The Fabulous Pre-historic lightshow|
Sunday Tribune 20th December 1981.
Tomorrow morning of sunrise weather permitting the dark depths of Newgrange, Co Meath will come alive to a prehistoric light-show. The mathematical precision of our ancestors of 5,000 years ago will once again astonish us as a beam of winter solstice light enters the winter gloom of the tomb, for the only time in the year.
When one considers the huge amounts of stone involved in constructing Newgrange and the massive distances involved in transporting it, the ancient site itself is a remarkable achievement.
And the genius of these ancient civilisations achievements is confirmed when on the shortest days of the year the light enters the inner chamber. Like the scientific achievements of our era the putting of men in space is marvelled at, so also this ancient race's most enduring achievement, their dark and mysterious stone time machine at Newgrange, remains to intrigue us.
Tomorrow morning one of the most incredible events of the year takes place in a 5,000 year-old megalithic tomb at Newgrange. Shortly after sunrise, the light edges its way over the horizon and in one magical, dramatic moment the ancient burial chamber is illuminated with blinding light.
This 'thousand second miracle' only takes place on the three days of the winter solstice, December 20th 21st and 22nd, and demand for entrance to the monument is enormous. Each year the Office of Public Works is inundated with thousands of applications, but now there is a possibility that Newgrange will be closed permanently to the public the authorities say that this ancient monument cannot take the annual toll of 100,000 visitors.
And yet it wasn't until 1967 that the magical secrets of the tomb were discovered. Although the entrance to Newgrange was revealed in the year 1699, and part of the roof in the last century, it was only after the excavations of a Cork archaeologist, Professor Michael J O'Kelly that the function of the roof box was made clear.
Professor O'Kelly's discovery was based on an inspired hunch. While excavations were going on in the early sixties some visitors to the site and local people, told the excavation team that there was a legend, which said that on a certain day the sun used to shine into the tomb. The story was that something would happen in mid-summer, but this was ruled out because of the position of the tomb in relation to the angle of the sun.
Professor O'Kelly reasoned that the only time such an event could take place would be during the winter solstice, the shortest days of the year. On these days the sun rises in the extreme southeast, and since the entrance and roof box face in this direction, it was just possible that the angle might allow light to enter the tomb on those days.
On the 21st of December 1967 Professor O'Kelly crept into the tomb early in the morning, all alone in the pitch black with only the spirits of the dead for company. At about nine o'clock, the sun rose over the hills, and the Professor recalls what happened next:
"A narrow beam of light entered the passage through the roof box, passed between a gap in the passage roof slabs and landed almost at my feet. Then it began to move forward across the floor of the chamber. As the sun was slowly rising and moving west, more light came through the roof box and the narrow beam fanned out across the floor.
Gradually the whole burial chamber became illuminated and this lasted for about 17 minutes. I was absolutely astonished. I hadn't expected anything so dramatic. I could feel the spirits of the dead all around me I really expected a voice to speak."
Amazingly there hasn't been a year since 1967 that the event has been clouded out, which is quite incredible given the overcast nature of Irish winter weather. One year a near riot broke out when a group of cultists broke through the perimeter fence and prevented other from entering the tomb, unless they were allowed in too.
Whether the druids had the same problem with crowd control 5000 years ago remains a mystery. Certainly if, as has been suggested, the event was celebrated with human sacrifice, not all of the participants would have been as enthusiastic as today's tourists. Other theories surrounding this ingenious construction are that the builders were sun-worshippers, that the sunlight was supposed to awake the dead and refresh their spirits, or that it was just a sign to see the old year and herald in the new.
Whatever the explanation, there is no doubt that Newgrange is a remarkable testament to the scientific capabilities of a primitive people. It is of a comparable date with the Egyptian pyramids, is far older than the main structures at Stonehenge, and provides a visually spectacular event that no other archaeological site in the world can equal.
Curiously, excavations at the site have shown that a different culture occupied the site around 2000 BC, which could mean that the people went into cultural decline because of the massive economic and labour input into the tombs. They left few clues for the archaeologists, who are still baffled by the meaning of the beautiful symbols inscribed on the stones inside and outside the tomb.
Whatever happened to them, they left us a legacy of mystery and beauty, which is as thrilling today as it was to those ancient mystics thousands of years ago.
Boyne Valley Private Day ToursPick up and return to your accommodation or cruise ship. Suggested day tour: Newgrange World Heritage site, 10th century High Crosses at Monasterboice, Hill of Tara the seat of the High Kings of Ireland and the Hill of Slane where St. Patrick let a Paschal fire in 433 More ...