It’s a one-hour drive north from Dublin to Brú na Bóinne (Gaelic for Palace of the Boyne), and 5,000 years back in time.
Built around 3200 BC within a bend of the River Boyne, the Brú na Bóinne complex is the most prominent Neolithic site in Ireland, famous for the spectacular passage tombs of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. These ceremonial structures, which pre-date the Egyptian pyramids by some six centuries, also hold the most important concentration of megalithic art in Western Europe.
Brú na Bóinne
On the south bank of the River Boyne, the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Reception Center is the only access point to the Neolithic sites of Newgrange and Knowth, located north of the river. On the lower level of the Center, extensive exhibits include a life-size replica of the Newgrange Chamber, as well as a model of one of Knowth’s smallest tombs. Access to the actual sites begins with visitors crossing the river via a footbridge to reach the shuttle bus that takes them to the monuments for their pre-booked, time-allocated guided visit.
Newgrange is the best example of a Stone Age passage tomb in Ireland and one of the most remarkable prehistoric sites in Europe. The burial mound is some 80 meters (260 feet) in diameter and 13 meters (42 feet) high. The narrow passage leading to the central chamber and its three side niches is 19 meters (62 feet) long, walled and roofed with sturdy, carved slabs. Above the chamber, the roof slabs are arranged to an astonishing steeple-like peak. Human remains and funeral goods were originally found here.
However, the most remarkable feature of Newgrange is its roofbox (open panel above the entrance). Every year, on the days around the winter solstice, the rising sun gleams through the opening and for 15 minutes illuminate the passage within, down to the innermost chamber, brushing the decorations with amber light. (Note: for visitors at any other time, the event is now re-created electrically).
Over 200,000 tonnes of earth and stone were used in the construction of Newgrange. The stones are believed to have been quarried and transported from Wicklow, 80 kilometers (50 miles) to the south as well as the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland. Newgrange also plays a role in Irish Mythology, as the burial place of the lovers Dairmuid and Grainne, and as the place where the great warrior Cuchulainn was conceived.
The Knowth site consists of one large mound and 18 smaller satellite mounds. The large mound covers one hectare (2.5 acres) and contains two passages, placed along an east-west line. The entire mound is encircled by 127 kerbstones, many of them decorated with megalithic art. Over 200 decorated stones were found during excavations. Most of the motifs here are typical: spirals, lozenges and concentric circles, as well as unusual crescent shapes.
According to the virtual visit at the Visitor Center, the eastern passage of the large mound leads to a cruciform chamber, similar to that found at Newgrange. It contains three recesses and basin stones into which the cremated remains of the dead may have been placed. The interior of the actual mound is not open to visitors.
Although it is not part of the official visit, the main mound of the Dowth site compares in size with its famous neighbors at Newgrange and Knowth, and visitors are free to walk around the site. Its original roof collapsed long ago and was replaced, so that from the outside, the tomb seems preserved. There is no access to the interior of the structure.
The Land of Giants
It’s a 220-kilometer (136-mile), three-hour drive north from Brú na Bóinne to the Giant’s Causeway, a dramatic promontory of massive basalt columns, stretching along 4 miles (6 kilometers) of the northern coast of Northern Ireland, on the edge of the Antrim Plateau. Here, more than 40 thousand perfectly stacked basalt columns create what looks like a giant set of interlocking bricks leading down to the ocean.
This epic landscape was formed about 60 million years ago by a volcanic fissure eruption, when successive flows of lava cooled as they reached the water. Layers of basalt formed the columns, and the pressure between these columns sculpted them into polygonal shapes that vary from 38 to 51 centimeters (15 to 20 inches) in diameter and measure up to 25 meters (82 feet) in height.
Since we plan to explore this storied coastal landscape at the first hour the following morning, we have opted to spend the night at the Causeway Hotel, itself an historic landmark, adjacent to the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Center and the head of the Causeway. The hotel was built in 1836 to create a place for travelers to stay when visiting the famous rock formations. Today, the cheerful white clapboard, 28-room property has retained its timeless charm, albeit with the addition of 21st century amenities.
