One of the things that we love most about Ireland is history on a scale that we have never experienced before. Aboriginal Australians have lived in Australia about 40,000 years, but as they were nomadic tribes that moved about and made temporary structures, very little evidence remains of this part of Australian history. In Ireland however, humans have been leaving evidence of their existence on this tiny island for at least 5000 years. Recently, we had the most wonderful history lesson on a visit to Brú na Bóinne, a Neolithic collection of stone passage tombs in the Boyne Valley, in County Meath.
Brú na Bóinne, translates to the ‘palace’ or the ‘mansion’ of the Boyne, because it is within the bend of the River Boyne, home to one of the world’s most important prehistoric landscapes. This patch of Ireland contains at least ninety recorded monuments, making it one of the world’s most significant archaeological sites in terms of scale and density of monuments. In 1993 Brú na Bóinne was inscribed as a World Heritage Site, in recognition of its outstanding universal value.
On a visit to Brú na Bóinne you will have the opportunity to get up close and personal with 5000 years of human history at two of the three well-known large passage tombs, Knowth and Newgrange. The tour guides at both sites did a fantastic job sharing them with us, and despite Newgrange being the most popular we actually preferred Knowth and would recommend a tour that takes in both. The Brú na Bóinne tombs, in particular Knowth, also contain the largest collection of megalithic art in Western Europe carved into giant stones at the base of the tomb.
Newgrange, is the most famous of the three passage tombs due to a little bit of magic that happens every year on the winter solstice thanks to a small opening or ‘roof box’ situated above the passage entrance. At dawn on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year (December 21st) and for a small number of days before and after, a shaft of sunlight enters the chamber through an opening in the roof box illuminating it for just a short time.
Whilst we will never really know why the chamber and roof box were constructed, to the Neolithic humans of the Boyne Valley, the winter solstice marked the start of the New Year. This was a sign of nature’s rebirth and promised renewed life to crops, animals and humans. It is thought that perhaps it may also have served as a powerful symbol of the inevitable victory of life over death, maybe promising new life to the spirits of the dead. Whatever the reason, each year thousands of people enter a lottery to enter the chamber on the winter solstice to witness this extraordinary event for themselves.
To protect the sites, visitors wishing to experience Newgrange and Knowth must join a formal tour which leaves from the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre, which is located on the south bank of the river, close to the village of Donore. It is located close to the east coast of Ireland approximately 40 km north of Dublin city, about 8km west of the medieval town of Drogheda and about 5km east of the village of Slane. We found the visitor centre itself to be very interesting and informative. It offered good value for money, and we only wish that we had longer to linger at the exhibits because we had arrived late in the afternoon. At the time of writing, a family ticket to both sites and the visitor centre cost €28.00, you will require a minimum of three hours to do all three, but we recommend a little longer. A limited number of visitors are taken on each tour, and in summer these have been known to sell out, so it is advisable to arrive early in the peak season to avoid disappointment.