Stunning Winter Solstice at Newgrange

December 21, 2016  •  3 Comments

Today, December 21st, is the shortest day of the year,  the winter solstice, – and in Ireland, all eyes turn to Newgrange. This 5,200 year old prehistoric monument is world famous because the interior chamber is illuminated for a few minutes around 9AM as the rising sun clears hills to the southeast. As I write this, however, the radio is full of chatter because of new claims that the alignment actually dates from reconstruction work in the 1960’s and 1970’s!! It will be interesting to see how this one plays out! Sadly, the radio is also reporting that cloud, yet again, spoiled this morning’s show.

Anyway, I was oblivious to all this when I headed up there last Sunday, the 18th, to see the solstice celebrations for myself . . . hang on you say,  wasn’t I three days too early? Well no, because the alignment works for several days around the solstice -  when the position of sunrise "stands still". The visitor centre at Brú na Bóinne runs an annual lottery for places in the chamber from the 18th to the 23rd. It’s also probable that the chamber is partly illuminated for a few more days on either side of these dates but the site is not open at sunrise then.

Anyway with clear skies forecast, and even without one of the precious lottery tickets, I thought there would be opportunities for good landscape and people shots – and I wasn’t disappointed! There was a fab sky when I arrived to contrast with the controversial 1970’s reconstruction of the quartz south face of the monument – you can see here what Newgrange looked like beforehand. OK, beforehand in the 19th & 20th centuries - nobody knows for sure what it looked like when it was built!

Red Sky at Newgrange

001-Newgrange-Solstice-©-2016-John-Coveney001-Newgrange-Solstice-©-2016-John-CoveneySunrise on the first day of the 2016 Winter Solstice at Newgrange

Visitors arriving.

002-Newgrange-Solstice-©-2016-John-Coveney002-Newgrange-Solstice-©-2016-John-CoveneyArriving for the first day of the 2016 Winter Solstice at Newgrange

The sun comes out!

003-Newgrange-Solstice-©-2016-John-Coveney003-Newgrange-Solstice-©-2016-John-CoveneyWaiting for sunrise at the first day of the 2016 Winter Solstice at Newgrange

This is going to be a good one!

004-Newgrange-Solstice-©-2016-John-Coveney004-Newgrange-Solstice-©-2016-John-CoveneyWaiting for sunrise at the first day of the 2016 Winter Solstice at Newgrange

Clouds in just in the right place!


Of course, no modern celebration is complete with selfie shots! Some “harrumph” at this but why shouldn’t people enjoy themselves and capture their memories on a special day?

006-Newgrange-Solstice-©-2016-John-Coveney006-Newgrange-Solstice-©-2016-John-CoveneySelfie on the first day of the 2016 Winter Solstice at Newgrange

The sun is now blinding and people turn to look into the passageway to the chamber.


And get their phones out!


Lots of phones!

008-Newgrange-Solstice-©-2016-John-Coveney008-Newgrange-Solstice-©-2016-John-CoveneyWorshipping at the first day of the 2016 Winter Solstice at Newgrange

Even from the outside, it’s awe-inspiring to see the beam illuminating the passageway – and I’m hoping that, despite the naysayers, it was built this way five thousand years ago – not 50!


As the show finished, I was able to capture the joy on the faces of the lottery winners as they emerged.



And the hugs!


Once the lottery winners are out, the rest of the visitors queue to get into the chamber. Even after the sunbeam has moved on, the chamber is still relatively bright because the passage is facing the sunlight. And you can get in for FREE for an hour or so on solstice mornings!  An important TIP if you ever do visit Newgrange, is to wait until the end of the of the guide’s talk. After the rest of your group leaves, following the demonstration of the beam with lights, ask your guide nicely if you can lie down with your face on the floor and you will be able see out through the roof-box. The access passage slopes upwards so that the floor of the chamber is level with the overhead roof-box at the exterior. It’s not as good as winning the solstice lottery, but it was still a magical experience to see my son’s face dimly illuminated on the floor during our family visit a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed in the chamber, so you just have to imagine this!

010-Newgrange-Solstice-©-2016-John-Coveney010-Newgrange-Solstice-©-2016-John-CoveneyThe sun performs the first day of the 2016 Winter Solstice at Newgrange

In the previous shot, I spotted lottery winners Micaela and Simeon from Alaska and I did a quick mini-shoot with them in the rapidly warming morning sun.

011-Newgrange-Solstice-©-2016-John-Coveney011-Newgrange-Solstice-©-2016-John-CoveneyLottery winners Michaela & Simeon from Alaska on the first day of the 2016 Winter Solstice at Newgrange 012-Newgrange-Solstice-©-2016-John-Coveney012-Newgrange-Solstice-©-2016-John-CoveneyLottery winner Michaela at the first day of the 2016 Winter Solstice at Newgrange

I was also fortunate to meet Anthony Murphy of Mythical Ireland shooting the passageway with his fisheye lens and then getting a shot of Michael Fox of the tour company


Here are the three of us having a chat . . . or if you want to be dramatic, posing as the shadows of our ancestors!

013-Newgrange-Solstice-©-2016-John-Coveney013-Newgrange-Solstice-©-2016-John-CoveneyShadows of the past at the first day of the 2016 Winter Solstice at Newgrange

Once everyone had left, I got to walk around the monument totally on my own before the first of the regular tours arrived at 11AM. This structure to the rear is believed to a folly built in the early 1800’s from stones that slipped off the original monument.


The sun was still blinding as I came back around the west side.


Working on my leading lines!

016-Newgrange-Solstice-©-2016-John-Coveney016-Newgrange-Solstice-©-2016-John-CoveneyThe sun performs on the first day of the 2016 Winter Solstice at Newgrange

And my foreground interest – I mean this oul hill of beans - ahem stones - is just getting boring now - there's supposed to be a smiley face here . . . but they don't work in my blog!


The massive entrance stone in front of the passage way with the famous  tri-spiral carvings.

019-Newgrange-Solstice-©-2016-John-Coveney019-Newgrange-Solstice-©-2016-John-CoveneyThe sun performs on the first day of the 2016 Winter Solstice at Newgrange

And finally the shadows of two of the megaliths, one oul photographer and all juxtaposed (great word that!) with three jet trails. What would our Neolithic ancestors have made of these?


I took most of these shots with my Canon 10-22mm lens – its wide angle of view was ideal for capturing the shape of Newgrange. I used my Canon 70-200mm f4 lens to get most of the shots of the access passage and of the lottery winners leaving. They were all processed in Lightroom – in particular, I used the program’s graduated filter tool to enhance the detail in the skies.

A lot more reading about the Newgrange complex here and on Ireland’s Ancient East.


John Coveney Photography - People Places & Wildlife
Thanks Bev & Mr. Edith :-)
Mr. Edith(non-registered)
Great story and absolutely wonderful photographs! Also thank you for the "tip" :-) Happy winter!
Totally captivating. So magical.
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