What is so remarkable about this passage tomb in County Meath is when it was built: 3200 BC. Walking backwards through time 5000 years helps one to understand what that really means… Newgrange predates:
- Jesus by 3000 years - The Celts arrival in Ireland by 2500 years - King David of Israel by 2000 years - Moses and the Exodus by 1700 years - Abraham by 1,100 years - Stonehenge by 1,000 years - The pyramids of Egypt by 500 years
What we’re talking about is a structure built around the same time the first wheel was created!
This well-preserved Stone Age monument was unearthed in 1699 and excavated in 1962-75. It measures 300 feet in diameter and 39 feet at the highest point. A unique “roof box” appears as an opening just above the entrance, originally thought to allow access to the once-sealed interior (food for the dead in the afterlife kind of thing); however, in 1967 a more astonishing use was discovered.
The roof box is actually a solar timepiece, allowing sunlight inside the interior chamber once a year in December, during the Winter Solstice. This amazingly accurate device would have fed early man’s preoccupation with the cyclical nature of the seasons as they relate to harvesting, as well as to life, death and the afterlife. (In addition to the monument’s use as a tomb, there is evidence to suggest it had also been used as a temple.)
Inside the structure is a 62-foot passageway leading to the main chamber with three tiny antechambers, collectively forming a cruciform layout. The main ceiling is 20’ high and so tightly corbelled that the interior has remained perfectly watertight for five millennia.
The tomb’s aesthetics are seen in its reconstructed white quartz facade and in the original decorative artwork inside and out. Spirals, chevrons, circles, arcs, parallel lines are carved into walls, ceilings, supporting rocks, and the 10’ x 4’, five ton entrance stone on which a spectacular tri-spiral appears. Note: This symbol appears in the logo of this website, taken from a page in the Book of Kells, the 7th century illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels because it represented the Holy Trinity. I had long forgotten I had first seen it as a pagan symbol at Newgrange! This provides one more example of how early Irish Christians used pre-Christian symbols to illustrate the precepts of their faith. But I digress…
As with most important Irish monuments, Newgrange is bathed in legend, too many stories to be highlighted here. However, there is one myth that ties in with the theme of time:
Newgrange was the birthplace of Aengus ‘Og, the illegitimate son of the Irish god “Dagda” who ordered the sun to stand still for nine months so that Aenghus could be brought to term and born in a single day, keeping his birth a secret. The story continues with Aenghus in adulthood, realizing he had no inheritance. He asked his father for permission to live in Newgrange for “a day and a night”, and his father agreed, forgetting that “a day and a night” could also mean all days and all nights in the time in which they lived. Aenghus, having successfully tricked his father, was allowed to live in Newgrange (also called Brú na Bóinne, or Palace of the river Boyne) indefinitely.
For those planning a trip to Newgrange, do not visit in December on the Winter Solstice; the privilege is reserved only for the winners of an annual lottery (and only if the skies are clear). Rather, visit anytime in the year to witness a live demonstration inside the tomb, which uses a projected light simulating sunlight traveling down the passageway floor to flood the main chamber. (The actual Winter Solstice event lasts for 17 minutes, starting 4 minutes after sunrise.)
And if you’re in Dublin for only a short stay, you can still squeeze in a visit! It is 25 miles north of the city, accessible via shuttle bus to Newgrange at Dublin’s Tourism Center on Suffolk Street.
After all… how many opportunities will you have to see, touch, and explore something older than the pyramids?