A dim ray is poor consolation


REWARD offered for a sun. Must be bright, reliable and punctual, and positioned not less than 93 million miles away. Apply to Prof George Eogan, University College Dublin.

Well, the Meath archaeologist was the self confessed culprit when we were looking for someone to blame.

Huddling in the dank 5,000 year old chamber at Newgrange, Co Meath, early on Saturday morning, we waited for the winter sun. And waited. And it was only seconds before the appointed two minutes to nine o'clock that Prof Eogan admitted he rarely, if ever, had any luck with the solstice in the passage tomb.

In fact, for the first five winters' that the Meath archaeologist made his pilgrimage, the skies over the river Boyne were clouded. It became something of a joke, he said. "I began to tell people that I thought this Newgrange theory was nonsense anyway." Then, in 1984, he was in the company of a Greek academic when the sun ray hit the back of the chamber. "It was marvellous for him, and wonderful for me.

There were others who could have been held responsible this year. The Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, Mr Higgins, for instance, who has just taken over management of the annual event from the Office of Public Works (OPW). He wasn't present, but his programme manager, Mr Kevin O'Driscoll, was standing close to another potential target, the Minister for Social Welfare, Mr De Rossa.

Whatever about the VIPs and press, it could have been a shattering experience for those who had waited years for the invitation.

Jimmy and Bridie Devin of Navan had put their names down in 1987. They were not disappointed, however. "We knew this place before it was done up for the public, when there were trees growing out of it," Mr Devin said. He remembered the former custodian, Mrs Anne Hickey, who lived close by. "Like a little fairy herself, she was."

Mrs Hickey's successor, Ms Clare Tuffy was our comfort counsellor. "It's the best we've had this week," she said of the ill defined ray of light, which normally aligns itself with the passage chamber entrance for six days in December.

She spoke of a tradition dating back five millennia, and of there being at least one successful day in six. It is a mere 30 years since Prof Michael J. O'Kelly, the UCC archaeologist, discovered that Newgrange was an astronomical clock, recording the midday sun at its lowest altitude.

Outside, a hum from the "plebs" who were not on Mr Tuffy's list. "What news?" they asked anxiously when we filed out, as if we were druids emerging with important information. In fact, their experience was far better. The sun was out over the salmon river, casting a golden light over the rolling Meath plains.

At 9.20 a.m., before we left, Ms Tuffy gave a demonstration of the simulated "laser light show". As she flicked a switch, there was a furious clicking, a whine of film. Don't believe anyone who tells you the camera doesn't lie ...