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Exploring Ireland’s Ancient Mysteries

There are only a handful of structures in the world that can withstand the test of time, holding together thousands of years after they were originally built. The pyramids, the Colosseum, Stonehenge… many of these are names that everyone has heard. A quick Wikipedia search suggests that humans have been present in Ireland for at least 12,000 years, so it’s only natural that sites such as these are found here as well.

Perhaps Ireland’s biggest mystery, the Brú na Bóinne, sits by the River Boyne in County Meath. It is made up of several ancient tombs, but very little else is known about it.  Another ancient site accessed via the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre is Newgrange. It was built during the Neolithic Period around 3200 BC. The monument is a prehistoric passage tomb built of large rocks and held together only by the hill that formed around it. It is decorated with white quartz stones.

My mom always told me about this incredible place, and it intrigued me enough to write a paper on it for a class back in high school. The passage way leads to a temple deep within the mound. The temple itself on the inside is pitch black, hidden away from the sunlight, but when you turn on the light (which is obviously a modern addition to the structure) you will find ancient art work carved into the walls, from the mysterious carvings left by those who possibly built the tomb all the way to carvings of names and years from the 1800s. The most special thing about the temple, however, is what happens once a year on the winter solstice. Light will creep in from a specific angle in the opening of the passageway, illuminating across the ground. This happens every solstice morning for just a little while, and then the tomb returns to its natural darkness for another year.

Brú na Bóinne
Pictures of Newgrange

A very short distance away, you’ll find a large passage grave surrounded by several smaller mound tombs. This interesting site is called Knowth. It is also from around 3200 BC, around the late Neolithic Period and the Bronze Age. Surrounding the main mound, there are giant rocks covered in megalithic artwork consisting of spirals and diamonds. No one has any idea what these strange pictures mean. They could be some sort of hieroglyphic, or they could be just drawings to decorate the tomb. Maybe they read in an ancient language the names of the unknown children who were buried there. You may ask, why would children specifically be buried here? One theory is that the mound was representative of the pregnant belly of Mother Nature, so when children died they were laid to rest in a tomb representative of a womb, where they would be safe.

The passageway at Knowth
Mounds and megalithic artwork

Not far from Brú na Bóinne is a place called Drogheda, a town that was once a bigger city than Dublin. There are some interesting things you can find in Drogheda, such as the head of St. Oliver Plunkett in a beautiful old church. I explored around the town this weekend and went into a museum, where I happened to come across a mysterious old Irish stone. It’s called a Shiela-na-Gig, and they seem to have been very popular in the ancient times because there are many around the country. They’re strange stone carvings made to look like little people, and there are many theories as to what they may represent. One famous theory is that young women who were having trouble conceiving would rub the stone to become more fertile, in the hopes that the stone would help them get pregnant soon. This made the most sense to me, because I felt like the one in Drogheda looked like a baby. Either way, it’s seen as lucky to rub it.

Touching the Shiela-na-Gig

Perhaps these mysteries will never be answered for us. However, the cool thing is that we are left to hypothesize for ourselves what these ancient places and objects meant to the ancient people. Don’t forget to check back next week for more about #IrishRoots on #WeldonWednesdays!

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