a large stone basin in which cremated remains and grave goods were found when Newgrange was originally excavated.
If this wasn't impressive enough, the thing that makes Newgrange really remarkable, though, is its astronomical orientation: it is aligned to the winter solstice sunrise. While we squeezed together at the end of the passage, our tour guide turned out the electric lights, plunging us into pitch darkness; there is a slight bend to the passage and light does not penetrate that far back from the entrance. However, on the morning of the winter solstice, when the sun rises over the horizon, a shaft of light enters through a slit opening, the "roofbox", over the doorway and creeps up the passage to brightly illuminate the chamber for a few minutes, before once again retreating. This effect was recreated using electric light for us, but there are some lucky people who get to see the actual phenomenon for themselves: the custodians of Newgrange hold a lottery each year for 50 pairs of tickets for the four days around the winter solstice when this occurs. You can apply at the Brú na Bóinne visitor center or online. We have had our names down since that first visit, but unfortunately we have never been lucky enough to be drawn.
When we returned to the visitor center, we found that we could have been more prepared if we had spent some time reading the exhibits before taking the tour bus, and I would recommend this to get the most out of your visit. There is a full-scale replica of the Newgrange chamber and an explanation of the archaeological digs including an audio-visual presentation in several languages. Best of all, there is a wide viewing platform where you can look across the river to gain an appreciation of the overall setting. There are also the obligatory toilets and a coffee shop.
It's hard to convey what an amazing experience a visit to Newgrange is. You will forget any pre-conceived ideas you may have about "primitive" stone-age peoples - Newgrange proves that this was a highly evolved society. I wonder how many of our modern day Cathedrals and important monuments will stand the test of aeons of time. Who were these people? Why did they die out and why do we know so little about them? Was Newgrange really only a tomb or does its intricate construction and amazing astronomical alignment hint that it had a more profound significance? Penetration by light so vividly symbolises fertility, the end of winter and the coming of new life that it would be easy to believe that it played a wider part in society. Also, I was intrigued by the cruciform nature of the chamber - that shape so strongly associated nowadays with Christianity. You may find that you leave with more questions than answers and there is a healthy ongoing academic debate as to the true nature of the place. We will probably never know for sure.
More information about the history of Newgrange and up-to-date opening times / admission prices can be found at:
www.knowth.com/ which includes further links for the really keen.
I can't recommend a visit highly enough.
Summary: Neolithic passage-tomb aligned to the winter solstice sunrise.
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