“Let me show you what it’s like on the winter solstice,” the guide says as he turns off the lights. Here, on a visit to Newgrange, we’re thrust into pitch blackness, with just cold stone all around us.
The guide flicks a switch and a narrow band of orange light appears on the floor. It’s clear to make out but is only just there, almost swallowed up by the darkness around us.
He flicks another switch and the beam becomes stronger. It now stretches from up the end of the long narrow passage and hits the stones near where I’m standing at the very back.
It’s still black everywhere else and my hand is invisible in front of my face – just a vague silhouette. But this orange ray is bold and warm. It brings with it such power and… hope.
For millennia, this orange beam has been appearing down the passage just once a year, on the winter solstice… but nobody knows exactly why Newgrange was designed to achieve that effect.
There are lots of theories and educated guesses – and I’m not the first to think of power and hope.
Those two ideas form one of the strongest theories about the Newgrange site here in Ireland, about an hour’s drive from Dublin.
Why is Newgrange important?
Newgrange is an ancient tomb built more than 5000 years ago that is an incredibly well-preserved monument offering insight into the prehistoric people who once lived in Ireland. It also contains Europe’s largest concentration of prehistoric megalithic art.
Newgrange is part of a World Heritage Site called Brú na Bóinne, that includes the other nearby prehistoric landmarks of Knowth and Dowth.
How old is Newgrange?
The prehistoric monument of Newgrange was built around 3200 BC, making it older than other similar landmarks like Stonehenge – or even the Pyramids of Giza.
Can you go inside Newgrange?
Yes, you can go inside Newgrange to see the main passage and the the rocks inside that have megalithic art carved onto them. Entry to Newgrange is only possible with guided tours from the site’s visitor centre.
To learn more about why the prehistoric tomb of Newgrange was built like this – and who built it all those millennia ago – the best thing to do is visit Newgrange for yourself.
There’s a modern and sophisticated visitor experience, although numbers to actually go inside Newgrange itself are limited, so you’ll want to book well in advance.
To visit Newgrange from Dublin, I would recommend this excellent day trip that also includes some other interesting sights along the way. (Places are limited, so book as soon as possible!)
Along this part of the River Boyne’s north bank, in an area known as Brú na Bóinne, is a collection of ancient graves and other historic monuments around three great burial mounds – Knowth, Dowth, and Newgrange.
Of those three, Newgrange is certainly the most significant and is undoubtedly the highlight of a visit. So, let’s have a look at some of the history of Newgrange and what you’ll discover when you come here.
What is Newgrange?
Newgrange, at its simplest, is an enormous burial mound built more than 5000 years ago (before the Pyramids or Stonehenge). It was surely more than that, though.
It must have also had some kind of ceremonial role in the society of people who lived in these lands all those years ago.
How? Well, we don’t know for sure. But it’s clear that this chamber where the winter solstice shines was the focus.
The chamber is about 6 metres high and it is deep in the very centre of the mound, which is about 76 metres in diameter. To get to it, I’ve come through the narrow passage from the very edge, squeezing between rocks on a couple of occasions and ducking my head a couple of times.
But, here in the centre, there is plenty of space. The three sides that don’t have the passageway entrance have alcoves that may have been altars or may have been where the remains of the deceased were kept.
Some of the rocks – on the walls and the ceilings – are carved with mysterious artwork. I would love to show you some pictures of them but photography isn’t allowed inside the mound.
In some ways this is a good thing. Photos would not be able to convey the sense of being inside the chamber and it’s something which is best experienced for yourself.
There is a spiritual energy inside the chamber of Newgrange.
The best time to be here, to experience the power, is on the winter solstice – the day the guide is now replicating for us. Because even 5000 years ago, the humans who built Newgrange had an incredible understanding of astronomy and geometry.
For just a matter of minutes at about 9 o’clock on the morning of the winter solstice, the rising run will shine directly down the passage, through a special box at the entrance.