Into the Myth
The next morning, after a gargantuan Irish breakfast, we head for the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Center. Open in 2012, the Center is a remarkable creation of the Irish firm of Heneghan Peng Architects, designed to evoke the towering columns of the Causeway. Its facade, lines of irregular basalt column separated by vertical windows, unobtrusively recedes into the landscape and integrates itself into the top of the plateau. Inside, the space consists of multiple levels connected by ramps, staggered to accommodate the sloping site.
Here, multiple interpretive spaces tell the story of the Causeway from different points of view. As is traditional, it features the mainstream geological view, which says the lava flows erupted some 60 million years ago. But it also features the local mythology, about the legendary Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool) who built the Causeway as a bridge to Scotland to fight his Scottish arch nemesis, Benandonner. Then an immersive audio-visual experience places the viewer at the centre of the landscape’s dramatic geological formation. And at the far end of the building, the coffee shop also dishes out spectacular coastal views.
From the Center it’s an easy 20-minute walk down a long scenic hill to the Causeway itself. Then the paved path leads all the way to the Amphitheater, along diverse surreal rock formations ranging from the Wishing Chair, the Giant’s Boot, Camel, Harp and Giant’s Organ Pipes. In case you can’t figure which is which, there is signage to give you a hint. And for the sure-footed, it’s ok to climb the rocks — at your own risk.
I did not. But this walk along the wild Northern Atlantic shoreline and the awesome older-than-time wonders of the Giant’s territory remain an exhilarating highlight of my Irish road-trip.
Good to Know
- Getting There — By Car to Brú na Bóinne: the Visitor Centre is located approximately 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Dublin via highway M1 to Drogheda. Take Exit 9 to Donore Village and follow Staleen Road to the Visitor Center. From Brú na Bóinne to The Giant’s Causeway: it’s approximately 220 kilometers (136 miles) north via highways M1 and M2 to Bushmills and the Giant’s Causeway. Note: About one hour into the drive, the bilingual (Gaelic and English) roadsigns used throughout the Republic of Ireland suddenly become English only. You have just crossed the open border into the British territory of Northern Ireland. From here on the speed indications change from kilometers to miles and the currency in use goes from Euro to British Pound. Also if you are planning to rent a car in Dublin for your roadtrip, you will need to purchase additional insurance for driving in Northern Ireland.
- Visiting — Brú na Bóinne: Access to the Brú na Bóinne archeological site is limited and advanced booking is required. For opening hours and pre- booking your visit, consult the Brú na Bóinne website. The Giant’s Causeway Visitor Center, 44 Causeway Road, Bushmills, County Antrim, BT57 8SU. Opening hours and access availability vary broadly with the seasons. Consult the Center’s website for details and strongly recommended advanced bookings. Contact: Tel. +44 28 2073 1855 or email. .
- Staying — The Causeway Hotel, 40 Causeway Road, Bushmills, County Antrim, BT57 8SU. Contact: tel. +44 28 2073 1210, or email. Hotel guests receive complimentary on-site parking and entry to the adjacent Causeway Visitor Center.
- Getting Around —To reach the Causeway, you can either walk 1.5 kilometer (1 mile) down the long scenic hill or take the Causeway Coaster minibus. A popular option with many visitors is to take the 20-minute walk downhill to the main causeway and catch the shuttle bus back up the hill (fare was 1 GBP each way, or 1.25 USD at the time of this writing). Note: While access to the Causeway itself is technically free, there is a 13.00 GBP (16 USD) per adult charge for parking at the site. Ticket price includes access to all the amenities of the Visitor Center, including guided tour, audio guide, immersive exhibitions and café. Visitors are encouraged to pre-book an entry time slot. Parking-only tickets are not available.