Voices from the Dawn: the Ancient Monuments of Ireland and their Folklore
Howard Goldbaum, University of Nevada, Reno
As the culmination of a 30-year project of collecting media and research, this website combines traditional academic research methods with modern digital virtual-reality sense-of-place media. It presents an introduction to a selected number of Irish prehistoric and early-Christian archeological sites with high-resolution virtual-reality tours, and enriches the folkloric material with audio and video interviews.
From the Stone Age to the Iron Age, the Irish made their mark on the land with great stone and earthen structures. Their descendants developed stories to explain them. Some of these tales were said by Celtic scholar Kuno Meyer in 1911 to represent the “earliest voice from the dawn of western civilization.”(Meyer, 1911)
In the century of Irish scholarship since Meyer, the provenance of the early Irish epics has been moved forward in time to the early medieval, likely preceded by a long period of oral tradition. The phrase, however, still resonates in an entirely different way. The voices considered in this project belong not only to the bards of ancient Ireland. The Voices from the Dawn belong to all who have been moved by the power of these ancient sites: the farmers who have lived in their shadows, the poets who saw in them images of time cast in stone, and the archaeologists who have made them a passionate vocation.
When completed, this site will bring together all the media and research done in a 30-year exploration of the nexus of Irish prehistoric monuments and their mythology and folklore. There will be some 130 ancient monuments included in the project.
Perhaps the most renown of Ireland's prehistoric sites is the 5,000 year old passage tomb of Newgrange. This paper will deal specifically with that site as an illustration of how the web-based experience is enriched by its virtual-reality (VR) tour of the site and other media resources. Also, the website offers immediate access to citations and extended footnotes.
For each of the illustrations in this paper, the equivalent media item in the website (http://www.voicesfromthedawn.com/?p=50) consists of an immersive (VR) environment that allows the user to navigate freely within the space, panning and tilting the point of view, and zooming in to explore details.
The initial "node," or VR view opens with camera aimed at the entrance to the tomb, alongside a prominent standing stone a short distance away.
Figure 1: The opening view of the seven node VR tour of the Newgrange passage tomb.
If this were presented as a "flat" image, it would not be possible to rotate the view 180° and view the valley of the River Boyne below which provides the context for this Neolithic burial complex.
Figure 2: With the view rotated to face away from the tomb entrance, the location on a gentle rise above the Boyne becomes apparent.
As seen on the website this initial view contains a hotspot (the red spiral) that when clicked will lead the viewer into the next environment. When the Flash-based VR panorama is viewed in full-screen mode, it is overlaid with a navigation map providing an additional means of clicking from one VR environment to another.
Figure 3: The opening view, in full screen mode, showing the navigation map in its lower left. The map may be hidden by clicking the "M" button.
Figure 4: The navigation map, with animating hotspots, allows the user to click directly to the desired node, navigating the tomb in a non-sequential order if desired.
Clicking on the hotspot of the initial node brings the viewpoint closer to the entrance of the tomb. The "entrance stone," lavishly decorated by the Neolithic builders, may be viewed separately in its own feature elsewhere on the website (see below).
Figure 5: At the tomb's entrance, the intricately engraved spirals may be viewed in detail by using the zoom button. The design is highlighted on a stand-alone feature on the web page (below).
Once visitors to the website click on the hotspot at the tomb's entrance, they are transported inside, where the visitor to the actual site in Ireland are not allowed to make photographs. The VR intrinsic ability to accommodate each user's viewing tempo and attention span is a significant advantage to a video tour. This view, as seen the next two illustrations, can be rotated 180° to face back toward the opening to the outside, which is reached by the hotspot at the entrance.
Figure 6: The initial node of the tomb's interior. There is an intermediate view, not illustrated in this paper, at the midpoint of the passage into the tomb.
Figure 7: When rotated 180° this VR view allows the user to exit the tomb by clicking the hotspot at the entrance.
At the end of the passage into the Newgrange monument, there is a cruciform chamber where a widening of the passage leads to three recesses where (it is presumed) cremated burials were deposited.
Figure 8: The recess at the end of the passage shows a hotspot that allows access to the celebrated "triple-spiral" of Newgrange (see below).