Well… I say that humans had a good understanding of astronomy back then but, really, the best way to put it is that they had no choice but to understand the seasons. It was about survival.
Winter in Ireland didn’t just mean months of biting cold, it meant a scarcity of food – so understanding the movement of the sun meant being able to plan your harvests and prepare for bad times.
One theory amongst archaeologists is that Newgrange was used as a plea to the gods to bring back the sun. The winter solstice is the turning point of when the days will start to get longer again.
Perhaps the people of 5000 years ago worried that one day that wouldn’t happen, that the days would just keep getting shorter until they lived in eternal darkness.
Perhaps the ceremonies in that chamber were to ask for their light back and to send that message to the deities directly back up that beam of orange.
Who built Newgrange?
These people from Newgrange are interesting, and even though we don’t know a lot about them, they’ve left us quite a lot to work with.
Newgrange is just one site of many in the area – the whole ensemble being called Brú na Bóinne. There are two other large mounds called Knowth and Dowth that presumably hold some particular significance, and at least 40 smaller mounds within relatively easy reach.
This collection of structures shows us that these communities were transitioning from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to settled agriculture. They began cultivating crops such as wheat and barley and domesticating animals like cattle, sheep, and pigs.
Even the construction of the tombs, all those years ago before the wheel was invented, is impressive, and the artworks give us an indication of what was important to them – these carvings often depicting abstract symbols, spirals, and other motifs, possibly representing their cosmological beliefs or spiritual concepts.
But, still, there’s a mystery and you are left to wonder what these people were thinking.
The rock positioned at the entrance to the mound at Newgrange is the most famous of them all. Take a look at it here:
My guide suggests a few of the popular theories about what it’s depicting:
- It shows the passage of the sun in the days around the winter solstice…
- It’s a map of the area with the three mounds prominent…
- It’s some kind of ancient pictorial language…
Oh, or it could just be a pretty pattern that doesn’t mean anything. That’s a popular theory as well.
Because the construction of Newgrange and other megalithic sites would’ve required considerable planning and specialised knowledge, historians assume the people had a well organised social structure. That means there were probably leaders, as well as skilled craftsmen and builders.
And, because Newgrange and the other megalithic sites show evidence that rituals were held here, that suggests the people followed some form of religion – one that probably had its own related burial rites and seasonal festivals.
You can visit Newgrange – and you can even go inside the central passage within the tomb.
But because it’s a really small space inside the tomb, entry to Newgrange is only with a guided tour, and there’s a limited number of them each day (with a limited number of spots on each tour).
That’s why booking in advance and as early as possible is really important!
There are two ways to book a spot to see Newgrange. If you’re travelling out to the site independently, you can buy tickets for the available tours through the official visitor centre here.
If you would like to join a tour with transport from Dublin, or if you want to see if a tour operator still has tickets for a day that appears sold out on the official site, you can go with this excellent day trip.
Until a few years ago, you could drive right up to a carpark next to the main tomb. But now that road is closed to tourists.
Instead, you need to head to the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre, about two kilometres away, from where all the activities are run for the group of ancient sites. (I’ve got more info about the visitor centre below.)
Where is Newgrange?
Newgrange is in the countryside near the town of Drogheda, about 40 kilometres north of Dublin.
It’s accessible from the nearby Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre.
The official address is Brú na Bóinne, Glebe, Donore, Co. Meath, A92 EH5C. You can see it on a map here.
How do you get to Newgrange?
To access Newgrange, you need to go to the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre.
By car, it’s about a 40-minute drive from Dublin and there’s plenty of parking.
By public transport, there are several different routes you can do, combining buses and trains. The quickest is to take the 901 bus to Drogheda (35 mins) and then transfer to the 163 bus to the visitor centre (23 mins).
When is Newgrange open?
Newgrange is only accessible with a guided tour from the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre. There are normally about 12 tours throughout the day.
