Lunar eclipse fails to set world alight at Newgrange solstice
AMID the dark stillness of the pre-dawn, visitors made the annual and ancient pilgrimage up the ridge in the hope of witnessing a rare celestial event.
The last time dawn sunlight beamed into the passage grave at Newgrange just as the moon passed out of a full eclipse was 450 years ago -- when Pirate Queen Granuaile first turned her hand to plundering ships.
The event is not expected to recur for another 200 years but yesterday solstice enthusiasts were hopeful they would get their moment in history and be simultaneously brushed by sunlight and moonbeams within the chamber.
Just 50 lucky names were drawn from a hat out of the 25,000 who had applied for the privilege of savouring a unique moment of prehistoric winter magic.
American Danielle Lacava (24), from Pittsburgh, entered the lottery when she visited the nearby passage tomb of Knowth last summer. Learning of her success, she decided it was too good an opportunity to turn down and so travelled back again to Ireland, this time with her brother Chris.
"We never thought about saying 'forget it' -- this was one of those things you just can't pass up," she said.
Flying to London, their flight to Dublin was cancelled due to the weather and so the Lacavas took taxi, ferry and train, determined to make it to Newgrange.
Plenty of others had also come from all around the globe to stand outside the chamber, battling through snow-bound runways and motorways, with visitors from the US, England, Sweden and the Czech Republic, as well as from this country.
Christa Schunke, a Christian Community priest from Munich in Germany, said she felt content just to be there as the solstice was happening, with the light changing.
She was fortunate enough to have been in the chamber the previous day and to witness a shaft of light entering. "It was beautiful -- I have never been touched by light in that way before," she said.
"This is the new year of the old Irish calendar," explained archaeologist Sam Moore. "The event marks the rebuilding of the sun -- the days get longer from this point. It is a time of renewal and hope."
By 8.30am, most people had gathered around the chamber in the pearly-grey light as a member of the crowd produced a tin-whistle from the pocket of his tweed coat and played as they waited.
But ominous snow clouds at the crucial spot meant many spectators were shaking their heads regretfully at the likelihood their view would be obstructed.
"A great pity," said Professor John Browne of Glasgow University, on his first trip to Newgrange for the winter solstice, turning instead to examine the small crowd of "mystics".
At a quarter to nine, the select gathering -- including Culture Minister Mary Hanafin and junior minister Martin Mansergh -- were admitted to the chamber and the waiting began. But the clouds moved closer and within moments snowflakes were falling heavily on the shivering crowd.
Local man JP Fay said there had been an "energy ceremony" held the night before, at the Hill of Tara.
"This is not a burial chamber, it's a chamber of life," he said.
As she emerged from the chamber back into the snow, Ms Hanafin was asked if she would be back next year. "I don't know where I'll be next year," she joked. "Somewhere between teacher and Taoiseach."