Ireland: Newgrange & Dublin

Thursday, Nov 28, 2002

From Belfast we headed south, Dublin being our final destination, but not before stopping at a site some 30 miles north and about 5000 years in the past: the mythical Bru na Boinne, the valley of the river Boyne, with its famous tomb of Newgrange.

The great passage tomb of Newgrange looms like a mighty king on its throne,
knightly menhirs (standing stones) in attendance, overlooking the Boyne River Valley below.
Nov. 28, 2002

Built around the year 3000 B.C.E., Newgrange is an excellent example of a passage tomb: it is a giant mound of earth covering a very narrow stone-lined passageway that leads into a cross-shaped chamber some 60 feet into the man-made hill. The tomb is actually older than the Great Pyramid at Giza, Egypt, and about the oldest thing we have seen in our travels; in fact, except for the cave paintings at Lascaux, France, we really cannot think of anything older still standing today, destroying all of our modern world’s preconceptions about the “simplicity” of stone-age peoples.

The visitor’s center at Bru na Boinne is excellent, providing a handy exhibition on stone-age life and technology, a replica of Newgrange and several good publications for those wanting more info. We picked up one of them, and headed to wait for the bus, which took us all the way to the tomb site. You can tell the place is a favorite with tourists, local and international, because in the middle of November, the groups were still about 15-20 people and constantly arriving. Lots of school children milled about that day, probably one or two schools taking their students on a field trip. It was actually really funny, because once our guide, a petite young woman, began to talk to us a bunch of elementary school-age children started to run around the area, making it impossible for us to hear her, so she turned around and yelled at them in Irish, telling them (she told us afterwards, it’s not like we understood it) to stop running and go back with their teacher. Their faces were priceless!

The entrance to the tomb and the skybox. The tell-tale swirly glyphs of
Newgrange still baffle scientists, who have no idea what they could possibly
mean. Take note of the skybox above the entrance (it will come in handy below).
Nov. 28, 2002

A few moments later our guide lead us inside the tomb. The passage is incredibly narrow; people had to take off their backpacks, and big people (like Danny) had to watch out for their head and stomach. The passage stones are decorated diamonds, chevrons and with more of the tell-tale swirly designs found all over Newgrange (like on the entrance stone above). The ceiling stones also have a shallow grove running the length of the passage in order to route water out of the tomb thus keeping it dry. Once again, no mortar was used to stick the stones together; it is only by sheer excellent engineering that the whole place is stable an does not collapse under the 200,000 tons of stone and dirt above it.

We reached the cross-shaped inner chamber, where even more decorations awaited us. In fact, our guide pointed out to us, some of the decorations were obscured by overlapping stones, meaning the stone had been decorated before being put into place in the tomb. She next explained to us about Newgrange’s little light show every Winter Solstice: on or around Dec. 21 (and actually, for a few days before and after as well, though not with the same intensity as on the solstice), when the sun rises over the horizon, sunlight filters through the skybox above the entrance (see above), shooting a thin shaft of light all the way to the inner chamber. For the next 17 minutes, the ray of light moves and gains in intensity, giving the chamber enough illumination to be able to read and discern colors, as the guide told us. She herself had witnessed the event three times before, and we all envied her. She did the second best thing for us, though. After a warning, she turned off all the electric lights inside the tomb, leaving us in absolute pitch darkness–the kind of darkness you can feel pressing against you. Then the electric facsimile of the light show began, and while only a pale imitation of the real event, it was enough to awe every single one of us.

Newgrange has watched over Ireland for 5300 years, still hiding
many of her secrets from modern peoples, silently watching history unfold.
Nov. 28, 2002

Newgrange humbled us all. Five thousand years ago, stone-age people had found a way to engineer this massive structure, bringing building material from miles around (the white quartz stones you see above come all the way from the Wicklow Mountains, some 40 miles south), and tuning it with exact precision to a natural event that only comes once a year, all without the aid of mathematics, at least as we know it today. Knowth, the second of three passage tombs on the Boyne Valley, is also attuned to a cyclical celestial event, with two passages each calibrated to allow light to reach the inner chamber of the tomb on the Spring and Fall Equinoxes in much the same way as Newgrange. Though we have absolutely no idea what the purpose of these tombs (beyond the obvious) were, especially in regards to the attunement to these times of the year, we can nonetheless marvel at the legacy these peoples left us. In a time when technology is pervasive and it’s so easy to be lost in the chaos of modernity, Newgrange reminds us that for thousands of years people lived close to nature, in harmony with nature, and mindful of nature. It does not mean that we must now live like they did as well, but it is a lesson we should all take with us. After all, we inhabit the very same world the builders of Newgrange inhabited. They left us Newgrange for us to learn; what will we leave the generations of 5000 years in the future?

After leaving Newgrange we wanted to do the other big sight of the area, the Hill of Tara, but it seems Tara is closed during the winter, so we headed straight into Dublin. And into end-of-day rush hour traffic. We were stuck in the traffic jam for about 2 hours, all the while realizing we only had the barest idea of where we were, and alarmingly aware that we had no place to stay. During the time in the car we decided to skip the city and head for Dun Laoghaire (pronounced Dun Leary, don’t ask why so many extra letters, Irish is just like that), a quieter suburb of Dublin. Rick Steves’ guidebook had a few recommendations, so we figured we’d try one of them. Getting to Dun Laoghaire was another adventure, since we didn’t really have a map of Dublin; half an hour later we had both gotten an interesting tour of suburban Dublin, and found our B&B, Mrs. Kane’s Seaview B&B. It was a bit late, and Mrs. Kane looked at us kinda weird when we arrived. Later she would confess to us that the only reason she decided to give us a room was because I had Rick Steves’ guide in my hand when I knocked on the door. Thank you, Rick!