My journeys to and from the megalithic monuments of Brú na Bóinne always involve the Drogheda to Slane Road, the N51. Sometimes, I take a left at Townley Hall on the old Dowth road. More often than not, I carry on past that turn, through Sheepgrange and Rossin, and hang a left after Dolly Mitchell's pub at Monknewtown. I feel as if I've been travelling those roads for centuries.
Last night, on the eve of the Vernal Equinox, I decided to go to Newgrange, to try to photograph a triple conjunction of planets in the evening twilight over the giant ancient mound. My luck was in. It was a cloudless dusk. The moon hung glittering in the twilight air, above Síd in Broga. Venus was low to its right, with Mercury glinting through the blue hues that were darkening by the minute.
It was cold. The wind had died almost to a whisper, but occasionally the trees were sent fluttering in a chorus of rustling by a breath of the breeze. I was isolated. Alone. Without company. And that suited me just fine. The truth is that many of my most profound moments in this life have been spent alone, under the stars, in proximity to the ancient sacred sites. That is my ritual. It keeps me sane in this insane world.
A most glorious scene painted itself upon the vibrant canvas of evening. The moon began to reveal its earthshine. Venus was ablaze, like a fiery torch low in the west. And Mercury, that most elusive of little wanderers, was, for once, higher in the sky than its much larger neighbour. I was taking photos, of course. That is part of my ritual. But from time to time, I lower the camera, and let it hang from my neck, or sit upon the tripod, and I just breathe. And I thank the universe, for this wonderful opportunity to bestow upon it a moment of adoration.
As twilight deepens and the black of night comes on, I hear the curlews, down in the fields between Newgrange and the Boyne. And I think how human-like their call is. Perhaps they are the voices of the ancestors, still haunting the lands of Brú na Bóinne. Haunting seems such an inappropriate term. There is nothing eerie or spooky about their call. It is strangely soothing. A call from the otherworld.
Orion, the great warrior of the winter sky, is posed brilliantly above the valley. He is guarded on either side by his dogs and the great bull. The people who built Newgrange must have stood in this place, fifty centuries ago, and looked upon the great warrior god of the sky, the guardian of the great river ford of the Milky Way, the Bealach Bó Finne, the Way of the White Cow, the Boyne.
The photographs on my cameras captured some sense of the scene. But the real magic is, of course, about being there, standing there, in this solitary moment of my human existence, and feeling that I have entered an eternity.
When the time comes, and I have captured another view of the scene, I pack my gear away and walk to the car. I must go home. My call to the ancestors has been made. And they have responded. All is well in the universe. All is well in the otherworld. Tonight, I am more alive than ever.
I head up the road, back towards the N51, the Drogheda to Slane road. But on my way, I think about something. I think about how low the moon is now. And I think about the Hill of Slane, that great eminence that looks out like an everlasting watcher upon the ancient valley and all its dim corners and its shady groves and its treasure mounds of the human soul.
A revelation comes to me.
"I can get a photo of the moon over the Hill of Slane!"
Instead of turning right, for Drogheda, I turn left for Slane. "I will see where it lines up and find somewhere to stop," I say to myself.
Less than half a mile down the road, it lines up. I pull the car in and grab the camera that has the telephoto lens attached, and my tripod. I fumble around in the dark, stepping in deep mud at the entrance to a field, trying to extend the tripod legs. This scene has been millennia in the making. It's possible – nay, quite likely – that no human has ever stood in exactly this spot and seen the equinox moon in exactly that spot in the sky, above Slane, and taken a photograph of it. In this moment, I will be making history. I am, suddenly, a pioneer.
A bit of focusing, and exposure adjustments, and a few clicks later, and I am back in the car, heading for Drogheda on the old N51. (The resulting photograph is the main image at the top of this page).
A bit of focus is all that's needed. And as I drive, I focus on Slane in my mind, and the significance of the recently captured photograph. And I realise that tomorrow is March 20th, the Spring Equinox. I have captured the first crescent ("new") moon above the Hill of Slane, which in my mind is forever associated with the Spring Equinox.
Why? Why is it connected with Vernal Equinox?
Because Saint Patrick lit the paschal fire there, the sacred Easter fire. And he lit it on March 26th, 433AD. Just six days after the equinox. Because Easter was always fixed in relation to the Spring Equinox. In the modern church, it is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. In olden times, it was probably held in conjunction with the first full moon after the equinox.
And there was, undoubtedly, an Easter celebration before Saint Patrick and before the arrival of Christianity. How do we know this? Because it's in the story of Patrick. It was forbidden for anyone to light the sacred fire at that time until the king had first done so at Tara. In lighting the fire at Slane, Patrick was in grave contravention of the laws of the time, and the punishment was death. He didn't die, however, but rather overcame the king and the druids, and thus Christianity was said to have come to Ireland.
As the sun had gone down that eventful evening, on the great eminence of Slane, looking down over the ancient cairns of Brú na Bóinne, a new light had emerged in the night above Brega plain. A new empire of faith was being established in Ireland. The old empire, the old order, was giving way.
And ever the equinox sun rises, east of Slane, over Drogheda, anciently Inber Colpa, where Patrick first set foot on these verdant shores. And ever does it set, in the west, above Slane hill, viewed from Drogheda.
And last night, as the slender crescent moon descended upon Sláine's peak, I thought about Patrick and empires, and the coming and going of men, and the rising and falling of great seats of power. Laoghaire's time had come and gone. The ancient ways of the pagans had come and gone. The sun had set on a great age of the world, and the fledgling rays of a new dawn had spilled out over the Boyne valley.
Now, with the decline of the old church, I wonder if Patrick's age has come and waned, like a moon growing old in the sky before it fades to nothing, in the brilliant light of a sun, announcing yet another new age.
And something in me creaks and groans. Shortly, the moon sets into the Hill of Slane. The equinox is tomorrow. A time of balance, of equal day and night. A time when the light of the long days is returning to the valley. There is much to be cheerful about, but I do not cheer the decline of Patrick's following. I do not know what will come in its place.
All I know is that the equinox sun keeps setting into Slane, and the new moon following it, and the world keeps turning. Sun and moon know nothing of our paltry affairs. They come and go, relentlessly, like the falling of days, and human empires and ages come and go, like the leaves from a tree.
Enter the ‘Ancient Sites’ section of this blog for a fascinating and wide-ranging exploration of the megalithic and sacred sites of Ireland. Find out all about the Stone Age and prehistoric ruins and learn more about the possible functions and alignments of these sites. Visit the great temples of Brú na Bóinne, the Hill of Tara, the ancient cairns of Loughcrew among many others.
Explore the ancient myths, legends and folklore of Ireland and their meaning. Read the epic Táin Bó Cuailnge, or the place-name myths in the Dindshenchas. Learn about how the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Milesians came to Ireland and how the early texts describe various invasions of prehistoric Éire. Hear about Fionn and the Fianna, and discover how some myths might contain information about astronomy and the stars.
There is no doubt that the ancient megalith builders had a substantial knowledge of the movements of the sun, moon, planets and stars through the heavens. Learn more about just how complex and impressive this knowledge was. There is evidence that the people of the Neolithic knew about the 19-year Metonic cycle of the moon, as well as being able to predict eclipses.