Vinny finds himself bathed in a special light on the longest day of the year
What he was doing in a darkened tomb at dawn was a mystery the ancient druids would have struggled to solve
The sun shines along the passage floor into the inner chamber at newgrange during the Winter Solstice at Newgrange. The passage tomb in Co Meath was built over 5000 years ago. Photograph: Alan Betson
Just what Vinny Fitzpatrick was doing in a darkened tomb at dawn dressed in a rather snug judo outfit was a mystery the ancient druids would have struggled to solve.
But there he was, several metres under the fertile soil of Meath, waiting for the first fingers of Saturday morning to shed light into one of Ireland’s earliest burial places.
It was cool, quiet and just a little scary, if Vinny was being honest. Not that he would let on, for that would be a sign of weakness. Instead, he shivered and waited for nature to flick the switch.
This was all the fault of Bungalow Bob, Vinny’s dozy brother-in-law, so called because he had nothing on top. The evening before, Bungalow, who was married to Vinny’s sister, Mary, had tossed in a googly by proposing a nocturnal meander while at a barbecue at their home in Bettystown.
“You’re staying overnight so why not seize the moment. It’s a chance that comes around only once a year, a bit like your visits to see us,” said Bungalow with the air of courage inspired by a second shandy.
Stung, Vinny had accepted the challenge, even though it meant four hours kip – half his usual ration – as Bob was keen to be in place, and gone, before any nosy day-trippers arrived. The tomb of Dowth wasn’t as well-known as Newgrange, but it held a secret which was known to only a few, including Bob whose passion was the ancient burial sites, specifically the ones on his doorstep.
Swearing Vinny to silence, he revealed how each midsummer morning, at daybreak, the sun’s rays lit up its chamber for a fleeting moment, so fleeting that it had been rarely seen.
Four bells“If this ever gets out, we’ll have the world and his mother queuing up every June 21st, trampling all over the place. We have it next door at Newgrange for the mid-winter solstice, and that’s enough,” he said.
At four bells on Saturday morning, Bob parked in Dowth Hall and beckoned Vinny to follow him up a grassy trail lit by his torch. Bob had insisted on wearing judo garb “for authenticity”. “Looking like this, we might deter any morning meddlers from getting too close.”
Even in the half-light, Vinny could make out the huge semi-circular burial mound of Dowth, which was bigger than Newgrange.
Bob worked his way around the cairn, which was dotted by stones, or kerbs as he called them. After a bit, he came to an opening and beckoned Vinny to follow him into the dark recess of the ancient catacomb.
Bent over, Vinny made his way down a narrow passageway. He felt slightly jiggy, like he did as a kid when his old man took him to see the mummies of St Michan’s in Church Street.
But he wouldn’t let on, not to Bob who had come to a halt with such a start that Vinny backed into him. “Call yourself a driver,” quipped Bob as he stood up and flashed the light around him. “This is the place, alright, the centre of the chamber, which is in line with the rising sun. By my reckoning, it’s 15 minutes to sunrise. It’s a clear morning, we just might be lucky.”
As Vinny blew into his hands for warmth, he suddenly heard a noise back towards the entrance, as something scraped against a stone. He felt Bob stiffen, and raise a finger to his lips. “Quick, in there,” said Bob, pointing Vinny to a small recess to one side of the chamber.
There was barely room for one, let alone two, but the middle-aged men squeezed in, hearts thumping.
The noise continued, and was soon identified as a hum. As it got nearer, it was a chant, in a language Vinny suspected was Latin.
Soon, the first intruder arrived, followed by a second, then another.
There were eight of them, Vinny counted, and they all wore white garbs, and had their heads cloaked under a cowl – it was as if Druid’s Glen had transferred from Wicklow to the banks of the Boyne.
The chants got louder and reached a crescendo before the first man into the tomb raised his hands, prompting silence. All Vinny could hear was his heart thump and then he heard something else, the alarm on his mobile phone. It was 4.40am, the time he got up for an early shift on the 130 bus.
“Who goes there?’ Identify yourself,” demanded the tall man, in an accent that carried a Anglo clip. Eight heads turned towards the alcove, from where Vinny and Bob emerged sheepishly. “How dare you desecrate the sacred chamber? And on this blessed morning, of all,” said the leader, voice rising in angst.
At that, Vinny tugged his cowl over his forehead, bowed his head, and coughed loudly. “Brother Druid,” he said in a clear, confident voice. “As you know, the best way to find wisdom is to seek its source. It is why we are all here.”
Certain flameThere was a silence, which Vinny took as his cue to continue. “If a nation’s treasure are its scholars, then we are all keepers of a certain flame, are we not? A flame that, if I’m not mistaken, is about to light all up our lives.”
The tall man nodded. “You are a wise man, and a welcome one. Stand with us, while we share the light. As for your friend, what has he to say?” he said, turning to Bob. At that, a ray of sunlight, like an x-ray, shot into the chamber. It landed on Vinny’s chest, prompting a sharp intake of breath by the gathering. “It is the moment,” said the leader. “And you have been chosen, brother,” he said touching Vinny on the shoulder.
It was 4.50am, on the morning of the year’s longest day. Sixty seconds later, the ancient cavity was bathed in an orange glow, which glinted off stones, highlighting age-old carvings. As the late arrivals hummed a tune that would have done justice to the Monks of Glenstal, Vinny felt a strange warmth course through his body. Beside him, Bungalow Bob was all a tremble. This was a morning the burly bus driver knew he would never forget, gan Dowth ar bith.