Brú Na Bóinne
More than thirty centuries before the birth of Christ, enormous teams of stone-age master craftsmen, builders, artists and religious leaders spent generations building one of the world’s most important and astonishing ancient religious complexes near a bend in the River Boyne, in County Meath.
All but cut off from the rest of the island of Ireland by a horseshoe-shaped bend in the Boyne, with a smaller tributary, the Mattock, effectively completing the ‘island’ nature of the site, Brú Na Bóinne (known in English, quite boringly, as the ‘Boyne Cemetery Complex’) is most famous as the home of Newgrange, the enormous passage tomb at its heart.
Newgrange is a breathtaking example of the ingenuity and sophistication of the stone-age masters who built it. 100 metres (300 feet) in diameter and faced with glistening white quartzite, it is world famous for its most extraordinary feature: every year on the winter solstice – and only on this day – the rising sun sends its light through an aperture above the entrance called the ‘roof box,’ illuminating the central vault with the dawn glow. Older than Stonehenge, already ancient when the first pyramids were being built in Egypt, pre-dating even the famous Mycenaean culture in Greece, Newgrange is among the most significant stone-age structures in the whole world.
SUGGESTED TEXT FOR BOX: Cast your mind back more than 5000 years. You have no metal tools. You don’t know what a wheel is. You cannot read or write. Yet you and your community set about building something which is not only architecturally breathtaking, but also constructed with such precision that the sun itself is a feature…but only on the morning of the shortest day of the year. Can you imagine the logistics and calculation required to build something so precise and specialised?
Newgrange is not the only reason to visit Brú Na Bóinne; nearby are Knowth and Dowth, two more giant passage tombs, and around the entire complex encompassed by the Boyne lie dozens more, of varying size and antiquity. Centuries later, Bronze age peoples added their own contributions in the form of henges and earthworks. Also on the site are smaller sub-complexes, with their own identity and presumably their own specialised functions, such as a man-made ritual pond and Monknewtown, and a still-visible cursus, or ritual parade route, leading to the central grave.
This enormous complex of ritual and memorial structures far predates the arrival of the Celts in Ireland. In fact, it predates many of the world’s most famous ancient monuments. Brú Na Bóinne was built over the course of many centuries, and could well have been a significant site for more than one culture, each building on what had come before. Later, bronze-age and iron-age peoples, and then early Christians and eventually Vikings and Normans, used Brú Na Bóinne for their own purposes.
The people who built these structures did not have any metal to work with. They had no wheels to help them move the massive stones, and they had no writing with which to sit down and make a plan, or to preserve those plans for the future generations who would continue their work. That makes the precision with which the graves and monuments were built all the more remarkable.
Newgrange, called Sí An Bhrú in Irish, is most spectacular of all the structures at Brú na Bóinne. More than 200,000 tonnes of rock were moved to create the passage grave itself, which is faced with gleaming quartzite. It is surrounded by a circle of massive standing stones and ringed by huge boulders which form a kerb around its base. Many of these kerbstones are themselves works of art, laboriously decorated with swirls, spirals and other geometric patterns which were carved into each rock by hand, using harder stone. Each of them must have taken thousands of hours to complete.
At the heart of the mound lies a soaring vault in the shape of a cross, in which were found human remains and votive offerings. Its ceiling tapers upwards, disappearing into the darkness overhead. This is where the sun gleams for a few moments just once a year, marking the rebirth of fertility and light as the nights begin to shrink and the days begin to grow. The quartzite came from the distant Wicklow mountains; coarse grey sandstone, heavy gabbro and rough siltstone were dragged from County Louth, and sparkling granodiorite from the Mountains of Mourne, as far to the north as Wicklow is to the south. Newgrange was an enormous undertaking which involved resources from miles around, and each of the different types of stone was used with a specific purpose in mind.
Thousands of years after Newgrange was built, it inspired the newly arrived Celts so much that they immediately incorporated it into their myths and legends, attributing its astonishing artistry and engineering to their own gods. Even today, it’s bound up in folklore with figures such as Dagda, the father of the gods (whose house it was said to be), and his son Aengus Óg, the god of love, youth and poetry, whose mother was Boann, the personification of the River Boyne itself. Legend also has it that the High Kings of Ireland, crowned at Tara, were led to the underworld here.
Knowth, known in Irish as Cnóbha, is the site of a significant proportion of all the neolithic art known in Western Europe. Larger and more lavishly decorated than even nearby Newgrange, it is nevertheless eclipsed by its more famous counterpart because, at first glance, it sappears less spectacular. However, on closer inspection, Knowth is absolutely astonishing. It may lack the gleaming white walls of Newgrange, and its vast trove of stone-age art may be a little less obvious, hidden in dark tunnels and vaults or tucked away behind recessed kerb stones, but the grassy mound – 40 feet high and 200 feet wide – rising from the plain of Brú na Bóinne, and its smaller satellite tombs, feel even more prehistoric and primeval than the more popular tomb a little over a kilometre away.
Surrounded by 17 smaller barrows, Knowth is a burial complex in its own right, and 35 separate graves have been identified here. It owes its more primitive look to the lesser amount of restoration it has received in comparison with Newgrange. Cremated remains were interred in the vaulted chambers dotted around the site, and Knowth too has an alignment with the sun…but its roof box seems to have been taken from its entrance and moved deeper into its main passageway thousands of years ago.
Just outside is the Timber Circle, which may have been used to mark a site intended for worship or perhaps funeral rites. The artwork here is even more complex and impressive than that of Newgrange, incorporating more geometric shapes and more intricate lines.
Later in its history, Knowth was damaged by numerous different activities carried out at the site. It appears to have become an inhabited spot for much of the past 1500 years, with Iron Age Celts and later Norman invaders using it as a base, possibly viewing it as a politically significant site. This led to quite a lot of damage, and many of its original mysteries are now lost forever.
Access to Knowth is by guided tour only.
Dowth is the middle child of the Brú Na Bóinne family; older than Knowth but younger than Newgrange. It is visited far less frequently than its sisters. Even though it is a vast structure – 50 feet high and 280 feet in diameter – it is not as imposing or as spectacular as the other giant tombs in the Boyne complex. At its centre there is a depression in the mound, and it doesn’t have the brilliant white facing of Newgrange or artwork to compare with Knowth. However, there is evidence that it was once faced with white quartzite, just like Newgrange.
Dowth remained impressive enough in historical times to attract the unwanted attention of Vikings, who severely damaged it in search of buried treasure, and of subsequent generations of would-be grave robbers. The remaining passage tomb is a horseshoe-shaped structure, with three western-facing passages leading into its heart. Deep inside sits a large hollow, where the cremated bodies of the dead were placed. Early Christians also used the site..
Due to the amount of damage Dowth has suffered over the millennia, it is now the least accessible of all the major tombs at Brú Na Bóinne, and its entrances are sealed against curious explorers. Nevertheless, it is well worth experiencing in the course of any visit to Brú Na Bóinne.