Walking up the mound of Newgrange, we’re treading in our ancestors’ footsteps. There’s a low rhythmic beat coming from a drumming circle.
The leader speaks: “We’re hoping for sunlight, wherever it is. We remember those who came before us and we’re thinking of those who will come after us.” He talks about those needing healing and invites people into the circle.
As the time inches towards 8.58am, which is dawn on winter solstice, at Newgrange in the Boyne Valley, a few hundred people gather to witness something bigger than themselves.
Drummers, archaeologists, harpists, children, pagans and wolfhounds arrive; the committed and the curious. It’s a black night but unseasonably mild. Some wear cloaks or garlands of ivy in their hair, but most are in sturdy boots and warm hats.
A lone Garda stands at the entrance, smiling. There’s an air of expectation. Hope may be triumphing realism.
It’s still overcast and misty as the night turns gradually to light after 8.30am. Drummers sing and gently beat bodhráns, then dance in a circle.
At 8.54am a man starts to play a horn.
We wait, to see if the low winter sun will pierce the clouds to penetrate the roof-box of the 5,200 year old Neolithic passage tomb, and travel the 19 metre passage, illuminating the chamber within.
The forecast was cloudy, but at the right moment it might break, as ancient gods smile on the 21st century people gathered again to witness something magical on the shortest day of the year.
What sort of ceremony would our forebears have had five millennia ago, when the weak light of the solstice sunrise flooded the inner chamber housing their own ancestors’ remains?
It’s a very special morning, but the sun doesn’t break the clouds. Danny Ahern, drumming with a deerskin shamani drum, shrugs: “what we have is what we have”.
JP Fay comes to Newgrange every year. He’s here with his friends Brian Bruton and Sean Gilmartin, and they’ll head to Dowth at about 3pm, for the solstice at sunset. “Then we’ll go to the pub for tea and sandwiches later.”
They’re regulars here, and at Lough Crew and Tara and the Hill of Uisneach. “I wouldn’t call myself a pagan. I don’t like the word. We worship what’s left of the Irish religion.” He recognises faces each year. “We notice if there’s anyone missing or did anyone die.”
He spots someone arriving - “there’s the Donegal harpist. He’s a beautiful singer”.
Monica Shannon comes often. “An instinct in me pulls me here. It has a resonance.” Her friend Susan Hickey is imagining what it was like 5,000 years ago, watching, waiting on the sun.
To be here in this site of ritual, at solstice dawn, is to be humbled. It marks the beginning of the end of winter, the power of the sun, and rebirth.
It is 50 years since archaeologist Dr Michael J O’Kelly, who excavated and restored Newgrange in the 1960s, discovered this ancient engineering and astrological alignment. On December 21st, 1967, O’Kelly was possibly the first person in thousands of years to witness what the neolithic builders created.
Here today, hundreds gather at the perimeter, waiting. All week long they have come as the solstice drew close, but only a lucky few get inside the chamber for 17 minutes of sunrise. They are chosen by lottery; this year there were 32,522 applications for 60 places, won by people from France, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, the UK, USA and Ireland.
Alan Rogers from Kent was a first time lottery applicant, and he and his wife Sue say it was beautiful to be inside, though the sun didn’t break through the lightbox.
Another lottery winner, Noran Lehane from Cork, was moved. “I am 50 this year. It’s my lucky year. Inside the chamber we could hear the drumbeats from outside. It felt like the heart of the world, on the horizon where heaven meets earth. The drums were like the heartbeat of the earth.”
Her guest Maria English Hayden from Carlow says: “It makes you realise everything is connected, and there’s so much we don’t know and so much to learn from.”
Kelly Hamilton from Arizona is wearing an ivy garland. There’s no sun. “But it’s still the day.” Paddy Phillips from Crossguns in Meath comes every year. It reminds him “it’s great to be alive”.
And that encapsulates this special morning in a place of rebirth.