Newgrange: a seasonal gift to the benevolent spirits.

Update: RTE will have a link here to Newgrange tomorrow morning (before 8.56 am) after checking out the lunar eclipse.
Each year a small media circus decamps for a brief moment at the winter solstice to Newgrange in County Meath. The following is a seasonal offering to anyone who wants a bit more background than is usually offered (although obviously reading the likes of Geraldine and Matt Stout’s Newgrange also helps). 

The mound at Newgrange has a complex history, with the famous roof box that allows the rising sun to light up the central chamber on the 21st December (and a couple of days either side) merely being part of one of the earliest phases, dating to around 3100 BC. While the roof box may have remained open, later activity blocked the entrance to the chamber which was via a stone-lined passage (hence the name ‘passage tomb’). This occured some time before around 2500 BC, meaning that when Michael J O’Kelly, the UCC professor who led the modern excavations, had his Howard Carter moment, he was the first person to witness the phenomenon in 4,500 years. O’Kelly had made an educated guess during his excavations on the purpose of the re-exposed the roof box after he had removed material during his excavations that had accumulated in the passage and chamber. So, on the 21st December 1967, O’Kelly stood in the chamber and watched the rising sun cast it’s light through the roof box

Steadily deeper, farther available,
Creeping along the floor of the passage grave
To backstone and capstone, to hold its candle
Inside the cosmic hill.
(Seamus Heaney, Dream of Solstice).

After the partially restored tomb was re-opened to the public in 1968, access to witness the solstice event remained unrestricted until 1979 when the crowd of 50 was too large to fit within the chamber. From that date onwards the Office of Public Works has managed various processes to win a place (currently a lottery with, typically, 40,000 entries with several of the 2o odd places set aside for VIPs). In 1980, 200 visitors turned up hoping to get in, with those that were disappointed happily singing The Beatles song “Here Comes The Sun”. This was also the last year that O’Kelly attended before his death in 1982. The last time I was there (outside!), in 2006, the VIPs included most of the PDs anticipating the loss of their seats in the 2007 election (keep an eye out for any surprises among those VIPs who visit this year).

The interchange of officialdom and Newgrange as an aspect of Irish and our wider shared heritage is embodied in the tangled story of the facade erected at the front of the tomb following O’Kellys excavation and the subsequent restoration and re-presentation to the public (in Ireland and abroad). The huge white wall which greets the visitor was proposed by O’Kelly as early as 1966 (in this regard, O’Kelly’s work at Newgrange was in a much shorter period than that at Knowth where Prof George Eogan dug for 20 years longer). While the imposing facade which greets the visitor alludes to some prehistoric greatness, it is largely illusory. In the short time he had to consider the problem, O’Kelly assumed the bulk of the mound was as early as 3100 BC (it may be much later) and had to invoke a retaining wall (the facade) to support it. Subsequent commentators have misunderstood why he did this and rightly identified contradictions in the reported results of O’Kelly’s excavation that show the facade does not fit with the known sequence at the site (e.g. see an on-off debate on this in the journal Antiquity). Either way, the facade is a fiction although, officially it appears impossible to recognise this (possibly a metaphor of sorts for modern Ireland).

For the majority of those who turn up on the day, they do get to witness the external aspect of the solstice. From the outside, the sunlight creeps up the outer apron of the tomb, onto the external circle of huge standing stones and over the fabulously decorated entrance stone. The convergence of beliefs and values at Newgrange on the solstice is wonderfully illustrated by an episode when the edge of the sunlight was almost hampered by the sizeable crowd, later commemorated by Susan Connolly in her poem Sunpath:

The Garda
Stretched out his hand
Over a sea of people
Don’t block the way!
Let the sun shine
Into Newgrange!

Like walls of water
We drew aside.

The passage,
A prisoner of darkness
All year long,
became a shining sunpath.

One hint of how Newgrange was perceived by its ancient visitors is provided by a small fragment of a gold bracelet recovered by O’Kelly. This object had an abbreviated 3rd/4th century AD Latin inscription SCBONS:MB (for more and an image see here). This has much in common with modern txtspk and is considered indecipherable, but there is a rough parallel from a bog in Ecclefechan in Scotland which includes the formula DMB. The MB (or DMB) refers to the Manes, the spirits of Roman belief (the ‘D’ refers to the ‘gods of the spirits’). The offering at Newgrange was to the ‘spirits’, with the SCBONS either a shortened form of a name, giving something like Scribonius manibus (‘from Scribonius to the Spirits’), or the much neater sacra bonis manibus translating as ‘an offering to the benevolent spirits’.

