Dark Secret – Frank McNally on a Christmas Night visit to Dowth

A journey through megalithic Meath

On a Christmas Day twilight drive through megalithic Meath, my children and I peered over the wall at a closed Newgrange and caught glimpses through hedgerows of an even more closed Knowth.

But darkness had fallen by the time we reached Dowth. And between that and the site’s reputation as the least dramatic of Brú na Bóinne’s big three, we nearly didn’t bother getting out of the car to look for it.

Then we did and, astonishingly to us, it proved to be open to the public, so that after a short climb we were able to stand on top of the grass-covered passage tomb, variously estimated at between 4,000 and 5,200 years old.

The lack of daylight was apt, it turned out. Because as derived from the Irish Dubhad, Dowth is literally a place of darkness.


Functionally too, it seems. Whereas Newgrange is aligned with dawn on the winter solstice, one of the chambers at Dowth welcomes sunset during the year’s shortest days.

Some scholars also believe that the carvings on the site’s most famous kerb stone – “the stone of the seven suns” – depict solar eclipses as witnessed by the awe-struck astronomers of ancient Meath.

Mythological history takes the murky theme even further. As recorded by the Book of Leinster (1160 AD), this was once the site of an Irish king’s attempt to build a tower to the heavens.

He first hired all the men of Ireland for a day. Then his sister – a great enchantress – cast a spell to make the sun stand still and ensure the day lasted until the project was complete.

But the lustful king ruined the spell by committing incest with her (a time-honoured royal tradition). The sun promptly set and the men were free to clock off, leaving the work unfinished and the sister to declare that this would henceforth be known as a dark place.

Part of that age-old and colourful tale – perhaps orally transmitted over millennia – has been lent unexpected credence by modern science.

A study published in 2020 reported that the DNA of a male skeleton found at Newgrange, and presumably of noble birth, showed the man to have been born of an incestuous union.

One of the reasons Dowth is permanently open to visitors these days is that it has little or nothing that can be stolen or vandalised. In fact, the greatest act of vandalism there in modern times was back in 1847 and carried out by scholars from the Royal Irish Academy.

The RIA’s first and last foray into archaeological excavation was an attempt to find the supposed central chamber. Digging down from the top proved impracticable (although not before they demolished a “gala music room” and “tea house” that used to occupy the summit).

So they dynamited their way in from the side, gouging a great hollow into the mound. No central chamber emerged, and very little else. Despite which, William Wilde – antiquarian father of Oscar – declared it a worthwhile exercise. Later generations were less forgiving.

The archaeological atrocity was never remedied. It remains visible in the hill’s modern shape.

According to tradition, Dowth was an early playground of Cú Chulainn. Conceived and born at Newgrange, he is said to have killed three giants at Dowth before heading north (with their heads) to his destiny.

A more modern hero, the Fenian John Boyle O’Reilly, was certainly born in the area, before heading south, then west, to fame. He grew up the son of a headmaster who was employed at Dowth Castle, which the mound overlooks.

Transported to Australia in 1867, Boyle O’Reilly escaped by ship two years later and went on to become a great campaigning journalist in Boston, championing civil and minority rights while also decrying the sectarian rivalries his fellow countrymen, green and orange, brought from Ireland.

In 1876, amid the jingoism of America’s first centenary and the rush to vengeance for the death of the country’s most charismatic general at Little Bighorn, he wrote, with typical courage: “The treatment of the Indians has been a red record of rascality and crime; and it is worse than ever today. The Sioux warriors did not murder Custer and his soldiers. They met him in a fair fight, out-generalled him, and cut him to pieces. He tried to do the same to them.”

Despite coming from a definitively dark place, clearly, Boyle O’Reilly was a force for enlightenment.

But then, as pointed out in a book I’ve been reading over Christmas – Jacqueline Yallop’s Into the Dark: What Darkness is and Why it Matters (to which I’ll return another day), there is no such thing as complete darkness, even in outer space.

Or even at Dowth, in mid-winter, I can report. As night fell on Christmas Day, a murky sky threatened to rain on our visit there. Then the cloud cleared and, magically, a full moon broke through, making a silhouette of the ancient burial mound and of a lone sycamore tree on the side of the hill.