The combination of its natural beauty and fascinating archaeological record (chronicling the country’s long history) makes Ireland a compelling place to visit. There are many fabulous places to see when visiting Ireland, each seeming better than the last one you stopped at. I think the most fascinating place we visited on the Emerald Isle — surpassing even the fabulous Dingle peninsula — was Brú na Bóinne. This place is truly unique and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Situated just an hour’s drive north of Dublin, it’s home to the most ancient structures I’ve ever been in and is well worth going out of your way to see.
Specifically I’m talking specifically about visiting Newgrange and Knowth, two sites in a complex of monuments (totaling about 3 dozen) built along a bend of the River Boyne which are collectively known as Brú na Bóinne. You can only access Knowth and Newgrange (and enter one tomb at each site) by guided tour from the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre. Reservations are not possible except in person on a given day so visit early to ensure you won’t be disappointed, especially in the busy summer season. Newgrange is especially popular and tours fill up quickly. A shuttle bus takes you from the visitor center to the respective sites where you’re given a guided tour of the grounds and then are taken into the burial tomb.
Knowth was the first of the two passage tomb sites we visited and I’m glad we went to this one first because, as impressive as it is, it’s just not in the same league as Newgrange. Knowth is a tightly clustered group of mounds consisting of a huge one and 17 smaller ones. The largest of passage graves in Brú na Bóinne is found here and measures about 12 m (40 ft) high, 67 m (220 ft) in diameter, covering roughly a hectare (1.5 acres).
The large mound at Knowth (circa 2500 BC) is encircled by 127 kerb-stones, many highly decorated by neolithic designs. This mound contains two independent passages along an east-west line (probably related to the equinoxes although no longer precisely aligned following restoration), each leading to a burial chamber. You enter the large tomb on a metal bridge past a decorated heel-stone into the tomb where you are able to stand in a room and look down one of the passages (although you don’t actually go down that passage). It’s not certain exactly how the place was used by ancient tribes, but likely cremated remains were placed into the burial chamber at a certain time of year.
Besides its impressive mounds, Knowth is well know for its neolithic art and contains more examples of rock carvings from the Neolithic period than anywhere else in Western Europe (over 200 decorated stones), mostly found on the kerb-stones surrounding the large mound. You can climb atop the largest mound for wonderful views of the Boyne River valley. The area on top of this mound is huge — large enough for a good football match if you’re so inclined!
Newgrange was built over 5,000 years ago (about 3,200 B.C.), also during the Neolithic era, before even Stonehenge or the Great Pyramid of Giza. It’s obvious it was was crafted by an advanced society but little is know about the people who built it except that they were farmers. Unlike Knowth, Newgrange has only a single mound but WHAT a tomb!
Newgrange is a very carefully designed passage tomb and probably an ancient Temple. The structure covers an acre and has a dome-shaped roof with 97 curbstones along its base, many of these also highly decorated with neolithic art. White and dark granite rocks frame its front face and there’s a single entryway. You enter it in single file fashion into a 19 meter long inner passage and walk to the end into a cruciform chamber. Above the entrance to the passage there’s a opening called a “roof-box” which allows dawn’s light to penetrate to the end of the chamber on the morning of the winter solstice.
At dawn on December 21st, if the day is clear, a narrow beam of sunlight light penetrates the roof-box and gradually reaches the floor of the inner chamber filling it with daylight for 17 minutes. This careful design indicates the solstice light was highly symbolic and likely of religious importance as cremated remains of the ancestors were placed here, probably to begin their journey to a new life on that day.
I can’t recommend visiting these sites highly enough. If you have only a single day to go beyond Dublin during your visit to Ireland, this is the area I’d recommend you explore. There are tours available form Dublin but if you can avoid driving in the city, the country roads around here are pleasant to explore. Besides Brú na Bóinne, the Boyne River valley has lots of other interesting sites to see (which we’ll discuss in the last post on this roadtrip series). Allow a full day to explore the center, burial sites, and the surrounding Boyne River valley.
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