Dowth: The Place of Darkness

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Dowth: The Place of Darkness

Dowth is probably the least well known of the three great passage tombs of the Brú na Bóinne complex. It has not been excavated in recent times and appears to be slightly neglected compared to the well-tended tombs of Newgrange and Knowth. That said, this is still an outstanding monument and chances are you will find yourself alone here when you visit.

Built over 5000 years ago (c. 3200 BCE) the mound is roughly 85m in diameter and about 15m high. A large crater was dug into the summit during excavations in 1847, in an attempt to find its central chamber. In fact, there are two burial chambers within the western side of the mound. The passages are considerably shorter than those found at Newgrange and Knowth but the chambers themselves are as large as found at the afore mentioned sites.

The largest (Dowth North), is at the end of an 8.2m long passage and is a cruciform chamber with three side recesses. The four huge stones that define the chamber space are almost 3m high and support a low (3m) corbelled roof. A large stone basin (1.4m x 1m) lies on the floor of the central chamber. Dowth South is a small tomb in comparison with its more northerly neighbour. A short (3.3m) passage leads into an almost circular chamber with one recess. It is aligned with the setting sun during the Winter Solstice.

There are an estimated 115 kerbstones surrounding the base of the mound, only about half of which are still visible. However, there some fine examples of rock art including Kerbstone 51, the ‘Stone of the Seven Suns’, which has a series of solar symbols carved on its outer face.

There may have been other artefacts within the mound but the Annals of Ulster and the Annals of the Four Masters tell us that Vikings plundered the “cave‟ of Dowth around 862 CE.

A later addition to the monument is a souterrain (an underground gallery or tunnel), leading into the passage of Dowth North which was constructed around 10th or 11th century CE.

The Irish name for Dowth is ‘Dubhadh’, which means darkness. According to ancient texts known as the Dindsenchas (Lore of Places), the mound was built by one of the mythological Kings of Ireland; Bressal Bodibad. Intending to erect a monument that would reach to the heavens, he secured the services of all the men of Ireland for a single day. However, fearful that this would not be long enough, he asked his sister, a Druidess, to use her powers to halt the sun in the sky; so as the day would last longer and the work could be completed. On seeing his sisters display of magic, Bressal was overcome with lust and forced himself upon her. This broke the spell she had cast and darkness returned as the day ended. The men of Ireland all went back to their homes and the mound was abandoned. Henceforth, according to the texts, “Dubad meaning darkness, shall be the name of that place”.