Editor’s note: like Sam, I just finished a wonderful trip through Ireland. However, unlike Sam, I didn’t get a chance to stop at Bru na Boinne, nor did I even know it existed. This is why there are always return trips! For more of Sam’s amazing adventures, click here to visit his index page.
Just in time for Ireland month at The Royal Tour, I went to the beautiful island nation that has about 5 million people but a diaspora of 80 million plus. When people think Ireland, so many images come to mind: the lush green hills and countryside, the imposing Cliffs of Moher, and the bustling rowdy pubs of Dublin. However, what is one thing that did not come to my mind when visiting Ireland? Ruins that are nearly a thousand years older than the Egyptian pyramids.
On the eastern part of the island, approximately halfway between the island’s two largest cities, Belfast in Northern Ireland and the Irish capital Dublin, is Bru na Boinne, meaning the “Valley of the Boyne.” It is here where one of the world’s most significant prehistoric landscapes from the Neolithic period exists. Bru na Boinne contains over 40 megalithic passageways, with the most notable being Knowth, Newgrange, and Dowth. When arriving at Bru na Boinne visitor center, you will walk through a beautiful pathway to a center where you can learn all about the history of the site. From there, you will walk another beautiful path over the River Boyne to a bus that will take you to the megalithic attractions. It is important that you get tickets online in advance to visit the two most popular attractions, Newgrange and Knowth, which you can visit separately or on a combined tour. I waited too long to purchase tickets and Newgrange, the most famous site, was sold out, which led me by good fortune to visit Knowth instead.
The burial tombs appear as mounds of varying sizes that are covered in bright green grass with a stone border around the circumference. The tombs were built between the years of 3300 BCE and 2900 BCE, though evidence of civilization at that spot dates back to 4000 BCE. Of the three sites, Dowth is the least developed and least visited. Newgrange is the most visited, at which people can go through the burial chamber passageways and see the cruciform chamber inside. While it was constructed for purposes of cultic worship for the dead, there is also astronomical significance to Newgrange as the chamber aligns to light up during the Winter and Summer Solstices, with the inner chamber room flooding with sunlight on those days. Newgrange contains beautiful, detailed megalithic art patterns on its rocks and has been prominently featured in various Irish mythological tales.
As I mentioned, I visited Knowth. Knowth is similar in size to Newgrange (Newgrange is 249 feet in diameter and 39 feet high; Knowth is 220 feet in diameter and 40 feet high). Tombs of 35 people were found at Knowth. Surrounding Knowth are many smaller grass covered tombs, probably for individuals that were of less prominence than those in the main tomb. Like Newgrange, there are passageways and a cruciform chamber inside the tomb, but unfortunately, at this time, visitors are unable to go inside of the tomb of Knowth. While the Newgrange site correlates with the Winter and Summer Solstices, Knowth’s inner chambers are illuminated at the Spring and Fall Equinoxes, showing that their architects from 5000 years ago knew a great deal about architecture, the seasons, and astronomy. However, where Knowth stands apart from the other sites is that it has by far the largest amount of megalithic artwork of any site in Western Europe. Knowth has over two hundred examples of megalithic art of spiral, serpentine, and lozenge designs carved meticulously onto its rocks. Knowth alone contains approximately a third of all Western European megalithic artwork known to archaeologists.
Though a replica, there stands outside of the main tomb a grooved ware timber circle that contained numerous votive offerings. While there is no evidence of use of Newgrange after the burial tombs, this timber circle was used approximately a thousand years after the burial tombs at Knowth showing that the site was still in use at the end of the Neolithic Age and beginning of the Bronze Age. Following your hour-long tour of Knowth by a local guide (which comes with the ticket), you will get a few minutes (you cannot doddle as the bus will leave without you to go back to the visitor center) to explore the ruins. You can actually go on top of the Knowth tomb and walk along the top. On top of the tomb, you will be treated to views of the Irish countryside and also be able to see a great view of Newgrange.
The Bru na Boinne ruins are not often at the top of people’s Ireland itineraries and many have never heard of them. However, if you want to see ruins older than the pyramids and Stonehenge, ruins that also give a look at Ireland’s history from 5000 years ago, make sure you add these beautiful, impressive tombs for a few hours of your itinerary. Whether you make it a half-day trip from Belfast or Dublin, or like I did, a stop on the way between the two cities, you will be glad you went.
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