Ireland: Celtic portals to a lost world

By Graham Reid

The Proleek Dolmen is one of many ancient megaliths that can be found in Ireland. Photo / Graham Reid
The Proleek Dolmen is one of many ancient megaliths that can be found in Ireland. Photo / Graham Reid

As an example of Kiwi understatement it was masterful. As he emerges from the 5000 year old tomb, blinking into the bright Irish sunlight, the strapping lad from Taranaki was asked what he thought of it.

"Yeah, pretty good, eh?" he said, then strode off purposefully, leaving behind him one of the most ancient and breathtaking sights in Ireland.

Just over an hour from 21st century Dublin is this doorway into a world which, until recent times, had lain undisturbed since being built by Neolithic farmers who hauled massive stones many kilometres to arrange them in this picturesque place.

Even now, when you stand in the small room at the centre of this long and low passage-tomb where people from this gentle curve of the River Boyne laid out their dead, the stone roof is exactly as it was when the slabs, some weighing many tonnes, were put in place.

This is Newgrange, part burial chamber and part massive sundial that only allows a shaft of light into the central chamber at the time of the winter solstice.

The tiny roof box was only discovered during excavations in the 60s, and everywhere are mysterious stone carvings.

Newgrange - one of the most celebrated pre-historic sites in Europe - dates back to a time before man used metal tools but could measure the passage of seasons with astonishing accuracy.

The landscape of Newgrange looks like a massive piece of installation art: a low and circular ridge of green grass some 80m across on walls of tightly-packed stone. It lies low, just 13m high, and from a distance looks like yet another rolling hill.

The tiny entrance is exceptionally beautiful, although controversial because it was constructed in the 60s and therefore may not be a replica of the original. But inside there is no denying the power of this place, which was here before the pyramids were built in Egypt.

Around it are standing stones (dolmen) and legend says Newgrange was the burial place of the High Kings of Tara, but archaeology confirms this place existed some 3000 years before the Tara Kingdom.

This wider region, known as Bru Na Boinne (The Palace of the Boyne), has 40 passage-tombs, among them nearby Knowth. The tunnel to the centre remains dark and impenetrable, but there is an undeniable beauty in the weather-worn carvings on the huge stone slabs.

Ireland is many things to many people: to economists it is the limping Celtic Tiger; to writers, a land of literature; for those who like a tipple it is where pubs appear to outnumber churches.

For those in search of history it offers a breadth disproportionate to its size: everywhere are stately homes and castles, beautiful walled gardens and ancient megaliths in odd places, such as the Proleek Dolmen (with a capstone weighing 46 tonnes) in County Louth near Dundalk.

At the picturesque and abandoned Clonmacnoise monastery beside the River Shannon, crumbled ruins of tiny worshipping places and stone churches stand amidst angled Celtic crosses on ancient graves.

But always there remains the sense of mystery, as if a veil was once quietly drawn over these places to ensure their secrets could never be fully understood.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific offers daily flights from Auckland to London via Hong Kong. Special fares are available.

RyanAir flights to Dublin depart from Luton, Gatwick and Stansted.

Information on these sites:

Bru Na Boinne, Newgrange and Knowth Visitors Centre: knowth.com.

Clonmacnoise: sacred-destinations.com or moytura.com.

For general information on Ireland's historic sites see: heritageireland.ie/en.

Further information: You can get general information on visiting Ireland at discoverireland.co.nz.

Graham Reid travelled to Britain and Ireland courtesy of Cathay Pacific and discoverireland.co.nz.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf05 at 26 Nov 2014 21:17:06 Processing Time: 634ms