Winter Solstice Sunrise alignment at Newgrange
Newgrange is world famous for the illumination of its passage and chamber by the rising sun on the mornings around the winter solstice. Above the entrance to the passage at Newgrange there is a window like opening called a roof-box. Its purpose is to allow sunlight to penetrate the chamber on the shortest days of the year, around December 21st, the Winter Solstice. At dawn, for a few days before and after the Winter Solstice, a narrow beam of light penetrates the roof-box and reaches the floor of the chamber.
As the sun rises higher, the beam widens within the chamber so that the whole room becomes dramatically illuminated. This event lasts for 17 minutes, beginning around 9am. The accuracy of Newgrange as a time-telling device is remarkable when one considers that it was built 500 years before the Great Pyramids and more than 1,000 years before Stonehenge.
The intent of the Stone Age farmers who build Newgrange was undoubtedly to mark the beginning of the new year. In addition, it may have served as a powerful symbol of the victory of life over death.
Each year the winter solstice event attracts much attention at Newgrange. Many gather at the ancient tomb to wait for dawn, as people did 5,000 years ago. So great is the demand to be one of the few inside the chamber during the solstice that places are allocated by lottery. Unfortunately, as with many Irish events that depend upon sunshine, if the skies are overcast, there is not much to be seen. Yet all agree that it is an extraordinary feeling to wait in the darkness, as people did so long ago, for the longest night of the year to end.
Newgrange Winter Solstice 1967
The Winter Solstice Sunbeam inside Newgrange was first witnessed in modern times by Professor Michael J. O’Kelly who excavated Newgrange from 1962 to 1975. Over the course of the early excavation, some of the many local visitors would often tell the O’Kelly’s of a tradition, that the rising sun, at some unspecified time, would light up the triple spiral stone in the end recess of the chamber at Newgrange. Unfortunately, no one could be found who had witnessed this, but it continued to be mentioned, the O’Kelly’s at first assuming that there was a confusion with Stonehenge and the mid-summer sunrise alignment there.
A conversation between the O’Kelly’s on the persistence of this tradition, planted in the mind of Professor O’Kelly that, a south-east orientation would be correct at the mid-winter solstice and that perhaps this tradition was more than a figment of the local people’s confused imagination. Abandoning the preparations for Christmas to his wife Claire, Professor O’Kelly made the long journey up from Cork to Newgrange on the day before the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, to test out his hunch.
Some minutes before sunrise on the 21st of December 1967, Professor O’Kelly stood alone in the darkness of the chamber at Newgrange, wondering what, if anything, would happen. To his amazement, minute by minute, the chamber grew steadily lighter, and a beam of sunlight began to enter the passage and to travel inwards, “lighting up everything as it came until the whole chamber – side recesses, floor and roof twenty feet above the floor – were all clearly illuminated”. O’Kelly stood rigid for a while, transfixed by the phenomenon and convinced and fearful in his own imagination that the Dagda, the sun god, who according to the ancient tradition had built the tomb, was about to hurl the roof upon him.
Fortunately, the roof remained in place, the sun retreated and he walked from the tomb, the first person to have witnessed the light of the sun penetrate the darkness of the chamber at Newgrange since ancient times. Subsequent work by Dr. Jon Patrick, commissioned by O’Kelly, established that the orientation of Newgrange towards the rising sun of the winter solstice was deliberate. He reported that, “It therefore seems that the sun has shone into the chamber ever since the day of its construction and will probably continue to do so forever.” Further observation by O’Kelly established that the spectacle occurs for a number of days before and after the winter solstice. He himself would witness it at least once a year for the remainder of his life.
“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 nighttime roosts to their daytime 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 into the back of the end chamber.” The recorded words of Prof O’Kelly spoken in the tomb of Newgrange on the 21st of December 1969.