Marking the Solstice: Ireland’s Ancient Stone Circles…

With the winter solstice and shortest day of the year rapidly approaching it’s worth remembering the old traditions which predate any concept of Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, unionism or nationalism – specifically neolithic (meaning literally “new stone”) stone circles and other prehistoric constructions which were built specifically to align with the rising or setting sun on solstice day.

You can watch a live stream broadcast of the solar alignment from possibly Ireland’s best-known megalithic site, Newgrange, on 21st December. The solstice (or in Irish Grianstad – literally “sun stop”) occurs when direct sunlight enters the monument through its roof box aperture and illuminates the chamber for around 17 minutes. Provided it’s not too cloudy a day. With Newgrange dating back to approximately 3200 BC, the Neolithic astronomers of the day were quite possibly unaware of the irony in expecting winter sunshine in Ireland.

So far from the stereotype of primitive savages, our New Stone Age ancestors were considerably more clued up than we tend to give them credit for. They certainly knew their astronomy – although back in those days before the advent of the street light, clear skies at night would have been the norm. But there are some dissenting voices, such as that of the archaeologist Michael Gibbons, who claims that Newgrange’s solstice sunlight phenomenon is a mere fabrication which came about during reconstruction works on the monument in the 1960s.

With very little remaining of the old pre-Christian Ireland, an island once covered in deciduous woodland, the various standing stones, stone circles, passage tombs and dolmens dotted around the country are a rare reminder of this bygone age. I’m no expert on neolithic archaeology, but I’ve had a lifelong fascination for the mystic appeal of the stone circle and the part it plays in popular culture, from Doctor Who to Children of the Stones to Spinal Tap. So apart from Newgrange itself, the only other similar sites I’ve visited on the island to date are the hidden gems of the Beaghmore Stone Circles in Co. Tyrone and the Ballynoe Stone Circles in Co. Down. Both are well worth a visit – if you’re into that sort of thing.

Beaghmore, which dates back to around 2500 – 500 BC, can, with some justification, claim to be the Stonehenge of Tyrone. While not as impressive as the latter, it has at least not succumbed to the ravages of mass tourism. There’s no admission fee (unlike England’s most famous prehistoric monument which charges £23.60 per adult), no visitor centre, no café selling overpriced refreshments and no gift shops flogging tacky souvenirs. In fact during our visit at the height of summer we were the only people there. Ditto with Ballynoe. And just like Newgrange and Stonehenge it is though that the Beaghmore stones were built to align with the solar and lunar solstice alignments.

So in a hundred, nay a thousand years, whether we’ll have a united Ireland, maintain the status quo but possibly still without a sitting assembly in Stormont, joint London-Dubin authority, the status of a Russo-American dependency or direct rule from Mars, some things will not have changed. Our stones will still be standing proud. Here’s to a sunny solstice day.

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