Jane Smiley Explores Ancient Ireland’s Mysterious Tombs


About a half-mile past the entrance to Newgrange, in the Valley of the Boyne, County Meath, Ireland, is a handmade sign with an arrow that reads “Irish crafts for sale.” I am, of course, fascinated by Newgrange, a Neolithic site that predates Stonehenge by a thousand years, but I can never pass up yarn, so I turned into a modest farm, damp, green, full of sheep, well-used equipment and warning signs — “This is not a playground.”

In the shop, Allison, the owner, was at the spinning machine, and of course I did buy a sweater, hand-knit, pale green cable, for my granddaughter, and also a Christmas tree ornament that looks like a sheep. We chatted about Allison’s flock (170 of them), their breed (hornless Irish Belclare), the problem with horned sheep (Daisy, for example, though hornless, is inconveniently dominating, always trying to give the other ewes a poke).

I drove away and turned into the parking lot at Newgrange, but the farm cast an interesting glow over the ancient but beautifully rebuilt site — this is a place long inhabited, where passing observations of sunlight, rain, animal interactions, the growth of the rich greenery, how lives must or might be lived flicker in the atmosphere like sparkles of mist.

I steered my rental car between lovely metalwork gates that reproduce the style of the Neolithic engravings at Newgrange, which looks like a huge green beret set neatly onto a green hillside in a gently rolling landscape.
Jane Smiley Explores Ancient Ireland’s Mysterious TombsNewgrange is a popular destination, and tickets are first come first served. It is called a “passage mound” or “passage tomb,” but what is it really? If we are lucky, what we get when we visit an ancient site is a sense of the intelligence that designed and built the structure even if we might not understand what belief system they were acting under. Indeed, perhaps Newgrange is a giant calendar, a giant clock, a giant belief system, built without mortar, lost and present at the same time.

This time of year, Newgrange takes on a special significance when the site becomes mysteriously aligned with the rising sun at the winter solstice, flooding its interior with an almost mystical light.

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