Monday, June 9, 2008

Newgrange and Monasterboice, County Meath, Ireland

Photos all enlarge when clicked on

My husband and I took a half day bus tour west from Dublin to County Meath, and into the Boyne Valley past the beautiful and historical Boyne River. The river passes the Neolithic passage graves at Knowth, Newgrange, and Dowth, which are of archaeological significance, and the nearby Tara, the seat of the high kings of Ireland. The river was also the scene of the famous 1690 Battle of the Boyne (to read a synopsis of the battle click on link)
Our destination was Newgrange, one of the best examples in Ireland and in Western Europe, of a type of monument known to archaeologists as a "passage-grave" or "passage-tomb". It was constructed around 3200 BC. This makes it more than 600 years older than the Giza Pyramids in Egypt, and 1,000 years more ancient than Stonehenge! Passage tombs are so-called because of the internal passage which leads to a chamber where the burned bones of the ancestor were placed. Newgrange so famous is that on each winter solstice on December 21, the rising sun shines through an opening above the door of the tomb and illuminates the entire passage.

Newgrange was "rediscovered" in 1699. The landowner at the time, Charles Campbell, needed some stones and had instructed his laborers to carry some away from the cairn. It was at this time the entrance to the tomb was discovered. Newgrange mound should be properly referred to as a cairn because it consists of water-rolled pebbles, each of which is between 6 to 9 inches across. The entire mound contains an estimated 200,000 tonnes of material, and it has been estimated construction would have taken about 30 years using a workforce of about 300. Professor Michael J. O'Kelly excavated and restored Newgrange from 1962 to 1975. He was Professor of Archaeology at University College Cork from 1946 until his death in 1982

Twelve Standing Stones survive of what may have been an arc at the front of the mound or possibly a complete circle of about 35 stones surrounding the mound.

The entrance, in front of which is a massive curbstone (10 feet long, 4 feet high) carved with spirals and lozenges, incorporates a roof box which allows the sun, at sunrise on the morning of the winter solstice on December 21, to penetrate the full length of the interior passage all the way to the main chamber. So great is the demand to be one of the few allowed inside the chamber during the solstice that there is a free annual lottery, with around 50 people chosen out of tens of thousands, and application forms for the lottery are available at the visitor center.

The interior is solid, except for a single stone-lined and stone-capped passage 62 feet long and 3 feet wide which terminates close to the center of the mound in the main chamber with a corbelled vault 20 feet high and three recessed chambers. There were three large curved stone basins in the innermost room which are speculated to have been designed to hold the remains of cremated bodies. The roof was made so that the chamber was completely waterproof from above the ground rain and drainage.

We were escorted inside in small groups, by a very interesting and informative guide, to view the chamber, and the winter solstice phenomenon was dramatically simulated for us. I would have loved to have been able to take photographs inside, but obviously, we weren't allowed. Some photos of the interior designs and fascinating roof can be viewed here. There are some videos on Youtube of the sun solstice, just put "Newgrange" into the search box. You can view part three of one recorded onto Youtube from Irish TV here.

Here I am standing next to a standing stone so you can get some perspective. How the ancient peoples were able to transport and place these massive stones is such a mystery!

The view I had when I turned around from the photo above and looked down into the beautiful valley below.

A shot of the Newgrange mound from the bottom of the hill to show the perspective of its size seen in its entirety.

Close up of a curbstone design. This curbstone was almost directly in the back behind where the entrance would be on the other side of the mound.

Another look at the entrance and the decorated curbstone in front. In 1993, Newgrange and its sister sites, Knowth and Dowth, were designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO because of their outstanding cultural legacy.

As part of this tour, we were also taken to a nearby small rural cemetery in County Louth called Monasterboice. It was founded in the late 5th century by St. Buite, a disciple of St. Patrick, who died around AD 521 and was an important center of religion and learning until the founding of nearby Mellifont Abbey in 1142. The site houses the ruins of two churches built in the 14th century or later and an earlier round tower, but it is most famous for its 10th century high crosses.

Muiredach's High Cross is regarded as the finest high cross in the whole of Ireland. It is named after an abbot, Muiredach mac Domhnaill, who died in 923, and features biblical carvings of both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.
The cross is about 18 feet high. In the photo above you can see the tour guide describing the biblical carvings to our. group

The east face shows Adam and Eve and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Cain and Abel, Moses striking the rock, Samson toppling the pillars and David with the head of Goliath, while the west face shows the Flight into Egypt, the baptism of Christ, Christ being mocked by Roman soldiers and Christ in the tomb. To see other carvings and their description go here. The crosses are thought of as "sermons in stone" used to teach the masses about the bible, and also as status for the church or patron.

The North and West crosses are also fine examples of this kind of structure, but these have suffered much more from the effects of the weather. The photo below is of the north cross

There were ruins of a 110 foot round tower. Round towers were built during the 10 and 11 century in Ireland in reaction to Norse raids on monasteries, and they were used as watchtowers, belfries, and repositories for church valuables. Records indicate that the interior of this tower went up in flames in 1097, destroying many valuable manuscripts and other treasures.

The West Cross, below, is located near the round tower in the western corner of the site, is 21 feet high, thus making it one of the tallest high crosses in Ireland. Also dating from the early 10th century, it is more weathered than Muirdach's Cross, especially at the base, leaving only about a dozen of its original 50 panels distinguishable.

