The Neolithic period (the final era of the Stone Age) came after the Mesolithic Period and before the Bronze Age and Iron Age. The Neolithic era lasted from approximately 10,000 BC until roughly 1,700 BC in Northern Europe. But what makes this period of ancient history so captivating and relevant to travel today is that during Neolithic times, Ireland’s ancient peoples built extraordinary monuments that have stood the test of time and culture.
Scattered across Ireland, find the proud vestiges of a once-great people, ancestors of modern Ireland through their tombs, cairns, dolmans, crannogs, standing stones, stone circles and more.
“We who are so old, old and gay,
oh so old!
Thousands of years, thousands of years,
If all were told.”
– A Faery Song, W.B. Yeats
Fairies in Ireland were often associated with ancient Neolithic tombs as fairy houses, or entrances to the fairy world (the other world, later called hell by the Christians), as such tombs were ancient, mythical and magical to later peoples.
Ireland has a rich prehistory, and its fields are simply overflowing with ancient sites and monuments. The Neolithic Era is when ancient humans started to abandon their hunter-gatherer lifestyle and settle down. This meant farming and cultivating land and crops, raising and breeding livestock, and building more permanent settlements.
Most Neolithic people lived in small tribes or clans composed of extended families, though we don’t have much insight into their social and cultural interactions. Beyond structures to live in, Neolithic peoples also started to build structures for religion, ritual and burial. In fact, Ireland has one of the highest numbers of Neolithic-era architecture and in particular tombs.
In Ireland, Neolithic structures are found throughout the island, however there are a few places that stand out: Newgrange and the Boyne Valley of central Ireland; Co Sligo in the Northwest; the Burren in the west; and finally parts of West Cork and Kerry.
No one knows exactly why these structures were built, but we do know that they were places of cremated burial and ritual. Lovers of astronomy, Neolithic builders chose to align many of these monuments with a particular astrological event, like a solstice or equinox, a sunrise or sunset. For particularly lucky people – or those adept at planning – visit during such an event, such as the setting sun of the summer solstice, when the gold sun’s rays fall over the hills and fill the stony chamber with a comforting warmth, the same as it has every year since the Neolithic peoples built the cairn.
Today, these ancient spots stand proud perched atop hills and mountains, perfect as your goal to climb to the summit.
Staring up at the distinctive rounded shape of the historic cairn at the top of the hill motivates you to start up the steep slopes. Like ancestors of old, you’ll squish through the boggy ground to climb the craggy and bracken-covered hill to top where you’ll come face to face with your ancestors and monuments they built. Standing inside a structure older than the Pyramids of Giza, feel the cold stone under your hands as you peer into the dark chambers.
As time wore on, cultures changed but the mysterious monuments remained.
Later Celtic peoples did not understand – and even feared – the mounds and tombs left behind by their ancestors. To explain their existence, they were often associated with mythology, particularly fairies. Unlike the modern version of tiny and cute fluttering fairies who wear tutus and live in flowers, Irish fairies are larger, scarier and far more tricky.
For a long time, the unexplainable was attributed to a myth or legend or simply “the fairies.” Everyone knows you don’t mess with fairies because you’ll regret it. Even today, “fairy forts” (usually prehistoric stone circles and early medieval cashels or stone forts) are left alone – roads and farmer’s ploughs circumvent them to avoid any fairy-related problems!
Of all tombs, the Newgrange complex, with its sister tombs Knowth and Dowth, are probably the best-known Neolithic monument in Ireland, a country simply bursting with prehistoric monuments.
This series takes you on a journey to Ireland’s ancient sites thousands of years old. Learn about Newgrange and some of the other Neolithic sites you should visit in Ireland.
Newgrange is probably Ireland’s most famous Neolithic tomb, and is one of Ireland’s UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Likely built around 3200 BC, the monument consists of an enormous mound or cairn that encloses a single – though large – passage tomb. Newgrange’s mound is encircled by 97 kerbstones (large stones laid on their sides to form a ring around the base).
