Saturday, 31 August 2013

Newgrange and asking life's big questions

This is a short extract of a speech I made at the launch of 'Newgrange: Monument to Immortality' in Drogheda in October 2012. It serves to highlight some of the themes explored in the book, and to explain how the journey of exploration of Newgrange for me was as much a personal and spiritual journey as it was a journalistic one.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Latest podcast: Newgrange and the place name 'Bro' or 'Broe' - from Brug na Bóinne, its ancient name

Above is my latest podcast, which this week focuses on the place name 'Bro', also written 'Broe', which is found at Newgrange and in its vicinity. William Borlase, in his 1897 second volume of 'The Dolmens of Ireland', refers to this name and talks about how local people at the time pointed out that the field in which Newgrange sits was called 'Bro Park', or Brugh Field. This could relate to the old name of Newgrange, Brú na Bóinne, originally Brug na Bóinne.

To hear the podcast, just click on the arrow in the orange circle above. The piece is just under five minutes long. I have recently started doing short audio clips about Irish myths and monuments, mostly related to the Boyne Valley. If you'd like to hear more of these, please do let me know. There are several ways to contact me:

1) Add a comment to this blog post.
2) Email me at
3) 'Like' the Mythical Ireland page on Facebook and interact there
4) Follow me on Twitter

I'd love to hear your feedback. Thanks.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Rare exquisite drawings of Newgrange from 1866

Newgrange sketch from 1966
A sketch of the entrance to Newgrange published in 1866.
These two drawings of Newgrange are extraordinary. I've never seen them until today. And even though I've written a book about Newgrange and might be considered something of an expert on the monument, I'm pretty sure I've never seen them replicated in any modern book on the subject. I could, of course, be wrong, but certainly I have no memory of ever seeing them before. Which is why seeing them today for the first time has been such a beautifully pleasant surprise. They were published in a book (it's name I will reveal in another blog post soon!) in 1866, and so belong to a time when we weren't exactly sure what Newgrange looked like. We have earlier drawings and paintings, by the likes of Vallancey and Ledwich etc., and then photographs from the late 19th century onwards. Here is a unique moment in the Newgrange timeline. The mound is considerably overgrown with trees. In fact, they almost smother the entrance. There is something extraordinarily romantic and evocative about the above drawing.

Views similar to the one below have been seen before, but I've never seen an early drawing or sketch from that particular angle. Again, I think that this might be a unique image, having not seen the light of day in modern times. I am, of course, open to correction, and if anyone can put me right, please do!

I've gone to the trouble of performing a Google Image search and these two images don't have a match, so it would appear they are not on the internet at all - until now. There is a not dissimilar view to this one contained in a book by David MacRitchie called 'Testimony from Tradition', published in 1890:

I would be very interested in hearing from anybody who might have seen the first two images before. I have checked any books about Newgrange here in my own library and am pretty sure that it is not featured in any of those.

Early plans, drawings and photographs of Newgrange by Irish scholar and archaeologist George Coffey

The entrance of Newgrange as it looked before the 1960s excavation and renovation, but long after the entrance had been rediscovered by Charles Campbell's labourers in 1699. Featured in George Coffey's RIA paper and reproduced in William C. Borlase's Dolmens of Ireland (Vol II).
George Coffee's plan and section of Newgrange from his RIA paper as featured
in Borlase's Dolmens of Ireland (Vol. II)
A section and plan of the passage and chamber of Newgrange by George Coffey.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The search for Amergin and Drogheda's Stone Age past

Drogheda Museum / Old Drogheda Society
Special HERITAGE WEEK lecture

Is Millmount really a passage-tomb? 

THE SEARCH FOR AMHAIRGIN – Looking deep into Millmount’s past …

By Kevin Barton & Conor Brady
THURS 22 AUG 2013 – 8pm
Governor’s House, Millmount Cultural Quarter

Using the latest geophys technology Drogheda Museum begin a year-long project to look deep into the ancient mound at Millmount in a search for Drogheda’s Stone Age …

It is thought that the mound at Millmount in Drogheda was originally part of the great Megalithic (“large stone”) Culture which flourished in the Boyne Valley from 5,000BCE to 2,000BCE and includes the internationally-famous tombs of Newgrange and Knowth. Its importance in our collective folk memory is underlined by the legend that the mythological figure Amhairgin (pronounced “Aver-gin”) the originator of song and poetry is buried there.

