Newgrange Blog

A Woman from Bandit Country

Sarah and Peter Makem/photo Tommy Makem


I never knew my grandparents on my mother’s side, but my father’s parents, Peter and Sarah Makem, left an indelible mark on me. It was April 1983 that Sarah passed away, thirty-eight years ago. So, with the anniversary of her passing, I thought it appropriate to pen a few lines in her honor.

To give you an idea of what kind of woman my grandmother was, you’ll need to understand a little bit about where she was from: Keady, County Armagh, N. Ireland. The town was in the heart of what was known as bandit country, the Republic of South Armagh, where they served neither king nor Kaiser. That’s a roundabout way of saying that although they were located in Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom, they weren’t particularly fans of the crown.

As such—and with their proximity to the border—there was a heavy British military presence.

With that in mind, picture a woman of about eighty, strolling down to the local shop for some bread and butter. It was the early 1980s. A young soldier, maybe seventeen or eighteen, held the door for her and she stopped and said, “Thank you very much, young man. I hope that the good Lord will save you a cool spot in hell.”

And that was my granny.

Now I’ll admit, this is making light of a deadly serious subject. There was a soldier killed outside that very store in the 1980s. It was one of the last places a British soldier would have wanted to be during the troubles and my heart goes out to the families who lost their young ones during that period.

Sarah and Peter

Sarah Makem was born in 1900. She was a Pioneer, just like my father after her (Pioneers were an organization of Catholics who vowed not to drink).

Not so much for my granda. Back in the day, locals weren’t allowed to drink in the pubs on a Sunday in Northern Ireland, but in the Republic of Ireland, bona fide travelers weren’t straddled with the same restrictions. As a man from the north, who had traveled over seven miles, he was exempt from the drinking rules.

As sure as clockwork, every Sunday, my grandfather would tell his wife he was going “to buy a pair of shoes.” He would ride the bike over the border and disappear for the evening. It’s possible that there was no drinking involved and that the whole bona fide traveler thing was just a coincidence. But every week, he’d return a little tipsy without a new pair of shoes.

Until one week, when he did buy a pair of shoes. Unfortunately, after tying them to the handle bars via the laces, one of them came loose and fell off somewhere, leaving the old man with a single new shoe. No problems. He told my granny, “I’ll go back for the other one next week.”

Perhaps more than anything, Sarah Makem be remembered as a singer. Her maiden name was Greene, from an infamous family of singers in Keady. Like so many of the other local girls, she left school to work as a factory weaver nearly twelve hours a day. Then she might head home for a session with other musicians and singers. She had a knack for memorizing songs after only a couple of hearings.

Collecting her songs

She married my grandfather Peter in 1919 and started the family. Always singing and humming, she became what was known as a source singer and song collectors showed up at her doorstep, tape recorders in tow, eager to preserve traditional Irish music that maybe only a few people in the country would know. Her recorded version of “As I Roved Out” opened up the BBC Radio Program of the same name for quite some time.

In the fifties, the collectors included Diane Hamilton (of the Guggenheim family), Jean Ritchie, Sean O’Boyle and Peter Kennedy. It was during Diane Hamilton’s trip that young Liam Clancy met my father, sowing the first seeds for what would eventually become the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.

In 1977, David Hammond recorded a short video of Sarah for TG4. I watched it one time as she sang and layered spoonful after spoonful of sugar into a mug of granda’s tea. I later asked my cousin, Tom Sweeney, if she was just playing up for the camera, letting the film roll and wasting sugar all the while. He told me no, my grandfather liked a little tea with his sugar, and that’s starting to explain a little bit about myself now, too.

My grandfather died later in 1977 and it wasn’t long after that Sarah moved from the family homestead a few houses up the hill, ‘til she was just a couple doors away from her daughter, my Aunt Nancy and her husband, the gentleman James Mone.

Keady

Awhile after her passing, they set up a plaque in her honor at the original home, and you can make it out on Google Maps street view (44 Victoria Street, Keady, Northern Ireland). You can also see the convenience store (now McGrane’s Shop) from earlier in the article just a few steps away. Toward the center of town, at the bend, there’s now a Tommy Makem Arts and Community Center (a true community center, as he would have wanted), and across from that, the gas station where my father and his coworkers used to burn tires to keep warm). Right there, as well, is the Keady Library, which contains a Sarah Makem room.