So, if you want some inspiration for these recessionary times, check out the timelessness of the solstice on the RTE webcast (I’ll link it once the link is available) and then enjoy the rest of the festive season knowing that, even on the shortest day, the sun always rises.

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  • gréagóir o frainclín

    Should have puttin’ the road through it!

    Had there been big money to be made they would have!

  • pippakin

    And a happy and blessed Yule to you too.

    The shortest day also heralds the end of winter and the inevitable and joyous return of the Sun God

  • pippakin

    gréagóir o frainclín

    Have you seen Stone Henge? Don’t even joke about it!

  • Don’t even joke about it!

    Exactly. I am as disgusted by economic vandalism of ancient monuments as anybody else.

    The suggestion of a building a road, resulting in the ruin of Stonehenge is slightly unfair. The part of the A303, which is adjacent to Stonehenge, is also the site of an ancient right of way going back to “time immemorial.” England has a rich ancient history of road and route building which, in itself, is part of its heritage.

    I am not up to date with what happened to the site of the Battle of the Boyne but I gather that the residential development has not taken place due to the recession. Every cloud has a silver lining. I hope that something can be done to thwart, permanently, that proposed development.

  • pippakin

    Seymour Major

    Well yes and an ancient right of way through fields and hedges is one thing. A dirty, great motor way is another. I admit that the road was developed at a time when very little regard or respect was paid to ancient pre Christian monuments. I hope everyone knows better now.

    If they only look at the sheer scientific achievement, those people knew their math, the stars and the path! Amazing.

  • anne warren

    To get back on topic of the solstice at Newgrange.
    This year’s winter solstice — an event that will occur next Tuesday — will coincide with a full lunar eclipse in a union that hasn’t been seen in 456 years.

    The luster will be a bit “off” on Dec. 21st, the first day of northern winter, when the full Moon passes almost dead-center through Earth’s shadow. For 72 minutes of eerie totality, an amber light will play across the snows of North America, throwing landscapes into an unusual state of ruddy shadow.

    The eclipse begins on Tuesday morning, Dec. 21st, at 1:33 am EST (Monday, Dec. 20th, at 10:33 pm PST). At that time, Earth’s shadow will appear as a dark-red bite at the edge of the lunar disk. It takes about an hour for the “bite” to expand and swallow the entire Moon. Totality commences at 02:41 am EST (11:41 pm PST) and lasts for 72 minutes.

    If you’re planning to dash out for only one quick look -­ it is December, after all -­ choose this moment: 03:17 am EST (17 minutes past midnight PST). That’s when the Moon will be in deepest shadow, displaying the most fantastic shades of coppery red.

  • joeCanuck

    Thanks for that, Anne.
    To get back to Newgrange specifically, will the priests be saying mass?

  • John Ó Néill

    Don’t follow you, Joe?

  • joeCanuck

    A joke, John. Old versus new religion.

  • pippakin


    You know you’re in trouble when they build a church on top of it and declare it what always Christian..

  • John Ó Néill

    Joe – I thought I’d missed something obvious. Oddly, a lot of the new agey types who would visit the likes of Newgrange for the solstice look blankly at you if you suggest they are in the thrall of a belief system that is something like a religion. They actually get fairly narky, coming to think of it. Maybe I put my point across badly to them…

  • pippakin

    John O’Neill

    Do they? most of the ones I have met recognise that their belief is what some would call a religion. If you check the sites you will even find people calling themselves, ‘reverend’. Its odd, even confusing, perhaps its meant to be.

    Voodoo adopted some of the saints as did Candomble. It may have had something to do with acceptability or, more likely, it was easier to disguise old ways using ‘new’ words.

  • John Ó Néill

    Pippakin – a lot of the ones I’ve come across are a bit like I said – but thats often been in the context of Newgrange, Tara etc where, for various reasons, they’ve been trying to establish some sort of hegemony over how the place should be understood. And not usually in a very factual way.

  • joeCanuck


    I think it’s the disguise. I bet there were holy wells and holy bushes (fairy thorns) in Ireland long before christianity stuck its nose in.

  • pippakin


    You would win your bet…

  • joeCanuck

    Yes, John.
    Those modern day “druids” with their made up stuff are annoying to say the least. Hopefully the new age ones will be kept in their proper place, where they can play with their magic crystals etc to their hearts content. To each their own, but places like Newgrange, Stonehenge etc belong to all of us.

  • John Ó Néill

    Joe – early christianity in Ireland appears to be fairly syncretic – they simply took various exisiting figures from the indigenous belief systems and called them Saint whatever (Brigid being an obvious example). The irony is that we know relatively little about religion in Ireland in the centuries before christianity arrived.