Because of the huge amount of structural changes on the mound over the millennia normal archaeological excavation is impossible but now through the wonders of modern electronic remote sensing (“geophys”) we can scan deep into Millmount and begin to unlock its secrets.

Leaders of the Project Team, Kevin Barton of Landscape & Geophysical Services  and Conor Brady, Lecturer in Archaeology at DKIT will launch the research programme with a special lecture in The Governor’s House Millmount on Thursday 22 Aug 2013 at 8pm.

In Early Irish mythology Amhairgin ("aver-gin") was the inventor of song and poetry as implied in his name ("Amhair"=singing; "gin" = give birth to). The extraordinary poem/song associated with him, Duan Amhairgine (The Song of Amhairgin), was therefore regarded by the Old Irish as the first song ever made and was always placed first in collections of poetry.

The power of this poem in Old Irish is such that a whole array of famous poets in many languages have attempted translations. Among them was the great English poet Robert Graves who said that “English poetic education should, really, begin not with Canterbury Tales, not with the Odyssey, not even with Genesis, but with the Song of Amergin.”

Many composers and songwriters have also set versions of the text to music including this one in the original Old Irish by Lisa Gerrard (of Dead Can Dance) from the BBC series "The Celts".

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

New supernova discovered in Delphinus

This new star in Delphinus has been Nova Delphini 2013. Click image for large version.
This is a quick shot of the new nova in the constellation Delphinus which I shot from the front driveway a few minutes ago between gaps in the clouds. The "star" (it's really an exploding star) is easy to spot in this four-second exposure which was taken with my Nikon D7000. Read more about the nova here.

First passage-tomb discovered in the Boyne Valley for two centuries using new archaeological techniques

The first passage-tomb to be discovered in the Boyne Valley in 200 years has been identified by archaeologists using sophisticated imaging techniques.

The newly discovered mound, with circular enclosure,
shown on a colour LiDAR image. Reference: Boyne Valley
Landscapes Project. Data: Meath County Council/
Discovery Programme
Archaeological imaging and geophysics specialist Kevin Barton spoke about the discovery, made originally in 2010, at a recent Heritage Week presentation at the JFK Arboretum in County Wexford. He was giving a talk about possible new monuments discovered in LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) imaging of the Great Island area of Wexford.

The “new” passage-tomb, on the floodplain of the Boyne southwest of Newgrange, had showed up as a “blip” on LiDAR imagery of the valley, Mr. Barton said. Because of its situation in proximity to the Boyne monuments, it was considered that the feature warranted further investigation.

The newly discovered monument shown in gradiometry with
resistance overlay. The dark linear feature running from SSW-NNE
is believed to be a passage. The small dark circular area is the
mound. The outer enclosure is also faintly visible. © Davis et al
The site was given the designation “LP2” by investigating archaeologists. In the LiDAR image it appeared there was a central mound with a circular outer enclosure feature. The enclosure was “faint but identifiable” in the image.

Further work, in the form of ground-probing techniques called Magnetic Gradiometry and Resistivity was carried out, and revealed what appeared to be a weakly defined outer enclosure in addition to a distinct passage/chamber arrangement of the passage-tomb aligned towards the north-northeast.

Archaeologists became excited about the central mound, which they said “appears to show a clear passage and chamber arrangement with splayed terminals at the NNE. The central mound is clearly identifiable and measures c. 30m in diameter. This strongly suggests that the feature represents a hitherto unknown passage tomb.”

Kevin Barton demonstrating archaeological surveying
techniques at the JFK Arboretum. © Anthony Murphy.
Kevin Barton told the audience at his Co. Wexford talk that he believed it was the first passage-tomb to be discovered in the Brú na Bóinne complex in over 200 years. What makes the discovery very special is the fact that no archaeological digging took place to find it. It was discovered purely through LiDAR imaging and ground-probing techniques.

