Sunday, February 13, 2011

Day Trip to Newgrange.

I love Newgrange. When I studied Art History in school it was one of my favourite topics. It makes me feel all warm & gooey that our little island has a substantial building project even older than the pyramids of Egypt, and even more so that we were clever enough to figure out that whole winter solstice / light box thing. I've even tried to alter a stranded colourwork sock pattern to imitate the carvings on some of its kerbstones - more about that later when I actually finish the socks! So it baffles me that I had only been to Newgrange twice, during school tours. It's only up the road!

So myself & a dear friend decided to make the trip as her pre-birthday outing. You have to visit the Bru na Boinne visitor centre to book onto the shuttle buses for access to the monument. We spent about an hour looking through the exhibitions & gift shop before our shuttle bus was ready. I was delighted to see some displays explaining use of textiles & fibres back in the day; nettle fibres & dog hairs were in use, as well as the unsurprising furs & wool.

The visitor centre is in a lovely setting alongside a river & with many trees; all rather peaceful & delightful on a non-raining day in Ireland.

The shuttle bus zooms along narrow country roads to the monument itself, perched high on a hill with views of the surrounding countryside (I caught glimpses of my first lambs of the year from the hill). It was cold & windy in front of the monument, but that didn't matter. We had old stuff to see!Our tour guide was really informative, & I learned some new things yesterday; the somewhat controversial white stones that have been placed on the outside of the reconstructed monument really were on the outside of the original monument. When the mound was being reconstructed, many tests were performed, stacking wall stones & allowing them to fall repeatedly to determine the most likely configuration of the building materials. The big grey bite-sized chunk out of the front of the monument is not historically accurate, but was intended to protect the carved entrance stone; if Newgrange did not have this wider opening, people would have to climb over the entrance stone to gain access to the chamber. Seems kind of obvious but it had never occurred to me before.


Inside the passage is lower & more narrow than I remember, but I suppose I was about 15 at the time of my last visit & much smaller. Photography is not allowed inside the chamber, but there are images available online. If I remember rightly, our guide told us, once inside the chamber , that we were surrounded by 200, 000 tonnes of stone & earth - a sobering thought.


During all visits the guides turn out the lights & use 2 bulbs to simulate the winter solstice sunrise, that comes in through the roofbox over the entrance door. It's an eerie moment,
& I'd love to see the real thing, so my friend & I entered our names for The Lottery. About 100 people will be admitted over the few days around the time of the winter solstice and there are 'only' 25,000 applicants so far for this year...

When we came out of the chamber we walked around the outside of the mound. My friend wondered how they cut the grass; I noticed a warning sign & suddenly thought I wanted to climb the mound. But I didn't.
After the visit to the monument, a shuttle bus took us back to the visitor centre. We had a lovely late lunch of hot dishes with salad on the side & a pot of tea. The menu seems a bit expensive but they do really load your plate with food. I had another browse through the gift shop & was utterly disgusted by little trinkets containing 'Irish' 4 leaf clovers, before I removed myself from the touristey gack in favour of the bookshelves. I bought a book by Michael J O'Kelly, the archaeologist who excavated Newgrange in the 60s and 70s; it seems interesting.

Our guide was adamant that there are a lot of theories about Newgrange which cannot be proved or disproved; as we simply do not know what the beliefes of our ancestors were. I've been reading a book lately that theorises that the large stone bowls & slabs inside its chambers were used to collect rain & dew water; that the capstone on top of the roof could be removed to allow the night sky to be reflected on the water collected inside the chambers. It's an amazing idea, but the builders went to great lengths to ensure this monument would last; moving about the capstone would surely damage the integrity of this structure.

Perhaps this is why Newgrange is so fascinating; we can never know its meaning; we can only guess.

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