Brú na Bóinne (meaning "Palace of the Boyne") is a remarkable complex of Neolithic chamber tombs, standing stones, henges and other prehistoric structures. It's by the banks of the River Boyne in County Meath, 40 km north of Dublin and 8 km west of Drogheda.
Brú Na Bóinne is an extensive complex of Neolithic tombs and other ritual structures, designated since 1993 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The core of it, enclosed by a meander of the River Boyne, is the Archaeological Park described here, with the great mounds of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, and many smaller structures. These were built as nobles' tombs around 3200 BC, so they're older than the Pyramids of Giza or Stonehenge. Some of their most massive stones came from the Mourne Mountains over 100 km away - they are intricately carved and show sophisticated astronomical alignment. Probably the tombs once held funerary goods but raiders have pilfered those, and human remains are gone. The site continued in use through the Bronze and Iron Ages and Roman and early Christian periods, but probably only sporadically as traces of those times are few. Later uses were unkind to the place: in the 13th century the monks of Mellifont used the main tomb passage as a grain-storage barn, hence "New Grange". The Victorians removed stone to build a decorative folly, and the final indignity was a tearoom perched on top of Dowth. The park is now in the care of the Heritage Ireland branch of the Office of Public Works. Much of what you see represents reconstruction in the 1970s, which has its critics: Newgrange has been described as a "cream cheese cake with dried currants distributed about" and "kind of like Stalin does the Stone Age."
The Park is still an amazing monument to the skills and culture of Neolithic people, and it's a must-see destination in Ireland within an hour's travel from Dublin. The downside is numbers: it's always busy and touristy, never peaceful or atmospheric. Numbers are restricted and pre-booking is essential. Newgrange is the only mound that you can tour inside, and numbers for this are even more tightly restricted.
From Dublin or the north, take M1 towards Drogheda; there's a toll between junctions 7 and 8. Leave at junction 9 and follow the lane west to Donore village then Staleen Road. Follow the brown / white signage for the Visitor Centre - a rental car has probably been here so often that it will try to bring you here even if you were aiming elsewhere.
From the west take N51 past Navan (junction 9 of M3) to Slane. At Slane you must turn south on N2 to get onto Staleen Road on the south river bank - there's no access from the north bank even though the sites are there, so don't follow signs for Newgrange Farm.
First reach Drogheda, which has buses from Dublin and Dundalk, and trains from Dublin, Dundalk and Belfast. Then take Bus 163 from Drogheda via the Boyne battlefield to the Brú Na Bóinne visitor centre. The problem you face is that to see anything of the site you need a pre-booked timed ticket, and timings are often fraught with public transport. In early 2021 the bus has been cut back to two per day, terminating at Daly's pub 1 km short of the site. A taxi from Drogheda takes 10 min and might cost €15.
An organised tour is a good way to visit if you don't have a car (and if your main destination is Dublin, you should actively avoid having a car in the city). Sure it means tramping round in a large group, but that's going to happen even if you arrive independently. Check what kind of tour is offered, from the options described below; the tour may also take in other nearby sites such as Boyne battlefield and Hill of Tara. Two well-regarded operators are:
- Mary Gibbons daily from Dublin, includes Newgrange interior, €45.
- Bus Éireann daily from Dublin. Booked out? - they also tour Powerscourt and Glendalough.
Others may simply be selling onto these tours and taking a mark-up for doing so.
Access to the Park is by guided tour only, with timed slots, pre-booking essential. No pets allowed, assistance dogs welcome. All tours begin at the visitor centre on the south bank of the river. Anyone going directly to the park sites will be sent back to the centre with a flea in their ear to await the next available tour, which in mid-summer might be weeks away. From the centre you cross the river by a footbridge, then on the north bank a shuttle bus takes you round the sites. Tour options (with prices as at Jan 2021) are:
- Visitor Centre only. It's an extensive informative display, accessible with reduced mobility, and this is the only way you can see most of the interiors; but the experience is like being in a museum anywhere. Adult €5, conc €4, child €3; "child" for all tour options means 12-17, under 12s are free but still need a ticket.
- Outside plus visitor centre, includes the Knowth exhibition but no interior access: adult €12, conc €10, child €8.
- Newgrange interior plus outside and visitor centre. This is the only cairn in the park that you can get inside. There are only 700 slots available per day, it's a cramped interior where you don't get much ambiance, and you need good personal mobility. Adult €18, conc €16, child €12.
