Winter Solstice Report – Newgrange, December 21st 2013

Winter Solstice sunrise shines through the roofbox above the door of Newgrange and along the passage floor

Winter Solstice sunrise shines through the roofbox above the door of Newgrange and along the passage floor

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There’s a really special atmosphere at Newgrange on a sunny winter solstice morning, especially so this year since there hadn’t been a clear sunrise here on the 21st of December since 2007. This morning was surely one of the most memorable and welcome sunrises in recent years. Most of the people who had made their way to the ancient passage tomb had come prepared for the worst, it seemed unlikely that the thick cloud and driving rain would ever clear. As dawn approached, however, a clearing to the south west began to spread east, sweeping the horizon ever closer to the point on the opposite ridge where the sun was soon to appear.

The sun finally breaks over the low cloud and lights up the river valley

The sun finally breaks over the low cloud and lights up the river valley

The moment of sunrise passed, a stubborn bank of cloud sat just where the disc of the sun rises above Red Moutain. Within 15 minutes or so the window within which the sunrise can reach the chamber down the long passage would pass and the chamber would remain in darkness. The drumming and chanting from the crowd grew louder and louder, then all of a sudden a dazzling burst of light reached across the river valley, turning the white quartz facade of the 5,000 year old passage tomb a glorious golden orange. Accompanied by a loud cheer, the sun finally stretched across the floor of the chamber within the tomb, much to the delight of the lucky children and adults who had won places to witness the event inside the chamber.

Sunlight bursts through the specially designed roofbox constructed to admit light to reach deep inside the tomb

Sunlight bursts through the specially designed roofbox constructed to admit light to reach deep inside the tomb

The great passage tomb at Newgrange is over 5,000 years old, built in the Neolithic or ‘late stone age’ by local farming communities. For much of that time it had stood in ruin, its passage compressed inwards by the sheer weight of the mound and the ingenious ‘lightbox’ above the door filled in with rubble. It was during the excavations and conservation of the monument from the 1960’s through to the early 1980’s that the secret of its astronomical function was revealed. The phenomenon was first witnessed by the excavator, Prof. Michael O’Kelly of University College Cork, at midwinter of 1967, he described it thus:

‘I was there entirely alone. Not a soul stood even on the road below. When I came into the tomb I knew there was a possibility of seeing the sunrise because the sky had been clear during the morning.’

‘I was literally astounded. The light began as a thin pencil and widened to a band of about 6 in. 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.’

Gathering outside the monument has become a yearly tradition and it’s always great to old faces and new, catch up with the year’s events and look forward to the Christmas holidays and New Year ahead. The staff from the Office of Public Works deserve huge credit for the warm atmosphere and smooth running of the event each year, alongside all the other organisations and volunteers who help keep the event a family friendly affair. It’s great to see the smiling faces of the children emerging from the passage after witnessing something they may remember for the rest of their lives. Having seen their wonderful art hanging in the visitor centre, it was surely a very well deserved prize! Congrats to all the winners of the school art competitions and well done to everyone who took part.