Visitors returned to Newgrange in December 2022 on the mornings around the winter solstice after a two year break due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the actual Winter Solstice on December 21st and two mornings before and after, members of the public selected by lottery were in the chamber to experience the illumination of the rising sun. The Newgrange site was open to the public for the five mornings for visitors to experience the dawn sun rising outside the monument, the biggest crowd was on December 21st but the best sunrise was on December 20th.
Photos by OPW Staff: Ailbhe, Clare, and Siobhán
First light at Newgrange for the winter solstice on Tuesday December 20th 2022
The rising sun is aligned with the passage and chamber of the Newgrange megalithic passage tomb on the mornings around the winter solstice, there is no sunset alignment at Newgrange. At the nearby Dowth megalithic passage tomb the setting sun is aligned to the passage and chamber. In ancient times on the Winter Solstice the people would have gathered at Newgrange for the sunrise and Dowth for the sunset. Around the Winter Solstice, day length is only about seven and half hours.
The Winter Solstice at Newgrange
On the mornings around the winter solstice, the rising sun shines directly along the long passage into the chamber for about 17 minutes and illuminates the chamber floor. In 1967 Professor Michael J. O’Kelly became the first person in modern times to witness the solar illumination the passage tomb at Newgrange on winter solstice.
In the words of Professor O’Kelly ‘At exactly 8.54 hours GMT the top edge of the ball of the sun appeared above the local horizon and at 8.58 hours, the first pencil of direct sunlight shone through the roof-box and along the passage to reach across the tomb chamber floor as far as the front edge of the basin stone in the end recess’. He describes the dramatic illumination of the tomb, how light reflected from the floor revealed so much of the archaeological structure, but by 9.15 the beam narrowed, receded and was ‘cut off from the tomb’
The alignment is such that although the roof-box is above the passage entrance, the light hits the floor of the inner chamber. Today the first light enters about four minutes after sunrise, but calculations based on the precession of the Earth show that 5,000 years ago first light would have entered exactly at sunrise.
The Winter Solstice sunbeam is channeled through the roofbox to the chamber
Winter Solstice Sunbeam in the passage, viewed from the outside
A Dream of Solstice by Seamus Heaney
Qual e’ colui che somniando vede,
che dopo ‘l sogno la passione impressa
rimane, e l’altro a la mente non riede,
cotal son io…
Dante, Paradiso, Canto XXXIII
‘Like somebody who sees things when he’s dreaming
And after the dream lives with the aftermath
Of what he felt, no other trace remaining,
So I live now’, for what I saw departs
And is almost lost, although a distilled sweetness
Still drops from it into my inner heart.
It is the same with snow the sun releases,
The same as when in wind, the hurried leaves
Swirl round your ankles and the shaking hedges
That had flopped their catkin cuff-lace and green sleeves
Are sleet-whipped bare. Dawn light began stealing
Through the cold universe to County Meath,
Over weirs where the Boyne water, fulgent, darkling,
Turns its thick axle, over rick-sized stones
Millennia deep in their own unmoving
And unmoved alignment. And now the planet turns
Earth brow and templed earth, the crowd grows still
In the wired-off precinct of the burial mounds,
Flight 104 from New York audible
As it descends on schedule into Dublin,
Boyne Valley Centre Car Park already full,
Waiting for seedling light on roof and windscreen.
And as in illo tempore people marked
The king’s gold dagger when it plunged it in
To the hilt in unsown ground, to start the work
Of the world again, to speed the plough
And plant the riddled grain, we watch through murk
And overboiling cloud for the milted glow
Of sunrise, for an eastern dazzle
To send first light like share-shine in a furrow
Steadily deeper, farther available,
Creeping along the floor of the passage grave
To backstone and capstone, holding its candle