Every year on the morning of winter solstice a very special event takes place in Ireland. But you have to be very lucky to experience it. Very lucky indeed.
That’s when the winter sun hits the central chamber of Newgrange burial mound. It happens over a period of five days, when the sun is sufficiently low in the sky, and bright enough to penetrate the central chamber, between 9am and 920am.
Of course, the sun actually needs to be shining, which, mid-winter in Ireland, is rare. You also need to have won a lottery to be able to enter the tomb on the morning of winter solstice.
Only 50 names are chosen each year, each given two places in the chamber over the period of five days. This year over 33,000 people entered the lottery.
The ancient burial mound of Newgrange is older than both Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid of Giza – it was built around 3200 BC.
Most of what we know about the Neolithic farmers who built Newgrange, and the other nearby Burial mounds, we know from the work of archaeologist Michael J. O’Kelly who dedicated his life to the study of Newgrange and its reconstruction.
There has been a lot of speculation as to the purpose of Newgrange and the surrounding mounds. Whether they are simply tombs, or whether they were used for various religious and ceremonial purposes.
One thing we do know is that the Neolithic people that lived here 5000 years ago, studied the skies. Only five bodies have ever been found inside the mound, and there is evidence it was in use for at least 1000 years, so it seems unlikely it was just a tomb.
The sun held a central place in the religious beliefs of the Neolithic people that lived here 5000 years ago. Newgrange was positioned and constructed specifically to capture that moment of mid-winter: the first ray of sunshine after the longest night of the year.
Nearby Lowth captures the sunset on Winter Solstice, and similar alignments have been discovered at Knowth and Lough Crew.
When the winter sun hits the stones that line the passageway and chambers of the tomb, it casts a golden ray of light. It’s quite a religious moment.
Over 1000 people gathered around New Grange at sunrise this year. There was singing, merriment, beating drums, even a marriage proposal… but unfortunately no sun.
The sun made an appearance a day early for Solstice this year and then retreated behind grey clouds for the rest of the week. But it didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits.
It’s a pretty special place to celebrate Winter Solstice – having broken the back of northern hemisphere winter, spring is now on its way.
More information: Ireland.com