A winter’s tale: Newgrange and the winter solstice

It’s an ancient lightshow that has been taking place at the same time and date for over 5,000 years. It’s the winter solstice at Newgrange, and its discovery makes for quite a tale

Passage tomb at Newgrange provided by Pecold
Passage tomb at Newgrange provided by Pecold

Time to be brutally honest: Ireland isn’t known for its sunshine. “Tell me something I don’t know,” we hear you say.

But when the sun does come out in Ireland, we know how to make it count. Just look at Newgrange, the megalithic megastar of County Meath and the Boyne Valley, where a winter sunrise isn’t just a winter sunrise.

Described by one visiting journalist as “5,000-year-old Stone-Age engineering”, the passage tomb at Newgrange is not your typical resting place. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for one. It predates both the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt and Stonehenge in Britain.

As Professor M.J. O’Kelly and his wife Claire found out, it is also devoted to one of the most crucial celebrations from the pre-Christian world: the winter solstice.

Local tradition

The story of the O’Kellys’ groundbreaking discovery didn’t exactly begin with a bang. Rather, it started innocently as a local anecdote the two heard while they were excavating Newgrange in the late 1960s (work they oversaw for 14 summers).

The triple spiral stone in Newgrange’s inner chamber, so the locals said, was illuminated by the rising sun just once every year. But while many said it happened, no one had witnessed it. Until…

Let there be light!

21 December 1967: standing in the inner sanctum of the Newgrange passage tomb, Professor M.J. O’Kelly watched as a shaft of pale winter sunlight shone through the roof box over the main entrance, crept along the passage and bathed the chamber in a mystical golden glow.

It was the first winter solstice witnessed at Newgrange by anyone in over 5,000 years.

A family affair

Awareness of the solstice phenomenon at Newgrange has grown enormously since then and nowadays crowds gather outside Newgrange every year. The fortunate few who are allowed to go inside the burial chamber are chosen by lottery. People travel from all over the world to be there, if they are lucky enough to get one of the winning tickets.

Eve O’Kelly, daughter to the O'Kellys, has been one of the lucky ones.

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“It is a very special and spiritual experience,” says Eve. “Whether the sun shines or not, to be present at Newgrange at the winter solstice, to mark the turning of the year and the return of the sun in the same way that people did 5,000 years ago is remarkable."

“For thousands of years to come”

Unsurprisingly, as Eve attests, being present for such a dramatic slice of ancient theatre breeds renewed respect for our ancestors.

“It is quite awe-inspiring to think that our Irish ancestors knew so much about engineering and astronomy, and were able to build something which is still structurally sound, and where the sun will continue to shine in once a year for thousands of years to come.”

Like we said, Ireland may not get much sun, but when we do...

Newgrange Facts

Where: Donore, County Meath

GPS Coordinates: Latitude 53.694567 Longtitude -6.4463

Age: Approximately 5,000 years old

Enter the winter solstice lottery:The 2014 Winter Solstice Lottery will be chosen in September 2014. Find out how to enter here

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