The descendants of the Tuatha Dé Danaan who constructed the temples along the Boyne Valley in 3200 BC left a legacy of architecture with calendars in stone, solar and lunar maps; and triple spirals bearing witness to their spiritual, scientific and astrological culture. The temples are older than Stonehenge, the Pyramid of Giza and for that matter Homer’s ‘Iliad’ whose source was the Siege of Troy of around 1200 BC.
In Irish mythology, Dagda named the Boyne after his wife Boann who was Goddess of the river known in ancient Gaelic as Bóinn.
Apart from Enda Kenny, visitors wishing to visit Newgrange and Knowth should note that this is only possible by joining formal tours which leave 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 possible to view the mound at Dowth by going directly to the site but it should be noted that there is no public access to the tombs themselves.
Brú na Bóinne urgently needs to overhaul and upgrade its access for visitors. Daily, there are two buses leaving Dublin at 10 a.m. and 1p.m. The 100X leaves from Custom House Quay to Drogheda where you change to the 163. The later bus is a bigger challenge with a wait of 45 minutes in Drogheda. You cannot expect to arrive at the centre until 15.10 at which time it will be nigh impossible to fit into the schedule in the May-September season, and expect to bus it back to Custom House Quay. Coach tours from Dublin are €35 upwards. Car owners and those on tour buses still encounter problems because of the archaic access policy to the sites. Dowth is not open to visitors. Its carvings include ‘The Stone of the Seven Suns’. The Drogheda Conservative (July 5th, 1856) mentioned the explosives used by the Royal Irish Academy’s 1849 ‘excavation’, a plundering expedition causing a huge crater during its work at Dowth in the nineteenth century, leaving the “beautiful tumulus literally torn to pieces. Its stones barrowed out as if it were to facilitate the dissoluting propensities of road contractors”.
Knowth is currently open to the public but like Newgrange fraught in terms of actual access.
The summer schedule accommodates groups of visitors up to 5.15 pm. Individuals and families are lower in the pecking order. The policy is quite stolid: “there can be no guarantee that everyone will have access to the sites” according to the official leaflet. Pre-booking is only possible through fax or the postal system, addressee: ‘Reservations’. The latter method is fittingly but frustratingly prehistoric. Stonehenge, for example, has an IT system to optimise the visitor’s experience.
Not so at ‘Brú na Bóinne’ whose visitors centre which opened in 1997 uses a sticker system and an internal shuttle-bus service to the sites – a ten to fifteen minute journey away. It already offends that the centre (if necessary at all) is remote in its location. It is ‘disastrously’ situated south of the river whereas Newgrange is across the Boyne, beautifully built on a curve of the river. There is a hut on-site within metres of Newgrange where the staff corral the next group of visitors in the slow and muddled process of access while the preceding group has been shuttled ignominiously in and out.
The vaunted ‘experience’ of Newgrange based on the quasi-museum at the centre cannot but fail to deliver. The exhibition meets only minimum standards, replete with predictable plastic skeletons and tiring mannequins wearing primitive raggy costumes. The miniature model of the prehistoric community is appropriate for children but has little or no appeal to adults. The biggest boast is the replica of Newgrange itself which is a filleted version of the passageway and demonstrably inferior to the original, in every imaginable way. The actual passageway is 24 metres long, slopes upwards to meet the level of the light box under which it is possible to walk, giving the effect of a prehistoric fanlight window on entering the temple.
The problem with the replica is not just the phoneyness of the materials used but the crucial failure of scale.
The centre with contemporary visuals, artefacts and laminated murals cumulatively does not register anything like the impact of Newgrange or Knowth. The centre offers (as consolation?) a twenty-minute DVD of the experience costing €16. It would be easy to leave this experience feeling short-changed. Depression would not be unreasonable as one headed for the fleeting bus.
Decidedly, there is a school-tour atmosphere about this experience, from stickered visitors waiting for their shuttle bus to finally getting on site.
It has slavishly pursued the kitsch motif of circularity in design. Spirals almost jump out at you everywhere, like attenuated hypnosis. One notorious chunk of glass in the circular glazed walls has an embedded spiral on a circular window. The restaurant is good but pricey, taking advantage of affluent and hungry quasi-hostages on the long wait to see the temples. Soft drinks, crisps and such are available but not at Lidl prices. The car park has had thefts from parked cars. Walkways outdoors are paved and fenced, as well as hedged off. There is no great incentive to go out and ramble as your shuttle bus is the central focus. There is a sense of being confined to barracks in the ever circular interiors of the centre.
Outdoors at last, the centre is set in lush pastoral landscape, low on the horizon. You cross a substantial footbridge and traverse the hemmed-in pathways until reaching the shuttle park which is a small circular yard. The shuttles are slightly larger than mini-buses, taking about 20-24 persons at a time. On alighting from the shuttle you have to wait for the previous group to exit the site. You wait in a corralled area for your guide near the checkpoint hut. Released into the field before Newgrange there are further delays as the guide mechanically ‘explains’ the passage tomb. Mystical this is not.
The group is split up and access limited by the numbers allowed inside. Within the temple and its chamber during the visit the guide provides further remarks. The time spent inside the temple is around fifteen minutes (no photos allowed). You can circle the temple and see the kerb stones before returning to the shuttle bus, back to the centre.
