The Discovery of Brú na Bóinne

Edward Lhuyd

Lhuyd, O’Flaherty and the Lost Discovery of Brú na Bóinne

Edward Lhuyd (1660 – 30 June 1709), also known by the Latin Eduardus Luidius, was a prominent Welsh naturalist, botanist, linguist, geographer and antiquary. His family were an established, though not a prosperous, part of Welsh gentry; his father dabbled in agricultural and industrial science and Lhuyd himself attended Jesus College, Oxford in 1682, although he failed to graduate. This failure did not harm his career as an antiquary however, he became assistant to the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in 1684, and became Keeper himself in 1690. In 1701, he was awarded an MA honoris causa by the University of Oxford, and he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1708. He held his post at the Ashmolean until 1709 when he died of pleurisy. During his stint at the Ashmolean, Lhuyd travelled extensively, ultimately visiting every county in Wales, and then travelled to Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall, and Brittany and the Isle of Man and made contributions to both botany and the study of English fossils. A Snowdon lily, Lloydia serotina, is named after him and he may have been responsible for the earliest detailed description of a dinosaur’s tooth, the sauropod tooth Rutellum implicatum.

The work for which he is most famous however is the first volume of his Archaeologia Britannica: an Account of the Languages, Histories and Customs of Great Britain, from Travels through Wales, Cornwall, Bas-Bretagne, Ireland and Scotland, published in 1707. Lhuyd was already a noted scholar, his personal manuscript collection would ultimately include both the Book of Leinster and the Yellow Book of Lecan, and had earlier published a study of Early Modern Cornish (which has since died out as a spoken language). The Archaeologia is a significant source of information on the language but was also important as a pioneering work in the developing science of historical linguistics. Lhuyd was among the first to recognise the deep similarities between what he dubbed the Brythonic British) languages, (Breton, Cornish and Welsh) and the Goidelic (Gaelic) languages (Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic) and to identify both groups as “Celtic”, the name which they and their associated national groups still bear today. The division between P-(Brythonic) and Q-(Goidelic) identified by Lhuyd remains in use today although the origins of the two language families would remain in dispute for another three centuries, Lhuyd proposed that they had resulted from two separate migrations into the British Isles with Celts from Gaul (modern France) bringing the Brythonic languages and separate Celtic groups from the Iberian peninsula bringing the Goidelic tongues. It had been intended that the Archaeologia would merely be the first volume of a series that would also deal with the prehistoric monuments of Britain and Ireland but regrettably Lhuyd died before he could complete the work.

Lhuyd toured Ireland in the years 1699 and 1700 as part his research for what would ultimately become the Archaeologia Britannica and was the first antiquary to record the discovery of a passage and chamber under the large mound at Newgrange. In 1688 Charles Campbell, a Williamite settler, had become the owner of Newgrange and he had since put the overgrown mound to in use as a source of stones for fencing and roadwork. In 1699, workers gathering stones discovered the magnificent entrance stone. Subsequent digging revealed entrance passage and the inner chamber. Campbell, who appears to have been the second person to enter the chamber, reported the discovery and Lhuyd arrived shortly afterwards. There are some indications that the mound may have been opened on Lhuyd’s instructions; one of the lost Lhuyd notebooks is said to have indicated that he arranged the opening of the mound and there is a similar account in a letter from Peter Roberts to Charles Vallancey in 1808 indicating the same.

Sadly Lhuyd’s original notes were largely destroyed when eleven volumes of his papers were destroyed in a fire at a London bookbinder’s, but they can be reconstructed from contemporary letters that he sent to other scholars. Two published descriptions of the mound and passageway, as they stood in his time, have survived; the first written in a letter to Dr Tancred Robinson on 15 December 1699, which was later published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (vol. xxvii, 503-5) and the second written in Sligo in March 1700, to the Rev. Henry Rowlands who ultimately published it in his Mona Antiqua Restaurata, in 1723. While these descriptions are reasonably well known, two further pieces by Lhuyd had remained in manuscript form until the 1960s. One (today in the library of Trinity College, Dublin) was a scrivener's (legal copyist’s) copy of a letter written to Dr Thomas Molyneux of the Dublin Philosophical Society at “Balimony near Colrain” (Ballymoney, Co. Antrim) on 29 January 1700.

One of the most remarkable occurrences in our way hither from Dublin was a large Tumulus or Barrow at a village called New Grange within four miles of Drougheda. It has on the top a stone pitched on end, and others vastly large pitched round about it; at bottom within it is a cave, the entry whereof is guarded on each side with large rude stones standing on end, having sometimes barbarous sculpture on them not unlike the ruined monuments in Wormius's Monumenta Danica, and on the top of these are other stones laid across, but no letters at all. At the first entry these supporters are so pressed with ye weight of the hill and the top stones are so that they that go in must creep, but by degrees 'tis still higher till you go into the cave which may be about 6 or 7 yards in hight. Having entered the cave you have on each hand a cell or apartment and another straight forward. In the right hand cell there is on the ground a very large stone bason or cistern, and within that another with its brim oddly situated and some very clear water within it dropt from the roof of the cave, tho' but an artificial mount of stones. On the left hand there is a single bason with the same sort of brim, but we found no water in't. The floor of the cave is nothing but a smaller loose stones [sic] amongst which were found a great quantity of bones - stags horns and, as they said, a piece of an elkshorn, pieces of glass and some kinde of beads. Near the top of this mount they found a gold coin, which Mr. Campbell, the proprietor of this village, shew'd me, and 'tis a coin of the Emperor Valentinian.

