An Ancient Beam of Light

Waiting for the sun on a winter’s day

And a beam of light shines across the floor.

Mysterious ring, a magical ring –

But forgotten is the race that no one knows.

So ends the song Newgrange by Clannad from their 1983 album Magical Ring. What is Newgrange? Newgrange is the most impressive of Ireland’s passage graves, one of three tumuli located in the Valley of the River Boyne in County Meath. It is thought to have been built about 2,500 BC by the Neolithic culture that arrived in Ireland from Brittany, where similar tombs were constructed. By comparison, the Gaels didn’t come to Ireland until about 700 BC. But what’s fascinating about this burial mound is that it also serves as a solar calendar, an astronomical feat existing in Ireland earlier than anywhere else in the world. 

When the Gaels arrived, they incorporated Newgrange into their own mythological cycle, believing it to be the abode of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, the People of the Goddess Danu, a supernatural race which diminished in size over the millennia to become the sidhe (pronounced SHEE), the fairy-folk. “The Newgrange of mythology is a magnificent otherworld palace or festive hall, existing in an eternal timeless realm of the supernatural…a wonderful ‘land’ where no one ever dies. Such a location is described as a Brú in the ancient literature, and the Brú na Bóinne, or Newgrange, is the most famous of these magical sites. It contained three fruit-trees which were always in fruit, and an inexhaustible cauldron from which no company went away unsatisfied. ‘Three times fifty sons of Kings’ dwelt there….” (Brennan, 1983, p.10). 

The name the Gaels gave to the megalithic mound, “The Brú of Boand,” was a nod to the goddess Boand, a personification of the River Boyne flowing by just to the south. Along with these fanciful tales, there is literary evidence that the ancient Irish recognized the mound as a burial site. One tale from the 10th century involves Óengus, the son of Boand, and the ill-fated lovers Diarmaid and Grainne. “Upon Diarmaid’s death, for which Finn is partly responsible, Finn says, ‘Let us leave this tulach [mound] for fear that Óengus and the Tuatha Dé Danaan may catch us.’ Óengus then brings Diarmaid to Newgrange in order to ‘put an aerial life into him so that he will talk to me every day.’” (p. 14) Right. Whatever floats your boat. Newgrange was also thought to be the burial place of the kings of Tara, except for Cormac mac Airt, who was Christian and refused to be entombed there. 

Year by year, the splendor of Newgrange melted into the past, covered by layers of earth, grass, and trees, until it was just a hill. By 1378, the Brú na Bóinne was farmland belonging to the Abbey of Mellifont and simply called ‘the new grange.’ But in 1699, the entrance was rediscovered when the mound was being stripped for its convenient source of stones. What they found was nothing short of amazing. 

The kerbstone with its exquisite spiral and lozenge motif was uncovered, guarding the entrance. Above the doorway lies a roof-box, a transom aligned to the winter solstice sunrise, but it wasn’t until 1969 that archaeologist Michael J. O’Kelly first observed the beam of light that traveled down the passageway to  illuminate key megalithic rock carvings. On December 21st at 8:58 am, “a stream of light comes directly through the entrance and extends far back into the passage. The purpose of the roof-box is to allow a narrow beam of light to project into the end recess [even after the tomb is sealed]. After reaching the end recess, [stone] R21 narrows the beam of light until it is cut off from the chamber at 9:15 am….For the next hour it slowly moves down the right side of the passage.” (Brennan, 1983, p. 76-79). 

Ancient Ireland: An Explorer’s Guide has this to say about Newgrange: “The thirty-some steps you will take to its core could be among the most revealing of your life. Consider that you will be traveling at a rate of 150 years per step….Then consider that not only has Newgrange survived for 5,000 years; its roof hasn’t even leaked in all that time!” (p. 84). 

In 863 AD, Newgrange was raided by the Vikings, led by Ivar the Boneless (Zaczek, 2000, p. 137). Although we may never know what was interred in the passage gave, we can still enjoy its true riches – its mystery. I was there in the summer of 1984, and once I’d walked into that chamber, I didn’t want to leave. I was home. 

Happy Solstice!

RESOURCES

Brennan, M. (1983). The stars and the stones: ancient art and astronomy in Ireland. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Meagher, R.E. & Neave, E.P. (2004). Ancient Ireland: an explorer’s guide. Northampton, MA: Interlink Books.

Zaczek, I. (2000). Ireland: land of the Celts. London: Collins & Brown.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newgrange

http://www.knowth.com/newgrange.htm

For Clannad’s song Newgrange, click the link below:

http://www.google.com/#hl=en&expIds=17259,28051&sugexp=ldymls&xhr=t&q=clannad&cp=5&pf=p&sclient=psy&site=&source=hp&aq=0&aqi=&aql=&oq=clann&gs_rfai=&pbx=1&fp=7b989c6c17f79c85

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