Monasterboice is still an active cemetery for local people, and we saw many new graves interspaced among the very ancient. Our guide pointed out the gravestone below and told us the interesting story of how it was erected by an American from New York in memory of his family who had migrated away from this area in Ireland and who had lived an died in New York, New Orleans, The West Indies, and including one brother who died off the coast of Africa. I thought it was a good example of the long Irish diaspora during and after the famine years until very recently.

I hope you enjoyed seeing some of the sights from the very interesting and mysterious Newgrange and Monasterboice that have given us a peek back in time.
We made one more all day trip to the Southeast of Ireland, including the Waterford Crystal factory, before we left Ireland, and I'll show the highlights in my next blog entry.

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Edie Marie's Attic said...

Hi Pat!
Your post is awesome! You have shown us things and places in Ireland that we didn't know existed!! What an interesting place both Newgrange and Montasterboice is. I was amazed that there are so many people that enter to win a chance at seeing the solstice! It must be an incredible event. The crosses were works of art! I can't imagine being among that kind of history!! Thank you so much for teaching us such wonderful history!
Hugs, Sherry

PAT said...

Reading your words and seeing your photos, I feel as if I was there! Wonderful posts, all!


steviewren said...

Really interesting post on the pre-history of Ireland. I recently read about Newgrange in the historical fiction novel, The Princes of Ireland by Edward Rutherford. I enjoyed being able to put the words I had read together with your beautiful pictures and account.

You might be interested in reading the non-fiction, How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. He weaves the myths and legends of Ireland into his historical account of the Irish people and their quest for learning and knowledge.

Mary said...

Oh what fun! I loved the tour, and all the history. And it all looked so green and COOL!!!

steviewren said...

Pat, I just read your comment over on my blog...first let me say Happy B'day to a fellow "Geminice" person.
I also popped back over to recommend listening to the book by Cahill on CD if you can find it. Liam Neeson reads it and besides loving to listen to his dreamy accent he pronounces all the unintelligible words which was a giant plus for me.

Anonymous said...

This was fascinating. Imagine seeing all of these structures, and thinking of how long they have been there.

Like you, I am amazed at what men were able to accomplish.

I can't wait to see some of your tour of the Waterford factory. There is just something about Waterford that feels so good in your hand.

Lisa's RetroStyle said...

Absolutely facinating! And Hurray for you, you got your pictures to enlarge!! It was all wonderful...but I love those cows in the pasture by the river. So soothing and serene!

Vee said...

Fascinating! I had no idea of any of the information that you shared with us goodness, you are a thorough teacher. It's always fun to visit and see what you've written for us next.

Marg said...

You would make a great tour guide.
So many sights to see and do.
When you talked about the rocks, I thought of the standing stones that were left during the OT time as "monuments of remembering" Erecting stones was very cultural. It's interesting how metaphoric the stones are represented throughout history.

Proud Italian Cook said...

Pat, I have been enjoying all your pictures of your amazing trip, I always said I wanted to go to Ireland someday, and now even more.
Thank you, you,d make a great tour guide!

Judy said...

Most interesting...and informative too...and beautiful. The pic's of the Holstein cows on pasture made me think I was home the farm for a moment!

Unknown said...

Hi Pat,
Thanks for visiting my blog and commenting!
I love your travel pics. I have been to Europe 2 Rome, and Paris. I am not going back until I make it to New York City! I will be exploring your blog...I see you have labels on your side bar that are enticing!

Unknown said...

Another wonderful post, love it and so much to learn too :)

Unknown said...

Another wonderful post, love it and so much to learn too :)

Edie Marie's Attic said...

Hi Pat!
Yes it's been sweltering here in Ohio! So humid too. Wes had to go to downtown Columbus yesterday and said it was so much hotter there than out where we live. I can't imagine how hot it can get in NYC!
It's raining here this morning and is cooler but will only stay cool with the rain says the weather man.
Hope you get some relief there!
Hugs, Sherry

Edie Marie's Attic said...

Hi again Pat!
A Little Birdie Told Me it was going to be your birthday in a few days!
So let me be the 2nd person to tell you HAPPY BIRTHDAY PAT!! Are you doing something special on your special day? Well you DID just get back from Ireland but a special lunch or dinner planned?
More hugs, Sherry

Kathy said...

Hi Pat, Another beautiful part of Ireland, you capture the essence of the place with your photos and words, I really have enjoyed reading your blog each morning, I have posted a few photo's of Enneskerry, but they look sad compared to yours and it took me nearly three hours, oh dear, hopefully I will get better, I aspire to your blog, hugs Kathy.

Michelle said...

I think you should write for travel magazines or write a travel book! I feel like I'm on the trip with you..beautiful post, as always.


Dorothy said...

Pat...fantastic photos...the countryside is just beautiful.....I have always been interested in Ireland...the people have so many lovely customs. What a journey you have taken into the past...

Junie Moon said...

I'm experiencing great pangs of wanderlust and would love to go to these places you're sharing with us. I'm especially interested in the stones and the carvings. I love how you've documented your trip and all the wonders to be seen and celebrated.

nanatrish said...

I love your blog. It took me to the other side of the world today and that was a much needed trip. The music is also so pretty and soothing. Your pictures are just breathtaking. I'm so glad you got to go.

Jillian's Bella Rosa Antiques said...

Hi Pat,
Thank you for stopping by my blog. I have really enjoyed your pictures/tales from your Ireland trip. The waterford Crystal bit was very interesting! Thanks for sharing!