Waiting, patiently, I stare at my sneakers. With each inch of the wooden staircase gained, the sense of anticipation grows. This tomb is older than the pyramids. Older than Stonehenge. Why did they build it? Will there be ghosts inside? Will it collapse? We move another inch.
The sun is shining and the skies are deep blue, but every 15 minutes we’re reminded that this is still Ireland and drizzle is compulsory like a restaurant mister in the heat of summer.
Visitors are being led in and out of the New Grange monument in batches. This is an ancient site and numbers are important to preserve the integrity of the tomb – and our safety.
It’s my turn. A visitors’ guide cautions me to watch my head as I step into the darkness. The sound and colour of the world immediately dampen. I’m scared! I’m excited! The 19 meter, watertight passage is narrow and the path is inclining. One would imagine a tomb would slant downwards, but not at New Grange because this tomb is about the sun.
Soon all 24 permitted visitors have entered the circular tomb. It’s warm, dry and quiet. Flat, soft, almost dusty pink stones lie on top of one another like Pick-Up-Sticks forming a hexagon.
Our guide, Professor Muiris O’Sullivan, is a professor of Archeology, which was a lucky treat for us as he was extremely informative and entertaining. A real privilege to be taken into the countryside by someone so knowledgeable who could add more to the usual tour guide rhetoric.
The 5000-year-old tomb pays homage not only to the royal deceased, but also to the seasons, which sees the passage tomb perfectly align with the rising winter sun each year at the Winter Solstice. The “letterbox”, am open cube above the door is the key to allowing light into the tomb at the exact moment.
Before we had actually entered the tomb, we were taken on a tour of the surrounding stones, decorated with neolithic art. The history, life and times of the creators were explained to us and gave a deeper meaning to the unique, significance of the tomb’s location and purpose.
What is New Grange?
Located halfway between the equator and the north pole, New Grange has been declared the world’s oldest monument and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is a passage tomb dedicated to the deceased while celebrating the light.
It is a phenomenal feat of Neolithic engineering, which sees the passage align with the rising sun, at midwinter sunrise, resulting in the tomb being lit up by the rising sun. This also indicates the annual switch from the shortest days and longest nights, to longer days and shortened darkness.
There is no other tomb in Ireland (as large) that illustrates this as clearly and as accurately as New Grange and we are now inside and experiencing a part of living history.
*Unfortunately, no photographs or videos are allowed to be taken from within the tomb.
How To Get to New Grange – with Mary Gibbons
Staring up at the Parnell Monument, it’s another thing to tick off our touristy list. We’re waiting for the bus to arrive and I’m excited to join the New Grange tour by Mary Gibbons’. Having visited Knowth 2 years ago, AJ missed the experience so we decided to book for New Grange and explore and incredible ancient world of Ireland.
The tour starts with a 1-hour drive from central Dublin to the Hill of Tara and New Grange. The visitor centre was being overhauled so we packed our own picnic to ensure we didn’t go hungry or thirsty throughout the day. As it were, there is a cafe at the Hill of Tara and by 2021 the visitor’s centre will be complete at Knowth for other lunch options.
The cost of the tour is 45 Euros per adult and includes transport from Dublin to the Hill of Tara, New Grange and back again.
We absolutely loved the trip and would advise anyone to join Mary Gibbons, who kindly replies to mails – even a year later! She goes out of her way to facilitate the days and times that work for you and is very helpful with other tour queries. Five stars for the Mary Gibbons tour! Book through the New Grange tours website.
Watch the New Grange Winter Solstice Live on YouTube
Sadly, with COVID 19, there are no public visitors to New Grange to witness this phenomenal dance of engineering and nature, but the event is streamed live on YouTube on the Office of Public Works YouTube channel. (Broadcast live on Sunday 20th December, Monday 21st December & Tuesday 22nd December 2020. Replays still available on YouTube.)
5 Facts About the Winter Solstice at New Grange
- The passage is long and narrow and has a roof box that allows the light of the rising sun to penetrate the chamber.
- The horizon is at the same level as the slit in the bottom of the roof box.
- The chamber floor is that same level as the horizon, which receives the first bit of light.
- The roof box used to be blocked by quarts stones, which were added and removed, indicating that there was some control of the light and that people at the time were engaging with the deceased.
- Light falls into the chamber and lasts for 17 minutes and then it passes again until the next year.
The Importance of the Alignment
Celebrating the winter solstice at New Grange is important as it’s an experience that has remained consistent since the site was built over 5000 years ago, where the people of the time used to gather to watch the sunrise. It’s a piece of living history and a wonderful way to celebrate the hundreds of generations who have watched the sunrise and wished for longer days.
The tombs are complex as they don’t only hold the artefacts and cremated remains of the deceased, but also signify the human experience of people living during the Neolithic era. The sun was a supreme cosmic power that gave life and light to the people at the time.