A winter-solstice visit to the ancient marvel of Newgrange

by Jim Sajo, Polcenigo, Italy

I told the bored Customs agent that my visit to Ireland would last three days, explaining I was there for the solstice event at Newgrange (taking place a few days before and after the winter solstice). Handing back my passport, she replied blandly, “Oh, is that on again?”

About the site

About 30 minutes north of Dublin, a fertile valley lies in a meandering loop of the Bóinne River. Five thousand years ago, settlers raised livestock and tended crops here in a peaceful, serene life.

Accomplished artists and engineers, they also built hilltop forts, barrows and sacred enclosures. Today, more than 300 ancient mounds survive, scattered across northeastern Ireland. The most intriguing are called passage tombs, owing to a narrow corridor leading to a central cruciform chamber. Cremated remains of the dead were left inside.

But this association with burial rites overshadowed a more spiritual aspect of these mysterious cairns. Rife with symbols and astrological properties, they are now recognized as temples of great ritual significance. None is more important than Newgrange.

A unique event

Last December 19th I was among 22 observers about to enter the ancient tomb. The international group gathered silently, braving the early morning chill. Between shivers, a Dutch archaeology student whispered, “I am fascinated by the chance to see one of the oldest man-made structures in the world.”

The most elaborately carved kerb stone once covered the entrance to Newgrange.  It now sits in front, part of the band of huge slabs around the tomb. — Photo courtesy of Ken Williams

Her eagerness was justified. Newgrange predates Egypt’s ancient pyramids by some 700 years and fabled Stonehenge by 1,000. But more than age led to UNESCO’s designating Newgrange as a World Heritage Site in 1993.

During the winter solstice, the morning sun penetrates a unique roof box atop the cairn, crawls up the tight, 62-foot-long pathway and lights the central chamber. As the sunrise continues, the single beam of light recedes back down the corridor, leaving the tomb in darkness for another year. The event lasts just 17 minutes and establishes Newgrange as the world’s first solar observatory.

Each of us there on that frosty morning had won a lottery to gain access during the solstice event. Every year thousands apply for the chance to see it, but with a heavy, damp fog hanging in the trees, it seemed this time there would be no sunrise. Sensing anxiety, our guide, Leontia Lenahan, encouraged us, “Just wait and see; sometimes a miracle happens.”

The structure

The miracle is Newgrange. Built around 3200 B.C., the heart-shaped hill occupies more than an acre and is surrounded by massive kerbstones, some richly decorated with geometric carvings.

The southeast facade of Newgrange greets the morning sunrise. Only during the winter solstice does light pass through the unique roof box, located above the entrance.

The core of the tomb is the inner chamber with three recesses, or small side rooms, that form a cross. The intricate corbeled ceiling reaches a height of 20 feet, although the ceiling of the narrow entry passageway is much lower. In the passage there are 22 enormous standing stones on the left side and 21 on the right. Larger than the entrance, these great stones would have been put in place before construction of the cairn.

Artisans carved them with elaborate swirls, zigzags, diamonds, spirals, chevrons and stars. Some stones were decorated before being put into place. Others, such as the impressive entrance stone and another on the back of the huge mound directly opposite the entrance, were decorated after positioning. Curiously, some have carvings dug into the back side in locations where the art cannot be seen.

Inside the chamber, overlapping stones form a conical dome, topped by a single capstone. The passage, chamber and roof of Newgrange were constructed without the use of mortar; builders filled the gaps with sea sand and burned soil.

Grooves dug into the roof stones allow rainwater to run off. This ceiling has been intact more than 5,000 years and still keeps the inner chambers dry.

Any questions?

At about 8:30 we filed into the narrow corridor. Walking slowly, with my torso twisted to avoid scraping the ancient carvings, I made my way into the central chamber. With 22 of us standing there, the room was tight.

Detail of a carving at Newgrange.

Leontia said, “In a moment I’ll turn off the lights; your eyes will get accustomed to the dark. If any of you begins to feel uncomfortable, speak up.” Instead, questions started to fly, but she was prepared with answers.

A gentleman from Spain asked, “What happens on other days during the year?”

“No sunlight enters the passage at all, but, on a bright morning, the front facade of Newgrange lights up with a golden glow you can’t imagine.”

An American woman remarked, “With no lock on the entrance, it is surprising there is no graffiti.”

“Ireland’s ancient sites have long been protected more by superstition than by legislation” was the reply.

When asked about the site’s folklore, Leontia explained, “One story describes how the Bóinne River flows from the underworld and brings us all knowledge. In another, Newgrange was home to the Celtic god of wisdom, Dagda, who was also the god of the sun. Or there is the romantic tale of Aengus and Caer, who both flew to Newgrange and lived there in the form of swans.”