The area where the passage-tomb is located is close to the Boyne, straddling a modern hedgerow. The land has been under tillage and pasture at various times, and has probably been considerably ploughed over the years.

Commenting on the discovery, Anthony Murphy, author of Newgrange: Monument to Immortality said that it was just one of a number of exciting new features identified over the past few years in the Boyne Valley.

“This is incredible work by archaeologists using an array of new techniques. They have found a passage-tomb that has been hidden in the landscape for millennia, and they have found it without putting a single trowel into the ground.”

This is a wider LiDAR image of the Boyne Valley. The location of the new
monument is shown by the red circle. Map: Boyne Valley 
Landscapes Project. Source of data: Meath County Council/Discovery Project.
“I am particularly excited by the suggestion that the passage of this newly-discovered monument may point towards the north-northwest. If that’s the case, there are two possibilities which I’d like to see examined. One is that the passage points back up the slopes of the valley towards Newgrange. The second is that, because it points to the north-northwest, it cannot be aligned on a sunrise or moonrise, and one could propose a stellar alignment," Mr. Murphy said.

“It’s obviously far too early to say whether that’s the case. But I would definitely be interested in finding out whether there might have been an alignment to Deneb, the bright star of Cygnus, the swan constellation. The Brú na Bóinne area is linked with significant swan mythology. Indeed the owner of Newgrange, Aonghus Óg, was said to have taken the form of a swan. And the fields where this newly discovered mound is located have been the wintering ground for the whooper swans, which have been coming to Newgrange in large numbers for many decades, and possibly since the time Newgrange was built.”

But this newly-discovered monument might never be excavated. Kevin Barton said in his talk that archaeological digging is not only invasive, but destructive.

The new electronic arsenal employed by archaeologists is, however, providing the means to look under the soil without ever having to dig. And Mr. Barton said the equipment and the analysis of data were improving all the time. The new breakthrough is a testament to the exciting prospects of discovery in future of monuments that are currently hidden from view in the landscape.

Some of these new techniques have been employed at the Hill of Slane, where a mound, also surrounded by a circular enclosure, is thought by some to have originally been a passage-tomb, possibly as old as Newgrange, which was later re-fashioned by the Normans into a defensive motte.

Some new techniques will also be employed to examine the possibility that Millmount, in Drogheda, is also an ancient passage-tomb which was re-used by the Normans and later by the British who fortified the mound with a martello tower on top.

Acknowledgements: Steve Davis, Conor Brady, Kevin Barton and Will Megarry (archaeology); funded by the Heritage Council (INSTAR); Meath County Council (LiDAR imagery); the archaeologists are very grateful to the Redhouse family for access to the land.

Boyne Valley Landscapes Project: Steve Davis, William Megarry. Conor Brady, Helen Lewis, Thomas Cummins, Loreto Guinan, Jonathan Turner, Colman Gallagher, Tony Brown and Robert Meehan.

See Boyne Valley Landscapes Project Phase III Summary Report and Phase III Final Report.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

A story of the good people (fairies) of Newgrange

This is a short video featuring an account of the 'good people' of Newgrange, or the fairies as they were known, as related to W.Y. Evans Wentz for his 1911 book 'The Fairy Faith in the Celtic Countries'. Read by Anthony Murphy.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Author Martin Brennan speaking in Ireland at the Boyne Valley Revision conference

In 2009, after having thought about it for a long time, I decided to try to get Martin Brennan back to Ireland. The author of 'The Boyne Valley Vision' and 'The Stones of Time', who had made major discoveries about Neolithic astronomy, had left Ireland under a cloud in the mid 1980s and had never returned. With tremendous effort, and with considerable help from some of his friends, the whole thing came together as the 'Boyne Valley Revision' conference, at which he was due to be the star attraction. The event was held at the Newgrange Lodge on the day before winter solstice. Martin was very grateful at being brought back to Ireland, and indeed he met many old friends, and made lots of new ones too. It's the only time he's been back in a quarter of a century.

