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Mystery of Newgrange Stones May Be in the Stars

June 11, 1989|KEVIN FOLEY | Foley is a free-lance writer living in Quincy, Mass.

DUBLIN, Ireland — Few places in Ireland are as mysterious as Newgrange, the ancient hilltop stone chamber 30 miles north of Dublin in the Boyne Valley.

Newgrange, which dates from 2,000 BC, was built by the country's original neolithic inhabitants. Unlike Stonehenge, the well-known series of free-standing stones in England, Newgrange is an enclosed structure of highly-decorated stones with an earthen roof.

It is accessible from Dublin in summer by daily bus service. The bus leaves Dublin's Busaris Station on Amiens Street at 10 a.m. and returns at 6:30 p.m. every day between May and September. The round-trip journey costs 10 Irish (about $16 U.S.).

On my November visit there was no direct service to Newgrange, so I settled for the morning bus to the nearest town, Slane, about five miles away.

I got off the bus a few blocks from the center of Slane, a picturesque town with restful pubs and gracefully curved stone bridges that span the Boyne River.

Slane Castle

Across the street from the bus stop, Slane Castle peered out from behind stately trees. Privately owned by Lord Henry Mountcharles, the castle has been the site of Ireland's biggest summer concerts, including those of David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Queen and Bruce Springsteen.

U2, Ireland's highly successful band, recorded its fourth album, "The Unforgettable Fire," in a makeshift studio inside the castle. But on this chilly, overcast morning, Slane was quiet.

As I walked up a lonely country road it began to rain. Cars passed infrequently and I started to wonder if anything of real interest even existed in this deserted countryside. While most of Ireland is well marked with directional signs, few indicated the way to Newgrange.

More popular tourist attractions such as the Ring of Kerry and the Blarney Stone lie in the opposite direction from Dublin.

As I walked a couple of more miles, the rain invaded my raincoat and penetrated my clothing. I tried to shake off the chill, pulling my hood down over my forehead.

Disc-like Promontory

What I saw in the field to my left sent a shiver along my spine. On top of the gently rolling green field was a sight that I will never forget: a disc-like promontory of land, outlined in white.

Newgrange was larger and more imposing than I had ever imagined. The stone structure looked at once old and new, like a '50s sci-fi version of a flying saucer.

The small visitor center at the entrance to Newgrange was staffed by a former schoolteacher who now worked as a guide.

Surprised to see me arrive on foot, she explained that I was her first English-speaking visitor of the day; she had had only French and German tourists, who arrived by car.

As I entered the front gate she told me to explore the hill on my own and that she would join me in a few minutes.

Curved Earthen Roof

Rough white rocks, interspersed with occasional round black rocks, cover the exterior of the 150-foot circular mound. The walls rise 15 feet from the ground and then angle inward, where they join the curved earthen roof.

Newgrange is encircled by a series of rocks, 10 feet long and 3 feet high, uniformly laid end to end to form a low wall around the structure. All these large stones are intricately cut with repeated designs of concentric circles, wavy lines and abstract images.

A few yards downhill from the entrance a series of standing stones, some as high as 12 feet, stand like sentinels. Despite their rough surfaces the stones seem to arch gracefully toward the sky, like young plants seeking the sun.

The cavelike entrance is covered by a large rock slab, with a small windowlike opening directly overhead. A modern wooden stairway has been built to allow access over the large stones to the entrance. Another modern addition is an iron gate, which the former teacher had come to unlock for me.

Newgrange did not seem to be designed for tall people. I had to crouch to get through a twisting, 50-foot passageway. In the very center of the structure the ceiling vaulted up to a stone roof that was at least 20 feet high. It would have been dark inside, except for one electric bulb.

The room had an eerie, unsettling quality. Despite the dim light it was easy to see the deeply carved rock walls and ceiling that had many of the same designs as the outside rocks. The structure had been built without the use of mortar or support beams; the rocks had been carefully fitted together.

Newgrange faces toward the winter solstice that occurs Dec. 21. When the sun rises on that date its rays shine through a small opening above the entrance way and reach the stone floor in the center of the structure.

To its builder, these 20 minutes or so of light inside Newgrange signified the start of winter. The other megalithic mounds face the sunrise (and in some cases, moonrise) at its various solstices.

The people who built Newgrange remain a mystery. They obviously knew something about astronomy and science and must have had some understanding of mathematics.

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