About 5,000 years ago, the people who lived in what is now Ireland’s Boyne Valley, built vast monuments to honor their dead. Newgrange, about an hour’s drive from Dublin, is the best known. This United Nations World Heritage Site draws 200,000 visitors per year. If you’re interested in ancient mysteries, prehistoric Ireland’s Newgrange is a must.
Newgrange is a huge mound of stone and turf about 44 feet high, with a long inner passage leading to a burial chamber. Experts estimate that it would have taken 300 workers at least 20 years to build the passage. Outside the base was once a circle or curve of more than 30 standing stones, some of them 8 feet high; 12 stones are still standing. During the 1700s much of Newgrange was removed for building material, but it has been restored, including a replica of the original façade of white quartz.
The stones of Newgrange are beautifully carved with spirals and other symbols, including the famous triple spiral marking the entrance. Inside, excavators found immense stone basins, cremated bodies, bones, and bits of flint and pins, all evidence of ancient rituals. It’s an eery, marvelous place, but the most remarkable aspect of the site is its astrological significance. It is probably the world’s oldest calendar clock. A roof-box at the passage entrance is aligned with the winter solstice sunrise, and every year, on the solstice, the sun’s rays precisely illuminate the dark chamber. It lasts for about 20 minutes at dawn for a few days around the solstice, although today, because of changes in the tilt of Earth, the rays do not reach the deepest recess of the chamber.
Needless to say, the winter solstice is a popular time of year to visit. Winter visitors are now allowed in only by lottery, and more than 30,000 applications are submitted yearly for the draw of 50 names. Forms are available at the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre. At any time of year, access to the Newgrange Passage Tomb is by guided tour through the visitor center, located near the village of Donore, County Meath. The last tour of the day is 90 minutes before the center’s closing time. Summer hours are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and vary during the rest of the year. Wear sturdy walking shoes and bring rain gear – this is Ireland, and you know what makes it so green.
Several hotels and B&Bs dot the landscape. Newgrange Lodge is an old but updated farmhouse just opposite Newgrange. Its 7 acres overlook the River Boyne and the ancient sites. Breakfast is provided, there is a dining area, and you can order a packed lunch. Ash Cottage, in nearby Navan, is a bed-and-breakfast with comfortable rooms. The town of Navan has restaurants, pubs, shops, and a movie theater.