I've decided to put his whole talk online. I think it will serve as a valuable historical record, and it also gives some insights into some of the work he is doing in Mexico, where he has been living for a number of years now. His visit brought a lot of healing, and some of the acrimony between the Brennan 'camp' and the archaeologists was consigned to history.

Brennan was one of a number of people who inspired me when I began a wonderful adventure in the Boyne Valley with Richard Moore in 1999, which culminated eight years later with the publication of 'Island of the Setting Sun'. It was a great pleasure not only to meet him, but to spend time with him, and to become his friend. We don't, of course, agree on everything that each of us has written, but we have a common bond through our researches and writings that made us instant friends.

I will never forget the history few days when he came back to the Boyne Valley. Also speaking that day were Jack Roberts, Toby Hall, Sig Lonegren and Chris Bruno, all good friends of Martin's. Indeed Jack Roberts was with Brennan when they discovered the Dowth South solstice alignment and the penetration of dawn's glorious light into the chamber of Cairn T at Loughcrew on the equinox.

I hope that you enjoy Martin's talk. He is a wonderful speaker. As an artist, he does all of his own drawings and illustrations, which are superb. He manages to make very interesting links between ancient Mexican culture and the Boyne monuments which is fascinating.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Calling the Tuatha Dé Danann back from the sídhe at Ireland's time of great need

I was delighted to be the guest speaker yesterday at the annual Mulvihill Clan reunion, held at the O'Callaghan Alexander Hotel in Dublin. I gave a talk about Newgrange and Ireland's ancient astronomers to a small but interested group of Clan members from various parts of the United States.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the afternoon was how the questions session at the end of the talk developed into a conversation about the current state of Ireland and how the myths and monuments could contribute to our understanding of the crisis and perhaps to our recovery from it.

Newgrange (Síd in Broga), one of the many places where the Tuatha Dé
Danann are said to have retreated after the Milesian invasion.
I said that part of the reason that sacred places like Newgrange have become so popular relates to the void in people's lives associated the problems of living in modern Ireland. There is a crisis in the church, in politics, and in the banking system.

In short, I said that Irish people had been dispossessed of their traditional spiritual beliefs, and their faith in the political system. But most importantly, many people had been dispossessed of the power to govern and finance their own lives. I suggested that, once you lose that power, the political system ceases to have any relevance or hope for you. If you take away a person's power to earn a living, and to own a property, and to raise a family in comfort and dignity, then you have taken everything away from them, and you leave a void that cannot be filled. Politics ceases to have anything to offer.

But, not to sound like the whole affair was one of despair, we discussed how there was something that could be learned from our ancient myths and sacred sites.

For instance, our invasion mythology relates how the Tuatha Dé Danann willingly "gave" the country to the Milesians. Without any significant war or major battle taking place (there were some skirmishes, according to myth, but nothing along the lines of the Battles of Moytura with the Fomorians) the Tuatha Dé agreed to hand over Ireland to the Milesians, while they (the gods) retreated into the sídhe, the mounds, where they would live on in the otherworld.

Like the Tuatha Dé Danann, we have ceded power and sovereignty to foreign interests (also from Europe). But the question is, do we have the power to return to proper self governance, with our own integrity, and maintaining control of our sovereignty?

The folklore of the Tuatha Dé is full of prophecy about their return. They will come back, so say the legends, at some future time of great strife, to help Ireland at a time of great need. They will come thronging from the sídhe, racing back from the otherworld for a marvellous battle. And it’s a battle that they will win, restoring glory to Éire once again. So says the folklore.

I am of the view that the Tuatha Dé Danann represent aspects of our psyche, our consciousness as a people, that deepest part of who we are and what we hold to be dear. We are hurting as a people right now because we have been forced by circumstances to retreat from normal life and to find shelter in the sídhe. We are not designed to live in caves, whether they be physical or metaphorical. And we can only go to the otherworld when we die. While we are still alive, we wish to have the power to influence the sort of lives that we lead.

