I would restore the great chambers of Boyne, prepare a sepulchre under the cupmarked stones.
Seamus Heaney, ‘Funeral Rites’
For Seamus Heaney, the Boyne valley tombs were vivid beacons during Northern Ireland’s Troubles. They were powerful testament to an insular communality of purpose millennia before the Good Friday Agreement. Heaney gloried in Irish archaeology and especially appreciated the timeless spirit of these places. For this great poet, the megalithic tombs were expressions of a monumental vision before any Celts or cathedrals. More than this, without exaggeration – in UNESCO World Heritage terms and thanks to some peerless (dare I say, heroic) modern archaeology – Knowth and Newgrange are two of the great (and oldest) treasures on the planet.
Knowth and Newgrange are just two of some 37 tombs erected in a cemetery beside the Boyne over more than 300 years after 3300 BC. This was more than a simple graveyard. Over the following millennium, earthen and timber henges as well as enclosures were constructed in this sanctuary ‘city’, defined by the presence of Neolithic pottery known as Grooved Ware. It was a megalithic version of Angkor Wat or the Mayan city of Tikal. Like those two great centres, the labour and resources of the entire population were invested in these ritual monuments. Judging from the very visible deployment of decorated kerbstones around the great mounds, the ceremonies were held outside, close by. Along with Carnac in Brittany and Maeshowe on Orkney, this sanctuary ‘city’ was one of the greatest places in a 4th-millennium Atlantic Sea culture stretching from western Spain to Scotland’s northern isles.
Power of places
The French philosopher Marc Augé wrote that there are two types of spaces: non-places and places. Non-places are essentially part of the everyday – shopping malls, airports, cinema complexes, hospitals, and hotel resorts. Places, by contrast, are relational, historical, and concerned with identity. Places also happen to be the drivers of cultural heritage tourism, now seemingly more apparent than ever in a post-pandemic world. With global tourism growing year on year, many of these places – especially those on the UNESCO World Heritage list – being fragile and originally intended for tiny numbers of people are becoming vulnerable to increasing visitor footfall. Unsurprisingly, the great French palaeolithic cave at Lascaux has been closed to visitors; today a remarkably bold facsimile fulfils most of its relational role (see CWA 101). Similarly, Stonehenge has been completely reconfigured. As of 2013, a visitor centre was constructed some distance from the monument to funnel spiralling numbers of visitors close to but not into the great circle. Both models took a leaf out of the book written by Boyne valley megalithic park at Brú Na Bóinne, now celebrating its 25th year. The anniversary of this once highly controversial masterplan coincides with the 40th year at the site – and retirement – of one of its heroic champions: Clare Tuffy.
Clare was appointed in 1981 to help guide and manage visitors. She began work on the winter solstice that year, 21 December, as Michael J O’Kelly, following his excavations of Newgrange, was putting the finishing touches to his then hotly debated reconstruction of the great monument. When Clare began, George Eogan’s enormous excavations of the neighbouring tomb at Knowth had been going for 19 years and were well advanced. Both digs had created great public interest. This is what prompted the Irish government’s Office of Public Works (OPW) to appoint Clare, a schoolteacher with a keen interest in archaeology, to develop visitor services here. What followed was a learning curve that has helped to shape how fragile monuments in Ireland and elsewhere can be presented to an ever-growing number of visitors.
I meet Clare on a typical Irish day of sunshine and showers in late August, at the visitor centre on the south side of the Boyne River. She has a friendly gleam in her eye, remembering our conversations many years ago at a conference in Greece dedicated to culture heritage management. There is a calm assurance and a warm manner to her stories. Everything has worked out, and she is rightly proud of that.
I soon fall under her spell. Just parking the car and approaching the visitor centre is to leave the here-and-now and start to travel in time.
‘It was all so bare when we opened the new centre in 1997,’ Clare remembers. ‘Barbara O’Neill, the landscape architect, insisted we use original plants found in the excavations. Prehistoric plants native to this valley.’
‘The results of palynologist Frank Mitchell’s pollen cores?’, I pipe up, recalling Mitchell’s groundbreaking research.
‘Exactly,’ Clare responds. ‘So, Barbara planted native species to conceal the car park, and create the covered pathways leading to the new visitor centre designed by her husband, Anthony O’Neill.’
There is no doubting now that this lush vegetation has done the trick. To return to Marc Augé’s definition, this approach is now part of a place, even if it is only 25 years old. There is an unmistakable sense of entering another world and leaving quotidian banalities behind.
The O’Neills were hired in 1985, as visitor numbers to Newgrange had to be controlled. (Knowth was not yet open to spread the tourism load.) Buses were overwhelming the narrow lanes. The single megalithic passage deep into the central chamber of Newgrange itself was never intended for mass pilgrimage or visitorship. On one day in 1985, Clare tells me, 1,703 visitors arrived. Numbers had to be capped; the OPW agreed at 1,000 a day, with group bookings thenceforth only being made by telephone. That was when the Royal Irish Academy swung into action and assembled all the stakeholders to seek a long-term solution. The answer was an international architectural competition. The O’Neills won and they proposed a radical plan.
