Love a bit of history? Luckily there’s a treasure trove waiting to be discovered over at the Boyne Valley. Loaded with relics from the past, neolithic monuments and tombs, you’ll get an in-depth glimpse into life and customs over 5,000 years ago. Brú na Bóinne includes heritage sites across Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth where you find the biggest and oldest passage tombs in Europe.
One of the most significant historical sites at Brú na Bóinne (and indeed the entire country!), Newgrange is a must for anyone looking to explore our rich history and heritage first-hand. Over 5,000 years old, you’ll be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the world that lets you delve so far back in our past.
Incredibly, Newgrange is even older than the pyramids – estimates place its construction some time around 3,200 B.C. That’s a good 500 years older than the Egyptian pyramids and 1,000 years older than Stonehenge, one of the most famous megalithic structures in the world! For this reason it quite rightly enjoys its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site today. Newgrange is built as a passage tomb, where a 19-meter long pathway leads its way into the tomb chamber in the heart of the mound. The tomb is encircled with 97 kerb stones of which some are decorated with megalithic art. Measuring 85 metres in width and 13.5 metres in height it is – compared to Knowth and Dowth – the biggest site in the Boyne Valley.
Archaeologists reckon that the tomb served as spiritual site of great significance, though there are many references to Newgrange across different eras in history and within Irish mythology as well. Many tales describe that Newgrange was built for the Tuatha Dé Danann, the race of supernatural figures who featured in early Celtic mythology and from whom the country’s name Éire derived from. Several skeletons and animal remains were found within the tomb during excavations, which confirms Newgrange’s role in burial rituals and the worship of the dead commonly practiced by neolithic societies.
The magic of winter solstice
But what is even more astounding is the fact that the mound is astronomically aligned. Obviously things get a bit dark during winter, but even when Newgrange was built 5,000 years ago, the builders seemed to know the solution to it. If you come to Newgrange during the winter solstice, you’ll be able to witness the dramatic event of the sun light shining right through the passage into the tomb chamber, bathing it in bright, golden light for a good 17 minutes. How a neolithic society was able to anticipate this 5,000 years ago is a mystery that still baffles architectures and mathematicians to this day.
Visiting Bru na Boinne
* Tickets available only at the visitor centre (no pre-sale)
* Entrance fee for visiting
Newgrange and Knowth: €13
* Duration to see both sites:
about 3 hours
If you want to witness this magical moment too, you can put name in for a free lottery that draws the names of 60 very lucky people who’ll be personally invited to see this event in person. This year, the Newgrange Winter Solstice Lottery will be drawn on September 27th 2019 and 20 people will visit each tomb for each of the three days this phenomenon is visible. Mind you, you’ll need a fair bit of luck – in 2018 there were a whopping 28,595 entries and you’ll have to keep your fingers crossed for clear weather! Still, it doesn’t hurt to try…
While Newgrange may take centre stage, it’s not the only treasure that Brú na Bóinne has to offer. Knowth is the second major site and another brilliantly preserved passage tomb that has much to distinguish it from its larger neighbour.
This site was erected a few hundred years after Newgrange in around 3,200 B.C., but wasn’t fully excavated until 1962. Archaeologists George Eogan and his team were astonished as they found Knowth to be similar in size to Newgrange. The mound possesses two pathways leading into the centre of the tomb, one being 40 metres long, and its foundations are lined with 124 Kerbstones that were found at the base of the big mound and that picture beautiful neolithic carvings.
Surrounding the huge mound you’ll also find 18 smaller satellite domes which makes the site equally impressive as Newgrange. Inside these mounds, archaeologists found numerous artefacts such as pottery, art and even lunar maps carved into the stone walls. The sun might take centre stage at Brú na Bóinne thanks to the famous winter solstices, but the humble lunar maps show that the moon also had some significance to the neolithic society that built these tombs – the concentric arcs and dots of the lunar maps roughly align with the shapes of the ridges and craters on the face of the moon as seen from Knowth. Fascinating stuff if you ask me!
To visit Knowth you have to go via the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre and book one of the guided tours. You cannot access it without a tour.
The third site at Brú na Bóinne may not be part of the official itinerary, but to get the full experience a quick visit to Dowth is a must – and you’ll see the aftermath of when excavations go wrong.
The last of the three UNESCO World Heritage Sites at Brú na Bóinne is Dowth, whose name derives from the Irish dubhadh (darkness). Unfortunately in 1847, the site suffered a badly-run excavation and was heavily damaged in the process, leaving behind a distinctive crater on the roof of the mound. In general, Dowth is smaller in size compared to its neighbours, but much like the other tombs it too features several passageways and chambers inside. And, just like Newgrange, Dowth is also astrologically aligned – the south passage illuminates the tomb chamber during the winter solstice for a whole 2 hours.
Unfortunately you cannot access the chambers within the mound, which is also why Dowth is not included in the official Brú na Bóinne tour where you would have to go through the Visitor Centre. But you can still take a look at Dowth by simply following the Slane to Drogheda road and drive up to the north bank of the Boyne. Once you’re there you’re free to walk around and have a peek inside the dark chambers within.
Start planning your adventure to Brú na Bóinne
There’s no shortage of fantastic places to stay if you’re planning a visit to Brú na Bóinne. As it’s just an hour away from Dublin you could choose to combine a trip to the capital with a jam-packed day out, or you could opt for a luxury stay out in the country. To help you plan your own trip to Ireland’s Ancient East, be sure to have a look at my most recent staycation deals below!