Sitting in a beam of light in Newgrange

Sitting in a beam of light in Newgrange

We entered the chamber, a small group, the last of the morning's visitors on the last public day of solstice at Newgrange. I am fortunate, blessed, honoured and privileged to have been in the chamber of Síd in Broga/Sí an Bhrú on hundreds of occasions. Every single time, it amazes me. It awes me. Every time, I know that I am lucky to be able to stand in that sacred space.

However, today was one of those really special days. The sort of visit to the chamber of Newgrange that will live in the memory until the end of days.

The light beam in the chamber of Newgrange

The light beam in the chamber of Newgrange.

We gathered in that stony vault, full of expectation. Shortly, our guide Jackie asked us if we minded if she turned off the lights. No problem at all. There was something of an immediate consensus. I sat down, to her left, close to the edge of the end recess, close to that place where the sun beam reaches on those glorious golden mornings when the sun shares a slice of his abundant light with the darkness of the womb-tomb.

The lights went off. We were in darkness. It took what seemed like an age for me to perceive that stray, dispersed, scattered and pale light that seeps into the chamber no matter whether it is sunny or cloudy outside. This morning was a grey, dark, overcast one. But inside the chamber of Sí an Bhrú, there was no greyness, only the golden cheer of a thankful handful of fortunate souls.

My mind drifted. I thought I could see shapes in the darkness. Occasionally, a smartphone screen lit up as someone took a photo. And then, the magic came. Jackie turned a hidden rotary switch, and an aureate strip of light appeared, lighting up the gravel on the floor, and it seemed as if those myriad tiny stones wanted to leap up and dance in the glow of that sudden welcome arrival. The light had come.

The beam of light in Newgrange

The beam of light in Newgrange. I moved my camera to get different views.

We all knew it was an electric light. We all knew it was overcast outside. It mattered little. It was the closest thing to the real experience and there were several sharp intakes of breath as the blade of light pierced the black void.

There I was, on my umpteenth visit to the manmade cave of Newgrange, and I was sitting on the ground, with that beam of light reaching past me, just millimetres away. I can't remember ever sitting in the chamber of Newgrange before as the light streamed in. I think this was a first.

Instinctually, I placed my camera down into the end of that stream of lovely luminosity. I set the aperture, shutter speed, ISO and focus position as best I could and began pressing the shutter release. The camera clicked several times. It makes a soft click, but in the loveliness of that moment I hoped that it wasn’t spoiling the quiet wonderment for all the others. It may have come like a beating drum, because in those moments when the light enters the chamber, there is generally an awed silence.

The triple spiral of Newgrange, lit up in pink

The triple spiral on chamber stone C10, illuminated in pink.

I made adjustments to the aperture to get better depth of field, adjusting the ISO upwards as I did so, making sure not to overexpose. I moved the camera about in the beam of light, sometimes placing it off to the side. Click, click, click. I really hope someone doesn’t tell me to be quiet. I feel like a shouter in a library. But it’s OK. Everyone is enraptured. Several are taking their own photos, with their smartphones. One does as I have been doing, and places his phone in the light beam. Oh the joy! A photograph cannot convey the emotions of a moment, or the full psychological and spiritual experience of an occasion; but it can go some way in doing so. I made sure to stop clicking after a while, so that I could enjoy a brief moment of the spectacle with my eyes and my senses.

Looking at the photos, it seems to me as if the light is entering through a secret keyhole.

I’m sure I speak for everyone who was in the chamber of Newgrange this morning when I say that we would have gladly stayed there for hours, watching that light, FEELING the intensity of the experience of the glow.

Spirals on chamber stone C3 in Newgrange

Spirals on chamber stone C3 in Newgrange.

And it seems to me that all of the mythologies of the world that are connected with solstices and monumental alignments, and the coming of the sun, and the vanquishing of the dark by the light, and the miraculous conceptions of gods and heroes, are born of moments like this.

To witness that spectacle – even the simulation – is to spectate on the verge of an ineffable wonder. There is reverie. There is veneration. There is peace. There is hope. There is even a touch of grandiosity.

You marvel at the ingenuity of remote ancestors of the New Stone Age. You want to applaud their imagination and creativeness. Who envisioned this grand project, this enormous monument of stone in whose cold and cramped interior a yearly miracle is seen to occur? Well done, whoever you are. Well bloody done! This is better than any cinema movie. This is up there with the most amazing things you’re ever likely to witness.

A wider view of the Newgrange trispiral on stone C10

A wider view of the Newgrange trispiral on stone C10.

Shortly, the simulation ends and the sun beam vanishes into the dirt and the lights come on. We have seen a glimpse of Tír na nÓg but for now we must return to the real world. Around the chamber, spread out so they could watch that dance of light in the dark, are people for whom a new light seems to have entered their very beings. Their faces are full of joy and daydream.

Before we go – and leaving seems so hard – we admire the megalithic art, and the corbelled ceiling, and that huge granite basin in the eastern recess. Wow. How did they do all this, in those days before metal and machines?

I light up the trispiral with my LED lights, and perhaps for the first time ever (I am glad to be corrected if I am mistaken) the triple spiral of Newgrange’s chamber is photographed with a pink hue. I hope that this meets with the approval of the gods who reside here.

Passage orthostat L19 illuminated in pink

Passage orthostat L19 illuminated in pink.

Shortly, we depart, one by one, through the narrow corridor leading to the outside, real, world. We have glimpsed something marvellous. I take a photo of orthostat L19 as I leave – the last one to exit, save for the guides behind me. I wish they’d let me stay. I know they can’t, but I wish it all the same. The photographs will be my memory of a gloriously lovely but fleeting moment in the chamber of Síd in Broga…

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Anthony Murphy is the author of ten books, including works of non-fiction and fiction. As of 2024, all of these books are in print or available for digital download.