I told the clan gathering that one of the most painful things for any Irish person was the specture of eviction - to be dispossessed of one’s own home. We are facing the possibility of a wave of evictions as a result of changes in legislation which allows banks to put more pressure on families struggling to pay mortgages. Are we going to find ourselves in the same situation as the Tuatha Dé Danann? Are we going to be forced to retreat from our lives into some cave?

What practical support does mythology, or indeed a sacred site like Newgrange, offer us, apart from some idealistic notion?

People are trying to reconnect with the past. That might be due, in part, to some romantic notion that somehow life was better back then, less complicated. It’s called “numenism”. We find ourselves enraptured by a visit to an ancient sacred monument, and we imagine that life must have been blissful and ecstatic for the people who built it. We wish for that same bliss to encompass our own lives. Is that such an unhealthy thing to do? Is it altogether futile to go to Newgrange, or the Hill of Tara, or any one of a thousand ancient sites in Ireland, and to imagine that we can share in some magic which we associate with that site? Personally, I don’t think hope is a futile exercise.

As Andy Dufresne said in Shawshank Redemption: “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies’.

The rising interest in ancient monuments might also be because we see in Newgrange a monumental declaration of a people’s place in the world, an edifice that describes a time when people were united in spiritual belief. More important, in my opinion, is the fact that Newgrange represented the grand expression of a “cosmic vision”, one that saw our existence as being at one with the world and the universe.

Right now, we are calling on the Tuatha Dé Danann to return. And that’s because we are the Tuatha Dé Danann. They represent a magical and empowering aspect of ourselves, an attribute of Irish people that has become dormant time and time again during the long years when we found ourselves under occupation. It seemed that when we were invaded literally, we behaved as the invasion myths describe – we metaphorically retreated into our caves.

Deep down, do we not possess the magical powers of the Dagda, and Manannan, and Bóinn, and Aongus, and Lug Samildánach, and the host of the Tuatha Dé? Do we not yet possess the power to call them back from the sídhe to help us?

To be continued . . .

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Find information about any recorded National Monument in Ireland with online map

Above is a short video showing you the basics of the National Monuments Service online interactive map of all known recorded monuments in Ireland. It is an extremely handy and useful resource and one which is relatively easy to use. The video is a short introduction to finding information about a site or monument in your locality.

You can find the map online at this link:

Archaeologist Professor George Eogan speaks about discovering Knowth's two passages

Professor George Eogan, who excavated the megalithic passage-tomb at Knowth for more than four decades, speaks about discovering the passageways and shares some of his memories of working on the site.

Perseid meteors to rain down on Ireland this weekend

The skies over Ireland will be lit up this weekend with the best Meteor Shower of the year, with the peak occurring on Monday night. Called the Perseids, they are known for producing more fireballs than any other meteor shower during the year.

A map showing the direction from which the Perseids
will appear to emanate. © Astronomy.
Counting the numbers of meteors seen is vitally important to monitor the long term development of this shower, so Astronomy Ireland is organising a Nationwide Perseid Watch.

All you have to do is count how many meteors you see every 15 minutes and report it on the society’s website ( where you can also find further details.

No telescopes or binoculars are needed to see the Perseids as they are bright enough to be seen with the naked eye.

"The Moon will be out of the way so it is definitely worth going outside to try to see some bright Perseids," said David Moore, editor of Astronomy Ireland magazine. "Sometimes large pieces of debris enter the atmosphere and flare up extremely brightly as fireballs - these can often land on the ground! We want everyone to go outside every night over the weekend and take part in our Nationwide Meteor Watch"

Astronomy Ireland urges people to go outside this weekend and next week to observe the meteors to take part in the Nationwide Meteor Watch. By doing so, people all over Ireland can take part in real scientific research!

For more information on the Perseid Meteor Shower and how to take part in the Nationwide Meteor Watch please visit Some of these reports will then be published in Astronomy Ireland magazine in the coming months.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Magic of Megalithic Ireland tour coming to Newgrange

Read more about the tour on the Megalithomania website
I'm very happy to be giving a talk to the Magic of Megalithic Ireland Tour this month. The tour will be vising Newgrange and Knowth, where I will be giving them some insights into the cosmology and mythology of these wonderful stone age monuments.

