There and Back Again (Part 3): Newgrange


Part 1 (New York City), Part 2 (Wicklow and Cabra Castle)


newgrange standing stone

A standing stone at the Newgrange site.

Perhaps one of the most exciting parts about our Ireland trip for me was the amount of places we discovered along our route that I had actually heard of before. It was even more exciting because we didn’t plan any of it. It just happened to work out that whenever we researched things to see in a new area, something would inevitably pop up that I recognized by name and would cause me to shake my husband’s arm like a maniac and exclaim, “I know that! We HAVE to go there!! Ahhh!!!”

In case you haven’t figured it out by now, I was just a little delighted to be in Ireland. 😉 And there is nothing more thrilling than seeing with your own eyes places you’ve only ever heard of before. That was something I never expected I would actually get to do.

My love for Ireland grew out of a deepening appreciation for its music. I’d say around high school is when I started listening to a lot of “Celtic” music. I especially enjoyed traditional Irish music, and anyone who knows me can tell you that it is still my favorite. Through this musical journey, I discovered many Irish musicians (as well as Irish/Celtic inspired musicians) and added them to my collection; some more traditional than others, but all worth listening to. And from that sprouted my interest in the Irish language, culture, mythology, and so on.

Thus it was that I eventually stumbled across an old family band from Co. Donegal, northwest Ireland.

Clannad

Yes, I am talking about Clannad. 😉 Consisting of members of the Brennan/Duggan family, Clannad was very influential in the resurgence of interest in Irish music beginning in the 70’s. They are even viewed by many as the pioneers of the “Celtic” genre, infusing traditional with modern/new age sounds. Their contributions, among others, led not only to more familiarity of Irish music on a global scale, but also to a rise in effort to preserve the music, language and culture of their country.

Oh, and as an interesting side note for those who might not know, two members of the group eventually went on to enjoy very successful solo careers as well. That would be Maire (a.k.a. “Moya”) Brennan and her younger sister, Enya (who happens to be one of my all-time favorite musicians).

Moya (left) and Enya (right) with their brothers and uncles.

Moya (left) and Enya (right) with their brothers (Ciarán and Pól) and uncles (Noel and Pádraig)

But I digress.

The reason I bring up Clannad is because one of my favorite songs of theirs is “Newgrange.” The haunting melody, the harmony of the voices in the chorus, the spellbinding lyrics, and the almost tribal feel of the percussion all work together to weave a mysterious story about a forgotten race.

Needless to say, when my husband and I were thus looking over a list of things to see in our area while at Cabra Castle and my eyes fell upon the name “Newgrange,” I almost had a heart attack.

But first, a little history:

Newgrange is one of three prehistoric passage tombs in east Ireland (Co. Meath), the other two being Knowth and Dowth. All three are within the area known as Brú na Bóinne. Meaning “Palace” or “Mansion” of the Boyne, it is an area of land located in a bend of the River Boyne.

newgrange river boyne

newgrange river boyne 2

The cool part about these structures is that they are over 5,000 years old–in other words, they predate Stonehenge by 1,000 years, and are even older than the Egyptian pyramids! If that’s not impressive enough for you, these sites are also home to the largest amount of megalithic art in western Europe.

The construction of the tombs is nothing short of amazing. Somehow, a civilization that predates the invention of the wheel quarried massive stones weighing anywhere from 1-10 tons out of the mountains a few miles away, then transported them (most likely by the river, then rolling them on logs the remainder of the way) to the sites for construction. Furthermore, while the area today is mostly cleared and used as farmland, at that time it was heavily forested.

In the building of these mounds, no mortar or binding agent of any kind was used. Instead, they compensated for settling by stacking the stones in a precise layering method: one layer of large stones, then a layer of small pieces on top, then another layer of large stones, etc. As the large stones settled, the small pieces absorbed the impact and filled in the gaps to keep the rest from breaking or caving in. The fact that all three sites still stand in tact and in such superb condition is a testament to the people’s ingenuity. I never would have guessed how old they really are.

Newgrange is beautiful and awe-inspiring. This is the first view of it you see upon leaving the tour bus:

newgrange

The outer walls are solid white stone, and the top is covered in green grass. It reminds me a bit of Hobbit holes, actually. 😉 And the scenery around Newgrange is equally breathtaking:

newgrange landscape

One of the most intriguing and captivating sights was the carvings on some of the stones, both without and within. Was it a form of language? Artwork? Ceremonial? Religious? Not surprisingly, these tombs are shrouded in mystery. No one knows what the carvings mean; yet they’re still there, remarkably preserved.

newgrange stone swirls

The entrance stone

Similarly, the exact purpose of the ring of standing stones surrounding the mound also remains a mystery, although you’ll find plenty of opinions and conjecture on the subject. Many of the stones that made up the original ring are still in place as well:

newgrange standing stones

newgrange standing stone 2

Unfortunately, pictures aren’t allowed inside. So I will try my best to describe it for you.

