Newgrange passage tomb in County Meath’s Boyne Valley is arguably Ireland’s most amazing site. Built in the Stone Age, it predates the pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge. The site gained UNESCO World Heritage status in 1993. Newgrange is ringed by 97 large stones, many of which are carved with intricate designs. The entrance stone is the most famous, and its beautiful triple spiral is replicated on jewelry, clothing and other gifts. But the most amazing thing about Newgrange is its function. The structure is carefully designed to allow light to fill the inner chamber only on the solstice.
Naturally, the demand to be in the chamber for solstice is overwhelming. For many years, the visitors’ centre held a lottery to select the lucky few to enter the tomb for solstice. More than 32,000 people sent in applications for this year’s lottery. But this year, for the first time, the solstice will be livestreamed from Newgrange so people all around the world can experience the wonder of this ancient feat of engineering. The livestream will be online on December 20th and 21st from 8:45 to 9:30 am Greenwich Mean Time.
Ireland’s notoriously cloudy weather can make the event less visually dramatic some years, but those who have attended tend to agree that does not diminish the deeply spiritual feel of the event. Newgrange draws a crowd year-round, with many years seeing nearly 200,000 visitors. Access to the site is restricted to guided tours all year round to protect it, and despite the crowds, visitors do get to see the inside of Newgrange and to stand where our ancestors stood centuries ago.
The Beauty of Brú Na Bóinne
Brú na Bóinne is the Irish name for the spot in the Boyne Valley where the river bends and our ancestors built a stunning complex of passage tombs to mark the solstice. While Newgrange is the jewel in the crown, Brú na Bóinne includes other, similar structures. Knowth and Dowth are the two other tombs in the complex, which now includes a comprehensive visitors’ centre to explain what we do – and don’t – know about this intriguing place.
We know it is a burial passage and that is was designed with great precision to capture the solstice sunrise’s light through a clever window box above the door. It is constructed of very large stones, more than 500 of them. But we don’t know how people got all of the stones to this location or how they built the structure. Experts estimate it would have taken a crew of 300 people about 30 years to do it. Obviously, they were highly skilled. The tomb has survived, and its design keeps water from seeping in.
We have no way to know exactly why our ancestors buried people in tombs designed to allow light in at the solstice. But we know that humans have always loved light, especially in the darkest part of the year. Consider our love of diamonds. They aren’t a striking color like emeralds, rubies or sapphires. But we love the sparkle and shine of diamonds. They captivate us because they reflect and refract light. And deep down, we know we need light to live.