‘No one had looked at these tombs as anything but monuments. The O’Neills’ plan set out to situate them in the Boyne valley, their landscape. Instead of having a centre by the monument, they proposed putting it on the south side of a curving bend in the Boyne, well away from Knowth and Newgrange. The architects took the idea from the US parks. They intentionally separated the visitor centre from the principal monuments. As a result, leaving the modern world, bridging the river, the Boyne itself becomes the very first point on a journey into the past.’
Clare has deep affection for this far-sighted plan with its emphasis on good practice and the then-new concept of sustainability. It was, she muses in admiration, a plan for the 21st century.
‘Anthony O’Neill discovered that many archaeologists had never seen the mounds from south of the river – the way they were approached in prehistory. Instead, they had come from the back door, through the narrow lanes.’
Now I am curious as to how this went down locally. After all, the Boyne valley community – about 1,500 people, mostly engaged in local agriculture – had sold ice-creams, craft objects, and provided bed and breakfast to the teeming numbers of tourists. Clare does not hold back. It had been a long, dedicated haul to win over her neighbours, as she sees them.
‘Many of them hated the idea. Hated it. Some protested by occupying the chamber at Newgrange. This confused visitors no end. Then things got worse. The authorities went ahead and pursued the O’Neills’ masterplan. Being government, at that time no planning permission was required. Undaunted, the local community, supported by environmental groups, took it to Ireland’s Supreme Court and won. They wanted it, at least, to go through a proper planning process. This set the whole project back by years. UNESCO World Heritage was won in 1993; the visitor centre itself opened four years later.’
‘And the local community?’, I ask, keen to hear their reaction.
‘They were angry. They called it Disney Grange! Signs went up: “Government sold out!”.’
‘And now, 25 years later?’
‘Now it is their visitor centre – theirs. Their children learn to ride bikes in the car park when the visitors have gone. We’ve held school pantomimes in the centre. We hold regular arts and crafts fairs. You’ll see: there’s an art show – paintings by a local artist – on at the moment. I was lucky. I had trained as a teacher with some of the local schoolteachers. They brought their kids, and we made them welcome. From then on, the new generation in this valley appreciated that this is a year-long business, not a seasonal one. Winter trips by low-cost airlines to Dublin often mean international visitors come in the autumn and winter. As importantly, the OPW employed four permanent guides on the eve of the opening in 1997; in a matter of months, there were 30 full-time jobs. It all speaks for itself. But I would be kidding you if I didn’t stress that you must work at it. We always remembered: it’s their valley.’
Gateway to the past
The visitor centre is almost overwhelmed by the luxurious vegetation. Its interlocking circular galleries and spaces, an architectural homage to the megalithic art on the great kerbstones around the monuments, is an almost secondary element. Pride of place goes to introducing the valley and its prehistoric archaeology. This is achieved with minimal words and utterly captivating, ethereal photography. This introduction is a masterpiece, a luminous assault on the senses.
‘We were fortunate,’ Clare tells me. ‘A local photographer, Ken Williams (http://www.shadowsandstone.com), has photographed all the seasons here, morning, noon, and night. When we recently renewed the exhibition, we made use of Ken’s atmospheric pictures. After 25 years, we have amazing wildlife. Who could ever have foreseen this? Today this natural world is brilliantly cared for by our grounds staff, including Jasper Madan-Mayers, who is our biodiversity champion.’
The exhibition begins with the history of the excavations, starting in 1699, and the first tourists. A passage of glorious photographs then guides the visitor to the story of the stones used by the mound-builders. The main structural stones are of greywacke, found locally at Clogherhead. These would have been brought by sea, and then up the Boyne. The distinctive white quartz came from the Wicklow Mountains, south of Dublin. Granite cobbles from Co. Down were also present. Apart from a section devoted to the archaeological finds (including a decorated mace-head and phallus-shaped stone from Knowth), the exhibition ends in a simple reconstruction of Newgrange’s long megalithic passage as the pencil of light penetrates the central chamber for 17 minutes at the winter solstice.
Some 300,000 visitors now come to the archaeological park. From the large café to the fleet of buses – soon to be all electric – this is a rural industry. Visitors all book online. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the tours come in different forms: ranging from the full 2½-hour package from the centre to Knowth, then Newgrange and its passage, to a simple visit to the outside of Newgrange. Tour buses leave from the north side of the bridge over the Boyne every 15 minutes.
I am lucky to get special treatment. Clare takes me to Knowth, scene of spectacular excavations by George Eogan, which I had the privilege to visit 40 years ago. She starts by leading me to the new exhibitions in two farm-buildings beside the mound. The first building contains a montage of 280 decorated stones from Knowth. A bank of tablets is on hand for accessing this gallery of Neolithic art. The second, an old sloping dairy, is devoted to the dig. Its centrepiece is a short film of recollections about Eogan’s excavations. Each digger extols the experience. Nearly everyone looks so young! Clare suspects I will be charmed by the film, and indeed I am. From the sheer joy of unexpected discovery to the communal fun of the campaigns, the film without any affectation brings home what an extraordinary experience this was.
