It's older than the Pyramids of Egypt and England's Stonehenge, and it's an astronomical wonder, yet the passage grave at Newgrange in Ireland's County Meath is oft ignored in package tours of the Emerald Isle.
That's a pity, because the Megalithic tomb at Newgrange provides a fascinating primer on how Ireland's people lived in the Boyne Valley more than 5,000 years ago. Easily reached by the main N1 road that goes north from Dublin (about a 30-minute drive), Newgrange is part of a "heritage trail" in County Meath called Bru na Boinne, which also includes such sites as:
Knowth, which has two smaller burial chambers and striking images of Celtic art;
The Hill of Tara, ancient home of the "High Kings" of Ireland;
Kells, where the famous illuminated manuscripts of the Gospels were written; and
The Hill of Slane, where St. Patrick lit the Pascal fire in defiance of a pagan king's edict.
Newgrange itself, just a five-minute drive from where the N1 enters the ancient city of Drogheda, boasts a well-laid out and informative Visitors' Centre, which illustrates how the one-acre mound was built with materials that came from the four corners of the island. It also provides a fascinating glimpse of the life of Ireland's inhabitants, circa 3,200 B.C. A film also gives visitors an appreciation of one of the monument's greatest features: the allignment of its entrance with the Winter Solstice (December 21), when the first rays of the sun make their way down the passage way to light up the burial chamber. How members of this ancient civilization were able to accomplish this mathematical feat remains a mystery.
A re-creation of the inside of the passage tomb is available at the Visitors' Centre, but it is no substitution for the real thing. It is certainly worth your while to take the short bus ride that ferries visitors up the hill to the burial mound, which has been declared a "World Heritage Site" by the United Nations. Surrounded by 97 kerbstones decorated with the swirls characteristic of Celtic art, the huge stone tomb is truly monumental in scope. It has been estimated that it would have taken 300 workers using tools available in the era at least twenty years to build it. Panoramic views from the hill of the River Boyne and its now peaceful countryside give little hint that the area was a fierce battleground, from the time of the high kings through the English conquests. Entering the chamber itself is a somber experience, also giving you an appreciation for the small physical stature of the workers who built the huge tombs. Led by an informative guide, visitors also get to experience the darkness of the tomb and a re-creation of the Winter Solstice phenonenom.
Aer Lingus, Ireland's national airline, has frequent service to Dublin from JFK Airport. Log on to www.aerlingus.com. For further information on Newgrange, contact the County Meath website www.meathtourism.ie. You can also contact Tourism Ireland at 1-800 418-0800, or look at their website www.tourismireland.com. Enjoy!