However, notwithstanding this coin, I cannot think this mount a work of the Romans, in regard the carving of the stones is plainly barbarous and the whole contrivance too rude for so polite a people. I should have been very apt to conclude it Danish, but that the date of the coin is several centuarys older than their first coming into Ireland, which (as far as the Irish Annals informe us) was about the year 800. Thus, being neither Roman nor Danish, it remains it should be a place for sacrifice used by the old Irish, and Mr. Cormuck O'Neil told me they had a vulgar legend about some strange operation at that town in the time of heathenisme which I shall endeavour to get from him more particularly.

Lhuyd wrote a second letter to Molyneux on 7 May 1700 a copy of which is with the Molyneux papers in the T.C.D. Library. The contents are similar but Lhuyd also writes that:

Will Jones gives you his humble Respects and sends you a Draught of the Cave at New Grange.

Jones's plan survives, the earliest to show the interior and entrance passage. One slightly confusing element is the way in which it shows the orthostats lining the entrance passage as lying outwards from the base, this gives the vertical measurements (agreeing quite closely with more modern surveys) without requiring a series of elevation drawings. Molyneux would later describe s stone standing in the centre of the inner chamber but nothing similar is indicated on the plan. Also present are a drawing and note of an object 18 inches long by about 7m in width with a perforation at the broader end. Lhuyd indicates that he found this in the right hand recess, in the lower of the two stone basins. It has been proposed (the item itself has been lost) that it may have been a very large Breton-type stone axe, some of which are of a similar size

Molyneux would later refer to human remains discovered within the tomb itself but Lhuyd did not specifically refer to the presence of human bones only “bones of beasts,” “stags horns,” &c. This may have simply been greater caution on the part of the Welshman. Lhuyd was not present when the tomb was opened, although there are hints in much later correspondence that he may have requested the opening in the first place, and in an earlier letter he expressed caution about the contents of the tomb since “the Labourers differ'd in their account of them.” He is more forthcoming in the letter to Molyneux, referring to bones, the piece of deer-horn recorded as well as to “pieces of glass and some kinde of beads” but not to any human remains.

Lhuyd acknowledged that Newgrange did resemble Danish monuments as described by Olaus Wormius, a Danish Professor of Medicine who had published six volumes on Danish monuments in 1643 but his use of the Roman coins to date the monument as being pre-Viking and likely the work of the “old Irish” demonstrates his early grasp of the basic principles of scientific archaeology. Numismatics (the study of coins) had already begun to be used to date monuments in Britain and Lhuyd appears to have been the first to introduce the idea to the study of Irish monuments. He correctly noted that the Irish Annals did not record any Danish presence in Ireland at such an early date and, in his letter to Rowland, strengthened his objection to a Roman origin for the mound, pointing out that “We want [lack] History to prove that ever the Romans were at all in Ireland.” Regrettably his example would not be followed by the next generation of antiquarians. Molineux, Vallancey and Pownall would all claim that Newgrange had been built by non-Irish civilisations. Lhuyd does not go into further detail about the “vulgar legend about some strange operation at that town in the time of heathenisme which I shall endeavour to get from him more particularly” in his letters but did make further enquiries on the subject.

After visiting Newgrange, Lhuyd visited the Irish scholar Roderick O’Flaherty, who was living in relative poverty at Park between Spiddal and Furbo in Connemara, in 1700 and remained in contact with him for the rest of his life. He appears to have brought his notes on Newgrange with him and showed them to O’Flaherty who wrote to him on the subject several years later. On 12 March 1708 O’Flaherty wrote to Lhuyd that

… I found out the cave, whence one was expelled by Druid enchantments whereof you writ to me by the relation of one Mr O’Neill. The cave is Brugh na Boinne, which you saw, as I saw the description thereof with you: out of which Elcmar an Bhrogha turn’d out Aengus an Bhrogha by magick art: both of ‘em so surnam’d from Brugh naBoinne: where King Dagda the said Aengus’s father after 80 years reign gave up the ghost.

O’Flaherty (1629 – 1718 or 1716) was the last recognised Gaelic Lord of Iar Connacht (roughly modern Connemara) and Lord of the O'Flaherties, but had lost most of his estates in the Cromwellian confiscations of the 1650s and been cheated of the remainder by his son's father-in-law, Richard “Nimble Dick” Martin of Ross. In spite of his misfortune, Roderick remained a highly respected historian and authority on the Irish language with an extensive collection of Irish manuscripts. He published Ogygia, a history of Ireland based on the Irish language sources, and Iar Chonnacht, which remains one of the most valuable historical sources for the study of late medieval Connemara.

O’Flaherty seems to have been the first scholar to identify Newgrange with the Brú na Bóinne of the medieval Irish sources and while his version of the story seems to have differed slightly from the older version, he remains the first modern scholar to associate the mound with Aengus, Elcmar and the Dagda, all of whom appear to have been pre-Christian Gods associated with ancient monuments. Lhuyd’s early death and the loss of his notes marked a missed opportunity for scientific scholarship. He had already set the study of Celtic linguistics on a firm foundation and the scientific and critical nature of his research on Newgrange suggests that he might have done the same for the study of Irish monuments. Instead, Irish passage tombs and forts would continue to be attributed to the Danes and Phoenicians for another century and a half and it would be the 1830s and ‘40s before Petrie once again suggested that the Irish themselves might have built such an imposing monument and John O’Donovan once again made the connection between the mound at Newgrange and the ancient mansion of the old gods Aengus and the Dagda.