  • joeCanuck

    That’s a sad thing about everywhere Christianity went. A huge amount of information was suppressed, then lost. We can see some echoes in the things that christianity absorbed, St. Brigid indeed and Our Lady of Guadeloupe in S. America.

  • Meanwhile, I see that so far the weather has (apparently) prevented setting up the cameras to catch midwinter sunset at Maeshowe.

    Try for yourselves at

    Moreover, Maeshowe is, largely, in its original state; and not a tourist trap to the same extent.

    I’ve done both Maeshowe and Newgrange (though neither, alas, for the solstice). I’ve seen Stonehenge, and been disappointed. Somehow the isolation of the Orcadian sites adds an additional element: not just Maeshowe, but the Ring of Brodgar and Skara Brae. The difference is that, even in mid-summer, one is likely to be alone in the landscape.

    Many years ago we were at Winchester Cathedral (“You’re bringin’ me down.”). Close to the east end was a guy with a mystic stack of stones, squatted in a lotus position, doubtless murmuring his Om mani padme hum mantra. We went away amused.

    Time passed, as it has a habit of so doing. We were at Skara Brae. So was the same guy, similar pile of stones, still able to contort himself, and doubtless still with his mantra. I hope he found his spiritual peace. For a while I almost wanted to believe in ley-lines and the like.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Setting aside the religious element (which is mainly guesswork) the practical calendar element to these monuments was vital to agriculture I would imagine, in tyrone we have the Beaghmore stone circles, still a bit of a mystery to say the least.

  • JeanMeslier

    Did the ancient druid priest’s/priestess’s sexually and physically abuse children too?

  • pippakin

    Jean Meslier

    If I had to guess I would say not very young children, but ‘grown up’ would probably have been puberty.

    I’m not sure if its actually possible to know. The old ways were so demonised by the Christian church/s that its quite difficult to be sure of more than the existence of the remains. I’m very sceptical of the so called new age ‘certainties’.

  • John Ó Néill

    DR – maybe I’ll do something on stone circles another day – there are two problems with Beaghmore – the first is that it was vandalised around 1980-81 and the stones may not be in the exact correct positions. The second is that most of the stones are kind of shin-high and unless you are suggesting they were for leprechauns it is hard to see how they could be used for alignments (unless you have to lie on your stomach to see them).
    They are one of the most impressive prehistoric sites in Ireland, regardless of my pedantic details, though.

  • JeanMeslier @ 11:38 am‘s barbed comment fits neatly with Drumlins Rock @ 10:16 am.

    Whoever “controlled” the calendar (presumably a priest-caste) would have wielded considerable economic clout. So, political pundits please chime in, would that have been authoritarian or collaborative? Proto-autocracy or proto-communism?

    As for Beaghmore, I recall that there are several alignments which seem to be 40 degrees east of the true north. And why not, John Ó Néill @ 12:46 pm, lie prone to observe them? Prostration is not unknown in modern worship.

    This orientation has been adduced as pointing to the midsummer sunrise. One line could be accidental; two might be circumstantial; but I believe that Beaghmore has no fewer than four such pointers. Perhaps neolithic religion in Northern Ireland suffered rancourous splits as has troubled modern presbyterianism, with each sect demanding its own alignment.

  • John Ó Néill

    Malcolm – to cut a long story short – Beaghmore, like many of the other ‘stone circles’ in Ireland, aren’t ‘stone circles’ in the same sense as the likes of Callanish etc (slightly longer explanation here). I’m spoiling a great story, I know.
    I might do something longer on the subject at a future date (if Mick wants to indulge it obviously).

  • pippakin

    John O’Neill

    Well done. I hope you do a longer post, or perhaps a series of posts on the subject.

  • For those who cannot wait for John Ó Néill‘s elucidation, there is a Beaghmore-for-Beginners page at:

    Less user-friendly, but illustrative is:

    The report of the 1965 excavations is out there somewhere, but I think it’s behind the JSTOR pay-wall.

    Now, where’s my copy of Anthony Weir on Early Ireland?

  • joeCanuck

    I’m surprised that Beaghmore isn’t promoted more. It’s a magical place; I’ve visited 3 times.

  • joeCanuck

    Amatuer alignment seekers would be well advised to do a bit of research. It wasn’t just the sun or moon that were marked by the ancients but other celestial happenings. For example the rising of the Pleides and first appearance of Sirius (dog days of summer).

  • pippakin

    Here is a link for live feed of the sunrise at Newgrange.

