I feel honoured and privileged to be able to stand in the doorway of Síd in Broga on the shortest mornings of the year and to be present at this special moment in the same place as those distant ancestors once stood.
Here, on the verge of the sídhe (the entrance to otherworlds), I take the place of the ancestor during my short time at this hallowed spot and remember and honour their zeal and their commitment and dedication to the gargantuan task that the construction of this monument represented.
More than that, I wonder about the presence of spirits from those other realms. I ponder on the figures of the Tuatha Dé Danann – Dagda, Bóinn, Oengus Óg, Ogma, Brigid, Danu, Mór Riagán, Manannán, and all those of whom our most ancient tales speak.
I think about the meagre existence of the people of the New Stone Age, those who laboured hard in the distant pre-technological era when moving stones was an unenviable task. They were smaller. They likely were hungry a lot of the time. The men died at an average age of 28, their women 26. They were a young community, and their lives were fleetingly short. Their smaller height is evident from the entrance of Newgrange, where many modern visitors must stoop down or risk banging their head on the overhanging entrance stone – which happens with extraordinary regularity!
I think about the very high level of infant and youth mortality, and the dangerous task that was moving three-tonne megaliths into place. No doubt many people were injured during the building of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth and all the other many chambered cairns around Ireland. Undoubtedly some were also killed in the task. No health and safety planning back then. No site risk assessments. No planning authorities, beyond whatever careful planning went into the design and layout of these extraordinary structures.
But the one image that is most prevalent for me, standing in this ancient doorway, is the image of the tribal elder – the shaman, the priest, the druid, the magi, the chief, the community leader, the Taoiseach (or whatever title she or he went by) – arriving at this very doorway, emerging from the murky interior of the Brug, having witnessed several illuminations of the chamber on successive days, announcing to those gathered outside:
"The sun has turned!"
It must have been a hugely significant and anxious time for the community, watching the sun's inevitable march along the horizon day by day, observing this golden ball as it moved relentlessly towards its lowest ebb. Would it stop? Would it keep going? Would it return?
In the mythology, Dagda Mór, the great god who is said to have built the monuments and distributed them to the Tuatha Dé Danann, succumbed to the wishes of his own son, Oengus Óg, who wished to have the Brú for a night and a day.
But eternity is made of nights and days, and thus Dagda was forced, through trickery, to relinquish command of this wonderful structure.
The old sun was dead. The new sun had come. And with it, the renewing of the days, and the return of the light and the heat that would, eventually, bring spring and summer and new growth to the ancient Gleann na Bóinne (Boyne Valley).
And so, pondering on this physical and mystical threshold, I think of physical and mystical beings, and I wonder which one is more real to modern visitors to Síd in Broga.
And I think of which one is more real to me.
They are both hard to picture. The minuscule ancestors, aged beyond their tender years, tending to the sparse offerings of the early harvest, struggling with the daily challenges of life in the Neolithic, wondering why their loved ones seemed to die young, and grasping longingly to the hope that they were out there somewhere, beyond that magical window above the entrance to the sídhe, in another realm beyond sight or thought.
The gods are equally hard to picture. Are they the deified remnants of an early people? Are they beings of light, diaphonous figures that seem to wander between realms on these thin days, when the universe seems to pour its entire contents of light and warmth into a cold, hollow chamber of stone in this mound of earth? Are they merely metaphors for states of human existence and anxieties? Are they us, more than they are them?
The following words from my new book, Mythical Ireland: New Light on the Ancient Past, seem apt to close this short post:
So even today, when I approach the geata na sídhe (the gateway of an unstranslatable concept), I sometimes admit that I haven't a clue what Newgrange is about. And when that happens, Oengus invites me in.
"Did you process processionally around the mound?" he asks me.
"No," I answer. "I precessed. I regressed. I digressed. I came to the doorway of the Brugh by paths unknown, the lone pilgrim who was lost at Cleitech, and somehow found the salmon in the pool beneath Rosnaree."
"Did you ford the Boyne?" he asks.
"I did. I managed, through means that are perhaps Damascene, to do what King Cormac could not. I crossed the Boyne at Rosnaree, and conquered all my fears. I was converted on the road to Síd in Broga."
And so I stand, at the doorway of the great Brugh, as the one who has come to a great moment as if like a pilgrim who has travelled across the centuries and the millennia, one who has ventured into unknown realms of soul, spirit, death and life, and one who has returned to one's community with a remarkable feeling of having lived a thousand lives.
Enter the ‘Ancient Sites’ section of this blog for a fascinating and wide-ranging exploration of the megalithic and sacred sites of Ireland. Find out all about the Stone Age and prehistoric ruins and learn more about the possible functions and alignments of these sites. Visit the great temples of Brú na Bóinne, the Hill of Tara, the ancient cairns of Loughcrew among many others.
Explore the ancient myths, legends and folklore of Ireland and their meaning. Read the epic Táin Bó Cuailnge, or the place-name myths in the Dindshenchas. Learn about how the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Milesians came to Ireland and how the early texts describe various invasions of prehistoric Éire. Hear about Fionn and the Fianna, and discover how some myths might contain information about astronomy and the stars.
There is no doubt that the ancient megalith builders had a substantial knowledge of the movements of the sun, moon, planets and stars through the heavens. Learn more about just how complex and impressive this knowledge was. There is evidence that the people of the Neolithic knew about the 19-year Metonic cycle of the moon, as well as being able to predict eclipses.