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The Winter Solstice & Newgrange

Newgrange, one of Ireland’s mystical sites is 5,200 years old and predates the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, the Mycenaean culture of ancient Greece and Stonehenge in Britain.  Located west of Drogheda in County Meath, it is part of a complex of monuments built along a bend of the River Boyne known collectively as Brú na Bóinne.  It is roughly circular in plan and contains an east-facing passageway, 19m long, which leads into a central chamber that contains three small rooms.

The tomb is a massive structure measuring 76m in diameter by 12m in height and it contains over 200,000 tons of earth and stone.  It was a monumental feat of engineering in a time pre-dating metal tools and it must have taken years to complete.  Rock art covers the interior stones as well as the kerbstones along the exterior, with the entry stone being particularly stunning.  The top surface of the passage-roof stones is grooved, to redirect water seepage from the cairn which has kept the passage water-proof.  Newgrange is considered a passage tomb as excavations uncovered the bones of five people. 

It is amazing to think that our Irish ancestors knew so much about engineering and astronomy that they were able to build Newgrange that was so structurally sound it lasted 5,200 years.  However, it’s not it’s impressive structure or the beautiful artwork that is carved into the stones that make Newgrange so famous, instead it’s the connection it has with the winter solstice.

As you enter the Newgrange passageway there is a natural slope which rises gradually as you walk through to the interior burial chamber.  Because of this rise, no light can reach the interior of the tomb and it’s usually in complete darkness for most of the year.  However, during the winter solstice from December 18th through December 23rd, the sun rises from the east and a single beam of sunlight creeps slowly up along the tomb’s passageway until it reaches the dark confines of the burial chamber. The darkness is broken and the inner and most sacred confines of this ancient tomb are, for short time, illuminated.

In order for this to happen an opening called a roof-box was cut above the opening of the passageway.  The whole structure was created around this single beam of light, a yearly event which was one of the most crucial celebrations from the pre-Christian world.  The winter solstice marked the end of the old year and the beginning of the new.  To experience the lighting of the interior chamber on the days of the winter solstice visitors must enter an annual lottery.  In 2015 alone there were 30,475 applications and only 50 were chosen which each winner bringing one guest.  They are split into groups of ten and taken in on the five days of the solstice.  

According to ancient mythology, the Tuatha Dé Danann who ruled Ireland were said to have built Newgrange as a burial place for their chief, Dagda Mór, and his three sons. One of his sons, named Aonghus, is often referred to as Aonghus of the Brugh.  It is believed that he was owner of the Brugh land and that a smaller mound between Newgrange and the Boyne was owned by the Dagda.  Today we can only speculate on why the builders of Newgrange did what they did but we can experience the mystical wonder of their creation.



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