  • joeCanuck @ 4:30 pm makes a valid point.

    As I recall from many years ago, trying to understand Alexander Thom, he could deduce alignments to all kinds of observations. Why was Deneb, for just one example, so significant?

  • Greenflag

    Here’s a link for a wider view of these mesolithic and neolithic sites . Note the high incidence in SW Ireland , NE Scotland with other high densities in Tyrone and SW England. Note the almost total absence of in eastern England and Central Ireland outside of the Boyne valley .

    I think we can deduce that these ‘circles’ were built wherever they could be and thus it’s safe to infer they had some ritual gathering or religious purpose or even territorial markers for small tribes – The larger ones Stonehenge , Newgrange etc were probably major centres with the population densities that allowed for ‘sun gazing ‘ and ‘growing ‘season calculations ?

    I’ll take this opportunity to wish one and all a happy and merry Solstice /Christmas /Hannukah/Yule or whatever you’re having yourself .

  • Greenflag @ 5:33 pm

    the almost total absence of in eastern England and Central Ireland outside of the Boyne valley

    Yes, but that might mark our failure to see where impermanent materials were used. Consider the 1998 discovery of “Seahenge” (Holme I), which, as I understand, led to the identification of a second, older site (Holme II) nearby. Isn’t it amazing how we use the word “discover” when we mean recognising something that was there all the time?

    Happy solstice! (December 21, at 23:38 pm to be precise).

  • Afterthought:

    I liked the piece by Richard Cohen at

    Wish I written it (or even known about many of the local traditions).

  • pippakin


    Not sure why but Norfolk in eastern England is said to have more churches than anywhere else in England. It contains the Broads so some very wet areas. It also has strong connections to Boadicea a famous ancient chief/ess.

  • joeCanuck

    Great piece, Malcolm.

  • Greenflag

    @ malcolm redfellow,

    ‘Isn’t it amazing how we use the word “discover” when we mean recognising something that was there all the time?’

    Tis indeed . I have an image of an humble Christopher Columbus pitching up in the throne room of the Spanish regents stating ‘that he had’nt discovered America as it was already there when he found it ‘ 😉 and both regents being so miffed at his underwhelming statement that taking a leaf out of the book of an earlier Chinese Emperor they banned all future sailings to the ‘already there ‘land ;?

    Presumably Rutherford could have said the same about the atom but he’d have been heard on the other side of the pond so loud were his vocal responses .

    Your point re impermanent materials is taken . The great banqueting hall at Tara being one case among many. I imagine there would have been more carpenters than stone cutters in said areas .

  • Greenflag

    @ pippikin,

    Thanks for that info re Norfolk -I was unaware . Spent some time in Isle of Ely area but that was during the period of my early non church attending days. The Isle of Ely is the highest point in that area and is surrounded by low lying fens of Cambridgeshire . A folk unto themselves the ‘fenners’ reputed to have webbed feet as an adaptive response to centuries of floods 🙂

    Boadicea indeed . this infamous red head gave the Romans a load of trouble forever fitting knives to the wheel hubs of chariots and speeding around the MXXV of the time or was it the MV whipping of Roman knee caps not to mention burning Colchester to the ground .Alas or maybe not she was defeated by the Roman Armies military discipline and effective use of the ‘wedge formation’ in a battle in which 10,000 legionaires defeated some 180,000 brave Britons whose military strategy book contained just one word –
    ‘Charge ‘

    Had Boadicea ousted the Romans would the Anglo Saxons ever have made an impression on that part of England ?

    The old British penny’s face was based iirc on Boadicea the Briton .

  • pippakin


    Happy to be of assistance…

    10,000 against 180,000 Impressive, just a thought, who was doing the counting?

    Kneecapping. I wondered where the PIRA got the idea from.

  • Look, you lot: I’m not getting involved in anything Norfolk. I was born and drug up there.

    By the way: there’s no evidence that Boudicca war a Norfuk gel. her husband bort tit at Stonea, which are in Cambridge. All a saim, them mawthers wiv ther trolleys dun half tek arter her in Tescoos, now,

    [Medical abbreviation: NFN — normal for Norfolk.]

  • pippakin

    Malcolm Redfellow

    You were born there? Are you trying out your Norfolk accent? Its kind of Cornish but not, if you see what I mean.

    I’ve not spent much time there but sure hasn’t everyone been to the Norfolk Broads.

    I do know there has recently been a huge defeat there. A town called Sheringham, nice little place on the coast, has been fighting a long battle with Tesco who wanted planning permission for one of their superstores. I understand Tesco finally won the battle this year.

  • joeCanuck


    Richard Cohen mentions the wren-boys in Ireland. The Chieftans have a song about the wren on their Christmas album Bells of Dublin. Great song (the wren, the wren, king of all birds) and great album with many guest singers.

  • pippakin @ 8:46 pm:

    True enough. I’ve dropped enough hints on my blogspot to be identified by at least two school-mates from North Norfolk. Funnily enough, I’m quite proud of being an Anglian and not a Saxon. Makes the other side of me being Anglo-Irish or West British seem almost tolerable. Helps, too, to marry a Young Ulster Unionist (though she defected).

    I’ve never understood why the supermarkets have to be represented in every community. There were, in fact, a couple of chain foodstores in Sheringham (pop: 7,000 on an average day) already; and four “real” supermarkets within a 20-minute drive. I suspect the other gripe, a snob thing, it’s a common-or-garden Tesco and not a Waitrose (the John Lewis partnership were sniffing at a similar site).

    joeCanuck @ 9:07pm:

    Yes, indeed. I keep running up against this belief that the hunting of the wren on St Stephen’s Day is somehow peculiar to the Celtic, particularly Irish and specifically Kerry, tradition. I think that is in part another myth perpetrated by the Clancys (see their 1969 Christmas album).

    I came up against it when I had to teach Arnold Wesker’s Chips with Everything, who uses the song, The Cutty Wren, and predates that Clancy version by half-a-decade.

    There are all kinds of theories about the origin of the wren metaphor. One version is that the birds quarrelled about which could fly the highest. The eagle soared above them all, except the insignificant wren had clung to its back, and so managed a bit higher still. That, I was once told, came from the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt (next one due any moment), though that interpretation may derive from AL Lloyd via Chumbawumba.

    Without looking it up, is there some relationship to Who killed Cock Robin?:
    Who’ll bear the pall?
    We, said the Wren,
    Both cock and the hen,
    We’ll bear the pall.

  • pippakin

    Malcolm Redfellow

    Well of course you know Sherringham and the remains of the bronze age wooden circle at Holme next the sea. I hope you get to Norfolk from time to time. I go to visit relatives near Cromer.

  • John Ó Néill

    To get back to Newgrange, I’ve updated with a link to RTE live tomorrow (thanks Pippakin), although it probably won’t be actually live until well after 8.30 am.
    The solstice connotations of the shortest day and the return of the sun tend to be a common feature of many societies. The embodiment of some form of renewal belief tends to be evidenced as well – there may be two instances at Newgrange – cremated human bone found in the chamber was probably crushed on the large stone basins in the recesses (similarities have been noted with the large querns used to grind cereals). The human bone was not buried but actually mixed with other cremated bone deposits in the chamber, symbollically returning and intermingling the deceased with the community of ancestral burials already there maybe believed to be returning the dead to where they came from. To an agricultural society the analogy is obvious (sowing seeds etc into the soil from which food crops grow).
    Secondly, the configuration of the passage and chamber (and the entry of the light with the sun rise) all have womb/conception like connotations, again reflecting the cycle of renewal, new life etc that characterises the solstice in many cultures (plus, as Malcolm has linked, it is also an essential element of Christmas and the calendrical “New Year”).
    I think I’ll definitely re-visit the stone circle issue early in the new year as well.

  • Munsterview

    This is a magic 3 & 3/4 minutes of U tube very much on topic. I have had the privilege of knowing Henry Lincoln ( Holy Blood, Holy Grail) for quite a few years. Henry’s surname is in fact Soskin and his son Rubert, a lovely young fellow did a magical book and DVD ‘ Standing With Stones’ some years back.

    Rubert travelled to hundreds of these sites all over these Islands and not only did the recording, he sayed at each site long enough to soalk up the athmosphere and it shows It is well worth googling the title and looking up some of the results.

    I also had the privilege of seeing the first cut of the DVD some years ago during a weekend seminar across the pond. It is spellbinding and costs around £ 15 if memory serves me right. I cannot recommend it highly enough for any one interested in these matters. Since it has taken all sorts of International awards.

    I was also for some years a member of the Young Archaeology Society Of Ireland and I knew the late Dr O’Kelly. In fairness to the learned man when he sketched out the stabilizing plans for Newgrange, he was very much aware of the limitations of his research. Such work as he did can be easily removed if in a future date there is a new understanding as to what the edifice should have looked like on the outside.

    I have also been in the smaller chamber portal tombs in Southern France that could have been anywhere in Ireland. The sophistication and vast scale of these historical remains are testament to a pan European unified culture, of which Ireland was but one part.