Knowth was not only a huge prehistoric mound but, on its limited summit, an Early Christian palace of the Kings of Northern Brega. These were the rising Uí Néill dynasty; one 10th-century king, Congalach mac Máel Mithig, became High King of Ireland. The present mound probably had an earlier precursor. Retaining the great tomb are 127 kerbstones, many decorated for visibility in differing seasonal sunlight, as Clare shows me by deploying her iPhone torch. The two entrances (now closed) into the mound face approximately east and west, probably to mark some aspect of the rising and setting sun. Outside each entrance is a standing stone, each a megalithic sundial of sorts, casting shadows on these special equinox days. Eogan’s forensic excavations, fully published, hold many highlights. One is a right-hand recess of Knowth’s eastern tomb in which the skeletal remains of over 100 individuals were identified, more than half of whom were juveniles. From its summit, rich rolling farmland runs in every direction as far as the eye can see. To this blissful corner of Ireland came St Patrick, no less, to preach on the low hill of Slane, clearly visible three miles away through the veil of a passing squall.
Last, we visit Newgrange. I was here first 49 years ago, when Michael O’Kelly was finishing up and reconstructing the spectacular quartz façade. Being just the two of us, passing the erstwhile OPW ticket hut, I felt I was myself rolling back the years. The luxuriant grass apron is exquisitely mown. The mound itself is tended as though it is a work of land art. Around it, the fields drop away, verdant and unbelievably opulent, towards the Boyne and the stand of trees that now conceal the visitor centre. Far away, below billowing clouds, lies the ancient hill of Tara, a sacred prehistoric meeting place.
Clare beckons me to follow her. The inset entrance was designed by O’Kelly to facilitate modern visits, otherwise the place is largely unchanged from an age when extraordinary visionaries conceived it. She pauses to point out the ingenious roofbox, an opening directly above the entrance, where two large upright stones form a gap between the first roofstone and a bottom one. Through this opening, rather than the entrance itself, the solstice sunlight streams at dawn. The sunlight passes through the sloping passage to illuminate the burial chamber. This electrifying beam does not hit any part of the passage until it is retreating, and it illuminates the entire chamber.
Head bowed, I gingerly follow Clare along the narrow dark passage of megalithic stones to its cruciform end. It is a high corbelled chamber, beehive in shape, with its three lateral chambers. Its simplicity is magnificent. In each lateral chamber is a massive, sculpted stone basin made from a single block, somehow manhandled to these sacred spaces before the narrow passage was finished. The imagination to do this is simply awe-inspiring.
‘The shaft of light of the winter solstice passes through the light box and arrives for around 17 minutes here. The pencil of light lasts roughly from 8.58 to 9.15am.’
With her iPhone torch, Clare illuminates some of the circles, close-set impressions, and many incisions that prehistorians are continuing to discover. None of it, she points out, is obvious: it has to be shown to you.
‘The art is almost secret,’ Clare says in little more than a whisper.
As I follow the light cast by her torch, the sacrality of this chamber is palpable. Some 110 decorated stones have been found at Newgrange, compared to the 280 at Knowth. Antiquarian excavations from as early as 1699 by Charles Campbell, a Dublin merchant, removed many of the remains of burial: first cremations accompanied by beads and pendants, as well as bone and antler objects; then communal interment. With the Bronze Age, the tombs fell out of favour. After, with the introduction of Christianity, cemetery burial returned to Knowth.
This was a sanctuary, a place designed for solar events by architect(s) we would label a genius if we knew his or her name. Clare smiles at me to see if I have found this moving. I have. Frankly, the greatest compliment I can pay is that the spiritual majesty of this place is unchanged 49 years after I first visited. It is still a voyage into the dark as well as the past that, as Seamus Heaney rightly grasped, makes you think about time and how unbelievably bold and committed these megalith-builders were.
I ask Clare what she will do in retirement, now a few weeks away.
‘I am keen to step back,’ she says. ‘To see if I can look from a new angle at my work over the past 40 years, and also at the community I have worked with and am now part of. Now I’ll have a bit of time, I’d love to see the solstices at Maeshowe and Stonehenge.’
In making Brú na Bóinne a place for the 21st century, Clare Tuffy has played as big a part as my archaeological heroes, George Eogan and Michael O’Kelly. Along with the masterminding O’Neills, architects of safeguarding this past for the future, she has played a pivotal and professionally discreet role because, important though visitors and footfall are, no less important is the protection of place by those it nurtures directly: its community.
All images: courtesy of Richard Hodges, unless otherwise stated.
Brú na Bóinne (Newgrange and Knowth) is managed by the Office of Public Works.
To find out about Ireland’s world heritage, visit www.worldheritageireland.ie.
To plan a visit to Newgrange and Knowth, visit https://heritageireland.ie/visit/places-to-visit/bru-na-boinne-visitor-centre-newgrange-and-knowth/.