On the morning of December 21st 2010 County Meath’s Newgrange became a site of historic importance in celestial terms when a lunar eclipse and the winter equinox coincided. Not since the Tudor’s times, 450 years ago, has such an event occurred.
Unfortunately the cloud on the morning stopped the winter sunlight from flooding the chamber at the passage tomb. It was thought that the passage would fill with both sun and moon-light on the morning of the winter solstice. However, the magic of the event was not lost on the thousands who gazed skyward to witness the lunar eclipse.
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Millions of people across the world gazed skyward to catch a glimpse of the first lunar eclipse for almost three years. The eclipse became at about 7.40am and the mid-eclipse began at 8.17am. In some locations in Northern Ireland a total eclipse was visible.
According to the Irish Astronomical Association the next lunar eclipse in Ireland will not take place until 2015.
At Newgrange, since 2000, the tickets to attend the winter solstice have been distributed by a free lottery system. Last year 25,000 people applied. Only 10 people received tickets and each could bring a guest. Those lucky enough to attend last year included people from Ireland, the U.S, Britain, Sweden, and the Czech Republic. Find out how to enter the draw here.
Although last year the clouds prevented the dramatic sunlight filled passage at Newgrange, those lucky few who have witnessed it know how magical it is and never forget the amazing vision.
Newgrange is a prehistoric passage tomb covered by a grassy mound. It was build 5,200 years ago making it about 200 years older than the Pyramids in Egypt. Although it’s difficult to estimate how long it would have taken to build the monument it did tell experts a great deal about the people at the time.
Professor George Eogan told the BBC “They were a very sophisticated society with a sound economic base as they were able to divert a large number of people to the building of passage tombs...The ritual of the dead was very important in their lives and the site combines engineering, architectural and artistic skills.”
The magic of winter solstice is created by the fact that its builders aligned it with the rising sun. At 8.58 on the shortest day of the year the inner-chamber of the tomb is flooded with light which enters through a “roof box” which is just 9.9 inches high.
This wonderful phenomenon was discovered by archaeologist, Professor Michael J O’Kelly in 1967.
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His daughter Helen Watanabe O’Kelly told the BBC “He found the roof box when uncovering the roof chamber but wondered about its purpose…My mother, who worked closely with him, suggested that it might be connected with the winter solstice. And that was how he discovered it in 1967."
The next year Mr O’Kelly brought his daughter along. She described her experience “There were just the two of us. It was cold and dark - no razzmatazz, like you have now. I still remember sitting in the cold and we just waited.
"Suddenly this shaft of light came into the chamber and hit the back wall. I remember being quietly moved - it was like someone was speaking to you from thousands of years before. I still see it like a picture before my inner eye - it was a golden light."
Since Mr O’Kelly’s discovery Newgrange has become a major tourist attraction. In 1993 it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Originally published in December 2010.