Though most are only impressive for their sheer size, some of these kerbstones are decorated with ancient art. The interior of the passage is narrow and uneven, though enough for a person to walk through upright – unlike many other passage tombs in which you must crawl.
Typical of Neolithic tombs, the 19-metre-long passage ends at three chambers, each of which would have once housed the cremated remains of those who once inhabited the county thousands of years ago, usually spanning centuries. The roof is corbelled, using an ancient drystone technique that is weather-resistant and waterproof but doesn’t require mortar!
Though we know very little about the ancient Neolithic peoples, we do know that astronomy was very important to them, and that they had a solid understanding of the sun, moon, and stars – in particular, solstices and equinoxes. Newgrange is aligned with the Winter Solstice, meaning that for 6 days a year around the Winter Solstice in mid December, the sun shines through the roofbox (a narrow opening above the door) to lighten up the chamber with sunlight. Sound interesting? Every year, the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre receives about 30,000 applications – a lottery awards about 100 places!
Newgrange has a new Visiter Centre that has recently opened. Visitors cannot visit the tomb on their own; instead visiting in small groups with a guide. The new visitor centre offers immersive and interactive experiences that focuses on the Boyne Valley or Brú na Bóinne and its monuments during the Neolithic era and the importance of the seasons, weather phenomenon and solar cycle to the people who built this place.
Like Newgrange, Knowth was built around 3,200 BC. This makes it older than Stongehenge, the Pyramids of Giza, the Roman Colosseum, and the cathedrals and castles of Europe.
The second principle tomb for the Brú na Bóinne Neolithic complex is Knowth, located just 2 kilometres away from Newgrange.
In the central mound of Knowth, there are two very long passage tombs – one 34 metres long, the other 40 metres, which makes it the longest passage from the the Neolithic era in all of Western Europe. In the surrounding vicinity, there are 18 satellite tombs of various sizes and complexities near Knowth, marking it as one of the most important spots in Neolithic Ireland.
Surrounded by over 120 richly decorated kerbstones, archeologist George Eogan, who excavated the site in the 1950s, claims that Knowth has the largest known collection of megalithic art. This ancient art includes spirals, angular designs and more at this impressive site.
As with much in Ireland, changing cultures meant new belief systems, new way of life, and new needs. By the Middle Ages, Knowth ceased to be a tomb, and was now used as a protected medieval settlement, including the royal residence for the Brega kingdom, which resulted in a thriving village. A century later, the arrival of the Normans brought the Cistercians to Knowth.
Today, there is no access to the interior of the tomb, but its rich history, fascinating story and wonderful site can be explored on a guided tour from Newgrange and the Brú na Bóinne Visiter Centre. Learn more here.
The least-known of the three major cairns in the Brú na Bóinne area is Dowth. Like the others, Dowth dates approximately from 3200 – 2900 BC, though it could have been built a little later than that.
Dowth is the unfortunate victim of an amateur Victorian-era excavation by the Royal Irish Academy who bungled the excavation by attempting to blow open the massive cairn using dynamite. Unsurprisingly, this did not work, and irreparably damaged the monument – it now has a large crater in the middle due to this act. Luckily, this act did not damage the passages.
Dowth is riddled with passages and chambers.
In fact, it houses not one but two passage tombs, several chambers, as well as a shorter souterrain. The northern passage (the northern passage) is the longest at 18 meters in length. While shorter than that of Newgrange, the passage is still an exceptional feat in engineering!
The cairn of Dowth is about 85 metres (280 ft) in diameter and 15 metres (50 ft) high, and like Newgrange, it is encircled by a ring of more than 100 large kerbstones, some of which have stone cravings (the most famous is that of a sun), though the weather has taken its toll.
Like Newgrange, Dowth is also aligned with the Winter Solstice.
Please not that, unlike Newgrange, the interior of the tomb is closed to visitors. The exterior is open to all, and does not require waiting in the queue for Newgrange.
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