The Origins of Newgrange
The placename Newgrange is thought to date from the 12th century AD. The Cistercians were the first continental order to come to Ireland and established an abbey at Mellifont on the river Mattock, a tributary of the Boyne. This order introduced an innovative scheme of land management which had previously been practised in France, the Low Countries and in England. The rules of the order stipulated that each abbey be self-sufficient and their estates, utilising lay brother labour were divided into directly worked farms called granges. These granges of nucleated farm buildings were in effect the economic entities designed to provide a surplus for the monks in residence. Therefore, Newgrange probably corresponds with the location of this medieval monastic farm. The co-located ancient passage tomb is named accordingly.
The Origins of Brú na Bóinne
This is an even more interesting history that features two of the most important historians of Britain and Ireland in the 17th century, Edward Lhuyd (pronounced Lloyd) and Roderick O’ Flaherty. The relationship between these two men was responsible for the current Gaelic/Irish assignation of Brú na Bóinne to Newgrange.
Lhuyd was the foremost historian of his day, the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and famous for his identification of the linguistic differences and similarities between what are now known as the Celtic languages - Gaelic (Irish), Manx, Scotch Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish and Breton. Upon Newgrange’s rediscovery in 1699, Lhuyd visited the site and then commenced a series of contacts with leading scholars of the time in an attempt to provide some historical and archaeological analysis of Newgrange’s origins. Some considered Newgrange Roman or even Danish in origin but it was the Lhuyd - O’ Flaherty correspondence that unlocked the famous tomb’s mythic and historical origins.
O’ Flaherty was a scholar of renown from Connemara who had lost much of his land during the Williamite War settlement. His most famous works are Ogygia (an influence on Robert Greaves, the author of The White Goddess and I Claudius) and Iar Chonnacht, an invaluable study of Connemara in the late medieval period. In 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.”
There is an earlier version which claims that Elcmar was turned out by Aengus but it does appear that O’ Flaherty is the first scholar to identify Newgrange with the Brú na Bóinne of the medieval Irish sources. Brú na Bóinne translates approximately to mansion or Palace of the Boyne and is now the collective name of the three great passage tombs in the Boyne Valley, Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth.