Newgrange Tomb, burial place of our Neolithic ancestors, has been a place of pilgrimage for thousands of years. It is especially favoured at this time of the year, the darkest time of the year, as the tomb was designed to embrace the first rays of solstice sunlight as they reach over the Boyne Valley.
I trooped up there today with other pilgrims,to witness this ancient rite. Newgrange tomb, though vast on the outside, holds a narrow passage tomb. It was in this tomb that the ancients placed the cremated remains of their dead, some five thousand years ago. The entrance was built to align with the sun at the time of solstice, the ancients having calculated that the rays would reach through the roofbox above the tomb entrance, and illuminate the inner chamber.
Perhaps they believed the sun imparted a certain magic as it progressed around the inner chamber. And, indeed, perhaps it did. The real magic for me, however, lies in the engineering skills and craftsmanship of our ancestors. And also on how heavily invested they were in a spiritual aspect to life. It is reckoned, after all that it took three generations to construct the tomb – a major investment for a subsistence economy.
Around three hundred people gathered together to bear witness to the rising sun at Newgrange today. Also known as Brú na Boinne, the Palace of the Boyne, it`s façade is sheeted in white quartz stone and so is visible for miles around. It was here the crowd assembled in the sodden gloom of a wet winter`s morning and in the hope clearer skies.
There is always a lightness about the Newgrange assembly. Laughter, and chat abounds as tourists pose for photographs in front of the entrance, and regular visitors hug each other warmly to cries of “Happy Solstice”.
A lone runner laps the mound several times in some personal ritual, while a trio of young people face east and close their eyes in solemn meditation.
Soon, merry troupes of travellers are decanted from buses, bearing bodhráns, an animal horn and flags. The buttery smear in the horizon has pushed its way upward now, as clouds transmute from warm cream to lighter pinks and purply blues. Arms reach out to form two circles and, as the bodhráns sound out, the circle grows.
Then, all eyes scan the horizon and wait for the first glimpse of the rising sun.
Our ancient ancestors farmed the rich land of the Boyne. They also hunted among its forests and fields and fished its streams and rivers. They knew all of this wealth depended on the sun. As the earth moves further from the sun, it appeared to them that the sun itself might disappear altogether over the horizon, taking with it, its gifts of heat and light.
The crowd is silent as we wait. Clouds drift over a waning moon, as the skies brighten. Then, suddenly, the first rays pierce the horizon. The frantic beating of bodhráns and the eerie sound of a horn welcome the bright light. Many embrace, others applaud, and a sense of delight and relief filters through the crowd.
This is the season of endings and beginings, of hope and renewal, of the triumph of light over darkness. Today, in Newgrange,we witnessed the end of darker days,the start of a new year, and moving forward with optimism, hope and joy.
And that`s enough magic for me.
Happy Solstice everyone!