Thursday, 23 June 2016

Dowth and the story of hunger - ancient monument built during a famine and almost destroyed during one too

I was at Dowth on the Summer Solstice, which was on Monday last. It was nice to be at Dowth on the longest day of the year, and quite fitting because of an ancient myth about the site. I was with a small group, talking about the mythology of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and the sun was beating down from its height at the very apex of its circuit through the zodiac. We could not see it, but at that moment the sun was being carried across the sky by the great constellation Orion.

Dowth at midnight tonight. Even with cloud cover, it's still bright enough to see. I added some kerb light!

There is a myth about how and why Dowth was constructed, contained in the Metrical Dindshenchas, the oldest versions of which are found in the 12th century Lebor na Nuachongbala (known as the Book of Leinster). As I sat there in the sunshine at Dowth, I wondered about the sudden darkness that is described in the Dindshenchas story about Dubthach/Dowth, the darkness that broke a powerful spell.

The king at the time, according to the story, was Bressal Bódibad (the second part of his name means "lacking in cattle", for reasons that will become obvious). He wished to build a "solid hill", in the likeness of the tower of Nimrod, "so that from it he might pass to heaven". It is said that "the men of all Erin came to make for him that hill" and that they came to do it all in one day.

The endless day of the Dowth myth might be Summer Solstice.
The king's sister cast a spell on the sun, so that "there should be no night but bright day till the work reached completion". Those of you familiar with my work will know that I think this is a reference to the Summer Solstice, when the daylight is pretty much continuous, and when the sun's rising and setting positions appear to halt on the horizon, i.e. the sun stands still. At this latitude, even in the middle of the night we get a constant twilight, giving enough light to enable us to see in the dark. This is obvious in the main photo above, taken tonight at midnight. Even with 90% cloud cover, it was still bright enough to see what I was doing without extra light.

The king's sister is not named in the surviving Dindshenchas verse about Dowth. However, as the work progresses, the King commits incest with her, and the spell is broken. Night falls suddenly. The men abandon the construction project. "Since darkness has fallen upon our work, and night has come on and the day is gone, let each depart to his place".

What's interesting about this grand project, which seems an extraneous project orchestrated by an egotistical and megalomaniacal king, is that the legend says it was built during the time of a great famine:

"In his time a murrain came upon the kine of Erin, until there was left in it but seven cows and a bull."

At the height of this famine, the king gathered all the men of Erin to this place to build him a tower so that he could reach heaven. Is this a description of slave labour? If there is any real substance to the myth as a record of actual historical events, it must be pointed out that surely the worst time to ask human beings to indulge in heavy physical work is when they are famished. However, that's what the story says. They built it during a murrain, with only eight cattle left on the whole island of Ireland to sustain its population. This aspect of the story is, we gather, allegorical. But it is interesting in light of a strange coincidence between myth and reality that has always been obvious to me but which I only came to realise the true significance of this past Summer Solstice a few days ago.

That coincidence is this - Dowth was said to have been built during a famine, and it was almost destroyed during one too.

Moving from myth into factual, recorded history, we skip forward in time to the 1840s AD. In the years 1847-48, R.H. Firth, at the behest of the Committee of Antiquities of the Royal Irish Academy, carried out a disastrous excavation of the Dowth monument which caused it considerable damage. A commentary in the Drogheda Conservative newspaper in 1856 describes it thus:

"...we find that beautiful tumulus literally torn to pieces".
The crater in Dowth left by the 1840s excavations.
Large amounts of cairn material were removed, and tossed over the sides, in an ill-fated attempt to find some treasure, or central chamber containing perhaps trinkets that might make men rich. But as I always say, the true treasure of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth are not any material goods that might be found within them. Their true treasures are much, much deeper.

An even greater tragedy about the Firth excavation is the fact that this rich man's treasure hunt occurred during the Great Famine, when the failure of the potato crop due to blight caused death and starvation for hundreds of thousands.
"It is interesting to note that, in the middle of the Great Famine, during which a million Irish people died and another million emigrated, the esteemed gentlemen of the privileged class had nothing better to occupy their thoughts than an ill-conceived and unsuccessful 'treasure hunt' at Dowth, for which a special subscription had to be raised, while the population was suffering one of the worst calamities in Irish history". (Newgrange - Monument to Immortality, p.103, by this author)

Fascinatingly, there is perhaps a hint in the Dindshenchas myth about its future fate at the hands of Firth and his colleagues. Is this an example of the prescience of myth?

"From that day forth the hill remains
without addition to its height;
it shall not grow greater from this time onward
till the Doom of destruction and judgement".

A Brigid's Cross left at Dowth on the Summer Solstice.
Notwithstanding the obvious Christian intrusion into this verse, with its mention of judgement, the story suggests that no more would be added to Dowth's height. Could this be taken to suggest, perhaps, that something would in fact be taken from its height? Today, there is a large crater in the cairn (see photo above), and its height is much diminished as a result of this reckless "excavation" of the 19th century, if we could dare to call it an excavation. In essence, the myth's prophetical aspect has been substantiated through real events.

And the synchronism of events, mythical and real, leads us to consider the Dindshenchas verse as not mere poetry for amusement, but as a mytho-prescient work with far-reaching vision through the long and sometimes tortuous history of this island. It is not alone in that regard, and I am especially drawn to the Lebor Gabala - the "Book of Invasions" and how that presaged a series of real invasions, as if forecasting a dire series of raids before they ever happened. But that's for another day.

Tonight at Dowth, on St. John's Eve, I took some photos of the mound against the light of the midsummer sky. It doesn't last long, but I love the midnight twilight in the Boyne Valley.


  1. Have to say the photos look great, I like the headlights shining on the base in the first

  2. beautiful photos and thank you for the history lesson and your interpretation of myth and legend surrounding this site..