Clouds spoil the solstice show for Ahern

 

Heavy mist rises up from the Boyne, shrouding the great mound of Newgrange. In the eerie gloom of the year's shortest day, a collection of large shapes stands in a circle before the entrance. Some are indeed stones, others turn out to be humans. Yesterday, as ever on solstice day, there was an atmosphere of expectation, the hope of life returning as winter begins its slow decline.

Anxious glances at an austerely grey sky, which seems determined not to allow the rising sun to penetrate it and so facilitate one of civilisation's most enduring and sophisticated mysteries.

At exactly two minutes to nine on a clear morning, the first shaft of direct sunlight should enter - and often does - the roof-box, moving along the passage illuminating the tomb chamber floor, eventually reaching the edge of the ceremonial basin-stone at the rear of the chamber.

The group waiting inside is willing the skies to clear. Nothing happens. A trace of weak daylight leaves a ghostly trail behind it. Watchers are left to imagine the subtle glories of natural sunlight if only it were to begin its procession.

The communal silence is broken by a male voice announcing matter-of-factly, "Well, it's all up to you now, Bertie." The Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, accompanied by his partner, Ms Celia Larkin, maintains a thoughtful silence.

Neither political power nor the archaeological expertise of Prof George Eogan can tempt the sun to perform. Ms Clare Tuffy, manager of the Boyne Valley Visitors' Centre, provides a lively substitute.

History, science, myth and archaeology are central to the story she tells. Above all is the prevailing genius of these ancient tomb builders who honoured their dead so magnificently.

Thirty years have passed since the modern generation led by Michael J. O'Kelly, author of Newgrange - Archaeology, art and legend, first stood in the chamber in 1967 to record what is a most deliberate scientific achievement. Since then, Prof Eogan, the leading authority on the archaeology of the Boyne Valley, has been present most years.

"It's an inspiring event. It gives such an insight into these extraordinary people, so skilled and so sophisticated." Prof Eogan remarks of modern Ireland's current place in Europe: "It's sometimes considered a peripheral area - well, peripheries come and go. But at the time of the building of this passage tomb complex 5,000 years ago, Ireland was at the core of a great Neolithic cultural zone stretching from the south of Spain to the Shetland Islands."

Despite the anatomical evidence suggesting these people died young, or at least those whose ritually cremated remains were left here died young, Prof Eogan says: "How could they die so young and have achieved such levels of knowledge? It would have to be presumed they had much longer lives." The Taoiseach agrees: "They couldn't have known all this, created something like this and die so young."

Light or not, he is delighted to have stood in the chamber on solstice day, admiring the spectacular corbelled ceiling, which has never leaked.

"I've been here before, but never on this day." How interested is he in archaeology? "I got involved when I was Minister for Finance," he said. "My father was very interested in monuments, but mainly republican ones."

The group waits until 9.15. Still no light. Bertie Ahern is ushered off across the river, to the Bru na Boinne Vistors' Centre, where he is presented with a copy of O'Kelly's text. Clutching his new archaeology book, he set off for the Newcastle-Manchester United clash and a meeting with Blair.