Interestingly, Newgrange is a wintering ground for the whooper swan.

Archaeologists and historians believe that construction, done without benefit of the wheel or metal tools, took nearly 40 years. Some estimate as many as 300 workers dragged 200,000 tons of loose stones to the mound, digging them from the earth by hand or using crude stone blades and hauling them 30 miles to the hilltop. A subsistence society such as this one had to be comfortable with its farming production to invest so much effort in this project.

The kerbstones surrounding the mound, as well as those in the passage — averaging 1½ meters high — were not quarried or cut. It must have taken a prolonged search to find so many large stones, more than 550 of them. Bringing them to the site had to represent an enormous logistics challenge.

During long years of grueling labor, workers must have cut their hands, smashed fingers and feet, fallen to disease and drowned in the river.


After a few moments, a faint light began to creep into the chamber. I could see the sides of the room and barely make out the roof. The others present were motionless dark figures.

The group fell silent. Perhaps we were anticipating the miracle Leontia had mentioned earlier, but on this day it was not to be.

Finally, she said gently, “I am afraid the fog is too thick this morning. Light has come in, but we’ll not see the dramatic single ray of the sun illuminate this chamber like a flame.”

We filed out and returned to the visitors’ center, where our quiet pensiveness was interrupted by the chattering of schoolchildren. Life was back to normal.

Questions remain

Many details about Newgrange remain a mystery. No written language existed at the time of its construction. This has created a cottage industry for archaeologists, historians and academics to develop theories explaining the significance of the stones and analyze the art and the complications of construction.

Sophisticated measuring devices had not yet been imagined. How could builders have designed so elaborate a structure?

When Newgrange was rediscovered in 1699, charred human bones were found among the rudimentary stone tools, beads and Roman coins. Whose remains were left inside? What sort of ceremony accompanied internment?

Newgrange artwork is similar to carvings found elsewhere in Ireland and in other parts of the world. Do the designs have a special significance?

Beyond the engineering marvel — a building still standing (and not leaking) after more than 5,000 years — the precision used to align the central chamber, passage, roof box and horizon is astonishing.

Lasting impression

That evening, sipping a Guinness at Daly’s Bar (phone 00353 41 9823252, www.dalysofdonore.com), in the nearby town of Donore, a young man laughed at my day. “Ah, it’s all a load of bollocks,” he said. “I’m a local and have never been inside.”

Looking out from inside the central chamber of Newgrange, the corridor is very narrow. — Photo courtesy of the Ireland Department of the Environment, Heritage & Local Government

I smiled but did not tell him what I was feeling. In spite of the fog, sunbeam or no, my visit was a stirring experience. Standing inside a shrine built 50 centuries ago filled me with hope. I thought of the families who lived and died so long ago building Newgrange and felt respect and awe.

Looking closely at the carved stones, those enormous, obscenely heavy stones, I could see art and science and faith. Marveling at ancient, precise engineering I don’t understand, I wondered how they could have accomplished it. The fact that they did — an entire society invested the effort to create something greater than itself — fills me with optimism for our society today.

Clare Tuffy, Director of the visitors’ center, told me that some years go by with overcast or foggy days throughout the solstice event, making viewing impossible. In 2006 the heavy fog lasted until the morning of the solstice, December 21st. On that day, observers saw the miraculous event as it was designed by an advanced and mysterious culture some 5,000 years ago. I hope someone told the Customs agent that it was on again.

Planning a visit to Newgrange

A lottery awards admission to the chamber during the winter solstice. It is a high-demand event; in 2006 nearly 27,500 submitted applications. Each October the names of 50 people are drawn, winning access to this mystical and memorable event.

Application forms are available at the reception desk in the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre or you can send an e-mail to brunaboinne@opw.ie with your name and contact details.

Access to Newgrange throughout the year is by guided tour from the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre. While waiting for the tour, you can explore models of the valley and watch the short movie presentation that explains the history of this fascinating corner of Ireland. For more information, visit www.knowth.com/newgrange.htm.

To get to the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre from Dublin, take the M1 heading north and use the Donore exit near Drogheda. The toll is €1.50 (about $2). Travel four miles to the village of Donore, turn right, passing Daly’s Brú na Bóinne Bar & Restaurant, and go another mile. Visitors’ center parking is on the right.

Alternatively, you can take the N2 north via Ashbourne toward Slane. Turn right about a mile south of Slane; the visitors’ center is 4½ miles east toward Donore. For the last two miles, the road follows the meandering bend in the river.