The tomb is right for lucky solstice watchers

The first group of 100 lucky people chosen to witness Ireland’s oldest calendar “clock” in operation were allowed into the chamber of a giant burial mound on Wednesday, an environment ministry representative said.

Starting on Wednesday and running for six days, small groups will be allowed into the 20 metre long Newgrange tomb to see the sun’s rays beaming deep into the centre of the burial mound.

The phenomenon only lasts 17 minutes, but demand to see it has been soaring.

This year 5 500 people from Ireland and around the world were left disappointed after losing out in a lottery to see the effects of the midwinter solstice sunrise on the Newgrange tomb in County Meath, just north of Dublin.

The environment ministry said interest began to grow in the late 1980s. They began to queue the applicants for future years. But the waiting list grew so long that it became unmanageable, and people were facing decades-long delays before they had a chance of getting in.

Now an annual draw picks 50 names from amongst the year’s applicants.
The lucky ones are rewarded with a place for themselves and a friend.

“We were astonished. We got over 5 500 national and international applications for this year,” the representative said.

However, the winners of the draw then face another lottery—the weather. If it is bad and clouded over, the sun cannot work its wonders.

The chamber is so small that only about 20 members of the public are allowed in for the sunrise on each of the six days surrounding the December 21 solstice.

VIPs virtually take over on the actual solstice day. This year they will be hosted by junior housing minister Noel Ahern, a brother of Prime Minister Bertie Ahern.

Neolithic ancestors built Newgrange over 5 000 years ago with architectural skills and an understanding of the movement of the sun that astonishes modern scientists.

It is believed to be the world’s oldest continuously roofed building and was built 1,000 years before Britain’s Stonehenge and 500 years before Egypt’s great pyramids at Giza.

The tomb covers almost half a hectare. About 200 000 tons of stone and earth were used to build the structure, which is 13 metres high and 85 metres in diameter.

After years of construction, the Neolithic builders would have seen the solstice sun’s rays peep through the lightbox above the tomb entrance and, as the sun rose, creep up along the floor to reach the back of the chamber where the cremated ashes of their dead were kept.

Scientists believe the Neolithic designers regarded the sunlight shining on the ashes as a sign of rebirth—with the New Year giving renewed life to crops and animals. - Sapa-AFP

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