Fr Kevin Hegarty
Steeped in antiquity, Newgrange is one of the wonders of the world. It is a UNESCO world-heritage site. Situated in the Boyne Valley, it is an oval-shaped tumulus, covering over an acre, built 5,000 years ago. The structure is about 85-metres high.
A stone decorated with neolithic art guards the entrance to a narrow passage way into a chamber, off which there are three recesses with basins containing the ashes and bones of the dead. Ten courses of large flat stones laid on top of each other converge to form a corbelled pyramidal roof six metres high. At the entrance to the tumulus there is a small box-like window.
Every year on December 21, the day of the winter solstice, a small group of people, chosen by lottery are privileged to enter this chamber. At 8.58am precisely, cloud cover permitting the rays of the rising sun enter the roof box window, flooding the inside chamber with light for 17 minutes. It signifies the shortest day of the year. This magnificent structure was created to highlight these significant minutes as the sun begins again to move north.
Newgrange reveals that the neolithic people who built it were technically competent, adept at astronomy and endowed with an artistic sensibility.
Clare Tuffy, who works with the Office of Public Works and is an authority on the history of the site, described the challenges involved in creating it:
“The people who lived here 5,000 years ago are our direct ancestors. They were already farming in the valley for over 1,000 years before they started building megalithic tombs. They began on a fairly small scale, but then something happened – we don’t know what – and they started building really huge monuments like Newgrange.
“I imagine they had cadres of specialists. They had practised astronomical observers. They clearly had expertise in engineering and geology, because the stones they used on the outside of the monuments are extremely hardwearing; they knew which stones would last better than others.
“The larger stones were mostly quarried over 20 miles away, likely carried on rafts along the coast and then up the River Boyne. But to walk from the banks of the river to the top of the hill where Newgrange is, even with your arms free, takes 20 minutes. They were transporting these huge megaliths, probably rolling them up the hill. They must have had expert groups planning the transport of the large stones. And all this technical knowledge probably had to be transferred to the next generation. Their lives were much shorter than ours, so a monument like Newgrange is unlikely to have been built in a single life time.”
The people who created Newgrange were farmers. Sunlight was essential for their way of life. On it they depended for fodder for their animals and the growth of their crops. Nature went into hibernation during winter. The solstice, marking the beginning of the end of winter, was an occasion for significant celebration. They, who had walked in darkness, now saw a new light.
Newgrange, in late December, continues to inspire us. The art critic, Neil McGregor, in his book ‘Living with the Gods’, wrote: “As the sun beam moves along the passage, it is impossible not to feel that the light is coming to seek you out in the darkness, to find you and change you.”
Seamus Heaney had a similar experience. In 1999 he witnessed the last solstice of the millennium. In this excerpt from his poem ‘A Dream of Solstice’ he captures the magic of the moment, the waiting for a new beginning:
…we watch through murk
And overboiling cloud for the milted glow
Of sunrise, for 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, to hold its candle
Inside the cosmic hill. Who dares say “love”
At this cold coming? Who would not dare say it?