Ireland in focus: Newgrange

Newgrange is a 5,200 year old passage tomb located in the Boyne Valley, County Meath.

This makes Newgrange older than both the Great Pyramids and Stonehenge (predating these structures by 400 years and 1,000 years respectively) and was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.

The passage tomb in Newgrange was constructed to ensure that the passage and chamber within were aligned with the rising sun on the mornings of the winter solstice – which takes place around the 18th to the 23rd December.

As you can see in the photo, above the entrance of the tomb there is a “roof-box”. This was placed so exactly by the architects and builders of this great structure that it allows the rays of the rising sun to beam into the internal passage and chamber for approximately 18 minutes during the solstice.

I was lucky enough to visit Newgrange in 2018 and quite a few of us were able to walk into the chamber and look around. Inside it is very dark – even on a bright summer day – and I can imagine how beautiful it must be to stand inside the chamber when it was suddenly illuminated with sunlight.

Usually people can enter a lottery to visit Newgrange during the winter solstice. The lucky people who are selected get to stand inside the passage tomb and witness this for themselves. This year, however, (due to Covid-19) the lottery could not go ahead and so the event was livestreamed. Here are some photos (taken from the livestream event) which show the transformation of the passage as the sun rises.

It has also been determined by previous studies that the roof of the passage tomb has never leaked, which is why the inside is so well preserved. No mortar was used in the construction either, instead the stones have been perfectly balanced and the gaps between the roof stones were filled with sand and soil.

The Celtic art at Newgrange include circular spirals and zig-zag’s which decorate many of the internal and external stones on the site. You can see examples of both on the stone above. What is even more amazing about this art work is that it was done prior to the iron age and therefore was not created by metal instruments.

No one really knows what the art represents, however it may be linked to the legends that surround the passage tomb.

The pre Christian Gods of the Irish were the Tuatha Dé Danann. The myths that surround Newgrange speculate that this is the burial place of Lugh or The Dagda as both were mythological High Kings of Ireland. Are these symbols of worship? Do they represent the Gods? Did religious ceremonies take place here?

Covid regulations in 2020 meant that the site had to close to visitors. As a result an archeological research project took place – where researchers scientifically measured and monitored the sunlight coming through the roof-box and into the chamber. Perhaps they will discover more about who or what these symbols represented.

Another interesting development has happened recently – due to a series of dry summers and an increase in the number of drones in use – photographs of the area show how much bigger the site is than originally thought (as evidenced by the large circles now visible because of the dry grass). Hopefully new archeological digs will take place in the future and we will know even more about our Irish ancestors.

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Shauna Lawless is the author of The Children of Gods and Fighting Men, due to be published by Head of Zeus on the 1st September 2022.

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