In Darkest Midwinter

Posted by The Skibbereen Eagle | December 22, 2019 0

Today is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. The day – this year on Sunday 22nd December – marks the shortest day of before the days slowly begin to draw out again.

It occurs because this is when the North Pole is tilted furthest away from the Sun – specifically -23.5 degrees outwards.  While the entire day is typically considered solstice, scientists can actually measure the precise moment it occurs. When the sun is directly over the line marking the Tropic of Capricorn – the latitude stretching across the southern hemisphere – solstice occurs. The 2019 December solstice takes place on Sunday, December 22, at 04:19 UTC. It marks the Northern Hemisphere’s shortest day (first day of winter) and Southern Hemisphere’s longest day (first day of summer).


Its breathtaking winter solstice illumination makes Newgrange a passage tomb of global significance. But did you know Ireland’s quintessential wow moment is 5,000 years old? If there is one place you should see above all others when in Ireland it is the amazing place called Newgrange, a UNESCO World Heritage site which is older than the pyramids of Egypt.

newgrange solstice

Winter Solstice at Newgrange 2015. December 18th to December 23rd inclusive, sunrise is at 8.58am. Access via the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre or directly to the actual Newgrange monument.

5000 years ago, before the Pyramids were built, at the solstice Celtic people gathered on the hillside at Newgrange, the passage grave built in a bend of the River Boyne in Co Meath. Why did they build this colossal monument and what did they expect from it? The people who built these wonderful monuments are a near total mystery. They are extremely elusive. There are tantalising clues about activity at the sites at the time they were built, but also for several centuries beforehand at locations such as Baltinglass Hill and Knowth. Yet there is no evidence of a large-scale community having lived near the tomb complex around Brú na Bóinne, the largest and, arguably, one of the most important megalithic sites in Europe.

newgrange2To ancient cultures this represented the turning of the year, the point after which the days lengthened and hope could be sustained of the rebirth of the land in spring and the fertility of summer and the bounty of the harvest to come. The Celts celebrated this as Meán Geimhridh – Mid-Winter. This special place is North West of Dublin and surrounded on three sides by the River Boyne and is known in Gaelic as Brú na Bóinne – the Bridge of the Boyne. Standing here at the tumulus of Newgrange you are surrounded by remnants of a time when ancient advanced races like the Tuatha de Danaan or the Formorians built masterpieces like Newgrange in the plains of Royal Meath, whilst the Celts were still only a twinkle in someone’s eye in central Europe.

Brú na Bóinne – the Bridge of the Boyne

Brú na Bóinne – the Bridge of the Boyne

Here you are surrounded by the evidence of pre-history for there is not just the massive tumulus of Newgrange but on the hills across cleft within the incised meander of the River Boyne at Knowth and Dowth there are only slightly smaller structures and over 40 other passage graves as well as stone and timber ceremonial circles (Henges) and two ceremonial ponds as an enduring and mysterious remnant of the pre-Celtic Neolithic people who lived here. The passage and chamber of Newgrange (Pre-Celtic or possibly Proto-Celtic 3,200 BC), a tomb in Ireland, are illuminated by the winter solstice sunrise. A shaft of sunlight shines through the roof box over the entrance and penetrates the passage to light up the chamber. The dramatic event lasts for 17 minutes at dawn from the 19th to the 23rd of December. Newgrange is unique because the builders aligned it with the rising sun. Just after sunrise, at 08.58GMT, on the shortest day of the year, the inner chamber is designed to flood with sunlight, which enters through a 25cm (9.9ins) high “roof box” above the passage entrance.

Entrance Stone at Newgrange

Entrance Stone at Newgrange

The solstice phenomenon was discovered by archaeologist, Professor Michael J O’Kelly on 21 December 1967 during research on the site. “He found the roof box when uncovering the roof chamber but wondered about its purpose,” says his daughter Helen Watanabe O’Kelly. Local people always said it was aligned to the sun but the measurements did not fit the summer solstice.

Professor Michael J O'Kelly

Professor Michael J O’Kelly

Professor O’Kelly excavated and restored Newgrange from 1962 to 1975. He discovered that the builders of Newgrange deliberately oriented the passage so that each year around midwinter, the rays of the rising sun would shine through a special aperture to illuminate the chamber. Professor O’Kelly was a respected teacher, writer and practicing archaeologist, he was Professor of Archaeology at University College Cork from 1946 until his untimely death in 1982. In December 1967, Michael O’Kelly drove from his home in Cork to Newgrange. Before the sun came up he was at the tomb, ready to test his theory. “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.” He was, however, quite unprepared for what followed. As the first rays of the sun appeared above the ridge on the far bank of the River Boyne, a bright shaft of orange light struck directly through the roofbox into the heart of the tomb. “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.” Since the discovery of the winter solstice alignment, Newgrange has been developed as a major tourist attraction with an interpretative centre and was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. The citation says;

“The three main prehistoric sites of the Brú na Bóinne Complex, Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, are situated on the north bank of the River Boyne 50 km north of Dublin. This is Europe’s largest and most important concentration of prehistoric megalithic art. The monuments there had social, economic, religious and funerary functions. The monuments of the Bend of the Boyne display longevity of settlement whose origins are found in Neolithic settlements. The various monuments, particularly the great passage tomb, represent important cultural, social, artistic and scientific developments over a considerable length of time. Nowhere else in the world is found the continuity of settlement and activity associated with a megalithic cemetery such as that which exists at Brú na Bóinne. The passage tomb complex represents a spectacular survival of the embodiment of a set of ideas and beliefs of outstanding historical significance in its counterparts throughout the rest of Europe.” 