The visitor centre is open at the following times throughout the year:
January: 09:00 – 16:15
February – April: 09:30 – 16:45
May – August: 09:00 – 17:45
September: 09:00 – 17:15
October – December: 09:00 – 16:15
How much is the Newgrange entry fee?
The main tour of Brú na Bóinne from the visitor centre, that includes visiting Knowth and going into the Newgrange chamber, costs:
Senior (60+): £16
Student/child (12+): £12
Are there tours to Newgrange?
The only way to actually go inside Newgrange is on a tour run by the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre, which you should book in advance (as early as possible).
For a tour from Dublin to Newgrange that includes entry to Newgrange and some great stops along the way, I would recommend this excellent day trip.
As well as the tour from Dublin that I’ve recommended, there are a handful of other Newgrange tours available that might better suit your circumstances, including a private tour and one that includes Trim Castle. You can see the options here:
It’s not possible to go inside the chambers at Knowth, so Newgrange is really the main event. However, it’s not the only thing here, and it’s definitely worth giving yourself enough time to look through the visitor centre – or even join some of the other expeiences here at Brú na Bóinne.
Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre
Just two kilometres from the Newgrange mound, the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre is your first port of call for all the activities here, and a wealth of information about the ancient people who build the neolithic structures.
Within the visitor centre is a modern and interesting exhibition about many aspects of the story. What catches my attention are the sections about the people who lived here.
They’re depicted wearing animal furs as clothes, hunting with simple weapons, gathering around a fire in a crude tent. But then the text says “these humans were almost identical to humans today”.
I look at the models of the men and think they look nothing like me. They’re primitive and ancient and have foxes hanging from the roof of their tent.
But, then again, they dragged heavy stones from 80 kilometres away and built a waterproof chamber in an enormous mound that is perfectly aligned with an astronomical event.
What what these people thinking? What did they know?
The exhibition here doesn’t answer all those questions, but it gives you a lot more information than you probably had before coming here.
The exhibition is included with the main tour ticket, but if you just want to see the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre without taking a tour, it costs £5 for general admission, £4 for a senior, and £3 for a student/child.
Although the exhibition is interesting, obviously it’s the burial mounds themselves that are the most important things to see.
All of the tours of the area leave from the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre, and there are three main options to choose from:
- First, there is the main Brú na Bóinne Tour, that includes a visit to Knowth and into the chamber at Newgrange. (£18 general, £16 senior, £12 child, £48 family)
- Another option is the Newgrange Tour, that goes to Newgrange and inside the chamber, but doesn’t visit Knowth at all. (£10 general, £8 senior, £5 child, £25 family)
- And there is the Knowth Tour, that only visits Knowth (which you can’t go inside) but not Newgrange. There’s normally a bit more availability on this one, if the Newgrange ones are booked out. (£10 general, £8 senior, £5 child, £25 family)
All of the tours tend to get booked out – often more than two weeks in advance – so I would recommend getting your tickets as soon as possible here on the official website.
And, I should also mention that a bit further afield and not part of the Brú na Bóinne area, there’s also the megalithic site of Loughcrew, another group of passage tombs from the 4th millennium BC.
All of these tombs, even somewhere like Newgrange, may not have the reputation of Stonehenge… but they are just as mysterious.
It’s a mystery that will probably never have an answer – but visiting Newgrange, and going inside the chamber to see where that winter solstice sunrise hits the carved rock at the end, is a really special way to connect with the people who lived here more than 5000 years ago!
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN DUBLIN
The city is easy to get around but I think you’ll find Dublin’s best accommodation south of the river, around St Stephen’s Green.
Being a student city, there are lots of hostels but I would recommend Generator Dublin.
Dublin can be expensive but you can get an affordable private room at Destiny Student – Tannery.
For a really cool hotel with a distinct style, I love The Dean Dublin.
And for modern five-star luxury, I don’t think you’ll find better than The Marker Hotel.
Time Travel Turtle was a guest of Tourism Ireland but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.