The Brug na Bóinne, the Otherworld Palace on the Boyne known today as Newgrange, is an amazing achievement of Neolithic architecture, and famous for its solar alignment during the winter solstice. Older than Stonehenge and the Giza pyramids in Egypt, it was constructed around 3320 BC and has remained alive in the imaginations of generations long after it fell into disuse. Yet, while it features prominently in the early Irish literature of the medieval period and has been excavated and studied, we will never have definitive answers for this majestic passage tomb. What I believe is important is not what Newgrange can tell us about the past; it is what the past means to us and the awe and emotion that such a structure elicits.
Newgrange sits atop the fertile valley of the Boyne River in county Meath. It is an oval tumulus that does not fail to impress even 21st century eyes. The creation of such a structure took years of manpower and was subsequently abandoned some years later for reasons unknown. Yet, before the knowledge that the rising sun of the solstice illuminated the inner chamber was rediscovered during excavations in the 20th century, local lore passed down for thousands of years retained the knowledge that the purpose of Newgrange had something to do with the sun. “Oral societies do not preserve ideas and information out of simple antiquarianism: knowledge of the past survives only because of its relevance to the present…the survival of some version of these ancient doctrines in the medieval literature indicates that the world-view of the Irish remained, at least in certain respects, astonishingly stable throughout the intervening centuries.”
Newgrange is part of a larger complex in the Boyne Valley that comprises as many as 35 tombs. Speculation of its use has ranged from a burial complex to an entrance to the Otherworld of ancient belief to a place of worship of the sun. Today, tens of thousands of people enter an annual lottery to view the sun rising on the winter solstice inside the chamber, and thousands more visit the site each year, evident that it remains a compelling and sacred place.
On a chilly overcast day this past March, I found myself hurtling along the roads from north Tipperary to Meath on an unexpected visit to Newgrange. I was in Ireland to research a book I am writing and after a few pints in the pub the night before, we were convinced that Newgrange was a worthy and doable day trip. A short bus trip takes you from the visitor’s center to the base of the monument and a brief walk up the sloping hill to the entrance is awe-inducing indeed. The monument itself is about the size of an acre with a wall of glittering white quartz rising out of the ground and a ring of enormous kerbstones encircling the structure at its base. At the entrance, its most famous kerbstone is elaborately decorated with spirals that have inspired a great deal of Irish art and design. The top of Newgrange is covered with grass and the views of the valley and the Boyne River are spectacular. After some general history from the guide, we were led into the chamber in small groups. The passage is narrow and slopes upward. At some points, you must duck your head to get through. Once inside the cross-shaped chamber, I could admire the tall stones called orthostats that rose toward the corbelled roof. The chamber was constructed so that no water can get in and has remained completely dry for millennia. Spirals, chevrons, and other geometric patterns adorn the stones, and three recesses which form the cross-shaped interior hold basins that once contained human remains. It is in the rear recess where the famous triple spiral is illuminated as part of the winter solstice.
The guide recreated the sensation of seeing the sun of the winter solstice pierce the chamber by first turning out the lights. We were plunged into darkness so profound I could not see my hand in front of my face. In this inky blackness, I lost the sense of my body and individuality. Even though there were other people in the chamber, I felt completely alone in a void. After a moment, you can begin to relax and understand that the physical boundaries that define our world are just that – a sensation. Perhaps this is the sensation of being a fetus in the womb. There is no knowledge of any reality but the one in front of you and the fact that there is a world of light just inches away is impossible to comprehend. A sliver of light cleaves the darkness as the sun rises over the Red Mountain, growing to illuminate the chamber and the magnificent designs on the stones. For a person witnessing this event in the Neolithic, this marked the end of shortening days and the harshness of winter. Now, the days would lengthen, the sun warming the earth and giving rise to crops and milk – the sustenance for new life. From this abundance, children would be born, entering the light just as the earth has, furthering the endless cycles of birth, death, and rebirth.
Some believe that this was a place to worship the ancestors, hence, its reputation as an entrance to the otherworld. “If we accept that Neolithic people understood these monuments as connected to veneration of ancestral presences…how would those presences have been made manifest? Light is one possible answer.” Perhaps one of my ancestors in the deep recesses of time stood outside of this monument on the winter solstice. As their descendants, we are the legacy they leave behind. Is this not the ultimate way to honor those who came before us – to seek a connection to them and remember that they were here? They live through us and are thus reincarnated. We stand here as they once did. My ancestors, like millions of others, left Ireland by force or for the desire to seek a better life. Many of the diaspora return to walk the land their families once did and to learn about themselves. Where you come from tells you who you are.
“…Light can be seen as a metaphor for truth or sacred knowledge. Light penetrates as does knowledge: just as light could penetrate the structure of a cairn, in a similar fashion light (as sacred knowledge) could penetrate those within.”
Newgrange is our connection to a distant past that reminds us that while our experiences differ greatly from those of the Neolithic, we are connected across time and space to people who wanted the very same things: to love and be loved, to leave descendants, and to be remembered.
Patti Welsh lives in Massachusetts, USA with her family and writes about history, Ireland, business, and social media. She is writing her first novel. We wish Patti all the best with her upcoming novel and are very grateful for her contribution...