Aerial view and eastern passageway at Knowth 

Aerial view and eastern passageway at Knowth

Newgrange, located 40km north of Dublin and perched high above a bend of the River Boyne, is a prehistoric passage tomb, covered on the outside by a large grassy mound. At over 5,000 years old it is the older cousin of Stonehenge and it predates the pyramids by about 500 years. It is difficult to estimate how long it would have taken to build it.”They were a very sophisticated society with a sound economic base as they were able to divert a large number of people to the building of passage tombs,” says archaeologist Professor George Eogan. “The ritual of the dead was very important in their lives and the site combines engineering, architectural and artistic skills.”

Clare Tuffy, the visitor centre’s manager who has worked at Newgrange since the early 1980s, keeps the guests outside for as long possible on the solstice morning. “ Even though the passage way and chamber are only 24m (78ft) long, once you enter you are cut off from the outside world and lose a sense of time passing. When the sun clears the horizon you can hear a big cheer from those gathered outside. We have to wait four minutes after sunrise to experience the light entering the chamber because the earth’s angle has changed since it was constructed 5,000 years ago. The light remains in the chamber for 17 minutes before retreating.” People are motivated to come by the symbolism of the light and dark and the turning of the year. Some have made it a tradition and come year after year. Druids also assemble outside, chanting and singing.

Winter Solstice Newgrange - the light coming through the lightbox over the door into the inner chamber

Winter Solstice Newgrange – the light coming through the lightbox over the door into the inner chamber


Passageway Dowth

Passageway Dowth

Nearby is Knowth which was built around 3300 BC and has two passages facing towards the east and west. The carved stones contain a quarter of Western European Neolithic art. An extensive excavation has revealed a wealth of information about the site. There are two passages at Dowth, which is about the same age as Newgrange and Knowth. One passage is aligned on Winter Solstice sunset, and the other probably aligned on the Moon. Dowth was excavated, albeit very badly, in the 1840s. A few miles away is the Hill of Tara was the ancient seat of the High Kings of Ireland. There are a multitude of remains on the hill, including a passage mound, the Mound of the Hostages, which dates to between 2500-3000 BC, and other earthworks and structures. Tara is aligned with the Hill of Slane, and Millmount in Drogheda. Slane is where St. Patrick lit the Paschal Fire in 433 AD before convincing Laoighre, High King of Ireland to allow him to preach Christianity to his people.

Hill of Tara - seat of The High Kings of Ireland

Hill of Tara – seat of The High Kings of Ireland

So the people here had a Druidic culture which predated the Celts and of which we know surprisingly little. They came over on the land-bridge from Scotland and migrated down the coastline. Ireland then was covered by a dense forest which harboured Bears and Giant Elk which they only gradually penetrated along the rivers. They came to the wide mouth of the Boyne and when they came to this naturally defensive and fertile area protected on three sides by a wide river they settled, farmed, traded, fished and developed their belief systems in a highly organised society which had advanced rituals and beliefs. Here they built large passage graves, the stones for Newgrange are not local but came from the Cooley Peninsular and the Wicklow mountains 30 and 70 miles away respectively, denoting a highly organised society which could devote resources to the funerary rites of its leaders. They are also sophisticated structures with circular ring of massive band stones to contain the weight of the structure and overlapping capstones to keep the interior dry.

Here also developed the myths which the Celts would take over and make their own, just as the Greeks took the Hittite Myths (Mythos – oral history) made them their own and embellished them. The saga of Táin Bó Cúailnge – The Cattle Raid of Cooley, pitting the warriors of Ulster, including Cuchulainn, against the warriors of Connacht. Cattle were their measure of wealth; indeed we get the English word “Chattel” meaning a movable asset from cattle. We get the tale of the Salmon of Wisdom and Fionn mac Cumhaill from the rich bounty of the river.

Reconstructed Hill Fort @ Craggaunowen, Co. Clare

Reconstructed Hill Fort @ Craggaunowen, Co. Clare

When the Iron-Age Celts came they found (and probably integrated with) a Bronze-Age people who were smaller and stockily built. In Gaelic they referred to them as small bodied “Luchrupán” which gives us the word leprechaun and the “crock of gold” stems from the passage graves filled with grave goods as does the folklore of leprechauns living underground. Here they lived, loved, farmed, fished and left behind numerous monuments but of these people, The Tuatha de Dannan, sometimes mis-translated as the “People of Magic” we know very little. They and the Celts left behind thousands of Ring Forts, circular stockades surrounded by moats which contained their dwellings and provided protection for their families and livestock. Often referred to as fairy forts they were never built on by subsequent inhabitants but were sometimes used as graveyards and they litter the landscape of Ireland to this day. They build similar protective enclosures “Crannógs” in the middle of lakes and waterways.

Reconstruction of a Crannóg

Reconstruction of a Crannóg

Here on this hill in Brú na Bóinne they gathered on each Winter Solstice in front of their huge structure of Newgrange aligned with the Sun at its lowest point in Winter to wait for its magical rays to penetrate into the chamber at the centre of this huge funerary structure which contained the remains of their Chieftains. And as the Sun’s rays revived and resurrected the Earth they believed that it would resurrect those interred in this huge tomb.

An ancient people in an ancient land.

Hill of Slane

Hill of Slane


A local historical site;

The second most important Neolithic remains and the oldest stone structure in Europe are on the Island of Malta

For more about Mid-Winter Festivals see “Bona Saturnalia”

See also; Newgrange – Archaeology, Art and Legend by Michael J. O’Kelly and Claire O’Kelly (Available on Amazon)

Brú na Bóinne Visitors Center Address: Donore, Co. Meath.

Telephone No: +353 41 988 0300. Fax No: +353 41 982 3071.


On the 21st December each year a beam of sunlight shines up the passageway to light the central chamber of Newgrange. 

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