Sun fails to enter Newgrange chamber but wonder endures

Hundreds gather to witness the solstice and celebrate ancient mid-winter gathering


From a vantage point across the valley, directly opposite the ancient late Stone Age monument of Newgrange, in Brú na Bóinne, Co Meath, the scene in the early-morning darkness at mid-winter was dramatic: lights and moving shapes, with a hint of backstage at a theatre minutes before curtain.

Even the optimists were conceding defeat. Trees that had been fiercely battered of late were merely swaying slightly in a strong breeze. The sky remained stubbornly overcast.

One lurked in hope, but the river Boyne, looking swollen and angry, having already flooded large areas of land on its south bank, was speeding along in flow.

Shortly after 7am the lights appeared to become brighter. It was still dark and the rain, which seemed heavy to me, was referred to as “very heavy” by my companion, but I believe in miracles. They have happened before on dark mornings that are suddenly transformed by gold splitting the heavens. The conditions were less than ideal, but the solstice sun has often played tricks. A road that had been under water only a couple of days ago was passable and with more than an hour before sunrise, anything was possible. The faint-hearted sighed bitterly, not me.

Grey light slowly took over from the mysterious black and if there appeared to be no clouds it was because the sky was shrouded in a formidable grey covering. Then the rain faltered, losing interest.

A fair-sized gathering of seasoned Newgrange watchers and new pilgrims waited in what a weather forecaster would describe as only mild precipitation. For a Monday morning in the days before Christmas the attendance was better than good.

Sharing in the increasingly kinder dampness was a lone Druid-like individual who, with his predominately green ensemble and its hint of part-elf, part-tree, seemed very cheerful. The event was less about glorious sunrises and all about the thrill of having reached mid-winter with Christmas only a few days away.

Star Wars

carry cot

Star Wars

“We have been here; we see it now. It is wonderful but we need to eat,” said the father, insisting that they would come again, “in the summer”. But the summer is not the winter solstice. There is nothing quite like the winter solstice

It was indeed touching to observe a delicate, stooped figure in a modest short jacket. He looked frozen and his face was so cold, it was indeed blue. Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works Simon Harris stood out largely because of his angelic Tiny Tim pallor and his city clothing. Casting agents in search of a David Copperfield could consider him.

Concept of time

The junior minister did not laugh, yet remained gracious. Apparently “water” in its wider implications is a difficult one for him, as he has had to deal with the flood damage. Several mothers present agreed it was wrong that the junior minister had not been given a suitable coat. Harsh words were uttered about Government funding, not only because Mr Harris, who does have a Victorian quality, clearly needed a sensible coat and because the little hut at the entrance to the World Heritage Site could do with some paint.

Prof George Eogan, still at work on the nearby site of Knowth, confirmed that his first winter solstice at Newgrange had been 1960. He had begun his excavations in the Boyne Valley at Townley Hall two years later, in 1962.

“But it’s not really that long ago” he said, serenely gazing towards the dull horizon. “Well not in human terms.” Archaeologists have a different concept of time.

Admittedly the sense of celebration was more muted than in other years, but people had gathered, as had the ancestors more than 5,000 years ago.

The minutes were racing; a drum beat could be heard. There is always that moment of magic when the beam of light seems to turn the world yellow. But it was not to happen, at least not on cue. One could imagine the gods being amused at the slight of mortals standing staring at the sky.

Inside the chamber, which has withstood everything the elements have thrown at it throughout the centuries, were the lucky winners of lottery tickets. Standing under the corbelled ceiling and watching down the passage way for the first trickle of light to penetrate the roof box is a reminder of man’s more remarkable achievements. An orderly line had formed outside the monument, but the problem with having to report on an event is that there is a need to mingle. On asking if I could go inside, the reply was, “No, there’s a queue”.

Place of celebration

Locals and visitors together converge at the ancient site, which remains exactly what it was probably originally intended for – a place of celebration.

In a glorious gesture of irony, after about 40 minutes of sunrise behind cloud cover, the sun came forth and a beautiful day followed. Best of all though, this year the shortest day of the year actually falls today, so the feeling of a special occasion has been extended and there could yet be a wonderful light show.