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Boyne Valley in Ireland Part 3 – Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth

Newgrange

The megalithic complex of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth contains some of Ireland’s largest and most magnificent burial mounds. Access is via the visitor centre only, and the only way to view Newgrange and Knowth is by taking an organised tour. The guide will relate the fascinating story of Newgrange’s construction, explaining how this huge mound covers an area of 1 acre and was built around 3200 BC; making it older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza. The perimeter is lined with 400 giant kerbstones weighing anywhere from 1 to 12 tonnes. All of these stones are intricately carved with what is now known as Boyne Valley art, which  is unique to the region. The entrance to the chamber is blocked by a giant kerbstone, so that people would have to climb over to enter the mound. However, today the entrance has been modified with steps for easier access, and to preserve the stone itself.

Newgrange megalithic passage cairn entry stone.
Newgrange megalithic passage cairn entry stone.

Winter solstice sunrise

Model of the Newgrange passage cairn.
Model of the Newgrange passage cairn.

The tour then leads small groups inside the chamber. Not only was this burial mound an incredible feat of engineering, but also an incredible feat of ingenuity.  The entrance is precisely aligned with the rising of the sun at the winter solstice – the sun sets at the entrance to the mound at Dowth – but its designers were also clever enough to realise it would have to be local dawn, and thus calculate where the sun would rise and how high.

In the case of the Boyne Valley the sun would rise over the distant hills, so a roof box, as you can see in the photo above, was fitted above the entrance for the light to shine through. The main entrance below takes you through a narrow passageway that leads uphill to an elevation of two metres.

Newgrange megalithic passage cairn

The passageway is 19 metres long. Thus the floor of the inner chamber is exactly level with the roof box. On the morning of the solstice, sunlight shines through the roof box, travels along the overhead passage and illuminates the inner chamber. This is illustrated for the tour using a halogen light at the entrance.

The guide then points to the corbelled roof. No cement or binding agents were used to fix the stones in place, and they had all been stacked like a house of cards. The capstone is the lightest at two tons. Above that lie four metres of loose rock, then earth and grass. All this was to ensure the watertight integrity of the chamber, and to make sure that moisture will not loosen the rocks. It was obvious that these so-called primitive people really knew what they were doing.

Inside the chamber are three recesses. In all probability the bodies were cremated outside and then the ashes placed inside the chamber. What this was for, no one really knows. There are many theories, but there is simply no way to know for sure as these people never left any written history. In truth, the race who built these tombs will always remain a mystery.

The legend of the Dagda

One thing the tour guide will not tell you though, is the legend associated with Newgrange. The story of Newgrange says that it was once the home of the Dagda, the chief God of the Tuatha dé Danann. The Dagda took as his home, the greatest of all the fairy mounds, Newgrange. There in his fairy palace he kept his magic harp, which would fly into his arms upon command. Visitors could feast from the cauldron with a never-ending supply of food, which could be washed down with the ale that would render the drinker immune to all sickness. The harp is also now a national symbol of Ireland.

Knowth

The next tour will take you to Knowth, which is actually more impressive as its large burial cairn is surrounded by 18 smaller mounds. The main tomb is in fact larger than the Newgrange mound, but inaccessible due to years of excavations.

Knowth megalithic passage cairn
Knowth megalithic passage cairn

There are two passageways aligned with the rising and setting of the sun at the equinoxes. One of the main differences here was that Knowth was used as a settlement for centuries after its usage as a burial mound. There is evidence of a settlement on top of the main mound right up until the arrival of the Normans. It’s unknown as to whether these people were actually aware of what they living on.

Dowth

Dowth isn’t open to the public, but you can drive yourself there or take the bus and wander around. You just cannot go inside. Part of it has collapsed due to an excavation in the late 1800s. Dowth means ‘darkness’ and its chamber is aligned with the setting of the sun at the winter solstice and hence the beginning of the longest night of the year.

Half hour from Dublin

The Boyne Valley is just a half-hour drive from Ireland’s modern capital, Dublin, but is a world away from the hustle and bustle of busy city life. It’s an easy day trip if you are staying there, but to really experience the magic of Ireland’s ancient history it’s best to stay somewhere nearby. There is a lot more to explore here.

My Ireland Book

Read the story of my first ever trip around Ireland in my book, Hot Footing Around the Emerald Isle.

With just a backpack as a home, a guidebook in one hand, a bizarre travelogue in the other and very little money in my bank account, I leave my home and set off to this little country that has always been my neighbour, yet overlooked by myself for many years as I pursued dreams to travel to far and exotic countries. However, I was soon to learn that one of the most beautiful places in the world was right on my doorstep.

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