Figure 9: There is an intermediate node of the recess in a close-up. A hotspot there brings the Newgrange triple-spiral into a detailed view.
The architectural details of the inner chamber dry-stone corbelled ceiling cannot be adequately viewed in a normal photograph. But the VR presentation allows the point of view to be rotated 90° upwards to point up to the stones that have kept the tomb dry and secure for more than 5,200 years.
Figure 10: The camera rotated up toward the corbelled roofing stones of the chambers presents a sense of verisimilitude that, when viewed full-screen, can mimic the experience of being present in the tomb.
To complement the VR views allowing navigation throughout the monument, other features on the website make use of additional visualization technologies to further explore the site's details. The tomb's entrance stone, for example, is presented in an interactive illustration that, when clicked upon, changes from a photographic view to a stenciled view to better delineate the weather-worn carvings.
Figure 11: These two views of the Newgrange entrance stone can be alternated by clicking a hotspot. Each may be enlarged to explore its details full-screen.
In other pages of the Voices from the Dawn project, although not for the Newgrange monument, other media assets contribute to the sense of place. Audio and video interviews with storytellers, as well as Flash animations contribute to the experience. For some monuments, special photographic techniques were deployed to develop "virtual-reality objects," similar to animated models of the monument, that may be rotated by the user and viewed from any angle.
Figure 12: The virtual-reality object model of the Legananny Dolmen, seen here in its constituent views, may be rotated by the user on its web page: http://www.voicesfromthedawn.com/?p=86
While the conventional presentation of the images in this paper communicate to the reader the basic structure of the monuments, it is the interactive VR elements that more fully define the sense of place. The focus of the Voices from the Dawn project is the exploration of some of Ireland's prehistoric monuments in the context of their folklore and mythology. We hope that the immersive media used in the online exploration of the sites will help to make the link between monument and myth more vivid.
Following is the text written to accompany the media found on the Newgrange page of the website:
Newgrange Passage Tomb, Slane, Co Meath
As he spoke, he paused before a great mound grown over with trees, and around it silver clear in the moonlight were immense stones piled, the remains of an original circle, and there was a dark, low, narrow entrance leading within…
‘This was my palace. In days past many a one plucked here the purple flower of magic and the fruit of the tree of life…but look: you will see it is the palace of a god.’
And even as he spoke, a light began to glow and to pervade the cave, and to obliterate the stone walls and the antique hieroglyphics engraved thereon, and to melt the earthen floor into itself like a fiery sun suddenly uprisen within the world, and there was everywhere a wandering ecstasy of sound: Light and sound were one; light had a voice, and the music hung glittering in the air…
‘I am Aengus…men call me the Young. I am the sunlight in the heart, the moonlight in the mind; I am the light at the end of every dream, the voice for ever calling to come away; I am the desire beyond joy or tears. Come with me, come with me: I will make you immortal; for my palace opens into the Gardens of the Sun, and there are the fire-fountains which quench the heart’s desire in rapture.’
- Æ (George William Russell), “A Dream of Angus Oge,” 1897
The Entrance to a Cave
There was a curious mound visible on a hill above the bend of the River Boyne in the townland of New Grange. When the new proprietor of the farmland, Scottish settler Charles Campbell, set about improving his holdings, he instructed his workmen in 1699 to use as a quarry the vast pile of stones under the scrub-covered mound on his land. Soon, a broad flat stone that covered the mouth of what they termed a “cave” was seen. Through this act of vandalism, the entrance to the ancient tomb was discovered. What they found is now understood as Ireland’s most significant archaeological treasure, a World Heritage Site that predates Egypt’s Great Pyramid by more than 500 years and is a thousand years older than Stonehenge in England. Newgrange, constructed c. 3200 BCE, is one of the oldest surviving buildings in the world.
Serendipitously, the discovery of Newgrange occurred just as the polymath Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, Edward Lhwyd, was traveling through Ireland. Lhwyd asked to be taken to New Grange and was given a tour of the newly discovered tomb. He wrote four letters documenting his experience.
