Winter Solstice at Newgrange, Ireland

5,000 years ago, an extraordinary people lived in Ireland. They were farmers, hunters and builders. Without the benefit of the wheel, and with tools made only of flint, they carved their culture into history. Along the banks of the River Boyne, they built houses to their dead, repositories to their spirit – monuments to immortality.

Brú na Boinne: Monument to Immortality


Newgrange – exterior (image courtesy

I don’t spend all my time involved in directing education programmes for capability management.

No, no, no.

Among my more arcane, but nevertheless very satisfying interests is in the culture of the Neolithic (New Stone Age), and particularly the culture of the Beaker People of Western Europe. An event central to the lives of the people of this culture in Ireland (which resonates with us today) occurs today, 21st December on the Winter Solstice in the northern hemisphere.

At ten minutes to nine on the morning of the shortest day of the year, a pale and weak sun slowly rises above a ridge in the Boyne River valley in County Meath, Ireland. As the sun’s rays penetrate the dawn mist, a solitary building sits atop it hill… waiting.

Waiting as it has every year for over fifty centuries to shine once again as a beacon to the spirit Of Man – a place where people forever bound to the earth can, however briefly, capture the Fire of the Sun and touch the sky.

Newgrange is best known for the illumination of its passage and chamber by the winter solstice sun. Above the entrance to the passage at Newgrange there is a special opening called a roof-box. Its purpose is to allow sunlight to penetrate the chamber on the shortest days of the year, around December 21, the Winter Solstice.


Light Enters the Tomb at Newgrange (image courtesy Irish Times)

At dawn, from 19th to 23rd December every year, a narrow beam of light penetrates the roof-box and reaches the floor of the chamber, gradually extending to the rear of the passage. As the sun rises above the horizon, the single light-beam widens within the chamber so that the whole room becomes dramatically illuminated. This event lasts for 17 minutes, beginning around 9am.

Newgrange’s accuracy as a time-telling device is all the more remarkable when you consider that it was built 500 years before the Great Pyramids in Giza, and more than 1,000 years before Stonehenge. The interior of the tumulus consists of a long passage leading to a cross-shaped chamber. This burial chamber has a corbelled roof which rises steeply to a high-point of close to twenty feet above the floor surface. The recesses in the chambers contain large stone basins which would have held the cremated remains of those being deposited in the tomb. During excavation of the tomb, the remains of five people were found.Newgrange Entrance Stone

At the entrance to Newgrange (see image right) stands the highly-decorated Entrance Stone.

The carvings on the stone  include a triskele or triple-spiral motif which is found only at Newgrange. This motif is repeated along the passage into the tomb, and is carved into the rock again inside the burial chambers of the tumulus.

Despite much speculation, we still do not – and probably never will – know the meaning of these carvings, but I think that we can say that on some level, they indicate a perception of the divine on the part of the tomb builders. In Ireland, Newgrange (and the other monuments of the Boyne valley ritual landscape) represents a thread to our culture that leads us back to our ancestors, the very first farmers and settlers on the land. If you are part of the Irish diaspora, it’s part of your heritage too. Beyond this little island of Ireland, it represents the richness and depth and quality of human knowledge, and ability, and capacity to wonder, and achievement.

In 2007 and 2008, the event was streamed live over the web; sadly budget cuts by the Irish government mean that the  solstice has not been streamed since 2009. However, you may get a sense of the occasion by viewing archive footage of the the absolutely spectacular 2007 event here, and the 2008 event here (both in Windows Media format).

For those of you who couldn’t make it to Newgrange today (or who have a Mac or Linux machine, ergo poor or non-existent Windows Media viewing capabilities)  as a special solstice treat I have created an edited version of the 2007 Newgrange Winter Solstice sunrise.

[Video courtesy of the Irish Office of Public Works]

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4 Responses to “Winter Solstice at Newgrange, Ireland”

  1. santosh khatelsal on 21 Dec 2009 at 7:02 am #

    Today is winter solstice the shortest day of the year that has a special significance to almost all cultures and countries in the world. But there is another significance on a much grander scale to this day, three years from now. On this day 21st December 2012, the plane of ellipse on which the planets of the solar system revolves around the sun completes one full round with respect to the equator of the milky way, this happens once every 26,000 years!! The last time this event happened, earth was in the peak of last ice age. This time around we have had a failed global conference to prevent another impeding climate change.

    Apparently, The Mayans prophesied that from 1999 we have 13 years to realize the changes in our conscious attitude to stray from the path of self-destruction and instead move onto a path that opens our consciousness to integrate us with all that exists. Did they know that climate change will be a big subject in the current decade? So now that Copenhagen conference has failed to arrive at any conclusion to steer “from a path of self destruction” will we be less integrated with all that exists?

    But I am digressing; So what will happen on 21st December 2012. For one, it is the end of the Mayan calendar, yep, those very literate, prosperous and great pyramid builders also calculated empirically astronomic movements at a time when humans in other parts of the world were busy hunting and gathering, worrying either for the next meal or mate.

    So the Mayans ended their “long count” calendar on 21st December 2012 and given our compulsion to intellectualize and find answers, there are many opinions on why did their calendar end on this day than any other. Lots of theories of doomsday have been going around; reversal of earth’s magnetic fields, giant intergalactic fire storms destroying planets, apocalypse and the like. There are also some who opinion that earth and its inhabitants will undergo a positive physical or spiritual transformation on this day with one cycle getting over and another commencing. An equivalent of a Hindu “uga” coming to an end.

    Our cumulative knowledge on this subject is thus effectively limited by our imagination at best. Many say that we have no scientific basis and others say “is science the epitome of all knowledge we have ever had?” Again no definite answers, only opinions some backed by maths and physics and some by religion and belief, which is better of the two?? I am sure we will have more opinions on this too

  2. Michael Hanley on 21 Dec 2009 at 10:20 am #

    Thanks for your comment Santosh,
    Interesting views, but after having spent considerable time in the historical Mayan lands of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala, visited many Mayan sites, and talked to many of the modern descendants of the Mayans, apparently the 2012 date has no significance for their culture in the way that you elaborate. A western European equivalent would be the transition from the age of Capricorn to the age of Aquarius, which is also happening around now I believe. In my view, it’s best to celebrate these events for their display of applied astronomy, geometry, advanced mathematics, and construction techniques than as having a mystical existence the we in the 21st century probably can’t really understand in their essence.
    Best regards,

  3. virginia Yonkers on 22 Dec 2009 at 6:15 pm #

    Interesting that you posted this. Last night (at 4:15 really), as I was driving to pick up my son, I realized that it was already dark. Again, this morning, after getting my family out of the house, I realized at 7:00 AM that it was still dark. The light always is different this time of year, and the color of the sky is so “wintery”. While the rest of the east coast US was buried under snow, we had none (we were “too cold”). But the look was still one of winter.

    I wondered as I was driving, what it was like in other parts of the world at that time. My friends in Norway had been in darkness for a while. My friends in Costa Rica would not even tell the difference, as the time change between summer and winter is only about an hour’s difference. Those that I know in the Southern hemisphere would still have many hours of sunshine to go, perhaps suffering from high temperatures. I had never thought of the man-made structures that melded with nature to create an annual event.

  4. Megalithic Passage Tomb of Newgrange | Your Irish Culture on 21 Jun 2010 at 1:51 pm #

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