Sliver of sunlight breaks through to Newgrange burial chamber on overcast winter solstice morning

Hundreds of people, including drummers and dancers, gather at Co Meath neolithic passage tomb at sunrise

Shortly after 9.15am, the sun finally came out from behind the clouds to cheers and drumbeats, as if it was willed by the hundreds of people gathered at Newgrange to mark the winter solstice.

Alan O’Neill, a schoolteacher from Santry, was one of a handful of people selected at random to stand inside the burial chamber of the 5,000-year-old neolithic passage tomb in Co Meath on solstice morning.

“We’ll never forget that,” he said. “We got a sliver of light, it came through. That’s all we wanted.”

Ahead of a scheduled sunrise of 8.38am, an overcast and drizzly outlook for the Boyne Valley cast doubt over whether sunlight would shine through the monument’s ‘roof box’, above the entrance to the tomb, and along the 19-metre-long passage and into the burial chamber.


The ancient feat of engineering – Stone Age settlers in the Boyne Valley aligned the tomb with the rising sun of the winter solstice – has inspired intrigue for decades, after the site was excavated and reconstructed by Prof Michael J O’Kelly in the 1960s.

Juan Fajardo, from Chile, was also inside the chamber on Thursday morning. “For me, it was very special to be here, in another part of the world, with another kind of energy in this place. This place, it’s full of energy,” he said, standing in front of the monument’s striking quartz facade.

Mr Fajardo sang a traditional Chilean folk song inside the chamber. “The rest of us then, we followed in Irish, and we sang Oró, Sé Do Bheatha ‘Bhaile,” said Caitriona Mullins, a Kildare native who accompanied Mr Fajardo inside.

In the lead-up to sunrise, many gathered in anticipation, looking down to the River Boyne and the horizon beyond it. As the sun was rising, Kath Kearns joined a large circle of people in front of the monument, joining hands in celebration.

“I’m not religious, so Christmas isn’t really a time for me,” said Ms Kearns, a native of the Isle of Man, who is living in Termonfeckin, Co Louth. “This probably is more meaningful.”

Ms Kearns was holding hands with Laedidiia Yatsenko, a Ukranian refugee on her first visit to Newgrange. She was hoping to see the inside of the chamber, she said.

Niamh Dennis, from Clontarf, was holding a cake close to the entrance to the burial tomb, as her sister Aislinn and some friends sang Happy Birthday.

Ms Dennis and her friends come to Newgrange to mark the end of one year and the start of a new one. “It’s like the new year for us. It’s a great time to reset, and connect. It’s the first day of Christmas, really, as well – we love it, it’s like a tradition now,” she said.

Close by, Denice Sharlott and Ger Moane took a break from drumming to chat, wishing each other a happy solstice.

“It’s nice coming along as well, to think that people have been coming here for literally thousands of years. Our ancestors came here, probably in the same way, waiting for the rising sun, to dance and drum,” said Dr Moane, a psychologist from Drimnagh in Dublin.

As those gathered at the site coaxed the sun with song and dance, Dean Stapleton, from Finglas, blew on a copper longhorn, punctuating the festive atmosphere with a low drone.

He comes to Newgrange every winter solstice, he said. “Just to keep our culture alive. Put feet on the ground, and celebrate, make some music. It’s a part of our heritage.”

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Fiachra Gallagher

Fiachra Gallagher

Fiachra Gallagher is an Irish Times journalist