Newgrange is one of the best examples in Europe of a type of monument known to archaeologists as a passage-tomb or chambered cairn. It was constructed around 3200BC, according to the most reliable Carbon 14 dates available from archaeology. This makes it more than 600 years older than the Giza Pyramids in Egypt, and 1,000 years more ancient than Stonehenge.
Newgrange and the Boyne Valley
Newgrange sits on the top of an elongated ridge within a large bend in the Boyne River about five miles west of the town of Drogheda. This area had great eminence thoughout Irish history. Legend tells us the foundations of Christianity were laid here. Two miles or so downstream is Oldbridge, where the Battle of the Boyne took place in 1690.
Newgrange was built in a time when there was only stone, not metal, used as an everyday material for tools and weapons. In 1993, Newgrange and its sister sites Knowth and Dowth were designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO because of their outstanding cultural legacy.
On the winter solstice, the light of the rising sun enters through the roofbox at Newgrange and reaches in to the passage, shining onto the floor of the inner chamber. The sunbeam illuminates the chamber of Newgrange for just 17 minutes.
A survey of the roofbox, passage and chamber of Newgrange by Dr. Jon Patrick in 1972 found that the winter solstice orientation of the site was an original feature, and that they were sophisticated constructions, intended to maximise the accuracy and length of the beam entering the chamber.
Newgrange has some stunning examples of megalithic art, including the beautifully carved entrance stone, kerb stone 1, and kerb stone 52. The famous triple spiral is featured on the entrance stone and in the chamber.
Many finds have been made at Newgrange, including some curious items such as a stone phallus and an iron wedge. One type of find which arouses the interest of archaeologists are the Roman coins, many of which were reported to have been found at Newgrange.
The Tuatha Dé Danann, who ruled Ireland in ancient mythology, were said to have erected Newgrange as a burial place for their chief, Dagda Mór, and his three sons. Newgrange was said to have been the place where the great mythical hero Cúchulainn was conceived by his mother Dechtine. His spiritual father, Lugh, visited Dechtine in a dream while she stayed at the Brugh.
Access to Newgrange is through the Brú na Bóinne Visitors' Centre at nearby Donore, on the southern bank of the river Boyne. In recent times, there have been as many as 250,000 visitors to Newgrange each year.
Anthony Murphy of Mythical Ireland has written a book about Newgrange called Newgrange: Monument to Immortality which examines the archaeology, the cosmology and the spirituality of the monument and its people and reaches interesting conclusions.
The book suggests that the builders of the monument were aware of the near death experience, and that the design of the passage, opening towards the sun, recreates the journey through the dark tunnel towards a brilliant light that is a central feature of many NDEs.
The most comprehensive collection of facts about Newgrange on the internet can be found in our "101 Facts About Newgrange" section.
Sunlight enters the Newgrange chamber
At dawn on Winter Solstice every year, just after 9am, the sun begins to rise across the Boyne Valley from Newgrange over a hill known locally as Red Mountain. Given the right weather conditions, the event is spectacular.
At four and a half minutes past nine, the light from the rising sun strikes the front of Newgrange, and enters into the passage through the roofbox which was specially designed to capture the rays of the sun.
For the following fourteen minutes, the beam of light stretches into the passage of Newgrange and on into the central chamber, where, in Neolithic times, it illuminated the rear stone of the central recess of the chamber. With simple stone technology, these wonderful people captured a very significant astronomical and calendrical moment in the most spectacular way.
The sunlight appears to be split into two beams - a higher beam and a lower beam. This is in fact true, the lower beam being formed by the doorway to the passage. It is the light which enters through the roofbox, however, which reaches the central chamber.
The dawn of December 21, 1999 was a beautiful one. A large crowd of onlookers was present at Newgrange for the unofficial dawn of the new Millennium. This modern pilgrimage by over 150 people echoes ancient ritual activity which would have occurred at the mound 5,000 years ago.
A cosmic moment
For a very short time, the beam of sunlight enters the chamber, illuminating the floor. It is a narrow beam, only 34cm wide at the entrance and narrower in the chamber.
Originally, the beam would have struck the rear chamber orthostat (C8) and, possibly, would have been reflected onto another chamber stone, C10, which contains the famous triple spiral, pictured below.
After just 14 minutes, the shaft of light disappears and once again the chamber returns to darkness.
Newgrange: Monument to Immortality
My second book is called Newgrange: Monument to Immortality and was published by The Liffey Press. The book goes deep into the minds and souls of our Neolithic ancestors to reveal that Ireland's most famous monument was much more than a tomb.
Many people who visit the ancient and magnificent Newgrange monument in the Boyne Valley are driven by some deep longing to connect with their most distant roots. The giant 5,000-year-old megalithic construction evokes awe and wonderment, and often a sense of melancholy for the community of people who created it from stone and earth in the remote past, a people now lost to time.
For the past three centuries, archaeologists, antiquarians, and researchers have been probing Newgrange in the hope of revealing something about its purpose, and something about the mysterious people of the New Stone Age who created giant structures using primitive technology. In this fascinating book, Anthony Murphy shows that Newgrange is not only a uniquely special place, but that its construction was carried out not by a grizzly mob of grunting barbarians, but rather by an advanced agrarian community who had developed keen skills in the sciences of astronomy, engineering and architecture.
Newgrange: Monument to Immortality goes deep into the mind and soul of our Neolithic ancestors to better understand what led them to build this remarkable monument. In a deeply moving, poetic and philosophical exploration, Murphy looks beyond the archaeology and the astronomy to reveal a much more profound and sacred vision of a sophisticated people who were driven to create this marvellous testament to their time.
But more than this, Newgrange: Monument to Immortality has a message for our troubled times of economic crisis and spiritual upheaval. Irish mythology speaks of many invasions which happened over the course of history and prehistory. The original gods of Ireland, the Tuatha Dé Danann, are said to have handed over the running of the country to the invading Milesians, and in doing so they retreated into the mounds and raths of Ireland where they await re-emergence in times of crisis. Has the time come for Irish people to enter the stone mounds and retrieve that dormant aspect of their spirit which finds itself suppressed by political, economic and religious forces in a turbulent world?
The message of Newgrange is an eternal one, and survives across more than five millennia, to speak to us of our long forgotten ancestors of yesteryear. That message is as relevant today as it has ever been, throughout the long centuries of oppression and imperialism. The magic of the Tuatha Dé Danann, representing the uplifting aspects of the Irish spirit and the Irish psyche, is alive today, but perhaps hidden in the dark chamber of Newgrange, awaiting the coming of the light.
With the Winter Solstice only weeks away, this is the perfect time to reflect upon the true meaning of Newgrange and the forces that drove its creators to construct such a remarkable memorial to their time. Newgrange is a monument to immortality, the eternal quest of the human spirit.
Click here to purchase your copy of Newgrange: Monument to Immortality.