The Celt and I set out relatively early on the road out of Belfast, heading south, lulled into a sense of normality until the road signs changed to tell us we were in Eire. We had long wanted to make this pilgrimage, but it’s a fair way from Belfast to Newgrange.
A great round burial mound on a high hill looking down on the river Boyne, this is no ordinary place. In fact, I would venture that it is one of the most special places on earth.
The grass is emerald green there, and the river chuckles to itself of life and eternity. You enter it like any 21st century-ite: through the visitor’s centre, where it quickly becomes obvious no-one has the first idea what the mound was used for. They give you a ticket and put you on a shuttle bus and you chug obediently up the hill towards- what?
It is visible from far away. In the sixties, excavations and reconstructions could be heavy handed and this is no exception; but it would be true to say that on one side of the mound, facing the river, they found great piles of lily-white quartz rubble,as if the whole of the front had been faced in white to greet the sun and reflect its light back.
At the centre of the quartz semicircle are two entrances, one above the other.They are guarded by one of the most extraordinary stones I have ever seen:a great giant’s pillow of a stone, decorated by ancient spirals which experts surmise are part of a system which is a precursor to writing.
The opening leads to a passage, leading stright through the mound, of time-worn stone. You have to stoop to walk it, duck to reach your destination:which is a space prepared five thousand years ago with meticulous and expert engineering skills. The sounds of the outside recede.
It is a chamber with a domed roof, rising like a tiny neolithic St Paul’s: the locals still marvel today that it remains utterly dry and watertight. On a hill. In Ireland.
To each side are burial chambers, each with a great dish ossuary, smooth and long-empty.
And everywhere, there are patterns; drawings, spirals, creatures, fantastical figures, conjectures, depictions.The meaning of which we can only dream.
At the winter solstice, the 21st December,every year, the sun creeps up the little passage to light the chamber, and then it goes away again for another year or until the weather is clement. And if you are fortunate, the guide will turn all lighting inside the chamber off, and you will experience complete, velvet, womblike dark.
And when they ask you to leave there is the faintest urge to cling to the skirts of the guide and ask, may I not have just five more minutes in this place, far away from the world and yet so close to its purpose?
Yet go we must, to come another day.Out into the light, and on the bus, and back to the visitor centre and home.
Bringing a little of the silence of Newgrange with us.