Just up near the monument is Mone’s bar, which houses an evil spirit trapped in a bottle behind the fireplace…but that’s another story.

Newgrange

My father never forced anything down our throats, but if there was one thing that came close, it was the importance of an ancient mound of stone and earth in the Boyne Valley known as Newgrange. He used to bring the family to experience it starting in the 1980s.

Back then, we could just drive up to the base of the hill, walk past the unmanned booth where someone should have been selling tickets and explore. There was often no one else there, though occasionally we’d run across someone the old man inevitably knew.

Many Ohio Irish American News readers will already know about Newgrange and will have their own stories about it, but I would be remiss in my son duties if I didn’t at least dedicate one column to it.

What the heck is it?

Newgrange was built by stone-age farmers 5,200 years ago, making it older than the Great Pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge. In fact, there wasn’t much that boiled my father’s bottom more than the international press swooning over the 100 stones in Wiltshire while simultaneously ignoring the gem of the Boyne Valley. But, I digress.

Located in Meath, just west of Drogheda in County Louth, the circular mound is 279 feet in diameter and 43 feet high and archaeologists somewhat agree that it was a passage tomb and ancient temple. There is a sixty-two-foot entrance passageway (at times tight) that leads into the main chamber, with three alcoves. Above your head, you’ll find a corbelled roof that hasn’t leaked in its more than 5,000-year history. Let’s see your modern roofer offer that kind of guarantee.

Surrounding the whole affair are ninety-seven large kerbstones, some of which are engraved with megalithic art, the most prevalent being its entrance stone with the famed triple spirals adorning it.

But the most striking feature about Newgrange comes in the form of a roof-box at its entrance. For five days around the winter solstice, the morning sun shines through the opening, glides up the passageway and illuminates the inside of the chamber. Now when I say morning sun, I’ll add that this jumble of rocks is in Ireland, so morning clouds are more often the case, but you can’t blame the old farmers for trying. The solstice would have marked the beginning of a new year, which is quite the impressive feat when you figure they needed to know the seasons and the position of the sun and all of that malarkey.

The folks in charge have a handy light bulb that shines into the dark confines of the main chamber (the builders weren’t big on windows other than the roof-box) which gives visitors an idea of what the solstice would look like inside. They shut off the original electric lighting from 3,200 B.C. for complete darkness before flipping on the artificial sun (also original, I believe). For those of you with claustrophobia, you might want to skip this bit on the tour.

My cousin, Peter, surprised my father one time by securing him a spot on one of the coveted winter solstice tours, usually reserved for muckity-mucks, princes, sheiks and the like. The sun did indeed make the rarest of showings on that fateful day, allowing an Irish Times photographer to capture the sunlight shining off the red hair of a young girl for the paper’s all-time best-selling photograph. In subsequent years, my father called it the single greatest moment of his life, even after I reminded him that he had children.


Too big for its britches

Alas, like all good things, people eventually found out about Newgrange. One time while bringing a friend to visit the old stomping grounds, I wasn’t able to locate it. The road I used to take simply wasn’t there. Come to find out, they no longer wanted people just showing up and walking in. There was a spanking new visitor center located a hop, skip and a jump away where patrons were corralled into groups and herded one small bus at a time to the site. I suppose it was all for the best.

The center is a wonderful spot for discovering the history of Newgrange, as well as nearby Knowth and Dowth (two other massively important Neolithic sites in the Brú na Bóinne complex). And if you’re being dragged around because you couldn’t care less about ancient history, there’s a handy café with hot soup, sandwiches, tea and biscuits. Of course, all of this is closed due to a global pandemic, but you’ll know about it for later.

It looks in great shape

I’m sure you’re pondering by now that the picture indicates the joint hasn’t aged a day. How’s that possible? Well, the site was sealed up after its initial use and time did indeed take its toll on the place. Those beautiful quartz stones lining the front of the façade tumbled to the ground and Mother Nature slowly took over. Eventually it just resembled a mound of earth.

