As is the case for many of us, this year’s holiday season will be a strange one for me. I won’t be able to go home to the US to see my family or have Christmas dinner with in-laws in Dublin or go to any of the usual holiday parties.
I was excited to see, however, that this year I will get to participate in a millennia-old December tradition that I’ve never been able to see before. Every year I enter into the lottery to spend a morning during the winter solstice in the chamber of Newgrange – a passage tomb in co. Meath dating to around 3300 BCE. I have never been successful, which is hardly surprising, since the chamber fits only 20 people or so and there were over 30,000 entries in the 2019 lottery.
This year the in-person event is cancelled, but the OPW (Office of Public Works) is planning to livestream from the chamber on the morning of the solstice on Monday 21st December: gov.ie – OPW announces closure of Newgrange for Winter Solstice Sunrise (www.gov.ie)
Provided there is sunshine that morning – never a sure thing in the Irish winter – light will travel through the roofbox (see below: the small opening above the entrance to the tomb), along the stone lined passage way into the interior of the tomb and illuminate the main chamber for about 17 minutes. The alignment of the rising sun and the roofbox only occurs at the solstice and a few days on either side of it. The astronomical and architectural sophistication of the tomb, almost 1000 years older than the pyramids at Giza, is remarkable and although I have visited and stood in the chamber several times, I’ve never seen it at the solstice when its purpose is fulfilled.
The first person to see this illumination in the modern period was archaeologist Michael O’Kelly in 1967. He returned to see it every year for the rest of his life and described it in 1969:
“Between the bright sky and the long glittering silver ribbon of the Boyne the land looks black and featureless. Great flocks of starlings are flying across the sky from their night time roosts to their day time feeding places. The effect is very dramatic as the direct light of the sun brightens and casts a glow of light all over the chamber. I can even see parts of the roof and a reflected light shines right back in to the back of the end chamber.”
(Professor Michael J. O’Kelly excavated and restored Newgrange)
I know that the livestream won’t be able to replicate the experience of physically being in the tomb itself, but I am grateful to have the chance to be part of this remarkable event this December. And maybe next year I’ll win the Newgrange lottery.
I hope everyone in HAPP, staff and students, has a safe and restorative holiday break with whatever new Covid-era holiday traditions you have planned.