In the era of smartphones, travel apps and ubiquitous IT the centre really should upgrade to an online timeslot system. Faxes, letters with stamps and return replies are just not on. Ask a child.
The quarter of a million visitors who make the trek to ‘Brú na Bóinne’ annually deserve a better system of access without resorting to a Government tribunal or a referendum on the matter. Many visitors enlist in the lottery for the experience of the Winter Solstice in the chamber at Newgrange, though the best places always seem to have been pre-appropriated by the worst government-connected personages.
In contrast, Fourknocks, ten miles south east of Newgrange near the village of Naul, is raffishly accessible on receipt of a €20 deposit for use of the key. No stickers, no shuttle bus, no tour guide, no leaflet. You are free to experience it beyond OPW strictures. It is a remarkable temple whose chamber is twice the size of the one in Newgrange and linked to the prehistoric rites, rituals and ceremonies practised along the Boyne.
Individually and collectively, each site is a religious temple both necropolis and heliopolis as well as sacred place of ancestor worship and sun worship as attested to by the copious examples of triple spirals and other symbols carved into the rocks and standing stones.
You don’t have to be an archaeologist to comprehend that these spirals refer to the rituals, with especial focus on the sun and the dead, based on the evidence of burial artefacts found at these locations.
Knowth by name is connected with the Goddess of the Earth, Cnogba, and therefore synonymous with the womb and the tomb. Dowth has definitive links of the same nature since ‘Dubhbadh’ meant darkness in ancient Gaelic. The Solstice alignments that connect with the temples register the establishment by the ancients of their absolute purpose.
The inner chamber at Fourknocks is the largest in the mystical Boyne Valley Experience.
The system needs a vastly simpler organisational structure for easy access. If this requires the existing centre to be used for other purposes, why not. Knowth and Newgrange is a downward spiral of obvious disappointment for those who arrive and cannot be fitted into the day’s schedule.
The centre critically examined could well find a far better use.
It will not take Einstein’s theory of Accessibility to adopt a more efficient and less supervised access policy for visitors, using far less infrastructure.
Besides, the centre was not built to last like the temples of the Boyne dating from 5,000 years ago. Get rid of it. •
Brú na Boinne
The archaeological landscape within Brú na Bóinne is dominated by the three well-known large passage tombs, Knowth, Newgrange and Dowth, built some 5,000 years ago in the Neolithic or Late Stone Age. An additional ninety monuments have been recorded in the area giving rise to one of the most significant archaeological complexes in scale and density of monuments and the material evidence that accompanies them. The Brú na Bóinne tombs, in particular Knowth, contain the largest assemblage of megalithic art in Western Europe. Knowth’s extraordinary collection of megalithic art was done on site. Sometimes it stops at ground level suggesting the stones had already been erected before the art was applied.
The natural heritage of Brú na Bóinne is also of importance and it encompasses several Natural Heritage Areas. The Boyne River Islands are one of the country’s few examples of alluvial wet woodland which is a priority habitat under the EU Habitats Directive.
Brú na Bóinne was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in December 1993 in recognition of its outstanding universal value. The scale of passage tomb construction, the important concentration of megalithic art as well as the range of sites and the long continuity of activity were cited as reasons for the site’s inscription.
The construction of the passage tomb cemetery in Brú na Bóinne began some time around 3300 BC and by this time, the area had developed into an open farmed landscape with evidence for domestic houses and occupation scattered throughout. The building of at least 40 passage tombs displaying a sophisticated knowledge of architecture, engineering, astronomy and artistic endeavour indicates a highly organised and settled society where rituals and ceremonies surrounding the treatment of the dead and contact with the ancestors, required highly complex and permanent manifestation.
When the tombs fell into disuse, possibly around 2900 BC, the areas surrounding them continued to be the focus of ceremonies, ritual and habitation right through to the Early Bronze Age period (c.2200 BC). Large earthen embanked circles, pit circles and pit and wooden post circles (all of which have been described as ‘henges’) were constructed. Throughout the Iron Age (c.500 BC – AD 400) there is evidence of sporadic activity, including burials close to the main mound at Knowth and on the river terrace at Rosnaree. Late Iron Age / Roman items, including coins and jewellery were deposited in the vicinity of Newgrange as votive offerings.
The introduction of Christianity in the early fifth century brought renewed activity to Brú na Bóinne. After its initial use, Newgrange was sealed for several millennia, although it remained storied in Irish mythology and folklore. The entrance to Newgrange was rediscovered by landowner, Charles Campbell’s labourers in 1699.
Professor Michael J O’Kelly excavated and restored Newgrange from 1962 to 1975 and many now regard it as Ireland’s national monument. O’Kelly discovered that the builders of Newgrange deliberately oriented the passage so that each year around the winter solstice, the rays of the rising sun would shine through a special aperture he called a roofbox to illuminate the chamber. As part of a ‘restoration process’ at Newgrange in the late 1970s white quartzite stones and cobbles were fixed into a ludicrously sterilising near-vertical steel-reinforced concrete wall surrounding the entrance of the mound. This restoration is controversial among the archaeological community.
Critics of the wall point out that the technology did not exist when the mound was created to fix a retaining wall at this angle. •