Newgrange is one of Ireland’s most famous monuments. It sits majestically on a low rising hill overlooking the River Boyne close to Drogheda in County Meath. Newgrange was constructed in the Neolithic period about 5,200 years ago (3,200 B.C.), making it older than Stonehenge and the pyramids of Egypt. It is part of a complex of monuments built along a bend in the Boyne known collectively as Brú na Bóinne, which is a World Heritage Site. The other two monuments are Knowth and Dowth.
The construction of Newgrange was an extraordinary architectural feat. The monument consists of a large circular mound built of alternating layers of earth and stones. It contains about 200,000 tonnes of material. The mound houses an inner stone passageway and a cruciform chamber. It is encircled and supported on the outside by 97 large kerbstones. The 547 massive slabs that make up the inner passage, the chambers and the outer kerbstones, are thought to have been brought from the beach at Clogherhead, County Louth, about 20 km to the northeast. The facade and entrance were built with white quartz cobblestones from the Wicklow Mountains, about 50 km to the south and the dark rounded cobbles from the Mourne Mountains, about 50 km to the north. The building materials are thought to have been transported to Newgrange by sea and up the River Boyne by fastening them to the underside of boats at low tide. Then they were hauled, mainly uphill, to the Newgrange site. The mound is 85 metres wide and 12 metres high.
The inner passage stretches for 19 metres. The walls of which are made up of large stone slabs called orthostats, each averaging 1½ metres in height. At the end of the passage are three small chambers off a larger central chamber covered with a high corbelled vault roof. To construct the corbelled roof, the builders overlapped layers of large rocks until the roof could be sealed with a capstone, 6 metres above the floor. After 5000 years, the roof at Newgrange is still waterproof.
There is no doubt that the builders of Newgrange were an incredibly skilled, intelligent and organised race such was the level of intricate planning and manoeuvring that was required in its construction.
Apart from the architecture, Newgrange contains a large amount of Neolithic art carved onto its stone surfaces. These carvings include circles, spirals, arcs, dot-in-circles, chevrons, lozenges, radials, and parallel lines. One of the most notable types of art at Newgrange is the triskele or ‘triple spiral’ feature found on the entrance stone. The entrance stone is approximately three metres long and 1.2 metres high and about five tonnes in weight. It has been described as ‘one of the most famous stones in the entire repertory of megalithic art.’ Archaeologists believe that most of the carvings were inscribed prior to the stones being erected. The entrance stone is thought to have been carved in situ before the kerbstones were placed alongside it. The back recess of the right-hand side inner chamber also features the world-famous triple spiral design.
There is much debate as to the significance of the carvings. Some believe they are purely decorative. Others believe they had symbolic meaning to the builders and were used to communicate similar to the symbols Ogham alphabet.
There has been much debate as to the original purpose of the building. Newgrange has long since been classified as a passage tomb mainly due to the discovery of human remains within the chamber. However, there were only five in total which would suggest that the mound was not routinely used for burials except for an elite few. It is now recognised as so much more than a tomb. Researchers suggest that Newgrange was a place of astronomical, spiritual, religious and ceremonial importance.
The winter solstice sunrise alignment is proof that Newgrange had an astronomical purpose. Once a year, around December 21st, the rising sun shines directly into the long passage, illuminating the inner chamber and revealing the carvings inside. This illumination lasts for approximately 17 minutes. The sunlight enters the passage through a specially contrived opening, known as a roof box, about four minutes after sunrise and strikes the middle of the chamber. The solar alignment at Newgrange is very precise and was obviously a hugely important function of the mound.
To the Neolithic culture of the Boyne Valley, the winter solstice was a significant part of the year. It was the beginning of nature’s rebirth and renewed life to crops, animals and humans.
Newgrange features heavily in Irish mythology and has strong associations with the divine royalty of An Tuatha Dé Danann, who are thought to have been the builders and users of Newgrange. Newgrange was known in ancient times as ‘Síd in Broga’ or ‘Sidhe an Brugha’ and was said to be a dwelling of the deities, particularly The Dagda, Boann and their son Aengus óg.
In one tale, Aengus tricks his father, The Dagda, into giving him ownership of the Brú. He asks him to give it to him for “a day and night”. When the Dagda agrees, Aengus claims it for himself forever, because all time is made up of “day and night”.
Like many of Ireland’s ancient monuments, Newgrange is considered by many to be a portal to the other world. Thousands of visitors are drawn to the monument every year, not just for its historical and architectural importance, but for its spiritual and mystical allure. It is a truly spectacular place.