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10 best solstice celebrations


Killadangan, Co Mayo. Photo: Ken Williams (more Ken Williams' solstice photos on shadowsandstone.com)

Killadangan, Co Mayo. Photo: Ken Williams (more Ken Williams' solstice photos on shadowsandstone.com)

Killadangan, Co Mayo. Photo: Ken Williams (more Ken Williams' solstice photos on shadowsandstone.com)

Monday is the shortest day of the year, when solstice watchers gather at our ancient tombs to watch them glow with winter sun — weather permitting! Pól Ó Conghaile picks his 10 favourite places to mark this magical spectacle.

Killadangan, Co Mayo

Winter solstice began as a celebration of winter's end, the cycle of life beginning anew. Killadangan, a scattering of stones strewn around a salt marsh on the shores of Clew Bay, draws you right back to those Neolithic times. The mossy monoliths connect through a winter solstice alignment to a notch in the hills opposite, but get there early -- the sun sets behind the hills at around 1.45pm.

Details: Approximately 5km south-west of Westport, on the Louisburgh road.

Drombeg, Co Cork

Dropped like a miniature Stonehenge in the Cork countryside, Drombeg is one of the most visited megalithic sites in Ireland. A perfect, manicured circle comprising more than a dozen stones, Drombeg is also known as 'The Druids' Ring', and winter solstice sees an alignment across the axis of the circle towards a notch in the horizon when the sun sets.

The horizon is high, so arrive at least an hour early.

Details: 1.5km east of Glandore, Co Cork, on the R597.

Beaghmore, Co Tyrone

Discovered by locals cutting peat in the '40s, Beaghmore remains one of Ireland's best-kept megalithic secrets. Archaeologist Aubrey Burl has suggested that some stone rows were aligned to the sunrise, while others bracketed that date to warn of its approach. Whatever its magic, a dawn visit to the huddle of stone rows, circles and cairns is both ghostly and gorgeous.

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Details: Beaghmore is 8.5 miles north-west of Cookstown, off the A505 to Omagh.

Dowth, Co Meath

Dowth is the Inis Óirr of the Boyne Valley's passage tombs -- the least visited, but also the most mysterious. Marked by a lonely tree straight out of a fairytale, the passage tomb has never been scientifically excavated (despite many botched attempts), but a short passage aligns an inner chamber with the setting sun on winter solstice -- providing an alternative to Newgrange for late risers.

Details: Take the N51 west from Drogheda.

Carrowkeel Cairns, Co Sligo

Some solstice aficionados climb out of bed at dawn on December 21 to catch Newgrange on the east coast before dashing over to these fascinating passage tombs on the west coast for sunset.

Set on a hilltop overlooking Lough Arrow, this cluster of mysterious cairns dating back to 3000-2000 BC has a spectacular position. On a clear day, the view goes on for miles. One of the tombs, Cairn G, has a light box above its doorway similar to the one at Newgrange, which allows sunlight to enter its chamber at the time of midwinter and the light of the moon for one month on either side of the solstice.

Details: Travel south from Sligo town on the N4 to the village of Castlebaldwin. A signpost there indicates a right-hand turn marked 'Carrowkeel 3km'.

Beltany Tops Stone Circle, Co Donegal

Beltany derives from the springtime festival of Bealtaine, when hilltop fires were lit to regenerate the sun. With some 64 of a possible 80 or so stones remaining, the circle looks like a jagged, sinking crown, and may once have been a passage tomb similar to Newgrange. The sun aligns with certain larger stones on winter solstice -- toying with, rather than washing straight through, the circle.

Details: Two miles south of Raphoe, Co Donegal.

Newgrange, Co Meath

When it comes to winter solstice, Newgrange is the high king. The thin shaft of light that threads through its roof box opening on December 21, creeping into the heart of its chamber, is a direct connection between 2009 and 3200 BC. As the sun rises, the chamber is bathed in light -- and the smiles of 20 lucky souls (selected by lottery from 33,000 applicants) there to see it happen.

Details: Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre (041 988 0300; newgrange.com).

Knockroe, Co Kilkenny

'The Caiseal', as it's known locally, doesn't have the profile of other Irish passage tombs, but that suits the small crowd that pitches up here on winter solstice just fine. Discovered in 1990, Knockroe has been dubbed 'the Newgrange of the south east' by the archaeologist excavating it -- although, unlike Newgrange, it boasts two chambers with astronomical alignments, providing illuminations both at sunrise and sunset. Its setting in the glorious Lingaun Valley makes it a delightful spot for a midwinter outing.

Details: From Kilkenny, take the road for Callan and onto Windgap.

Hill of Tara, Co Meath

There's no alignment event at Tara, but the ancient seat of power in Ireland always attracts visitors at winter solstice. Among them, you may find the Druids of the Dark Moon Grove, who hold regular monthly rituals at the site, as well as at summer solstice, Samhain and Imbolc (St Brigid's day).

Despite recent controversies over the M3, Tara remains a hugely powerful place.

Details: 12km south of Navan, Co Meath. Off the N3.

Baltray, Co Louth

Most winter solstice sites date back thousands of years, but Baltray hinges on a discovery made in 1999, when three local investigators were astonished to find its standing stones oriented towards Rockabill Island on December 21. A slight shift in the Earth's axis since the stones were erected means the sun rises just over one-and-a-half diameters to the left, or east, of Rockabill today.

Details: North of Boyne estuary, beside Baltray Golf Club.

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