Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Tue 20th- Newgrange

Guess what? It’s raining, no surprise there then. We pack the car say good bye to our charming host after having kippers for breakfast! We leave the B&B stinking to high heaven, a nice welcome for their next guests, some musicians(he won’t tell us who, but they are well known).

We find our way onto the A1 and head south in torrential rain. I was hoping to take some of the coast road to Dublin but there’s no point, you can hardly see the edge of the road. We pass from County Antrim and into County Down just south of Belfast and then we say good bye to Northern Ireland and cross the border once again into the Republic of Ireland, the M1 and County Louth. There is no way I want to stick to M1 even if it is raining. You just don’t get to see anything of the countryside barrelling along at great speed so we take the off ramp to Ardee and head south on the N2 although I do have an ulterior motive, providing the rain plays ball. And sure enough it does, it’s now just a few light showers here and there and clearing all the time. I’m hoping we can stop off at Newgrange, the most famous of all Ireland’s Megalithic Passage Tombs.

We follow the sign posts all the way round in a big arc and end up nearly back on the M1.We are now also in County Meath. The visitors centre is actually 5-6kms away from the tomb on the other side of the River Boyne. After you book your tour you catch a bus to the tomb and are shown around it by a guide. This is obviously so there is less impact on the environment and not thousands of cars using the country lanes and disrupting the farming community that farm right up to and around the tomb sites and even all over some of the lesser known sites. There are three main passage tombs in the Boyne Valley and lots of other megalithic sites and stone circles, the whole valley has been designated a World Heritage Site.

The rain has returned with vengeance but we’re here now and we have our wet weather gear and umbrellas. We get our tickets and colour sticker for our jackets to say which tomb we are visiting. The sticker also has our departure time on it, we follow the path up and over the river and I feel like we’re back at school waiting for the bus to arrive with our stickers on show in case we get on the wrong one.

There are only 10 or so people for our tour which is great, we later hear that you can have up to 40 plus people and I’m afraid where we’re heading that would be no fun and very claustrophobic. We arrive at the site and wait in the “corral” for our guide. The rain has mercifully stopped again but it’s bitterly cold and we all move about rubbing our hands together and jumping up and down on the spot trying to keep warm. Our guide gives us a brief rundown on the history of the area and the tombs and answers quite a few questions from us. We then make our way across the grass to the entrance to Newgrange.

I “stole” this photo to show you the size of the thing. You can see a group of people at the entrance.

You will remember that we saw a roof box in tomb at Carrowkeel in County Sligo, well Newgrange is the tomb with the only other roof box. A shaft of sunlight shines through the roof box and penetrates the passage to light up the chamber, this only happens for 17 minutes at dawn and for a few mornings either side of the Winter Solstice. So many people want to experience this that there is a lottery system set up where 50 names(with 2 places each)are selected to be in the chamber when it happens. Over 30,000 applications are submitted each year!

We wait outside the entrance for the previous tour to exit and then make our way in through the opening ducking to get underneath the capstone at the entrance. It’s a very narrow passage and takes some getting through between the huge rocks that jut out into the passage way. The passage rises 2 meters from the entrance so that the light from the roof box (at winter solstice) is lined up with the chamber floor.

We weren’t allowed to take photo inside the chamber so these chamber ones are again “stolen”

Newgrange was built about 3200 BC (it predates Stonehenge by 1000 years), the mound covers over an acre, is 76 meters across and 12 meters high. It’s surrounded by 97 kerbstones, some of which are decorated with megalithic art. It is estimated that the construction of the tomb at Newgrange would have taken a work force of 300 at least 20 years.

Within the mound, a long passage, stretching approximately one third of the length of the mound, leads to a cruciform (cross-shaped) chamber. The passage itself is over 18 meters long. The burial chamber has a corbelled roof which rises steeply upwards to a height of nearly 6m. A tribute to its builders, the roof has remained essentially intact and waterproof for over 5,000 years.