- Newgrange winter solstice: only a lucky few can experience this. The mid-winter sunrise just before 09:00 illuminates the depths of the chamber on six mornings, 18 to 23 Dec. (Back in 3000 BC this was precisely at sunrise, but it's now four minutes later through shift in the earth's axis.) On each morning ten lottery winners plus their guest get to experience this, with 60 winning names drawn each year and notified in October. Names and dates are not transferable, and tough luck if it's a wet cloudy morning - this does occasionally happen in Ireland in winter. Enter the lottery at the visitor centre or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org - annually about 30,000 people enter, so your chances are 1 in 500. That's better odds than the lottery for the Vienna New Year's Day Concert, they really ought to make you dress up in Neolithic period costume.
- 1 Visitor Centre is on Staleen Rd 2 km west of Donore village, Eir code A92 EH5C. It's open daily Feb-Apr and Oct 09:30-17:30, May and late Sept 09:00-18:30, Jun-mid Sep 09:00-19:00, Nov-Jan 09:00-17:00. Last admission to the centre is 45 min before closing, with last tour 1 hr 45 min before closing. The centre has a large interactive exhibition on the area, an AV presentation, and a wheelchair-accessible replica of the interior of Newgrange. It also has a tourist office, gift shop, tea rooms and toilets. There is no left luggage facility but it's okay to bring small backpacks: if you go inside Newgrange these are left in a locked box by the entrance.
- 2 Newgrange is remarkable even if you don't get inside (no photography or filming is allowed within). Built circa 3200 BC, it's a mound of 76 m diameter and 12 m high. At the entrance to the single passageway is a large, richly carved slab and a facade of white quartz, brought from Wicklow. The latter is a reconstruction, the original facade design is unknown. The mound is ringed by standing stones (a dozen survive of perhaps 36) but these were probably erected very much later. The passage is 19 m long, walled and roofed with sturdy carved slabs. It leads to a central chamber with three side-chambers: human remains and funeral goods have been found here. The most famous feature of Newgrange (though it's found at several other Neolithic sites) is the "roof box", the open panel above the entrance. At midwinter sunrise, and at no other time, the sun gleams through this down into the innermost chamber, like a welcoming hand extended to the departed dead. For 15 min the sun explores and bathes the decorations in a rich amber light then fades.
- The cursus is 100 m east of Newgrange mound. It's a prehistoric ceremonial aisle, but early archaeologists thought that such structures (such as at Stonehenge) were Roman racecourses, hence cursus.
- 3 Knowth, also built circa 3200 BC, is the largest set of tombs in the park. There's a secondary exhibition building here; no entry to the mound, but you peak in from a viewing point. The main mound is ringed by sturdy kerbstones and has an east and a west passageway which don't quite meet in the centre. (People in one can hear those in the other: it's not known if this played a part in rituals.) For sure these were astronomically aligned, but the precise nature has been obscured over the centuries through subsidence and later use - the Normans built a fort on the mound, and medieval monks farmed the area. 17 small mounds ring the main structure.
- 4 Dowth is a mound containing passage tombs circa 3000 BC, decorated and astronomically aligned like Newgrange. You can reach it without going to the visitor centre but all you see is the grassy mound. It's been much battered by plundering Vikings, enthusiastic investigations (they used dynamite), and by perching a tearoom on top. The interior is blocked off, so to appreciate it see the display in the visitor centre.
- Within 100 m or two of Dowth, and not part of the park, are a memorial to John Boyle O'Reilly (1844-1890) the Fenian activist and writer, Glebe House an event space, and Dowth Castle and Netterville Manor which are private residences.
- Enter the lottery to view sunrise in the chamber of Newgrange, but only if you can be reasonably sure of being here on the allotted date if you get lucky. Winning tickets are not transferable.
There is a café, tourist information point and toilets in the Visitor Centre, plus toilets at Newgrange and Knowth mounds.
See Drogheda for nearby accommodation, the nearest is Newgrange Lodge opposite the visitor centre. Most visitors day-trip from Dublin.
As of Jan 2021, there is a good mobile signal from Eir and Three along the approach roads and on the site itself. But as for Vodafone, only the lucky winners of a lottery, with the phone precisely aligned to the rising sun on midwinter's day . . .
- The cultures that created Brú Na Bóinne left traces all over the region, most of them off the tourist circuit: Loughcrew Cairns at Oldcastle are a good example. See Ireland main page for suggestions further away: they're often in thinly-populated areas where they've escaped modern agriculture and development.
- Similarly for early Christian sites, which mark the transition from prehistory to written history in Ireland, around the 5th century AD. These sites were often re-established in the Norman era, such as Old Mellifont Abbey 10 km north.
- More recent turbulent history is demonstrated a few km east at the site of the Battle of the Boyne, and in the town of Drogheda.