23 December 2007

The Coming of the Light

Whenever friends of mine tell me they're visiting Dublin and ask me where they should go, after reeling off my five or six 'must see' spots in my mother city, two of which are the 'Sacred Scripture' collection in the Chester Beatty Library and the Long Room in Trinity College, I ask them how much time they have, and, if they've more than a couple of days, I usually insist that they take a day trip to Meath, where they might be able to take in Tara or Slane or Monasterboice, but where they should make sure they visit Brú na Bóinne, most importantly the great passage tomb at Newgrange.

About 5,200 years old, so ranking with Gavrinis in Brittany and Hagar Qim in Malta among Europe's oldest and most impressive ancient buildings, Newgrange is an enormous megalithic tomb, far older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids. It remained a focus of ritual activity through the neolithic period, becoming a significant spot in later Irish mythology, but gradually disappearing from view over the millennia through mound slippage, only being rediscovered at the end of the Seventeenth Century.

Proper excavation began in 1962, and forty years ago on Friday, on 21 December 1967, UCC's Professor M.J. O'Kelly witnessed the most remarkable feature of the mound.

The excavations had discovered a small hole termed a 'roofbox' over the entrance, leading to a shaft running to a chamber at the tomb's centre. On the morning of the winter solstice the rising sun shone directly through that hole for about seventeen minutes, striking the floor at the back of the chamber.

It's happened on every winter solstice since, with only a handful of people being chosen by lot to see the illumination each year. Friday's winter solstice illumination was streamed live on the internet. It's been archived, if you fancy watching it. It's really quite breathtaking.

Newgrange always strikes me as one of the wonders of the ancient world, and I never cease to be amazed at how few people outside Ireland have heard of it.

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