It sat undisturbed until 1699 when landowner Charles Campbell sent some of his laborers out to dig parts of it up looking for stone. They realized it wasn’t just a dirt mound, and archaeologists have been interested ever since. There was even word that skeletons were found inside the alcoves off the main chamber, causing some to speculate that it might have been where they brought their dead to make the trip to the afterlife. This matched up quite well with the birth of a new year at the winter solstice.

In the 1970s, Newgrange was restored to how they presumed it looked 5,200 years ago, including the quartz stones in the front. They also added stairs to get around the giant stones in front, as originally one would have had to climb over them to gain access.

So, there you have it. One of the most important archaeological discoveries in the world, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, located just a couple miles from Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, in Drogheda, where a certain OhioIANews columnist was born. Makes you think that Stonehenge might be the “jumped the shark episode” of neolithic sites, doesn’t it?

Visit www.newgrange.com for more information.

Gray matter travel restrictions

‘That’s the smell of Ireland,” I said to myself as I hauled plastic bags out of the grocery store one recent morning before the sun had truly crested the horizon. Perchance it was just the scent of morning and overnight rain, but there was also a hint of smoke in the air. It made me realize how much I’ve missed traveling this year.

The pandemic has me pacing back and forth around the old homestead, wiping out my memories of better times and as such, I’ve been trying to recall my last trip to Ireland. There are only bits and pieces of crumbling reel to reel memories left stuck inside the crevices of the dusty old cobwebs of my gray matter.

I recall the excitement of watching the Aer Lingus Airbus pull up to the gate at Boston’s Logan Airport for our last trip a lifetime ago. “That’s us,” I told Libby, who rolled her eyes as if she were bestowing upon me the “Most Bleeding Obvious Award for Outstanding Obviousness Award (presented by the Department of Redundancy Department).”

We had planned ahead and ponied up the extra dough for the front seats near the entrance so we wouldn’t have some dolt in front of us dropping his seat into our laps the nanosecond the front wheels left the tarmac. There was the ethereal boarding music, Enya, I believe. Then the red headed cartoon man showed all the befuddled passengers how easily they could unlock their safety belts and was shocked, himself, to find out that smoking was prohibited. He stored his briefcase in a cavernous area under the seat before him that, in reality is only big enough for the front half of your shoes, but who’s counting?

The first thing I always do on the trans-Atlantic flight to Ireland is to check the entertainment in the latest issue of Cara. (I’ll not say this lightly, Cara isn’t bad at all when compared to magazines on U.S. airlines, which all seem to assume that everyone is really into golf and business acquisitions.)

However, Aer Lingus is a big fan of pop music, and I’m not talking the Monkees crooning out an old Neil Diamond hit for the 98 percent of adults on the plane, no. They prefer the kind that makes even tweenagers ask, “what’s this load of bullocks?” But I’ll digress, because I’ve been informed that I’m a crusty old man and people like all sorts of music. Ah well.

Thank the stars Aer Lingus gives you entertainment choices. Life was considerably more difficult crossing the pond when there was only the one video, but then again, they used to fill you up on all the bevvy you could stomach back then and didn’t ask for anything in return.

I recall one time when the flight attendant asked if I wanted another can of Guinness. I replied in the affirmative and she asked if I wanted two. I was a bit shocked, but I answered swiftly lest she see her blunder: yes.

Of course, now they sell me one, then come by to see if I’d like to purchase a second, and that’s it. I suppose with all the airline rage fueled by alcohol I can hardly blame them.

When I’ve settled on a movie to bear the brunt of the time, I move to the grub selections. Chicken or beef lasagna? Beef lasagna or chicken? Oh, the choices! Rather than waste valuable cranium calories, I opt to wing it whenever the cart comes by.

I always close my eyes for a bit, but I just can’t sleep on planes. Still, the evening flight for me generally rolls by pretty quickly and I start to get excited when they roll out the morning tea and snack. From the entertainment console, I turn on the route tracker and watch as the plane flies over the ould sod as it’s oftentimes too dark to see out of the window. It’s a glorious feeling when the plane reaches Irish airspace, the plea from Liam Neeson for Unicef on all of the tellies, the video tour of Dublin and environs.

I can only speak for myself when I say that it’s truly like coming home. I’ve spent most of my life in the States, but I was born in Drogheda and there’s something that feels natural about being there.