They came at last to a broad flat Stone, rudely Carved, and placed edgewise at the Bottom of the Mount. This they discover’d to be the Door of a Cave, which had a long Entry leading into it. At the first entering we were forced to creep; but still as we went on the Pillars on each side of us were higher and higher; and coming into the Cave we found it about 20 Foot high. In this Cave, on each hand of us, was a Cell or Apartment, and an other went on straight forward opposite to the Entry. In those on each hand was a very broad shallow Bason of Stone, situated at the Edge.
- Edward Lhwyd, 1699
Correctly deducing from the Roman coins found buried near the top of the mound that the later Viking invaders could not have constructed it, Lhwyd concluded, “it was some Place of Sacrifice or Burial of the ancient Irish.” He thus credited the indigenous people with this remarkable construction, although some later commentators would credit anyone except the Irish. But an earnest conjecture of his may have enabled much speculation and archeo-histrionics:
We observed that Water dropped into the right-hand Bason, tho’ it had rained but little in many Days; and suspected that the lower Bason was intended to preserve the superfluous Liquor of the Upper (whether this Water were Sacred, or whether it was for Blood in Sacrifice), that none might come to the Ground.
In another letter Lhwyd speaks ominously of “a vulgar legend about some strange operation at that town in the time of heathenisme…” (Herity,1967)
Lhwyd, a careful observer, unwittingly set in motion the imaginations of generations of antiquarians and others who used the mound for their own flights of fancy regarding human sacrifice. In a similarly lurid vein, Sir Thomas Molyneux in 1725 published an account in which he describes how
When first the cave was opened, the bones of two dead bodies entire, not burnt, were found upon the floor, in likelihood the reliques of a husband and his wife, whose conjugal affection had joyn’d them in their grave…
- Thomas Molyneux, 1725
How did Molyneux see intact skeletons where the very meticulous Edward Lhwyd saw only scattered bones? It may be that the darkness of a mysterious tunnel can play tricks on the eyes—or the imagination. Thomas Pownall in 1773 concluded that the engravings on the Newgrange stones were really Phoenician characters, and thus the stones must have originally been used by the seafaring Phoenicians for their own monuments at the mouth of the Boyne, and only later assembled at New Grange. In 1786 Charles Vallancey studied the engravings on the Newgrange stones and translated them to obtain proof that the monument was a “Mithratic cave,” with its name derived from the Chaldean “Grian Uaigh, the “Cave of the Sun.” (Vallancey, 1783)
Mythology and Folklore
In their 1841 travel journal the Halls enthusiastically proclaimed Newgrange the spot where
…the Druids offered sacrifice; or at least, where they held their solemn meetings; for of its origin there is no doubt, and almost; as little, that it was the ‘Inner Temple’ of their secret rites.
- Mr. and Mrs. Hall, Ireland - Its Scenery, Character Etc. 1841.
But the local farmers who guided the Halls and other early visitors to the tomb had their own legends of the gods who inhabited the site, gods far older than those of the Druids. In local tradition, Newgrange was the home of Aengus Óg and the Daghdha, the gods of the Tuatha Dé Danaan. The ancient name for Newgrange and the other nearby tombs, including Knowth and Dowth, was Brú na Bóinne, the Palace of the Boyne. From the top of any one of these three major passage tombs, the other two may be seen. Around 1830 a priest went to Newgrange to try to uncover evidence of its ancient name still being used. He found that local usage referred to the site as “Bro-Park,” and nearby were “Bro-Farm” and “Bro-Mill,” all using the modern derivation of the older Irish Brú. “Thus, the identical name An Brugh, (the Palace) by which the celebrated place is called in the Senchus-na-Relec (History of Cemeteries), though unobserved by the learned, still lingers around the monument of the Danaans.” (O'Laverty, 1892)
The legendary resident of Brú na Bóinne, Aengus Óg, was the son of the Dagda, the “good god,” of the Irish. The Dagda had an affair with Aengus’ mother, Boann, who symbolized the river Boyne. To disguise the illicit union the Dagda ordered the sun to stand still for nine months. Thus Aengus was conceived, brought to term, and born all in one day. Aengus Óg, “Aengus the Young,” was also known as “Mac-an-Og,” the son of youth. He is similar to the Greek Eros, the god of youth and love.
