Lonely Planet Writer

Watch a 5000-year-old winter solstice tradition at an Irish Stone Age tomb

It’s the shortest and darkest day of the year in the northern hemisphere and for 5000 years people have gathered at Newgrange Monument in Co. Meath, Ireland to mark it. Lonely Planet’s AnneMarie McCarthy was allowed access to the passage tomb, older than both the pyramids and Stonehenge, to witness the winter solstice.

At a few minutes past dawn, a beam of sunlight enters an opening above the entrance, travelling 19 metres down the narrow passageway and lighting up the main chamber. It’s a phenomenal sight and one which becomes even more special when you realise how rare it is; the event only occurs on the few days around the winter solstice and with clear weather. During Irish winter, that means the odds of experiencing it can be slim.

Despite no guarantee, more than 30,000 people entered a lottery to win one of 50 places in the tomb over the 2015 solstice period, with hundreds more gathering outside to celebrate the first dawn of the new solar cycle.

Lonely Planet's AnneMarie McCarthy at Newgrange today for the Winter Solstice.
Lonely Planet’s AnneMarie McCarthy at Newgrange today for the Winter Solstice. Image by AnneMarie McCarthy/Lonely Planet

Although rain and clouds meant the lottery winners missed out on the dramatic golden sunlight associated with the solstice, there was still an air of expectation in the chamber as everyone held their breath and hoped for a break in the clouds. It didn’t happen this year, but the lottery winners all expressed their gratitude for the chance to be in the chamber on the occasion.

It’s probable that temperamental weather was a factor when the tomb was being built by ancient Irish craftsmen, meaning the years where there is a dramatic solstice are even more special.

The 500 year-old Passage Tomb at Newgrange, Co Meath, Ireland which is older then the pyramids and Stonehenge.
The 500 year-old Passage Tomb at Newgrange, Co Meath, Ireland which is older then the pyramids and Stonehenge. Image by AnneMarie McCarthy/Lonely Planet

Newgrange is one of 250 passage tombs in existence in Ireland, but it’s size and position means it’s accepted as a place of greater spiritual importance, both to the ancient Irish and later the Romans. Its reputation continued long into the modern age and, when the winter solstice phenomenon was discovered in 1960s, it was because of a persistent local legend that the rising sun would light up the inside of the chamber.

Newgrange monument is reached through the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre and is open for a limited number of tours all year round. The Centre has a special light which will simulate the warm glow of the winter solstice for any visitor who doesn’t fancy their chances in the public lottery.

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Druids and pagans head to Stonehenge for winter solstice tradition