Historical Happenings for December 2016


by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian




     On a hill in County Meath stands a monument to the early settlers of Ireland, and their civilization. It is a remarkable structure built more than 5000 years ago. At first it appears to be just a huge mound on a hilltop in the Boyne Valley, but closer investigation reveals a man-made structure surrounded by enormous standing boulders. A magnificently carved kerbstone lies before the entrance to a 65-foot passage which runs to the center of the mound and three chambers of interlacing stones. The passage is the most interesting part for it is positioned and inclined at precisely the proper angle to align astronomically with the rays of the rising sun at one specific time of the year – the winter solstice. At dawn on December 21, the shortest day of the year and the point at which the power of the sun begins its annual return, the rising sun’s rays shine through a portal above the entrance, travel along the inclined passage and illuminate the central chambers. This only happens on December 21. The mound was called Bru na Boinne by the ancient Irish; today it is called Newgrange.

     According to carbon dating, the structure was built between 3700 and 3200 BC making it the oldest, still-standing, man-made building on the planet. Ancient Irish manuscripts say it was built by the Tuatha De Danann, early settlers of Ireland who were so advanced that Celtic settlers who followed them considered them possessed of magical powers and guided by the heavens. Today, we know that their “guidance” came in their advanced knowledge of astronomy — a knowledge unsurpassed in the known world at that time. To the Celts, Bru na Boinne was a domain of the gods, a palace of the otherworld, and a place of festivals.

     Reinforcing this belief was the fact that approximately 1 kilometer on either side are two slightly smaller mounds, Knowth and Dowth, which are also astronomically aligned with celestial events. Knowth, the oldest mound of the three was built some 500 years before Newgrange and is aligned with the setting sun on the solstice.

     With the coming of Christianity, many pagan forts and monuments fell into disrepair, were eventually overgrown, or eroded by time and weather. In 1142, the land on which Bru na Boinne stood became part of the Cistercian Abbey at Mellifont. Fields were called granges and Bru na Boinne simply became the new grange. During the Williamite confiscation of church property, the land was given to a Charles Campbell who used the mound as a source of stones for fences. In 1699, as workers were carting stones from the base of the mound, they discovered the magnificent entrance stone with its carved spiral designs. Further digging revealed the opening to a long narrow passage which led to the center of the mound and its three chambers. Authorities were notified and Welsh Naturalist Edward Lhuyd came to investigate. It is he who is credited with the discovery of Newgrange despite the fact that the Irish had been telling of Bru na Boinne for centuries. The locals were ignored and Mr. Lhuyd and several of his colleagues concluded that the great monument was the work of visiting Danes since nothing requiring such skill and intelligence could ever be attributed to the Irish.

     In 1750, General Charles Vallencey, a British Army Engineer and professional surveyor, discovered its astronomical alignment with the sun, moon, and planets and first advanced the theory that Newgrange was an astronomical observatory. He explained the standing stones in front of the entrance as sun stones positioned to cast shadows on the carved entrance stone to indicate the seasons. He ascribed considerable astronomical skill to its early Irish architects, but was ridiculed by his colleagues who had never even seen the mound. In spite of local tales which verified this phenomenon, references to the solstice lighting of Newgrange in the writings of George (AE) Russell, the writings of astronomer Norman Lockyer and anthropologist Evans Wentz, no archaeologist took the time to investigate it until 1969, when Michael O’Kelly entered the chamber before sunrise on the winter solstice and became the first modern archaeologist to witness that exciting event.

     In spite of the amount of verifiable information available on this historic site, some still stand with their backs to Newgrange, and stare at Stonehenge, marveling at the antiquity of a site constructed 1,000 years later. Or they wonder at the pyramids which were only started hundreds of years after Newgrange was completed. Finally, in 1989, the New York Times, which is ever slow to credit Irish accomplishments, noted that a British journal had announced that the astrological alignment of Newgrange appeared to be “by design rather than by accident.” Welcome aboard! It’s now December and on the 21st, the mound at Bru na Boinne will again receive its annual message from the heavens telling man that the days will now get longer and the long night of winter is coming to an end. Hopefully the long night of ignorance about Irish accomplishments is ending as well. So, this year as you are decorating the tree with lights for Christmas, consider that the Almighty is lighting up Newgrange for the same reason and wishing a Happy Christmas to all.