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Solstice pilgrims hail greatest show in living memory

Last-minute appearance by sun at Newgrange proves masterful

Newgrange Alan Betson

The sun shines along the passage floor into the inner chamber at Newgrange during the 2013 winter solstice at Newgrange. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

“Oh ye of little faith” has seldom seemed more apt than it did at the famous Newgrange, Brú na Bóinne, complex in Co Meath at the weekend.

In the annals of solstice-watching, this was the director’s cut, with the ever-changing weather more than matching the contrasting human emotions. These ranged from philosophical to anxious to – if only for a nerve-wracking opening act – momentarily disappointed.

All eyes were fixed on the horizon on Saturday morning and, after a grim beginning of wind and rain, even veteran solstice pilgrims were in agreement that it was one of the finest – no, the most spectacular – sunrise in living memory.

Most spectacular because it was so hard won. Schoolchildren there were transfixed. A generation raised on digitally enhanced images agreed they had never seen anything so “amazing”, “cool”, “mental”, “class” or indeed “deadly”.

Youthful faces became even younger. Santa Claus had been upstaged. The ancient tomb builders of the late Stone Age and nature had again collaborated in creating a miracle best described, to borrow Seamus Heaney’s phrase, as being “out of the marvellous.”

And marvellous it was. The sheer defiance displayed by the sun on Saturday morning and again yesterday, raised the word “heroic” to new levels of meaning. This was the sun at its most masterful. Despite the harsh weather on Friday night and Saturday morning, the loyal and the sceptical, the experienced and the newcomer, all trudged to Newgrange in the dark and into a sly, icy wind sufficiently vicious to fell an army.

Saturday morning had arrived, black night yielding to black pre-dawn. It was raining and the windy was howling, freezing, yet without the hard, cold frost conditions that usually guarantee a solstice light show.

At 8am on Saturday morning the sky was black. The more stout-hearted were already comforting the weaker-spirited, particularly as Friday’s sunrise in a clear sky had been beautiful. The main thing, reasoned a father whose teenage daughter was complaining about being dragged out of the house on a Saturday morning to see nothing, was that “this is the beginning of the end of winter”.

The girl disappeared further inside her hat, which was made in the shape of a smiling bear’s face complete with ear flaps. She seemed unconvinced on hearing that she was involved in a great ritual. The father looked helpless. “Happy solstice, happy solstice,” neighbours said to each other. Someone was beating a bodhrán.

A small figure held a banner bearing the image of the tri-spiral carved on the side wall inside the main ceremonial chamber at the back of the monument.

At that moment those gathered inside the tomb, standing beneath the corbelled ceiling, had their backs to that tri-spiral yet its immense significance is both symbolic and mysterious. An awareness of it helped to connect those of us outside with the watchers within.

It was cold, it was dark. You wait in silence, aware of the spirits, the ancients who understood science and nature and above all honoured their dead by building the mighty Neolithic monument. Standing there on a dark morning at midwinter is to share a vigil and feel close to our departed.

I thought of life celebrants such as the late Caroline Walsh and Dennis O’Driscoll, both of whom died at midwinter, at Christmas, and of Seamus Heaney who, better than anyone, would have articulated the symbolism.

People began to smile in disappointed fellowship, agreeing that at least they were there.

We needed a miracle and we got it. Our enemy the wind had dramatically changed sides and chased the clouds away, across the heavens which moved from purple to golden yellow in less than a blink. Suddenly, as if a majestic light switch had been found, there was a communal gasp. Bright rays transformed the scene; even the muddy grass appeared greener.

It was wonderful and surreal. Three women holding hands made a small circle and began to cry. The wind dropped. A gathering of perhaps 200 became triumphant and all because the midwinter sun was rising ever higher in the sky.

Archaeologist George Eogan, an international authority on Brú na Bóinne, who has spent more than 50 years researching the neighbouring complex of Knowth, stood outside looking at the spectacle and agreed that, regardless of how many solstice sunrises one witnesses, it is always strange, exciting, inspirational. In previous years he had always been inside the chamber on solstice morning, but since last year he has been outside.

He looked astonished and spoke of the uniqueness of the entire Boyne Valley. Prof Eogan’s pleasure was shared by a man as big as a refrigerator who stood proudly with a mobile phone that looked quite tiny in his huge hand. “Look at this,” he announced. “Look at this. What a picture.”

Yesterday morning it happened again. At 6.15am a full Shakespearean storm was raging. Black at 8am, the sky gradually lightened to dull grey. But shortly before 9am the sun emerged. Ten minutes later it was gone, but it had already made a dramatic point; daylight is preparing its return.