And then the wheels touch down and I know it’s going to be increasingly hard to stay awake, despite the adrenaline of a new trip. The direct flight from Boston lands at an ungodly hour and there’s still customs and immigration lines to endure, the car rental to pick up, the drive to the hotel as the sun is beginning to peek out...and then the wait.

Very few hotels will let anyone check in so early, so we generally leave off our bags at the hotel and head out for some breakfast. A full Irish is usually the ticket and to be truthful, it’s probably the only one I’ll have for the trip. That’s enough arterial blockage for a couple of weeks, says I.

The juncture after eating is the hardest, knowing that there’s a bed with my name on it that’s not quite ready. All of the experts advise one to stay up for the first day, at least as long as you can, but I’ve never had much luck with that, so I hit the bricks as soon as I can with an alarm set, so I don’t sleep past 2-3 p.m. Then, as onerous as it is, I force myself to arise and stay awake as late as I can. Honestly, that first full night’s sleep might be the best thing that exists.

Staying off the booze for the day also helps…or so I’ve heard. It’s not until the following morning that I feel awake enough to appreciate anything.

Alas, it’s all but a memory. I’ll have to settle for early morning trips to the grocery store for now.

A virtual pub chat for the quarantine

You’re not heading to the pub anytime soon. I understand. But ho-ho fear not, dear readers, for I have a near perfect solution. I'm bringing the chat directly to you. Now you can enjoy our virtual pub discussion right in your own home. It’ll be like you’re really there. So, go grab the beverage of your choice from the fridge, pull out a packet of Smokey Bacon Taytos and hoist up your legs on your favorite recliner. (Note: I am not responsible for any lost time in the reading of this column. I cannot reimburse wages if consumed while you’re supposed to be working, nor does it offer refunds of any kind, especially for you Larry, so don’t even try.)


CM: Cheers. Anyone sitting here?

Regular Patron: Doesn’t look like it.

CM (with a nod to the bartender and a raised index finger): Pint of Guinness, please.

Bartender: Righto.

The speakers behind the bar are softly discharging a glossy pop band inappropriate for the age group gathered at the establishment and yet no one seems to care. Yes, it’s wonderful to be in Ireland.

CM (to the regular patron): What do you recommend for a bite?

RP: An agitated Pitbull usually does the trick.

CM: What if I can’t find one of those?

RP: Soup’s good. Veg today, I think.

Several moments of silence.

Bartender (placing full pint glass in front of CM): Now.

CM: Cheers. Veg soup today, is it?

Bartender: Aye.

CM: Could I grab one of those as well?

Bartender: No bother. (Retreats)

Patron at the wall under a newspaper clipping (twisting around on his stool): Ronnie!

RP (spinning on his stool): …

PATWUANC: What’s that clown with the teeth again?

RP (Ronnie): Pennywise.

PATWUANC: That’s the one. Needs an orthodontist that one. And who’s the writer?

RP (Ronnie): Stephen King.

PATWUANC: The very man. (Spins back to face his cohorts)

RP (Ronnie) (turning to face the bar again): Sips from his lager.

CM: Never saw it.

RP (Ronnie): By it, you mean “It?”

CM: I do. Don’t really enjoy horror flicks.

RP (Ronnie): Well, your man’s just delving into them now. Can’t get enough.

CM: Just discovering them, is he? What’s his age?

RP (Ronnie): Oh, he’s near on eighty now.

CM: And he’s into horror movies.

RP (Ronnie): Not for the scare, mind you. For the laughs.

CM: Finds them funny, does he?

RP (Ronnie): Oh, aye. You’ll hear him across the room roarin’ and laughin’, and him recalling something from Netflix last night. “Don’t go in the room, ye stupid git!”

CM: Fair play to him.

RP (Ronnie): “They’re always splitting up! Why wouldn’t they stick together? There’s only one of them murderers out there and there’s six of them. Sure, they’d all still be kicking if they’d a brain amongst them.”

CM: I suppose he’s got a point there.

RP (Ronnie): Oh, aye.

CM: And his wife… is she still around?

RP (Ronnie): She is that. She’ll outlive us all.

CM: Does she enjoy the movies as well?

RP (Ronnie): Not like your man. They’ll put something on, but she’ll be reading a book all the while.

