Newgrange is an ancient ‘passage grave’ monument built for the leaders of an Irish society from thousands of years ago.
It consists of a deep underground chamber covered by a large mound and is part of the Brú na Bóinne complex of monuments in Donore, Co. Meath.
The complex structure of Newgrange shows that ancient societies were both spiritual and well organised. It is designed in such a way that on the day of the Winter Solstice, the dark underground chamber is suddenly filled with light.
This carefully constructed phenomenon shows that the ancient designers had a keen awareness and appreciation of astronomy.
Newgrange is a large oval shaped mound, about an acre in diameter. It contains numerous examples of ancient megalithic art. It has a 19-metre passageway that leads from the entrance to the main chamber.
It is classified by archaeologists as a passage tomb but many people believe it had a far greater significance to the people of the day. The discovery of the Winter Solstice phenomenon suggests that it may have been a place of worship.
You can take a guided tour of Newgrange. They usually last for about an hour and 24 visitors are allowed on any one tour.
The Winter Solstice sun at Newgrange Chamber is a spectacular sight and one that only a handful of lucky tourists get to see.
At the time of the Winter Solstice, (18th-23rd December) the sun rises at such an angle that it sends a beam of light bursting through an opening above the entrance to the mound.
The opening is known as the ‘roof box’ and when the sun beam comes through it travels through the 19 metre passageway into the chamber.
As the sun rises, the beam of light coming from the roof box gets bigger and it eventually spreads and lights the entire chamber.
The Winter Solstice shows that it was built with astronomy in mind. It is likely that the ancient society would have used it as a place of worship where they could hold ceremonies and as well as bury their leaders.
Tourists can go to Newgrange in the mornings of the Solstice to witness the sunrise but only 20 people are allowed in the chamber. These people are decided by lottery. Ten names are drawn out of a hat for each day of the Solstice and they are allowed to bring one guest each.
There are tens of thousands of entries every year so your chances of being picked are small but you can still go to the Newgrange site even if you are not picked to enter the chamber.
Until 1967, no one in modern times had been in the chamber to see the Winter Solstice phenomenon and the story was considered as little more than a myth or an old wives’ tale.
Professor Michael O’Kelly, who was working on the site in the 60s, suspected that the story was actually about Stonehenge in England and had been attributed to Newgrange by a process of Chinese whispers.
He decided to investigate and was shocked and delighted when he moved the stones that were covering the ‘roof box’ during the Winter Solstice. He was probably the first person for thousands of years to see the chamber bathed in light.
Newgrange is an ancient and spiritual place, especially impressive during the Winter Solstice. That is the best time to visit.
Even if you are not one of the lucky ones who gets to view it from inside the chamber you can gather with hundreds of other tourists at the site itself.
It is a link to Ireland’s ancient past, and a moving reminder that those early settlers were both spiritual and highly sophisticated in the way they designed and built their monuments.