On a peak, mid-winter – Frank McNally gets a new angle on the winter solstice at Newgrange

Sunlight on the solstice morning

The best place in Ireland to see the winter solstice, famously, is in the inner chamber at Newgrange. But for this December 21st at least, I plan to watch the sunrise from another ancient stone monument: the obelisk on Killiney Hill.

That one is not quite so old as the one in the Boyne Valley: 280 years rather than 5,000. It does, however, command some the finest views in eastern Ireland.

And among those, as local man Brendan Kilty has lately noticed, is the white quartz façade of the great neolithic burial mound at Newgrange, which reflects sunlight (when it shines) to onlookers all of 55km away in Killiney.

This is a return journey, of sorts, because as Kilty points out, the stone used in Newgrange was brought from the Wicklow Mountains, “of which Killiney is a foothill”.


Hence his idea to greet the solstice there on Wednesday and his hope, in time, to erect “an understated sculpture” on the spot, drawing visitors’ eyes and minds towards the World Heritage site 55km to the north.

Kilty will be best known to many as a hero of James Joyce conservationism, who saved not just Sweny’s Pharmacy but also No 15 Usher’s Island from possible extinction, before he had to sell the latter, whose fate is now again uncertain.

And whether sunlight co-operates on solstice morning, he has a back-up plan in the form of another Joycean scholar Des Gunning.

After a year of celebrating the Ulysses centenary (and more recently 1922′s other modernist masterpiece, TS Eliot’s the Wasteland, via an international Zoom group-reading on Monday), Gunning is spending Tuesday night in a campervan at Newgrange. Whence, at sunrise, he will dispense illumination towards Killiney, if only verbally, via mobile phone.


I was inside Newgrange only last week, as it happens, with a friend who hadn’t seen it before.

And although I knew from previous visits what to expect when the guide turned off the lights and then replicated electrically the effect of mid-winter sunrise, it was as awe-inspiring as ever to see the thin shaft of light creep up the passageway and across the chamber floor at our feet.

Imagine how Michael O’Kelly, the archaeologist who led the excavation felt when, at Christmas 1967, testing a theory, he drove from Cork to be in Newgrange at dawn and become the first person in modernity to witness the spectacle.

Unlike this December 21st, when there will be hundreds in or (as in most cases) outside the monument, he was “entirely alone” then. And theory or no theory, he found himself unprepared for what followed.

“I was literally astounded,” he recalled years later. “The light began as a thin pencil and widened to a band of about six inches. There was so much light reflected from the floor that I could walk around inside without a lamp and avoid bumping off the stones. It was so bright I could see the roof 20ft above me.

“I expected to hear a voice, or perhaps feel a cold hand resting on my shoulder, but there was silence. And then, after a few minutes, the shaft of light narrowed as the sun appeared to pass westward across the slit, and total darkness came once more.”

Some doubt has been cast in recent years as to whether the “light box” was really part of the original design, or an accidental effect of O’Kelly’s excavation. His restoration of the façade has been criticised too, partly because the white quartz wall makes it look disturbingly new.

But the quartz stones were re-erected from where they lay, post-collapse (as similar ones still in front of the even more impressive monument at Knowth). And as for the light box, I can only say that, standing in the chamber last week, while the virtual sun’s rays penetrated the darkness, I was a believer.

That said, another detail impressed me almost equally. As the guide confirmed, the roof of the central chamber, with its enormous overlapping stones, was unaffected by the restoration. It is presumed to stand today exactly as it did when first built. And designed to keep the bones of the illustrious dead dry, it has succeeded spectacularly. After 5,000 years in a country not renowned for insulation, it has never let in so much as a raindrop.


Still on darkness, light, and the honoured dead, I thank the several readers who have illuminated my ignorance on the origins of the late Jet Black, aka Brian Duffy, former drummer with the Stranglers.

I had wondered if he was one of the numerous Duffys of Co Monaghan, where most people of the surname live.

In fact, as I now know, his roots were near Ballaghaderreen, in Roscommon, home to another and very ancient branch of the clan.