On a hill in County Meath stands a monument to the early settlers of Ireland and their civilization. The remarkable structure, built more than 5000 years ago, at first appears to be just a huge mound on a hilltop in the Boyne Valley, but closer investigation reveals a man-made structure surrounded by enormous standing boulders. A magnificently carved kerbstone lies before the entrance to a 65-foot passage which runs to the center of the mound and three chambers formed of interlacing stones. The passage is inclined at precisely the proper angle to align astronomically with the rays of the rising sun at the winter solstice. At dawn on December 21, the shortest day of the year and the point at which the power of the sun begins its annual return, the rising sun’s rays shine through a portal above the entrance, travel along the inclined passage and illuminate the central chambers. This only happens on December 21, and partially on the two days before and after. The mound was called Bru na Boinne by the ancient Irish; today it is called Newgrange.
According to carbon dating, the structure was built between 3700 and 3200 BC making it the oldest, still-standing, man-made building on the planet. Ancient Irish manuscripts say it was built by the Tuatha De Danann, early inhabitants of Ireland who were such an advanced civilization that the Celtic settlers who came after them considered them possessed of magical powers and guided by the heavens. Today, it is obvious that their “guidance” came in the form of their advanced knowledge of astronomy – knowledge unmatched at that time. To the Celts, it was a domain of the gods, a palace of the otherworld, and a place of festivals. Reinforcing this belief was the fact that about 1 kilometer on either side are two other mounds, Knowth and Dowth, which are also astronomically aligned with celestial events. Knowth, the oldest mound of the three was built some 500 years before Newgrange and is aligned with the setting sun on the solstice.
With the coming of Christianity, many pagan forts and monuments were ignored and fell into disrepair. They were eventually overgrown, or eroded by time and weather. In 1142, the land on which Bru na Boinne stood became part of the farmland of the Cistercian Abbey at Mellifont. Farm fields were called granges and Bru na Boinne lost its former identity and simply became known as the new grange. During the Williamite confiscation of church property, the land – now overgrown – was given to a Charles Campbell who used the mound as a source of stones for roads and fences. During the summer of 1699, workers carting stones from the base of the mound, discovered the magnificent entrance stone with its carved spiral designs. Further digging revealed the opening to a long narrow passage which led to the center of the mound and its three chambers. Authorities were notified and Welsh Naturalist Edward Lhuyd came to investigate. It is he who is credited with the discovery of Newgrange despite the fact that the Irish had been telling of Bru na Boinne for centuries. The Irish were ignored and Mr. Lhuyd and several of his colleagues concluded that the great monument was the work of visiting Danes since nothing requiring such skill and intelligence could ever be attributed to the Irish.
In 1750, General Charles Vallencey, a British Army Engineer and professional surveyor, came to Newgrange and discovered its astronomical alignment with the sun, moon, and planets, and advanced the theory that Newgrange was an astronomical observatory. He explained the standing stones in front of the entrance as sun stones positioned to cast shadows on the carved entrance stone to indicate the seasons. He ascribed considerable astronomical skill to its early Irish architects, but was ridiculed by his colleagues who had never even seen the mound. In spite of local tales which verified this phenomenon and references to the solstice lighting in the writings of George (AE) Russell, no archaeologist took the time to investigate it until 1969, when Michael O’Kelly entered the chamber before sunrise on the winter solstice and became the first modern archaeologist to witness that exciting event.
In spite of the amount of verifiable information available on this historic site, some still stand with their backs to Newgrange, and stare in mock awe at Stonehenge, marveling at the antiquity of a site constructed 1,000 years later; or they wonder at the pyramids which were only started hundreds of years after Newgrange was completed. Finally, in 1989, the New York Times, which is ever slow to credit Irish accomplishments, noted that a British journal had announced that the astrological alignment of Newgrange appeared to be “by design rather than by accident.” Welcome aboard! It’s now December, and on the 21st day of this month, the mound at Bru na Boinne will again receive its annual message from the sun telling man that the days will now get longer and the long night of winter is coming to an end. Hopefully the long night of ignorance about Irish accomplishments is ending as well.