Despite the country’s rainy reputation, the summer of 2018 was a particularly toasty one for Ireland. While some parts of the country experienced adequate rainfall, most did not. With Dublin and the surrounding areas suffering through their worst drought in over 150 years. But while they may not have had clouds, there was still a pretty big silver lining, as the drought uncovered evidence that one of the country’s greatest treasures may still have a lot to offer.
Newgrange is a stone age passage tomb in Brú na Bóinne, County Meath, just outside of Dublin. It is often likened to the famous Stonehenge monument in England, as both are astronomically aligned to indicate the day of the solstices. During the summer solstice in Stonehenge, the centre of the structure is lit up at sunrise. For the winter solstice, the sun would set perfectly between two stones, one of which is now missing.
Newgrange is similar, but distinct in a few ways. Unlike Stonehenge, most of Newgrange is underground. There is only one entrance, which leads to a 60-foot long passage that then splits into 3 burial chambers. It is aligned only to the winter solstice, which is the time of year when the days begin to get shorter, and when the sun rises that day, it shines through a slot above the door known as a roof box. This causes light to bounce off the perfectly placed stones, and spectacularly illuminates the inner chamber. The whole process lasts about 17 minutes, although you can see a sped-up recreation on the official tour.
The recent drought in Ireland caused much of the plant life in the area to wither and lose its natural color. But subterranean structures retain more moisture than regular earth, causing the plants above them to have a much healthier color, which essentially leads to a blueprint of what lies beneath. Normally, this would be invisible to us from ground level, but a local historian decided to fly his drone over the area just on the off chance that he might find something. And he did.
“I caught a glimpse of what looked like a big broken circle in the crop field to the west of it. I flew a bit closer. Fairly quickly I got a glimpse of what seemed to be outer rings of dots” Anthony Murphy wrote in a blog post.
Murphy continued to fly around the area and found a total of three tomb imprints. Given both the historical significance and the pride that Irish people take in the site, finding a second tomb would have been considered monumental. Finding three is almost beyond comprehension, with Minister for Heritage Josepha Madigan describing it as “simply unparalleled”.
Newgrange was built over 5,000 years ago, making it older than both Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza. The new sites have likely been hidden for thousands of years, and while they may be invisible from ground level, they are obvious when viewed from above.
Now that there are a total of four tombs, Murphy and others believe they most likely correspond to four of the most important times of the ancient calendar: the winter solstice, the summer solstice, the beginning of summer, and harvest time.
The new sites were immediately declared national monuments, and the Department of Heritage began to carry out their own surveys of the area. While it will likely be some time before the sites are excavated, you can rest assured that the government will do everything in its power to preserve and promote this site as much as possible, as it is already one of Ireland's most-visited tourist destinations.
If you are travelling by car, Newgrange is easily accessible by taking the M1 and turning off at exit 9, where there will be very clear signage to direct you. If you do not have a car, Newgrange Tours offers entrance and a return bus service from Dublin for €40, while Bus Eireann offers transport and entrance to the site for €31 per adult, which also includes access to the nearby Powerscourt Gardens.