Those who have been following along already know that I was absolutely floored by society and structures that predate anything I’ve seen before. This is why I’ve saved the most ancient of places for what may very well be my last post about Ireland for a long while. Often referred to as “Ireland’s Stonehenge,” Newgrange is forty-five minutes from O’Connell Street, where we caught our prearranged tour bus, with stops at Howth, Newgrange, and Tara.
Howth is an adorable little fishing village a half an hour from Dublin’s heart, and a great little weekend getaway. There’s a boat that’ll take you to an island called “Ireland’s Eye,” though the sea was too rough the day we went. Our boat simply made a circuit before returning to Howth. You can watch my Facebook Page for a photo album post about the day we spent there.
For now, though, let’s focus on the touristy ruins sites, which I absolutely adored. Our bus dropped us off at the Brú na Bóinne Visitors’ Centre, where one must purchase tickets to see Newgrange itself. Ours were included with the bus tickets, so we simply got onto the shuttle buses provided by the centre and trundled off to the ancient site.
Newgrange is what’s known as a passage tomb: a burial mound with a passage from the outside to an inner sanctum (or several), purposefully built from rocks and such. Frequently, they’re surrounded by dug out earthworks and more structures (other tombs or cairns), and are almost always in beautiful places—not that there’s any shortage of beauty in Ireland. Newgrange itself is an incredible structure, with white quartz stones forming the outer wall and huge kerbstones engraved with spiral patterns surrounding the entryway. The thing is, there’s no white stone nearby, in the Boyne River Valley. Archaeologists are pretty sure they came from the Wicklow Mountains, a twenty hour journey on foot (with modern roads and without counting stops to rest). As if that’s not enough, the kerbstones (which, again, are huge) seem to be taken from the Mourne Mountains, almost as far to the north as the Wicklows are to the south. Experts disagree on how they were transported. They also disagree on what the carvings might mean, as the writing system—if it even is a proper system—is lost to us.
Ancient ruins shrouded in mystery are simply irresistible to me. Admission to the site includes entry to the tomb with a guide, who’ll tell you about what we do know and point out the most notable features of the site. The final piece of the tour is a demonstration of my very favorite part of the tomb’s construction. The entryway is aligned just perfectly so that on the morning of the Winter Solstice, the rising sunlight will shine directly into the very center of the tomb, illuminating it for about twenty minutes. I hope one day to get to witness this phenomenon for myself.
Next, we headed to the Hill of Tara, about a half an hour’s drive from the Brú na Bóinne Visitors’ Centre. I recommend hitting the National Museum of Archaeology before visiting Tara, as there is an exhibit specifically on the legendary hill. At the site itself, however, there is hardly anything explaining what you’re seeing around you. A little gift shop sells guidebooks, but they had run out when I went to pick one up. There are also a few boards with a bit of explanation, but not nearly as much as I would have liked. Luckily, our bus tour came with a guide to explain Tara to us. Tara is the site where the Irish High Kings of old were crowned, as well as some Neolithic stuff we don’t fully understand. There’s a passage tomb called The Mound of the Hostages, and as there’s no real organization, tourists may climb upon it (you can’t do that at Newgrange).
At the very top of the Hill of Tara is the Wailing Stone, so called because when it is touched by the true High King of Ireland, legend says that it will cry out in a loud voice. Disappointingly, the High King wasn’t with us on that trip, though we did make sure. Historians believe that Tara was the site of the Kings’ coronations because all four provinces that Ireland is traditionally broken up into are visible from its summit. The view really is that majestic, and when we were there, the wind was strong and consistent. Wind (or air) is my favorite of the classical elements, so for it to have such a presence in such an ancient place made it an incredibly profound experience for me, despite the lack of specific information. There is a parking lot and a gift shop, so if you were to drive yourself there, you’d have no trouble.
There is no question in my mind that I will be returning to Ireland. Ten days was nowhere near enough time to absorb all of the experiences I would have liked to. I feel very lucky that I was even able to see the countryside, as we stayed each night in the Dublin City Center. I sincerely hope that this little series has been both entertaining and useful to you, dear reader, and I’ll be sure to let you know as soon as I know where I’m going next.