The sense of anticipation grows inside the bus like wild fungi, releasing great spores of excitement that settle on each traveller. We, the occupants of bus two, have known each other since Brú Na Bóinne visitors’ centre, ten minutes ride away. Many of us have already learned two important points about Newgrange. Point one: It’s old, really old. It predates the pyramids by about 400 years, and Stonehenge by 1000 years, making it one of the oldest built structures in the world. Point two: little is known for sure about the monument, like who built it and why. This point would be laboured throughout the tour.
Through the dirty glass of the tour bus, I get my first glimpse of the monument. Applying a sleeve of my jacket to the window, the smudges become a single smear. These are the blotches of countless travellers with their noses pressed hard against the glass. Tourists, pagans, and scientists travel many thousands of kilometres to take photographs, to chant, or to take measurements and calculate the orientation of celestial objects. For some, Newgrange is a scribble on their travel itinerary. Others offer themselves as pilgrims. In fact, Newgrange has been a place of pilgrimage since at least the first century AD for indigenous people as well as British Romans. Then, as now, Newgrange was a sacred place.
But what makes Newgrange sacred?
I’m the last to make my way to the top of the hill on which Newgrange has perched for more than 5000 years. The tour guide has commenced her spiel, but is interrupted with questions from travellers who failed to learn the two above-mentioned important points. Our host is thoughtful with each question as she searches for clever ways to say ‘we don’t know’.
With point two etched in our minds we are counted off into groups of about twelve people. The first group disappears into the chamber. I am in the second group.
It’s twelve degrees Celsius. The wind cuts through my denims. It seems to come from all directions. There is no place to stand without feeling its pinch. On the hill overlooking the river Boyne with the monument at my back, I forget my discomfort to remember where I am. The hill on which Newgrange sits offers a panoramic view of the Boyne river valley. Plump dairy cows graze in the shadow of much smaller mounds, oblivious to the specks gaping and gawking on the hill above them. Surrounded by more than 20 satellite mounds, I realise that the entire area is a cathedral. Newgrange is the altar table. On the eastern side of the mound sits a small building shaped like a keyhole, a relic from the 18th century, known as the ‘ice house’. It is out of place on the hill, but its presence is a reassuring reminder of the antiquity and colourful history of the region.
I face the monument and the white quartz façade, with its cap of grass. The façade, an artefact of an enthusiastic 1970’s reconstruction, flashes in the sunlight giving it a dazzling effect. Despite this, the mound, impressive in size, is not so visually spectacular.
The first group emerges from the chamber, all unreadable faces. My group is called to the entrance and given a two minute lecture about appropriate behaviour inside the chamber. We nod our compliance, but it is not for the rules that we obey. Newgrange is the authority here. As our host leads the way I position myself so I am last. It’s not the 200,000 tonnes of dirt and rock that I fear, or the thought of sharing the chamber with twelve other carbon dioxide producers, but the diminutive body-hugging space in the passage way. This is one of those moments when I tell myself this isn’t one of my greatest ideas and do it anyway.
Twelve greedy sightseers and one tour guide squeeze, duck and contort to fit through the narrow passage way, only dimly aware that we are climbing. Ahead one sightseer has turned and begins to make her way back down the chamber towards the light, deciding it’s all too much for her. She apologises as she forces her body past mine and mutters to the walls as she rushes the exit. My desire to find the sacredness of Newgrange overwhelms my fondness for open spaces and propels me forward, following the cap in front of me. Don’t look at the floor. Or the walls. Or the ceiling. Just follow the cap.
At last we slip into the chamber, everyone pushing the one before to be free of the passage. Relief gives way to wonder as twelve pairs of eyes adjust to the dim light. Within the chamber it’s quiet, warm. The capstone of the corbelled roof rests six metres above the floor, making the chamber feel much larger than it is. I can almost forget the thousands of tonnes of soil and rock between the ceiling and me. Almost. At that moment our conversant host informs us that there is still at least a metre of soil above the stone slabs. Heavy soil.
All eyes are on the roof. Mine avert to walls of the chamber, to the three recesses and their stone basins, which once held cremated human remains. The walls and ceilings of the recesses bear the scars of megalithic art. Spirals, lozenges, zigzags and lines are still as crisp as the day they were carved. I imagine I can see faces distorted with concentration, chipping away at the granite by the light of oil lamps, scratching a narrative out of geometric shapes.
In amongst the petroglyphs are more recent decorations. Since as early as the seventh century (McCormack 1998), Vikings, Georgians and Victorians have left a mark on many of the chamber walls. One name and date stands out against the rest: John 1788. Far from reading this as a violation against the Newgrange’s special interior, I am comforted by its presence. It is part of the history, a miniature memoir of its achievement.
A teenage lad standing near me, who has had his face fixed to the screen of his mobile phone since we entered the chamber, lowers it to his side and squints at the graffiti. ‘Cool’, he says.
Now, as I begin to relax within the chamber, our host announces we are about to be treated to a recreation of the winter solstice where the dawn sun enters the inner chamber through the roof box over the entrance of the mound, an event for which Newgrange is famous. I watch the passageway disappear. Walls, basins and people are obscured as the blackness solidifies. Bodies are motionless, shapeless in the dark. We all listen to each other breathe. A spike of artificial light appears at the passageway and runs across my feet, illuminating the chamber again. The chamber hums with appreciation. A communal wow. Though we all know the recreation is artificial, theatrical even, it elicits a feeling of wonder and appreciation in everyone who witnesses it. My appreciation is for the builders, who engineered one of the greatest ancient shows on earth without computers or mechanical tools, and for those who imbued it with ritual importance.
As the chamber is thrown into light once again I am overwhelmed by a sense of absorption. A part of me will stay here. A ghostly footprint adding itself to the hundreds of thousands of others who have come before me.
As the bus pulls away, everyone is quiet, heavy with thought. Behind us, Newgrange stands like a sentinel, watching the world and keeping its secrets to itself. I cannot say what made Newgrange sacred in the past, but as I watch it slip into the distance I think I understand its continued appeal. I found the answer, not in the monument, but in the hearts and faces of its visitors; from the Vikings and John 1788 to the teenager who forgot his mobile phone just for a few minutes. It is the human ability to experience the sense of wonder which makes a place sacred. Sacred places live with the ghosts we leave behind.
Ever since I visited Newgrange tomb in Ireland in 2006, I’ve been fascinated by the concept of sacred space. Think of a time when you have felt the power of place and write about it.