I have to say that visiting prehistoric sites is one of my favourite things to do. It is rare that a pagan festival will pass where I won’t have celebrated it at one of our ancient sites in Ireland. As a lover of history and heritage, my love of these sites and the traditions of our ancestors has molded together well. Not only can I go and celebrate the site for its respective feast day but I can also appreciate its abundance of history and the lasting affect it has had on our culture and society.
I had the pleasure of spending a summer working at the UNESCO Site Knowth in the Boyne Valley in 2011. I use the term ‘work’ quite loosely here as spending your days sharing with others the mysteries and history of Knowth was the best summer I have had, well so far anyway. This site is steeped with history and is hugely underrated. Its neighbouring site of Newgrange, which I will return to shortly, is hugely popular. It is the most visited heritage site in Ireland and rightly so. One thing that is quite impressive about Knowth is its ability to surprise and shock its visitor. Often time’s visitors would come to Brú na Bóinne hoping to visit Newgrange and when this was not available due to being sold out, they would then come to Knowth. Winning these visitors over was always a treat and I have to admit was generally easy. Knowth is a site that just exudes its layered history, when you stand on top of the central mound and feel the centuries of history beneath your feet; it is hard not to be blown away.
As a restricted access site Knowth does not have the advantage of being open to worshipers and visitors for ritual during its feast days that fall on the autumn and spring equinoxes. The alignment at Knowth is lesser known than Newgrange’s and unfortunately due to later habitation at the site and the creation of souterrains through the passage ways, the chambers no longer line up to the rising and setting sun. You can still visit Knowth for the equinox but time and access is limited. You are unlikely to find people drumming or chanting on top of the mound celebrating the birth or death of the sun!! These restrictions are part of the preservation plan for the site that was implemented when UNESCO status was granted. In many ways I understand this need for restricted access but in other ways I can understand the argument that the sites are part of our heritage and should be open to everyone, no charge, for them to use in an appropriate and respectful manner of course. http://www.knowth.com/knowth.htm
Newgrange suffers from the same restrictions, however the one big difference being that for the winter solstice they open the site and welcome visitors to come and celebrate as they wish. The alignment at Newgrange is one of the most impressive feats of construction that our ancestors left behind and entrance to Newgrange for the solstice has become one of the most sought after things for lovers of ancient sites. This year my sister was one of the choosen few who was picked from the lottery for access to the chamber for the solstice. I as her plus one, was lucky enough to be at Newgrange inside the chamber for the Winter Solstice on the 22nd. The Mayans predicted the end of the world on the 21st and as I stood inside the 5000 year old chamber welcoming the first sun of the ‘new world’ I felt that things could not get much better. OK well it would have been better if there were no clouds and the sun had actually illuminated the chamber but it is Ireland and you grow to accept these weather failures!! 😉
This lack of sun did unfortunately become a theme for my year ahead. I didn’t celebrate at any sites for the Spring Equinox, Loughcrew is my usual place of worship for the equinoxes but this year I was away. I have a feeling that there would have been sun that morning.
For the summer solstice, I fulfilled a live long dream of being at Stonehenge for the solstice. So off I went with a fellow Knowth guide and my ‘hippy’ sister to bathe in the suns rays at Stonehenge. Again we were to be disappointed as the sun could not seem to manage to break through the cloud’s impenetrable layers. Stonehenge was a fantastic experience, witnessing how the diverse range of people gathered, celebrated the solstice and used the site for what many believe was it’s original purpose was truly spectacular. Stonehenge has a colourful history and is a fantastic site that should be preserved for future generation. With the new visitor center currently in progress, it is hoped that visitor’s access and enjoyment will be increased. I look forward to seeing the finished product and hopefully the eventual closure of the main road that runs along side the site.
The last place I visited was Loughcrew, Sliabh na Callaighe for the Autumn equinox. For sunrise on the 21st of September I made the hike to the top of the hill in the hopes of seeing the passage way and central chamber illuminated with the rising sun. Unfortunately, that was not to be. The sun again was unable to break through and I suffered another disappointing early morning. Loughcrew is a wonderful site and as it is not as well known as Newgrange they have not had to limit access yet. As long as you are there early and near the top of the queue you will get inside the chamber. http://www.heritageireland.ie/en/midlandseastcoast/Loughcrew/
All of these sites are impressive in their own rights. Being able to visit these ancient sites with the oldest dating to roughly 4000BC, is truly amazing. I could devote many blogs to my study of these sites, I will no doubt return to them at some stage to share more on the history of the sites rather than just the ritual gatherings they attract. I carried out my Masters dissertation on the Neolithic Sites in the Boyne Valley and am fascinated by the changes in use and ownership of the sites. I think it is vital that we honour our ancestors desire for these sites and continue to celebrate and worship at them. The preservation of the sites is pivotal, so that they can remain open and accessible for visitors. However I do think it is also important to allow the sites to continue to be used and honoured in the way they were meant to be. If there is one negative about these celebrations I would have to say it is all the early mornings!!!