CM: Doesn’t see the humor in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

RP (Ronnie): She lacks vision, no doubt there.

Bartender (placing soup and bread in front of CM): Now.

CM: Thanks. (Sips Guinness and starts the buttering procedure—a process that can take an extended period of time according to some people with knowledge of CM’s eating habits.)

RP (Ronnie): That’s not looking so bad about now.

CM: It’s just what the doctor ordered.

RP (Ronnie): Brian!

Bartender (looks up from wiping a glass)

RP (Ronnie): You wouldn’t have a spare bowl of that stuff you’ve given him?

Bartender (Brian): Just the bit that’s fallen on the floor.

RP (Ronnie): Any chance you’d scrape it up and throw it in a pot?

Bartender (Brian): Will do.

CM (carefully opening the foil from a second pat of butter with his knife and eyeing the quickly cooling soup, still annoyed that the butter was refrigerated and tough to spread): C’mon yiz.

PATWUANC: Ronnie!

RP (Ronnie) (spinning around on his stool): What is it Patrick?

PATWUANC (Patrick): Come and give us a yarn.

RP (Ronnie): I’m just after ordering some grub.

PATWUANC (Patrick): What’d ye get?

RP (Ronnie): The soup.

PATWUANC (Patrick): It’s carrot, is it?

RP (Ronnie): Veg.

PATWUANC (Patrick): Veg, eh? Well, that’s a whole different kettle of fish.

RP (Ronnie): That’s what I said.

PATWUANC (Patrick): Who’s your man up there?

RP (Ronnie): Dunno. (To CM): What do they call you?

CM: Conor.

RP (Ronnie) (to PATWUANC, Patrick): Conor.

PATWUANC (Patrick): How’s the soup today, Conor?

CM: Haven’t tried it yet. Still slathering on the butter, which is putting up a valiant fight.

PATWUANC (Patrick): Good man. Let us know how you get on.

CM: Nearly there.

PATWUANC (Patrick): Don’t hurry it. You’re doing the decent thing.

RP (Ronnie): Sure, they’ve warm butter out back too. Brian’ll fetch you some.

CM: That’s good news that could’ve been timelier. The job’s nearly done.

Bartender (Brian) (placing soup and bread in front of RP (Ronnie): Now.

RP (Ronnie): Cheers Brian. You wouldn’t have a bit of butter at a spreadable temperature for your man here?

Bartender (Brian): Yeah, sure.

CM: I’m all set, last few strokes.

RP (Ronnie): Well, I’ll have his then.

Bartender (Brian): Easy enough.

CM: Done (takes a bite of bread and a sip of soup). Oh, that’s nice.

RP (Ronnie) (to PATWUANC, Patrick): It’s a thumbs up on the soup.

PATWUANC (Patrick): That’s me sold. Brian, I’ll have a lepping of that as well.

Man across from Patrick: Make that two.

Woman next to man across from Patrick: Three.

Bartender (Brian): You’ve started a movement, Conor. Well done.

Haunted Ireland hotels


Leslie Castle, above, in Glaslough, County Monaghan.



The haunted bed at Leslie Castle.


I had a friend ask me recently where to send some relatives who were going to be visiting Ireland. He wanted recommendations for a family spanning three generations, some of whom had been over prior, but who were by no means frequent visitors.

It was a hard nut to crack mainly because I didn’t know them and hadn’t a clue on what they might like to experience. He gave me a generalized itinerary though, that they’d be spending a day in Dublin, then heading south before looping around to the western coast to leave via Shannon Airport.

His request was well timed, because as we head into spring, Ireland will be blooming, flight prices will be edging up, but they won’t be at the summer apex.

As far as hitting the Emerald Isle, it obviously depends on who will be going and what they’re looking for. I’m generally content either hunting for new food venues or finding a small pub somewhere to while away the hours.

If I’m visiting a country for the first time, I’ll likely still want to see sites that the area is renowned for, but that’s becoming less and less important to me, especially as those spots are crammed tighter and tighter with other tourists.

