Saturday 25 May 2019

Where to celebrate the world's oldest holiday

Dawn breaks: Baltray standing stone,
Co. Louth, at sunrise on midwinter's day
Dawn breaks: Baltray standing stone, Co. Louth, at sunrise on midwinter's day
Let there be light: The solstice at Knowth, Co Meath
Let there be light: The solstice at Knowth, Co Meath
Ray of light: winter solstice at Newgrange

Gemma O'Doherty

What would the Stone- Age farmers who built Newgrange make of the giant television screens and webcams that will be installed there for the first time this Friday to bring the remarkable spectacle of the winter solstice to a wider audience?

In the same way the ancient Egyptians must have turned in their pyramids at the sight of King Tutankhamun's leathery mummy being unravelled last month for all the world to see, they would probably find the whole affair rather unsavoury.

But anyone who has witnessed the burial chamber at Ireland's most ancient treasure fill up with golden sunlight on December 21 will know there are few sights more beautiful and mysterious in the world.

Such is the popularity of the event at what is arguably the planet's oldest astronomical observatory, more than 24,000 people now apply to a new lottery to enter the tomb on the shortest day of the year after the 15-year waiting list was abandoned.

Unless you're a government minister or one of the lucky 20 people chosen to attend the ceremony marking the world's oldest holiday, this Friday, you can watch live in the comfort of the internet or on screens outside the tomb in the Boyne Valley.

But seasoned solstice watchers know that the orientation of ancient standing stones towards celestial dates of significance is not confined to Newgrange. Here's a selection of the best of the rest.

1) Baltray, Co. Louth

Five years ago, a stunning discovery was made linking the mid-winter solstice sunrise, the island of Rockabill off the north Dublin coast and two standing stones at Baltray in Co. Louth, near the mouth of the River Boyne.

During an investigation into prehistoric sites around the Drogheda area, three local men -- journalist Anthony Murphy, artist Richard Moore and a photographer Michael Byrne -- found that the stones were oriented towards the island at the exact point where sunrise occurs on December 21. Very few people visit the stones, which are perched near a cliff overlooking the sea, but anyone keen enough to make the journey before dawn on Friday will be treated to a magical sunrise over the Irish sea, weather dependent of course.

2) Knockroe, Co. Kilkenny

The country's most southerly passage tomb was discovered less than 20 years ago by a local farmer who noticed carvings on a local stone light up one evening after a shower of rain.

His curiosity resulted in what is considered one of the most significant recent archaeological finds in Europe, and confirmed that passage tombs extend on a line from the Boyne Valley all the way to the south coast.

This 5,000-year-old burial chamber on the Kilkenny-Tipperary border, known locally as the Caiseal, is the only passage tomb in the country with separate tombs facing east and west, so that one lights up at sunrise and the other at sunset. (Newgrange only illuminates at sunrise.) The site is also one of the very few outside Meath with decorated stones.

On the shortest day of the year, residents of this lovely countryside, local historians and visiting druids gather at dawn and sunset to watch the tombs light up.

But if your name begins with 'O' or 'Mc' tread carefully. Local legend says the howls of a banshee will be heard when you stand at the tomb. If you do visit, enjoy the stunning scenery in the shadow of Slievenamon but be careful not to walk accidentally over these precious works of ancient art.

3) Dowth, Bru na Boinne, Co. Meath

If you're not an early riser, Dowth, a sister site of Newgrange, is aligned so that light from the winter solstice sun illuminates the chamber at sunset. Dazzling beams of light are frequently seen on mid-winter's day in the passage chamber.

Nearby Knowth has two great passage grave chambers, the longest in the world.

It also contains two-thirds of Europe's entire collection of Neolithic passage grave art. Access to both sites is facilitated by the Office of Public Works.

Sadly, a line of evergreen trees growing near the mound has tended to obscure the solstice illumination, but if it's sunny and there's any sort of a breeze the light usually finds its way into the chamber.

4) Uisneach, Co. Westmeath.

On midwinter's day, you're bound to bump into all sorts of druids and pagans on Uisneach, the mythical naval of Ireland from where you can spot 20 of the 32 counties on a clear day.

The Stone Age people considered it the centre of the island and from this point the four provinces were divided. Since Neolithic times, fires have burnt here which can be seen from as far away as the Hill of Tara. On the day of the winter solstice, the sun rises above the giant naval stone on the hill and sets in the direction of Slieve Aughty in a truly dramatic fashion.

5) Drombeg Stone Circle, Co. Cork

Stone circles may have been used for marking the winter or summer solstice. This one at Drombeg, a megalithic monument with 17 stones near Rosscarbery, is magically set on a peaceful hillside surrounded by cattle and sheep. It is aligned with a notch in the hills towards the southwest and the winter sun sets over the axial stone and shines through two portal stones.

6) Beltany Stone Circle, Co. Donegal

Just outside Raphoe, this monument is sometimes referred to as "the Stonehenge of Donegal". An outlying standing stone, located nearly 70 feet from the stone circle, points out the direction of winter solstice sunrise, which comes up over a distant hill.

7) Millmount, Drogheda, Co. Louth

An early 19th century Martello tower sits atop a large mound on a strategic and striking platform overlooking the river Boyne and the town of Drogheda. The mound is the reputed burial place of the Milesian astronomer-poet, Amergin. Sunset from Millmount occurs in the direction of the Hill of Tara.

8) Hill of Tara, Co. Meath

Although there are no stones on Tara aligned to the winter solstice, the sunset on December 21 falls in the direction of Carbury, Co. Kildare, the location of the mythical Nechtain's Well, said to be the rising point of the River Boyne. This lovely hill, peppered with ancient monuments, is a perfect place to say farewell to winter.

9) Slieve Gullion, Co. Armagh

One of the most magical mountains in the country, Slieve Gullion has endless romantic legends attached to it, especially that concerning Cuchulainn, who took his name here after slaying the hound (Cu) of the blacksmith Culainn.

Local superstition holds that bathing in the summit lake will turn your hair white. There's also a megalithic cairn on top of the mountain which is associated with the lunar hag goddess known as the Cailleach Bhearra (often pronounced Cally Vera). The chamber of the cairn is aligned towards the winter solstice sunset and the distant hills of Loughcrew, Co. Meath, the location of a huge megalithic cemetery.

10) Carrowkeel Cairns, Co. Sligo

Believed to have been constructed between 3000 and 2000 BC, it was recently discovered that one of the ancient tombs, Cairn G, has a light box above its doorway which functions similarly to the one at the enormous passage grave at Newgrange. It opens towards the most northerly point of the setting moon and not only allows sunlight to enter its chamber at the time of midwinter but the light of the moon for one month on either side of the winter solstice.

n Compiled with the assistance of Anthony Murphy, co author of Island of the Setting Sun: In Search of Ireland's Ancient Astronomers. Fans of the Neolithic age will also enjoy Temples of Stone: Exploring The Megalithic Tombs of Ireland, by Carleton Jones and just published by The Collins Press.

Editors Choice

Also in Life