According to the twelfth-century Book of Lecan, when he learned that he would inherit nothing from his father the Dagda, Aengus used his wiles to re-order time in his own way. He asked the Dagda if he could live in Brú na Bóinne for “a day and a night,” and his father agreed. Afterwards, however, Aengus insisted that “a day and a night” was equal to “all days and all nights.” Thus he took over possession of the Palace on the Boyne. (Carey, 1990)
In another tale, Aengus fell in love with a girl named Caer Ibormeith whom he saw in a dream. Both his mother and his father searched Ireland for a year, but failed to find her. When finally Aengus found Caer, she was chained up with 150 other girls at the Lake of the Dragon’s Mouth. He discovered that on every other Samhain (November 1) all the girls would turn into swans for one year. Aengus was told he could have Caer if he could identify her as a swan. (Gregory, 1902)
The epic significance of Brú na Bóinne was woven into the later tales of the Ulster Cycle. As Lady Gregory tells the story, the great Cúchulainn was conceived in the mound of Newgrange when his father Lugh of the Long Hand magically transported his mother Dectire there:
And he put on them the appearance of a flock of birds, and they went with him southward till they came to Brugh na Boinne, the dwelling-place of the Sidhe. And no one at Emain Macha could get tale or tidings of them, or know where they had gone, or what had happened to them.
- Lady Augusta Gregory and W. B. Yeats. Cuchulain of Muirthemne. 1902.
The early sanctity of Brú na Bóinne was invoked to enhance the legitimacy of those who were supposedly the later historical pagan kings of Ireland. In legend, the kings of Tara were originally buried in the royal cemetery at Rathcroghan (Crúachan) in Co. Roscommon. But when one of the kings married a woman from the Tuatha Dé Danaan, he and his descendants insisted on burial at the Palace of the Boyne. (O'Kelly, 1982)
Cormac mac Airt was the most celebrated of the pagan High Kings of Ireland. In legend reared by a she-wolf in Co. Roscommon’s Caves of Kesh, he grew to be, according to some, an actual historical ruler of the Ui Neil in perhaps the third century CE. According to the story, after he became aware of Christianity he vowed that he would not be buried with his predecessors at Brú na Bóinne, as it was the “chief cemetery of the idolaters,” and instead wished to be interred across the river at Ros na Righ. (Eogan, 1990)
Excavation and Reconstruction
Early state efforts to investigate and preserve the monuments were often haphazard and poorly documented. When he began his own Newgrange excavations in 1962 Professor O’Kelly was forced to proceed without the missing records from the nineteenth-century Office of Public Works modifications. Thus began the first comprehensive scientific investigation of the tomb, which would consume 13 years of work by the archaeologist and his colleagues, students, and workers from National University of Ireland (NUI) Cork and the Irish Tourist Board. There would be a further seven years until the publication of the research in 1982. This epic archaeological project was ultimately to result in the preservation and the modern reconstruction of the monument, most evident in the brilliant white entrance facade that greets its many thousands of yearly visitors.
When the investigations were completed and every stone put back into place, what resulted was a flat-topped, heart-shaped mound some 11 m (36 ft) high and about 91.5 m (300 ft) in diameter, covering an area of nearly .4 ha (one acre). The base of the mound is held in place by 97 large kerbstones placed end-to-end horizontally. The mound itself was built from hand-sized rounded boulders, along with layers of sod for stability. The passage into the tomb together with the corbelled-ceiling inner chamber, is 24 m (79 ft) long, penetrating only a third of the way into the mound. It was constructed, entirely without mortar, of large slabs, some up to 2 m (6.5 ft) tall. Many of these slabs were sumptuously decorated with spirals, concentric semi-circles, and lozenges (diamond-shapes). Similar decorations are to be found on many of the kerbstones.
At the end of the passage the large cruciform central chamber, with its high ceiling, opens into three smaller recesses, each of which held a large “basin stone,” which may have held the burnt bones of the dead. The “Great Circle” of 12 boulder-like standing stones, up to 2.5 m (8 ft) high, partially surrounds the monument. There may once have been a complete circle of some 35 to 38 stones. This feature was built more than a thousand years after the passage tomb itself, which was built in the Neolithic period, around 3200 BCE.
