Myth and Folklore
Brú na Bóinne in Myth
There are many references to the monuments of Brú na Bóinne (The Palace or Mansion of the Boyne) in Early Irish literature and tradition. They are associated with the Tuatha Dé Danaan, the People of the Goddess Danu, a race of super-natural beings who according to tradition ruled Ireland before the coming of the Celts and afterwards retreated into the fairy mounds and forts.
How the monuments got their names
It is ironic that one of Irelands best known prehistoric monuments should be called New. After the foundation of the Cistercian Abbey at nearby Mellifont in 1142, the land around the monument was acquired by the order. It became a grange, an outlying farm of the abbey thus giving the passage tomb and the surrounding townland its modern name.
In the old stories, the name given the monument was SÁ in Bhrú, the Fairy Mound of the Brú. It was said to have belonged to Elcmar who was married to Boann(the river Boyne). The Dagda (the Good God) sent Elcmar away on business. While Elcmar was gone,the Dagda and Boann had a son Oengus. Elcmar was away for nearly a year but when he came back, it only seemed as if he had been away for one night. Later on, Oengus had to trick his father, the Dagda, to get SÁ in Bhrú as his inheritance.
In one of Ireland's most famous stories, ToraÁocht Diarmuid agus Gráinne, Oengus brought the body of the hero Diarmuid back to SÁ na Bhrú for safe keeping.
The name for Dowth, Dubad is said to denote darkness. The mound was said to have been built by one of the kings of Ireland Bressal Bodibad. He wished to erect a mound which would reach to heaven and he secured the services of all the men of Ireland but only for a single day. Fearful that this would not be long enough, his sister agreed to halt the sun in the heavens by her magic powers so that the work could be finished on time. However, Bressal committed incest with his sister during the day and when she lost her powers, they were left in darkness. Everyone returned home and the hill was abandoned. “Dubad meaning darkness shall be the name of that place forever” .
There are two stories told about how Knowth Cnobga got its name. In the first, it is said that it derives from Cnoc Bua or Bui (Hill of Bua or Bui). The name Bui is that of the famous ‘hag’ of Beare.The hag's role in Irish tradition as earth goddess, as well as her associations with death, make Bui an appropriate connection with Knowth.
More fanciful is the story which recalls that the lover of Oengus was abducted from a feast she was attending. The rest of her party ran after her as far as Cnobga. Her friends raised a loud lamentation and sustained themselves on the only food they could find there, the hazel nut.
Long before the excavations at Newgrange began in 1962, there had been a story told that on certain days of the year, (nobody could say just when) sunlight fell on the tri spiral design in the back chamber of Newgrange. Professor O'Kelly was familiar with this tale when he started his work. He thought that the tale confused Newgrange with the well known alignment at Stonehenge. However he recalled the story when the roof box was rediscovered in 1963. He found in 1967 that the beam of light that penetrates the chamber at dawn at the winter solstice reaches the floor just below the tri-spiral. No one in modern times could possibly have seen the light in the chamber before Professor O'Kelly, as the roof box had been blocked up with stones and covered by the collapsing walls of the cairn. It seems incredible that the story for so long considered an old wives tale was proved right.
Locally, the monuments of Brú na Bóinne are called 'the caves'. It is interesting that all over the world, 'caves' whether natural or artificial have long been regarded as sacred places.
For more information on the A section of the Great Mound of Knowth and its tombs, please view the educational resources section.