These historic sites are best seen on a tour to get a real lesson in the history of Ireland. I took Mary Gibbons Tours, which I caught on O’Connell Street, Dublin’s main street named for Daniel O’Connell.
Mary told of the rich history of the Boyne Valley on the way to Newgrange. The Boyne Valley is the agricultural center of Ireland and has an important history. In 1690 the Battle of the Boyne was waged here, where the first division between Protestants and Catholics occurred. William of Orange (of the reign of William & Mary) fought his father-in-law James and won. William was Protestant and outlawed Catholicism. Mary described it as a Dutch king and a Scottish king battling for the Throne of England on Irish soil. Another interesting tidbit – Ireland never had a Dark Ages because the Romans never invaded (Ireland did trade with them). The Dark Ages were Ireland’s Golden age.
Newgrange is the best known Irish passage tomb. We arrived at the Brú na Bóinne – Palace of the Boyne – Visitor Center, for a guided tour, which is the only way to see Newgrange. You receive a sticker for the time of your shuttle to Newgrange. They run shuttles every 15 minutes and only 24 people can go into the tomb at a time. There is an interpretive center to explore before your shuttle time.
Newgrange dates to about 3200 BC, so it’s 5000 years old. Newgrange is not only a passage tomb (surrounded by other tombs), it is an astronomical observatory. On the winter solstice, the sun comes into a window and lights up the chamber. It was probably used not only for burial but also to worship the sun. There are also passage tombs at Knowth and Douth – all 3 on hills in the area. You can tour Knowth as well from this visitor center.
Newgrange is a huge mound, with curb stones around the bottom for support (one was carved) and quartz rock on the front. There were also 12 standing stones around it which actually post-date Newgrange (from the Bronze Age) and an area where there was a Woodhenge (now gone). There is also burial area Z just to one side which is in the shape of a cross. At the entrance there is an elaborately carved entrance stone, door and window through which the sun comes in on the equinox.
After a tour of the outside, you enter the 5000-year-old creation. The tomb appeared so huge on the outside I expected passages upon passages inside. Instead, there is one very narrow, low passage about 20 feet long which opened into a chamber with three nooks and a domed ceiling (cross-shaped). The three nooks had stone carvings and basins where cremated human remains were found. At one point, the guide turned out the light so she could simulate with a flashlight the sun coming in and illuminating the chamber.
Next is a trip to the Hill of Tara. Tara is the ancient capital of Ireland. It was on Tara that the Irish defeated the Vikings in 1014. It was also used by the Celts for Druid rituals/ celebrations such as on Halloween, where they came in disguise so the souls couldn’t recognize them. Tara was near St. Patrick’s Church, which has a monument to St. Patrick as according to legend, it is here he found the 3-leaf clover which became the symbol of Christianity. From Tara, you can supposedly see most of Ireland. Tara itself is on an area of hills and ruts, which from above look like circles. There is a high Mound of the Hostages and other mounds or possibly sites of old forts or buildings. Many spots are labeled with signs so you know what they believe used to stand there.
It was freezing at both Tara and Newgrange because they are situated on hills and the wind is strong and biting, so dress warmly.