Excavation trenches into the adjacent landscape uncovered evidence of a smaller (destroyed) passage tomb, a later ritual monument known as a “woodhenge,” and a ceremonial pathway or “cursus.” There is evidence that the surrounding area may have once contained up to forty tombs.
Today’s monument with the brilliant white entrance facade was not the Newgrange that Professor O’Kelly saw as he began his work in 1962. An earlier generation of archaeologists had already uncovered the circle of kerbstones, previously buried in the slip of the cairn materials over the millennia. But the entire mound was covered in scrub brush, and “improving” nineteenth-century landowners had planted trees on its top, the roots of which were piercing down to damage the integrity of the covering stones. The fact is, some visitors to the pre-excavation monument had become attached to its wild and romantic appearance and voiced their concern that the monument as seen today is too “modern looking.” (O'Kelly, 1982)
Before the tomb could be reconstructed in its modern form, the archaeologists had to remove much of the covering cairn and the roofing stones of the passage in order to create a concrete dome protecting the chamber. Other stones were braced and stabilized in position. The heaviest stone removed, using a crane, weighed more than 9,000 kg (ten tons). Although most were lighter, Professor O’Kelly wondered how the Neolithic-era builders could lift such stones. As an experiment he had some of his men, experienced in the handling of large stones, move a 900 kg (one-ton) stone using only rollers on a ramp. With a length of rope, three men were able to move it a distance of 15 m (49 ft) and 4 m (13 ft) in elevation during twelve hours of labor. (O'Kelly, 1982)
Human remains, some found mixed into the earth on the floor of the tomb where they were discarded by the eighteenth-century visitors, represented at least five different persons, although there may have been many more. Three of the individuals were cremated; the other two were unburnt.
However many or few were contained in these tombs they must surely have been special in some way. The number of workers and their families who built Newgrange must have been considerable and yet they were not buried in or immediately around it. We have no way of knowing in what way the people who were put inside Newgrange were special; it does not necessarily follow that they were royal or priestly, they may have been special in some quite different way.
Were these individuals, whatever their claim to prehistoric notoriety, all interred at Newgrange at one time? Was the closing slab, now bolted to the side of the entrance, then dragged into place, sealing the tomb from visitors until it was uncovered at the end of the seventeenth century? An astonishing discovery made by Professor O’Kelly may have provided the answer and allowed him to become the first person in five millennia to witness a ceremonial event programmed by the tomb’s builders.
What was then known as the “false lintel” was first described by William Wilde after his 1847 visit. Dr. Wilde noted that it was discovered a “few years ago:”
…the edge of another very curious, and most exquisitely carved stone, was found projecting from the mound, a short distance above and within the line of the present entrance… This stone, of which we can only perceive the edge, is five feet eight inches long; its sculpture, both in design and execution, far exceeds any of the rude carvings which are figured, apparently at random, upon the stones found within the cave; and as it never could have been intended to be concealed from view, it is most probable that it decorates the entrance into some other chamber, which further examination may yet disclose.
- William Wilde, The Beauties of the Boyne, and Its Tributary, the Blackwater, 1850
When Professor O’Kelly first removed the stone and earth off of the large horizontal slab below this “very curious” stone noted by Dr. Wilde, he was the first to expose the previously-unknown “roof-box” of which Wilde’s “most exquisitely carved stone,” was actually the covering stone. The archaeologist found a box-like structure, open at the front of the tomb, with another carved stone at its other end. The width of the roof-box forms a slit, or aperture, into the tomb, which was found shuttered by two blocks of quartz. Scratch marks on the supporting stone indicated that the quartz blocks had been removed and reinserted a number of items; similar marks on the surviving block of quartz served to confirm this.