Any number of sources will point you to the popular spots in Ireland, so I won’t waste your time repeating them. Instead, I’m going to pen the occasional column with a theme. If you ever see one you like, maybe you can grab a few tidbits to help in your planning. I’ll start with some of the hotels that are likely to reacquaint you with the hair on the back of your neck…

Haunted Ireland

Renvyle House —Renvyle House Hotel, on the coast of Connemara, reminds me of an old hunting lodge. None other than William Butler Yeats is reputed to haunt this place, along with a few other scarier apparitions. He held seances there with attendees such as Lady Gregory, James Joyce, Augustus John and Oliver St. John Gogarty. Nowadays there are separate lodges for the more timid, but the main hotel has the ghosts. (It’s been called the most haunted place in Ireland). The main building has been rebuilt and burned down and rebuilt again. Note that it’s a great base if you’re interested in hiking around the Connemara Mountains.

During a haunted tour I helped to host more than twenty years ago, two separate guests reported that someone sat on their bed in the middle of the night at the same time… in two separate rooms. One of them slept in the hallway too frightened to return to her bed.

A quick rundown: Room twenty-four reputedly has had constant reports of footsteps; Yeats’ wife apparently saw a ghostly face at the window of her room; a housekeeper once saw a man entering room four, which was supposed to be vacant. When she opened the door to inform him he had the wrong room, it was empty. The poor woman eventually suffered a nervous breakdown. Another housemaid witnessed a man disappear from the ground up in one of the corridors.

Suite eighteen is possibly the most haunted room. Guests often complain that there is a non-human “something” in it. While applying makeup, one woman reported seeing a man in the mirror staring over her shoulder. A dozen or so other women without prior knowledge of the hauntings, have claimed the same thing. A manager asked a priest to say a mass in the room to try to fix things, but word has it that a thunderstorm occurred and ended the mass abruptly. A couple once complained about a loud clinking sound coming from as close as their pillows. Rumor has it that this room was the site where a twelve-year-old boy hanged himself in the fireplace and a man strangled himself.

As a final note, I’ll add that one night at the hotel, I was sure I left my wallet on the top left corner of the television, but by the morning, it was in the middle of it.

Leslie Castle — As far as manor houses, an argument could be made that Leslie Castle in Glaslough, Monaghan is the most haunted in Ireland. Like Renvyle, it is also a hotel with servants’ quarters and a portion of the village converted into splendid rooms and rental homes. I received a tour of the castle by none other than Sir John Leslie (then in his late eighties) in the late 1990s and, while helping to host a succeeding tour, was treated to a haunted dinner by his niece in the castle’s grand dining room, where she recanted stories from around the grounds.

Sir John’s father, Sir Shane Leslie, was visited one night by his deceased Uncle Moreton; visitors have been known to levitate in what is known as the “haunted bed,” where a child was once reportedly murdered.

In 1995, a group of fifteen visitors all witnessed a ghostly coachman. He vanished, but they were each able to describe him in detail down to his shiny brass buttons.

Don’t be surprised if there’s a wedding on the grounds. It is, after all, where Paul McCartney was married in 2002.

Cashel Palace — If you’re visiting the Rock of Cashel, one of Ireland’s most popular sites, perhaps you’d like to try out the Cashel Palace Hotel in the center of town. When five-thousand of Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers sacked Cashel in 1647, they reputedly murdered a one-hundred-year old monk, who put a curse on Murrough O’Brien, the Earl of Inchiquin, the leader of the attack. The monk proclaimed, “You will come back as a hound of hell.”

Since then, a large black dog haunts the town. Indeed, the dog and a couple from the early twentieth-century are reputed to roam the halls of the hotel. In 1997, a Japanese businessman claimed that a young woman in Tudor dressing appeared before him. She touched his left arm and the spot it touched felt freezingly cold. The man shivered for some time after the woman had vanished.

The hotel is currently closed, but is slated to reopen in mid 2020 after renovations.

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Newgrange

My father never forced anything down our throats, but if there was one thing that came close, it was the importance of an ancient mound of stone and earth in the Boyne Valley known as Newgrange. He used to bring the family to experience it starting in the 1980s.

Back then, we could just drive up to the base of the hill, walk past the unmanned booth where someone should have been selling tickets and explore. There was often no one else there, though occasionally we’d run across someone the old man inevitably knew.

Many Ohio Irish American News readers will already know about Newgrange and will have their own stories about it, but I would be remiss in my son duties if I didn’t at least dedicate one column to it.

