Up at 5.30am on Saturday, I walked bleary-eyed to the car and set out on for darkest Meath, on a mission to see the equinoctial sunrise at Loughcrew.
The streets of Dublin were deserted after the orgies of Culture Night. The road to Kells was quiet too. And it felt a bit mad to be out at such an early hour, for such an eccentric purpose.
But shortly after 7am, I turned up a narrow side-road near Oldcastle and found myself in a traffic jam. Suddenly, it was like the outskirts of Clones on Ulster Final Day. There were people parking everywhere, including the middle of the road.
So I threw the car into reverse while I still could, found a grass margin wide enough for a U-turn, and – from long experience of Clones – parked facing Dublin to ensure a quick getaway.
Then I made the rest of the ascent towards Cairn T – the 5,000-year-old megalithic tomb whose entrance is aligned with sunrise on the equinoxes – by foot.
At the top of the hill, where the world and its mother seemed to have gathered, it was less like an Ulster Final than the Electric Picnic, except there was no stage and people were making their own music.
That was mainly percussion – there were a lot of bodhráns – but there was at least one didgeridoo too and a range of vocalisations, from cheers to chants.
Everybody faced the eastern horizon where, somewhere over the Boyne Valley, the sun was attempting to break through low cloud. When it made visible progress at one point, there was a round of applause.
Several of the women present wore long cloaks, a bit like Enya circa 1988. By contrast, one blonde goddess was topless, but with a scarf strategically draped to cover her breasts.
Another woman, also cloaked, was conducting a formal ceremony, in Irish. She turned out to be Deirdre Wadding, a “Pagan Priestess” who runs a School of Irish Spirituality in Wexford, where similarly minded women can study for ordination.
The course is not for the faint-hearted, she told me. Students are introduced to such spirits as the Cailleach, the mythical woman said to have built the monuments at Loughcrew from stones carried in her apron.
For some, close encounters with the Cailleach are a life-changing experience. “She can really put you through the wringer,” warned Deirdre.
But there is no shortage of vocations in Irish paganism, clearly. I overheard a young American woman announce then and there that she had just “heard the call”. A few minutes later, she was sitting on the grass, facing the sun, with tears running down her face.
Also among the crowd was a tall, bearded man, wearing animal furs and leaning on a spear. He proved to be a king from Royal Meath; Tom King, to be exact, but also known as “An Gobha”, the Blacksmith, from his latter-day vocation.
Before the pandemic, Tom was a design engineer. Then “HR told me to stay at home for a while” and he used the opportunity to transform himself.
Now he operates a forge at Bohermeen, making Celtic craftwork in the old style but also offering visitors initiation in the art, so that they too can emulate the ancients.
One thing conspicuously missing from the hill at Loughcrew, at least compared with actual music festivals, was a catering van. You’d have made a small fortune selling coffee and breakfast rolls.
Luckily, my friend Sarah – a long-time member of the Meath “archeo-astronomy cult” – was in attendance too, and had brought a flask of tea, sponge cake with home-made plum jam filling, and even china cups.
“A Protestant would be proud of that,” I told her in genuine admiration, recommending she set up a stall for next year’s event.
The combination of a weekend equinox and good weather boosted the crowds this year, according to Rodney from the OPW, which had staff on duty as usual for several mornings around the date.
But for all the sun’s heroics, the show was let down slightly by the state of the cairn chamber itself, which remains closed to visitors and propped up by unsightly scaffolding, spoiling views and photographs.
Saturday was a long day. By nightfall, I could have done with some OPW scaffolding myself. Instead, I somehow propped myself up against the bar of O’Neill’s pub at 8pm for the other great event of the Autumn Equinox 2023.
At issue here was whether the Celtic light brigade could penetrate the inner darkness of the megalithic monument that is South Africa’s rugby team. They did too, eventually. But just as well for me, it was not the sort of game you could sleep through.