After repeatedly hearing a local tradition that told how the sunrise used to light up the triple-spiral stone at the end recess far within the tomb, Professor O’Kelly wondered if the roof-box aperture was intended to admit the light of the rising sun. The Winter Solstice sunrise, due to Newgrange’s southeast orientation, seemed to be the best candidate for this possibility. As an experiment, he positioned himself inside the tomb in the hour before the sun was to rise on the 21st of December in 1967. He repeated the experiment two years later and tape-recorded his observations:
At exactly 8.54 hours GMT the top edge of the ball of the sun appeared above the local horizon and at 8.58 hours, the first pencil of direct sunlight shone through the roof-box and along the passage to reach across the tomb chamber floor as far as the front edge of the basin stone in the end recess. As the thin line of light widened to a 17 cm-band and swung across the chamber floor, the tomb was dramatically illuminated and various details of the side and end recesses could be clearly seen in the light reflected from the floor. At 9.09 hours, the 17 cm-band of light began to narrow again and at exactly 9.15 hours, the direct beam was cut off from the tomb. For 17 minutes, therefore, at sunrise on the shortest day of the year, direct sunlight can enter Newgrange, not through the doorway, but through the specially contrived slit that lies under the roof-box at the outer end of the passage roof.
- Michael J. O'Kelly, Newgrange: Archaeology, Art, and Legend, 1982.
According to archaeologist Carleton Jones, we cannot be certain that the priests of the Neolithic culture that created Newgrange would have been inside the tomb to witness the phenomenon. However it seems likely that a select few may have been, while the majority of the community would have shared the experience vicariously from the outside. They would have watched as the officiates climbed up to the roof-box to remove the quartz blocking the aperture. (Jones, 2007)
It is impossible to know which, if any, members of the Neolithic community were allowed inside Newgrange to observe the sunrise of the Winter Solstice. Today, however, we always know by late September who the fortunate few will be, as a lottery draw determines who gets the privilege of viewing the phenomenon from inside the tomb. The event has come to symbolize a national appreciation for this monument of the distant past, with such significance that the video of the solstice is broadcast live and streamed on the Internet and major political figures are eager to be present for the sunrise at the tomb. What began 5,000 years ago as a spiritual celebration has now become a community ritual of a different sort. In 2011 there were 31,531 entries for the Newgrange drawing, but only 10 winning couples are allowed to enter the tomb each day during a five-day period when the sunrise effect is visible.
While it is difficult to comprehend the meaning of the Winter Solstice to the Neolithic mind, it may be even more problematic to interpret the intricate carvings, the prehistoric artwork that decorates some 110 of the monument’s uncovered exterior and interior slabs. Perhaps the most celebrated of these stone carvings is the triple-spiral that decorates the right-hand side slab of the rear (north) recess of the inner chamber. This iconic “triskele,” illuminated only once a year by the sun of the Neolithic Winter Solstice, may have symbolized for the builders a connection between different realms of existence, a vortex enabled by the sunlight. The Newgrange art consists of a variety of curvilinear and rectilinear motifs, which are found on both the visible and the hidden surfaces of the stones.
The Newgrange entrance stone, also featuring a triple spiral, is considered to be “one of the most impressive combinations of art and architecture.” (Jones, 2007) The art on this stone was created in situ, while the Neolithic artisans decorated the other stones before they were put into place. According to Dr. Jones, the Neolithic community may have seen this massive stone as a threshold separating the world outside from the spiritual space inside the tomb, with the designs communicating to those on the outside what they would find within, and the straight line that unwinds from the spirals near the top of the stone indicating the entrance to the other world inside the tomb. (Jones, 2007)
Ancient and Modern Spirituality
The Neolithic peoples who occupied the rich fertile lands of the Boyne Valley created a community stable and cohesive enough to build structures destined to last more than 5,000 years. Powerful rulers, perhaps priest-kings, inspired the loyalty required for these achievements because they were believed to communicate with their ancestors in another plane of existence. To envision just how many members of the community may have been required to build Newgrange, Professor O’Kelly calculated that the 181,436,948 kg (200,000 tons) of earth and rock required would have taken a workforce of 400 people 16 years to carry to the spot and construct the mound. (O'Kelly, 1982)
It was clear to the excavator and others that all this effort was not solely to create a house of the dead. Newgrange was also seen as a residence of other-dimensional beings, a home of the spirits. The great care taken by the Neolithic builders, which included cutting rain channels on some of the roof stones to keep the interior dry, shows a respect for the structure that was remembered through all the succeeding generations. Respect came even from the invading Vikings of the ninth century, who never entered the tomb, and to those visitors who left golden coins in tribute. No such tribute was found elsewhere at the other nearby passage tombs.