Wait–what do ya know? I just found a website about Newgrange that includes pictures of the inside. So you’ll get a glimpse of it after all! Aren’t you special?

You begin here, at the entrance to the tunnel (hint: you see that rectangular gap above the entry? I’ll get to that later, so don’t forget it).

newgrange front

My apologies to the two random tourists who ventured into my shot…and to the left is our mysterious tour guide brooding in the shadows in Aragorn-esque fashion.

Once you cross the threshold of the entrance, you enter a narrow tunnel in a single file line (which is all the tunnel allows for). Oh, and you better watch you head. The stone ceiling is rather low and projects down in several places, meaning you have to duck a lot. Our guide suggested for any of those who might have claustrophobic tendencies to bring up the rear of the group, where an escape route is more easily accessible. 😉

The tunnel gradually descends a few feet into the earth, until your head is level with the ground at the entrance. In other words, if you were to turn and look back out the entrance, you would only see people’s feet.

At the end of the tunnel, there is a small, circular chamber maybe 7 feet in diameter. The small space is rather surprising, given the daunting size of the mound from the outside. Along the edges of this inner chamber are three smaller chambers, all equal distances from each other. If you imagine the main chamber as a clock, with the entrance tunnel at 6 o’clock, then the three chambers are at 9, 12 and 3 o’clock, creating a cross-like pattern.

Inside the farthest chamber, looking across at the entrance tunnel.

View inside the farthest chamber, looking across at the entrance tunnel (courtesy http://www.worldheritageireland.ie)

Inside each small chamber is a flat, round basin stone where the remains of the dead were placed in ancient times. The race that built Newgrange cremated their dead, but a few bones and other remains were apparently found still on the basin stones when excavations began back in the 1700’s (don’t worry, there aren’t bones inside anymore ;)).

The ceiling is a rather intriguing design. It is known as a “corbelled roof,” I later learned, meaning layers of large stones were overlapped on top of each other until only a small gap remained, which was then sealed with a single capstone. This method helped to ensure the chamber remained waterproof.

More designs can be seen carved on the stones inside the chamber–Oh, along with names and dates from the 1700’s and 1800’s, before “no graffiti” policies were put in place.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of Newgrange, however, is its alignment with the winter solstice. Do you recall your assignment? The rectangular gap above the entrance? I told you it would make a reappearance. 😉

newgrange entrance

That gap, known as the Roof Box, serves a very specific purpose. Every December, for a week or so during the winter solstice, when the morning sun rises above the hills in the east, its light shines directly into the Roof Box and streams across the floor of the tunnel and inner chamber, eventually coming to rest on the basin stone directly opposite the entrance:

The light starts out as a faint glow, but as the sun climbs higher in the sky, the light inside the chamber brightens. The whole event lasts for 15 minutes or so, until the light fades away again.

Obviously, we were not there during winter solstice, nor was it even remotely close to dawn, so we did not witness it firsthand. However, the guide was able to “reproduce” the effect with a man-made light positioned outside. Not quite the same I know, but it was mesmerizing to imagine seeing the sunlight creep across the floor like that.

Needless to say, I could have stayed there all day just staring at everything–and might have done, if not for the anticipation of another familiar landmark that awaited us later that day: the Hill of Tara…

But that is another post for another time. For now, I will leave you with visions of Newgrange, along with this video of Clannad’s song, featuring more pictures of the area. The song sets the mood perfectly to me, and, I admit, I had it stuck in my head for the rest of the day.

Lyrics:

There is a place on the east

Mysterious ring, a magical ring of stones.

The druids lived here once, they said,

Forgotten is the race that no one knows.

Rum de rum, ‘rud a derimo

Rum de rum, ‘rud a derimo.

Circled tomb of a different age,

Secret lines carved on ancient stone.

Heroic kings laid down to rest,

Forgotten is the race that no one knows.

Rum de rum, ‘rud a derimo

Rum de rum, ‘rud a derimo.

Wait for the sun on a winter’s day,

A beam of light shines across the floor.

Mysterious ring, a magical ring,

But forgotten is the race that no one knows.

Rum de rum, ‘rud a derimo

Rum de rum, ‘rud a derimo.


Next stop, the Hill of Tara!

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7 thoughts on “There and Back Again (Part 3): Newgrange

  1. Pingback: There and Back Again (Part 6): Ireland’s West Coast | The Gathering Fire

  2. Pingback: There and Back Again (Part 5): Glencar Waterfall | The Gathering Fire

  3. Pingback: There and Back Again (Part 4): The Hill of Tara | The Gathering Fire

  4. Pingback: Be Thou My Vision: Faith and Perseverance | The Gathering Fire

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