The tour is being hosted by Glenn and Cameron Broughton, who have travelled the world investigating ancient sites, and Hugh Newman, who is organiser of the annual Megalithomania conference.

I will be telling this group all about the astronomical alignments of the sites, plus the long alignments with other sites, as well as the links between the mythology of the monuments and the astronomy.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Ever wondered what the inside of Dowth looks like?

This is one of the most interesting and useful videos relating to the Boyne Valley that I've seen in a long time. It's a fly-through tour of Dowth's northern and southern chambers based on laser scanning and gives you a real sense of what it's like inside. The survey work was carried out by David Strange-Walker of Trent & Peak Archaeology and Marcus Abbott of ArcHeritage. Thanks to Dr Steve Davis of University College Dublin, and the Office of Public Works, Ireland, for funding this project.

I was inside Dowth's northern chamber a number of years ago. I visited with a group, and we accessed this chamber through the souterrain, just as shown in this video. The imagery is from real scans, and is therefore incredibly accurate.

Those of you who have visited Dowth for the sunset at winter solstice might be familiar with the interior of the southern chamber, which is the shorter, circular chamber. However, the northern chamber is completely off bounds to the public - at least those who might never get the chance to go inside it can now do so virtually. Fantastic stuff.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

The history books really do need re-writing!

I just read my daughter's history book. She's starting secondary school later this month. Under the section about ancient Ireland, I was interested to read about Newgrange. There are no less than two factual errors in the first sentence. First of all, Newgrange is NOT 4,500 years old, as claimed. A cursory web search will reveal that it is, in fact, over 5,000 years old. The second statement is that Newgrange is the "oldest bulding in Europe". What utter nonsense. In fact, its sisters, Knowth and Dowth, are older. But there are far older structures than Newgrange in Europe.

What's most annoying about this is the fact that this is not advanced or specialist knowledge. Admittedly, I have a long-standing interest in Newgrange and know a lot about it. However, you don't need a doctorate to know that Newgrange is over 5,000 years old. Where did the author of this book get this figure of 4,500 years from? And upon what research does he base his claim that it is the oldest building in Europe? If this is what we are teaching our children, and our young adults, about the history of our own country, and we get it wrong, what else are we teaching them that is either factually incorrect or totally incongruous?

I just Googled the question "How old is Newgrange?" and the first result tells me that it was built in 3200BC.

Looks like some of these school books need to be re-written . . .

Monday, 5 August 2013

Glas-Guineach: The remarkable cow that could give an unending supply of milk

Glas-Guineach.—This cow was remarkable for giving a large quantity of milk. She belonged to the monks then residing at Kilmalckedor, was well fed and grazed upon the best patches of sweet pasture in the district. A thief attempted to steal her, but was captured in the act. To make an example of him, his finger prints and the impression of the cow’s hoofs for future reference and to warn the people of the district to be aware of him were cut or set into the stones by some natural art touching finger prints then known to these monks. The stories of the Glas-Guineach are numerous and interesting. Children inclined to steal were reminded of what happened to the thief who stole the monk’s cow.

Foley, Patrick (1916), Irish Historical Allusions, Curious Customs and Superstitions, County of Kerry, Corkaguiny.

This is a slightly different version of the story of the Glas Gablin/Glas Ghoibhneann, related in Island of the Setting Sun. That cow was stolen by Balor, and the story has astronomical implications, which are explored in the book.

New film about honouring the ancient ancestors

This is a short film, made at Dowth, about honouring the ancient ancestors. It is set to the beautiful music of Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin, from the album 'Songs of the Scribe'. 

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Brigid's Way Celtic Pilgrimage video

Above is a short video, featuring the music 'The Land of Stars' by Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin, showing the inaugural Brigid's Way Celtic Pilgrimage from Faughart to Kildare which was launched in July 2013. The pilgrimage was led by Dolores Whelan and Karen Ward, and is based on an alignment of ancient sites discovered by Anthony Murphy and Richard Moore. This alignment, stretching from the sacred well of Brigid at Faughart in County Louth to The Curragh in Kildare.