What the heck is it?

Newgrange was built by stone-age farmers 5,200 years ago, making it older than the Great Pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge. In fact, there wasn’t much that boiled my father’s bottom more than the international press swooning over the 100 stones in Wiltshire while simultaneously ignoring the gem of the Boyne Valley. But, I digress.

Located in Meath, just west of Drogheda in County Louth, the circular mound is 279 feet in diameter and 43 feet high and archaeologists somewhat agree that it was a passage tomb and ancient temple. There is a sixty-two-foot entrance passageway (at times tight) that leads into the main chamber, with three alcoves. Above your head, you’ll find a corbelled roof that hasn’t leaked in its more than 5,000-year history. Let’s see your modern roofer offer that kind of guarantee.

Surrounding the whole affair are ninety-seven large kerbstones, some of which are engraved with megalithic art, the most prevalent being its entrance stone with the famed triple spirals adorning it.

But the most striking feature about Newgrange comes in the form of a roof-box at its entrance. For five days around the winter solstice, the morning sun shines through the opening, glides up the passageway and illuminates the inside of the chamber. Now when I say morning sun, I’ll add that this jumble of rocks is in Ireland, so morning clouds are more often the case, but you can’t blame the old farmers for trying. The solstice would have marked the beginning of a new year, which is quite the impressive feat when you figure they needed to know the seasons and the position of the sun and all of that malarkey.

The folks in charge have a handy light bulb that shines into the dark confines of the main chamber (the builders weren’t big on windows other than the roof-box) which gives visitors an idea of what the solstice would look like inside. They shut off the original electric lighting from 3,200 B.C. for complete darkness before flipping on the artificial sun (also original, I believe). For those of you with claustrophobia, you might want to skip this bit on the tour.

My cousin, Peter, surprised my father one time by securing him a spot on one of the coveted winter solstice tours, usually reserved for muckity-mucks, princes, sheiks and the like. The sun did indeed make the rarest of showings on that fateful day, allowing an Irish Times photographer to capture the sunlight shining off the red hair of a young girl for the paper’s all-time best-selling photograph. In subsequent years, my father called it the single greatest moment of his life, even after I reminded him that he had children.


Too big for its britches

Alas, like all good things, people eventually found out about Newgrange. One time while bringing a friend to visit the old stomping grounds, I wasn’t able to locate it. The road I used to take simply wasn’t there. Come to find out, they no longer wanted people just showing up and walking in. There was a spanking new visitor center located a hop, skip and a jump away where patrons were corralled into groups and herded one small bus at a time to the site. I suppose it was all for the best.

The center is a wonderful spot for discovering the history of Newgrange, as well as nearby Knowth and Dowth (two other massively important Neolithic sites in the Brú na Bóinne complex). And if you’re being dragged around because you couldn’t care less about ancient history, there’s a handy café with hot soup, sandwiches, tea and biscuits. Of course, all of this is closed due to a global pandemic, but you’ll know about it for later.

It looks in great shape

I’m sure you’re pondering by now that the picture indicates the joint hasn’t aged a day. How’s that possible? Well, the site was sealed up after its initial use and time did indeed take its toll on the place. Those beautiful quartz stones lining the front of the façade tumbled to the ground and Mother Nature slowly took over. Eventually it just resembled a mound of earth.

It sat undisturbed until 1699 when landowner Charles Campbell sent some of his laborers out to dig parts of it up looking for stone. They realized it wasn’t just a dirt mound, and archaeologists have been interested ever since. There was even word that skeletons were found inside the alcoves off the main chamber, causing some to speculate that it might have been where they brought their dead to make the trip to the afterlife. This matched up quite well with the birth of a new year at the winter solstice.

In the 1970s, Newgrange was restored to how they presumed it looked 5,200 years ago, including the quartz stones in the front. They also added stairs to get around the giant stones in front, as originally one would have had to climb over them to gain access.

So, there you have it. One of the most important archaeological discoveries in the world, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, located just a couple miles from Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, in Drogheda, where a certain OhioIANews columnist was born. Makes you think that Stonehenge might be the “jumped the shark episode” of neolithic sites, doesn’t it?

Visit www.newgrange.com for more information.

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