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Newgrange: Ireland's Mysterious Neolithic Site

Newgrange: Ireland's Mysterious Neolithic Site | CosmosMariners.com

Castles, bridges, and cathedrals: Europe's got them in spades, and they're all historic. That's one of my favorite things about visiting the other side of the big pond. Here in America, you'll find a historic downtown that might date back to the late 1600s if you're lucky; in Europe, the "new" side of town was probably built around the same time period.

My exploration into Europe's history has taken me to many places: to Roman ruins underneath one of London's political centers, an Iron Age fort on the cliffs of Ireland, and a German city that has impressive remains of a 2nd century aqueduct.

Newgrange: Ireland's Mysterious Neolithic Site | CosmosMariners.com

But, on our road trip to the Emerald Isle, my husband and I had the chance to visit our oldest site to date: Newgrange. Older than both the Pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge, Newgrange was built around 5,200 years ago. When I first read about it in my guidebooks, I knew I had to put it in our itinerary, so we made some room on our road trip between Galway and Dublin and head out to discover the mysteries of Newgrange.

As we came into the town of Slane, we started to follow the historical site signs for Newgrange, but quickly found ourselves going in circles. We hoped that our GPS would help out, and it assured us that we were only a few kilometers from it. After we headed down this tiiiiny road through vast fields, we turned a corner and there it was: this massive, grass-topped mound. However, there wasn't a parking lot, and there wasn't anyone around. Both of these seemed odd for a major historical site, so I decided to run up to the tiny wooden building at the foot of the hill to see if there was someone in there who could help me.

It turns out that we were in the right place...sort of. We had found Newgrange, but we couldn't start the tour there. We had to head across the River Boyne to the visitors' center to purchase our tickets and get a scheduled tour time, then a tour bus would bring us back to the historic site.

Newgrange: Ireland's Mysterious Neolithic Site | CosmosMariners.com
Here's the visitors' center. Finally!
We followed the new directions and found the visitors' center about 10 minutes later. If we'd visited during the summer season, we could've booked tours for both Newgrange and nearby Knowth at the center, but they were only running the Newgrange tours in late January. (One of the trials and tribulations of traveling in the off season!)

Since it was late in the afternoon of a Wednesday in the winter, we were able to book a tour on the very next bus going out. That gave us just enough time to go through the informative mini-museum onsite: here, you can discover more about the Neolithic people who built Newgrange, how they survived in the harsh Irish climate, theories on what the mound was used for, and information on the archeologists who excavated it in the mid-1900s. Even though some of this was covered in the guided tour at Newgrange, it was helpful to get a deeper context of what we were about to see.

Newgrange: Ireland's Mysterious Neolithic Site | CosmosMariners.com
I can't think of a single instance when a diorama didn't assist in my learning. The visitors' center at Newgrange was no exception.
Getting (back) to the site was an adventure in itself: we left the visitors' center, walked across the river, waited for the tour bus, then took the bus for a 10 minute ride to Newgrange, where we met our guide. (Whew.)

Newgrange: Ireland's Mysterious Neolithic Site | CosmosMariners.com
Heading to the bus to start our tour
As our guide was starting her spiel, the Irish weather decided to showcase its full range: when she began talking, it was sunny and 65 degrees, but by the time we were ready to go into the mound, the temperatures had plummeted and it had started to hail. Oh, temperamental Irish weather, how you always keep me on my toes.

Newgrange: Ireland's Mysterious Neolithic Site | CosmosMariners.com
We're here! And so is the hail.
When we headed into the mound, I was more than a little anxious since I'd read that the interior was tough on claustrophobic people. As I'm massively uncomfortable in anything smaller than an elevator, I decided to hang back so I could be one of the last people entering the mound. That way, I wouldn't be rushed and could easily turn around if I started to spaz.

Newgrange: Ireland's Mysterious Neolithic Site | CosmosMariners.com
So small. So dark. So terrifying.
With a little encouragement from Landon, I slowly made my way into the Newgrange mound. It was a tight squeeze all the way along the passage, and, in parts, I had to bend almost in half to get underneath the support beams. If it hadn't been for my determination to experience the historic site, I probably would've turned around and left after the first twenty feet. So, be warned if you, too, hate small spaces: they aren't lying when they tell you it's close quarters.

Once our group of 10 or 15 made it into the inner chamber, our guide spent about 20 minutes pointing out specific features of the structure. Surrounding the main chamber were three smaller chambers, each of which was carved with elaborate zig-zags, squares, swirls, and checkerboard patterns. They were remarkably clear considering they're over 5 millenia old!

One of the highlights of the tour was when the guide turned out all of the lights (spooky!) and then used a flashlight to show the drama of how the sunlight would filter in during the winter solstice. Many archeologists and historians believe that Newgrange was built in homage to that very thing each year, so seeing it in action (sort of) was worth dealing with the claustrophobia. And for those who are interested in seeing the real winter solstice from inside Newgrange, you can enter a lottery to be one of the lucky few who get that experience each year.

Although our experience at Newgrange started off a bit confusing what with the visitors' center mixup, I am so glad we made the effort to put it in our Ireland road trip itinerary. Plus, how often can I say that I've spent part of an afternoon inside an earth mound that dates to 3200 BC?!

We ended our day with a dinner at Conygham Arms on Slane's main street, then retired to our adorable little AirBnB cottage about 10 minutes outside of town. It was the perfect last day before we dove into the next few busy days in Dublin!

Newgrange: Ireland's Mysterious Neolithic Site | CosmosMariners.com

What ancient historic sites have you visited?

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