Brú na Bóinne
For over 5,000 years, Brú na Bóinne has cradled secrets borne of Neolithic ingenuity, hidden within sacred structures built of earth and stone.
Before the Pyramids emerged from the sand or Stonehenge stood tall, this place was home to a sophisticated wealthy society intent on leaving their mark on Ireland's landscape – and oh, what a mark they made. These talented astronomers, geologists, engineers and builders organised large numbers of people to build huge monuments, leaving an enduring legacy that still astonishes.
Sitting within the inland island known as the Bend of the Boyne, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Brú na Bóinne safeguards the largest collection of megalithic art in Europe, dotted across over 90 Neolithic monuments. Best known of these are the vale's three most spectacular sites: Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. Each holds its own unique story – but it's the confluence of all three in the heart of Ireland's richest archaeological landscape that makes a trip here simply unparalleled.
These spaces were not reserved for the dead. They were places for the living too – for communities to gather, to observe the sun, moon and stars, to connect with ancestors and to celebrate the mystery of life itself.
Arriving at this iconic monument is a wow moment, to say the least. The 80-metre mound emerges out of the green earth, adorned with spiral-engraved kerbstones and white Wicklow quartzite. Inside, a narrow passageway brings you to one of the best-preserved chambers of any Neolithic structure. Three smaller recesses contain basin stones that held the cremated remains of the dead and above you, the original waterproof corbelled roof gives the chamber a cathedral-like feel.
It’s magical to see it at any time of year but winter solstice (weather permitting) is incredibly special — a bucket-list event if you’re lucky enough to nab a ticket.Lonely Planet
But it’s for a spectacular lightshow that Newgrange is best known. Each year on December 21st – the winter solstice – a single shaft of light pierces the monument through a perfectly placed “roof” box at the passage entrance, glowing in a golden path all the way to the burial chamber at its heart. That such astronomical accuracy was achieved so many millennia ago is just one of the reasons why Newgrange continues to intrigue archeo-astronomers.
While Newgrange is more famous, the massive monument at Knowth is one of the great glories of the ancient world. At one-and-a-half times the size of Newgrange with two remarkably long internal passages and surrounded by 18 smaller satellite tombs, it is awe-inspiring in scale.
But it is for its unrivalled collection of megalithic art that Knowth is best known. Large stones decorated with spirals, wave-like motifs and geometric symbols may show details of important rituals, represent maps of the stars, or simply celebrate life in this prehistoric society. Their secrets have remained hidden for five long millennia.
Known as the "Fairy Mound of Darkness", nature has reclaimed Dowth to a much greater extent than either of Brú na Bóinne's other big names. Its original roof collapsed long ago and was replaced – though its second roof is still intact – but from the outside, the tomb looks undisturbed. Similarly to Newgrange, the winter solstice is a special time at Dowth, with sunset beaming soft golden light into the chamber in the days around December 21st. Though there are no guided tours of Dowth, visitors can explore the outside of the structure.
But perhaps the greatest claim to fame is its name; for Dowth means "darkness", and it is said a terrible darkness once fell across this tomb when the sorceress sister of a legendary king tried to stop the sun in its tracks above this very spot. Though lights were once added during a restoration, they fell out of use and Dowth soon returned to darkness...
Access to Newgrange and Knowth is through the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre only. Here you’ll find a state-of-the-art interpretive centre where you can learn more about Neolithic life and enjoy guided tours of these extraordinary monuments. Online booking is recommended.
Battle of the Boyne Visitor Centre
The Battle of the Boyne Visitor Centre in Oldbridge, County Meath gives an in-depth insight into the battle between King William III and his father-in-law King James II in 1690. Explore the colourful tale of the Battle of the Boyne through detailed displays and historical reenactments.