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  • Writer's pictureJanette Frawley

'Many times man lives and dies between his two eternities; that of race and that of soul.'

16 January 2022

Today is yet another beautiful, clear Irish Winter's day and I have four hours to drive from Kilkee to Newgrange, the 5,200-year-old Neolithic passage tomb located in the Boyne Valley not too far from Dublin. Believed to be built by stone-age farmers, the mound is 85 metres in diameter and 13 metres high.

Due to COVID restrictions across the world, travelling in a post-locked-down world is harder and requires a lot more attention to detail, particularly with the ability to visit landmarks and other interesting sites. The number of people who can visit an attraction is now severely restricted and timed tickets, once only used for special exhibitions, are now the norm. I have a 2 pm pre-booked ticket to immerse myself in Irish Neolithic history, which includes a bus ride to see Newgrange in 'real life'. As I arrive, I'm given a ticket and a wristband, which enables me to catch the 2:45 shuttle, but in the meantime, the Visitor Centre is beckoning. The excellent background information included here prepares me for the visit to the site.

From the Visitor Centre, I walk across a bridge that spans the fast-flowing River Boyne to take a shuttle to the Newgrange passage tomb, where our guide greets us with enthusiasm. Walking clockwise around the structure, he stops to point out various features, like the white quartz stone facade at the front of the tomb. Large quantities of white stones had been found when the site was excavated between 1962 and 1975 and they have been used to reconstruct the revetment wall. Perhaps the stones covered the entire mound or were originally used as pavers on the ground in front of the entrance. We cannot be sure, but many of the stones may have been taken and used by generations of farmers for building purposes. Interspersed with the white stones are rounded black granite rocks, which to my untrained eye, look out of place in this setting.

Encircled around the base of Newgrange is a collar of large stones; Perhaps designed to form a solid foundation. Called kerbstones, there are ninety-seven in total, three of which are engraved with the geometric and spiral patterns synonymous with Megalithic art. Two of the engraved stones are at the back of the mound, whilst the largest is at the entrance of the tomb and was possibly carved in situ.

Although classified as a passage tomb by archaeologists, it is now believed that Newgrange and the nearby Knowth and Dowth structures were places of astrological, spiritual, religious, and ceremonial importance. They are now considered to be temples in which the remains of important people were housed. We will never know whether the basis of the religious beliefs was ancestor or solar-based. However, we do know that the sun was a significant factor in the design and use of Newgrange.

We arrive at the mouth of the tomb and stop to admire the large entrance stone. Due to COVID, we are not permitted to enter, which is a shame, as I believe that the artwork on the internal stones is magnificent. Here and now, as the January sun is dipping towards the horizon, just a little to the right of the gap above the lintel, our guide explains what happens on the day of the Winter Solstice; a phenomenon he has witnessed several times in his role as a guide. He is animated in his descriptions of the process of the rising sun as it shines through the gap and floods the chamber with light. Much of the internal artwork is illuminated naturally once per year - as long as the sun is shining. I should mention here that the grey stone wall at the entrance of Newgrange is not original nor is it a reconstruction. It is there to make it easier for tourists to enter the tomb. On the outside perimeter, there is a circle of standing stones. Out of a probable thirty-five, only twelve remain. It is also possible that these were erected well after Newgrange, probably during the Bronze Age.

There is something mystical, almost magical about Newgrange. It is difficult to believe that it predates both Stonehenge and the tombs of Egypt, yet there appear to be similarities in the use of the sun's rays during the solstice to illuminate and to perhaps worship. Everything we learn from places like Newgrange can only be based on conjecture because there were no written accounts of life during that period. One thing we can be sure of; is that the people had derived great knowledge and used it in their construction methods such as the one here at Newgrange and Knowth and Nowth nearby. One day we will be able to visit those other two sites. We may not be any wiser about life during neolithic times, but we can celebrate their ingenuity and the fact that these structures still exist today.

Despite the vast remains of Neolithic people across Ireland; the graves, altars, and tombs such as Poulnabrone in the Burren and Newgrange, little is known about the people. According to our tour guide today, something catastrophic may have happened that wiped out the Neolithic people or they may have died out over some time, as the modern Irish people do not appear to be genetically related to them. 'The culture that built Newgrange is sometimes confused with the much later Celtic culture, and designs on the stones are misdescribed as 'Celtic'. However, recent archaeogenetics suggests that the west European neolithic population was largely replaced by later arrivals.' (Wikipedia)

One day, I’d like to return during the Winter solstice when the sun shines through a gap above the lintel of the entrance, lighting up the interior of the tomb and illuminating Megalithic artwork if I could be lucky enough to obtain a much-sought-after ticket for the display.

As the sun dips low and darkness creeps into the end of the day, I drive away from this wondrous place. I feel that I will be back one day, but for now, I must find accommodation in the nearby town of Drogheda ahead of my flight from Dublin tomorrow. Today is a perfect ending to a short unplanned solo holiday in Ireland.

Title Quote: WB Yeats

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