The veneration of Newgrange continued long after the liturgy of its builders was forever lost, even after the tomb had begun to collapse onto its kerbstones, and its entrance sealed by tons of rock and earth. In the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age, a thousand years after the construction of the Brú na Bóinne tombs, the new Beaker culture farmers of the Boyne built their own settlement, squatting right up against the side of Newgrange. It may have been these people who built the incomplete circle of stones around the monument. They also built, just 9 m (30 ft) away from the tomb, a large circular enclosure of timbers posts. In the center of this circle archaeologists discovered pits where small animals were cremated and buried. Nearby is the “cursus,” the surviving 100 m (328 ft) of the route of a ritual procession through the landscape.
Such scenarios as these, imagined by archaeologists and anthropologists from clues left in the earth and observations of indigenous peoples, can never completely explain the belief systems of the ancient peoples of the Boyne Valley. In their desire to commune with the remote civilization that built and worshipped at Newgrange, some have today projected their own sincerely held spirituality onto the monument. Just as Vallencey and others saw Phoenician letterforms in the Brú na Bóinne spirals, there are authors today who combine their observations with their intuition to arrive at conclusions quite outside the realm of archaeology. Some have suggested that specific constellations, guide points for ancient astronomers, can be deciphered in the ornamented stones of Newgrange. One book, with information derived from “the ancient tradition of Freemasonry…rediscovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls,” postulates that Newgrange, “a large house built of crystals,” was actually a ” a machine for the reconstruction of a shattered world.” (Knight, 2001) More soberly, Martin Brennan’s work in The Boyne Valley Vision has gained a wide following.
We cannot know how the excavator of Newgrange might have responded to those seekers of the sacred who made their pilgrimages to Brú na Bóinne following its reconstruction. Professor O’Kelly, sadly, did not live to see the 1982 publication of the book documenting his work. But the academic archaeologist and the devotee of sacred sites may have more in common than is immediately evident. Carleton Jones, of NUI Galway, explains that for the Neolithic people “points in the landscape marked by the Boyne monuments were viewed as supernaturally powerful…" (Jones, 2007) Dr. Jones suggests that the builders of Brú na Bóinne may have chosen the spots for their monuments in order to enhance the existing “power points” they perceived on the landscape.
At the beginning of this paper, Irish author, poet, and self-described clairvoyant Æ (George William Russell) is quoted. In his dialogue at Brú na Bóinne with Aengus Óg “a light began to glow and to pervade the cave…”
Russell wrote those words 70 years before Professor O’Kelly became the first person in 5,000 years to see the light of the Winter Solstice enter the passage of Newgrange.
The Voices from the Dawn would have never been heard without the generous help provided by the friends I made all around rural Ireland: the farmers, publicans, priests, and local folklorists who agree to be taped and photographed for this project, beginning in 1978.
I was assisted at the outset by Bairbre O’Floinn at the Department of Irish Folklore, at University College, Dublin. Archaeologists Peter Harbison and Michael Herity were kind enough to provide some initial guidance in the early ’80s. The Illinois Art Council awarded funding for one of the first fieldwork seasons in Ireland. Bradley University research grants subsidized other summers of myth-and-monument hunting. Carleton Jones, archaeologist and lecturer at NUI Galway, allowed me to document his Burren field work during visits in 1998 and 1999. The University of Nevada, Reno allowed me the luxury of a full-year sabbatical to focus on the work in 2010. During much of that time I enjoyed the hospitality of Dean Nicholas Baldwin at Wroxton College, the English campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University. As the project evolved from its media-creation stage to its writing, I was fortunate to have the invaluable editing assistance of colleagues who care very deeply about the subject matter and who have themselves published widely in the field. I am forever grateful to all who have assisted, both in the fieldwork and in the editing of the text. However any factual errors, lack of clarity, or cultural misunderstandings I will claim solely as my own.
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