Newgrange appears to have been used as a tomb. The recesses in the chamber hold large stone basins into which were placed cremated human remains. During excavation, the remains of five people were found. It is speculated that the sun formed an important part of the religious beliefs of the neolithic people who built it.

Note the tri-spiral design on this stone. This is probably the most famous Irish Megalithic symbol. It is often referred to as a Celtic design, but it was carved at least 2500 years before the Celts reached Ireland. At 12 inches in diameter the tri-spiral design is quite small in size, less than one-third the size of the tri-spiral design on the entrance stone- see the photo up above.

Once we were all safely inside the chamber there was more time for questions. It was a tight fit (and we were only 10 people) and would be very, very claustrophobic with more people on the tour, I'm not sure how they fit up to 40 people in there. The chamber is dimly lit by electricity so we can see the three side chambers, the huge stone bowls, the megalithic art on the stones and the corbelled roof with its huge stones all placed just right to support each other.

Before we were given an example of how the the roof box worked the lights were switched out and we were left in total darkness. You could not see your finger in front of your face, it was pitch black. Our guide suggested that one of the gentlemen sing in the darkness, apparently women’s voices are no good but the chamber is very acoustic for the men’s(personally I think they’re more gullible! ). None of the men wanted to do it other than of course you know who. David started singing of all things, Danny Boy! (I wonder how many times that’s been sung in there) The other men then all followed along, I was laughing my head off knowing that it was so dark they couldn’t see. Most of them were out of tune but then, I wouldn’t be any better, in fact I would have been ten times worse, being tone deaf and all! We all had a good laugh when the lights came back on. But boy it was black.

Next they simulated the sunrise and how the light box worked. The lights were turned off and you watched as the sunrise “beam” slowly crawled up the passage way from the entrance and into the chamber. That was very interesting. It’s amazing how something so huge that was constructed so long ago can be so precise that a tiny beam of light finds its way inside for such a short period of time. Incredible.

We then made our way back to the outside and proceeded to walk around the perimeter of the mound and back to the entrance way to await our bus.

More art work

Newgrange lay hidden for over 5,000 years due to mound slippage, until the late 17th century, when men looking for building stone uncovered it, and described it as a cave. Newgrange was excavated and mostly restored between 1962 and 1975. The mound is retained within a circle of large kerbstones topped by a high inward-leaning wall of white quartzite and granite. Most of the stones were sourced locally(within a 20km radius) but the stones of the façade have been sourced further afield.

The large kerbstones topped with stone wall

As part of the restoration process the white quartzite stones and cobbles were fixed into a near-vertical steel-reinforced concrete wall surrounding the entrance of the mound. This restoration is controversial and critics of the wall say that the technology did not exist when the mound was created to fix a retaining wall at this angle. Another theory is that the white quartzite stones formed a plaza on the ground at the entrance.

Quartzite stones at the entrance, standing stones in the foreground

Just as we got back to the waiting area the heavens opened up again. Our small umbrellas were no match for this downpour. Luckily the rain was nearly horizontal and we had a big sign to shelter behind although the smokers in the group weren’t so lucky!  :)

Back in the bus a little worse for wear we made our way back to the visitor’s centre where we grabbed ourselves some lunch, dried out and warmed up. Most of the selection was very expensive, a captive audience no doubt, we settled for the cheaper soup and bread roll which was very tasty.

It was about 4pm by now and we still have about an hour to travel to Dublin(in the final county of our visit; County Dublin!). Of course we arrive during rush hour and our B&B is across the other side of town. I actually don’t mind arriving at a busy time, it’s gives you a chance to see the city while waiting in a queue or at the dozens of lights.

After a few wrong turns we eventually find Waterloo House tucked down a side street and not very far away from the city centre. We unpack the car, catch up with some work and the wander down the road to find some dinner.

The suns out but it's still raining! A sun shower.

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