The skies above Ireland’s iconic terrain can paint a beautifully memorable picture if caught at the right moment through a tradition that has lasted for thousands of years. Visitors and locals alike come together to appreciate the summer and winter solstices, which are especially stunning when viewed from the ancient structures left behind by Ireland’s Neolithic (New Stone Age) inhabitants some 5,000 years ago, who often aligned their structures with these celestial events for mysterious reasons we still don’t fully understand even today.
There are two solstices each year, the Summer Solstice and the Winter Solstice. The summer solstice takes place on or around June 21st (with the effect often visible for 2-3 days on either side of the actual date), and marks the longest day of the year. The sun sets very late – past 10pm – and the soft glows of twilight can last until after midnight, with the first tendrils of dawn alighting the sky as early as 3 or 4 am.
Alternatively, the winter solstice takes place on or around December 21st, and marks the shortest day of the year (often marked by the celebration of Yule, which gradually became Christianised into Christmas). The solstices, as well as the spring and autumn equinoxes and other astronomical events were seemingly important to the Neolithic peoples who once inhabited Ireland some 5,000 years ago.
I was lucky enough to be able to witness the Summer Solstice from inside one of the Neolithic cairns of Carrowkeel in County Sligo. Carrowkeel is a megalithic cemetery containing 14 passage tombs (with another 12 in a 5-6km radius), and one of Ireland’s four clusters of Neolithic-era monuments, though despite the incredibleness of the place, Carrowkeel is still a little-known hidden gem.
As the sun sets on the longest day of the year, me and a small crowd of others who had come to appreciate the spectacle, came together to watch the walls of the ancient structure turn a brilliant gold as rays of sunlight crept through the small “roof-box” (a window slit aligned with the Summer Solstice sunset) above the door until the entire chamber was filled with light.
It was undeniably beautiful, both as a stunning solar spectacle and as a reminder that even though the people of Ireland’s Neolithic age are long gone, their customs have continued until today. We might not know a lot about them and their customs, beliefs and rituals, but we can certainly appreciate the same sun to which they devoted their monuments.
The solstice phenomenon can be experienced all over Ireland. Though Carrowkeel’s Cairn G offers perhaps the most spectacular experience, it is by no means the only point of interest.
Lough Gur’s Grange Stone Circle, found in County Limerick, offers its own Summer Solstice experience. Ireland’s largest stone circle (comprising 113 huge stones, each weighing tonnes), Grange’s entrance stones align with the rising solstice sun. The Grange Stone Circle, like all Summer Solstice sites, has a strong ritual history.
Today, this tradition is carried on with an annual Summer Solstice festival, which usually features traditional music, special guests, and yoga sessions. (Unfortunately, concerns over COVID-19 have led Lough Gur to be closed at the time of writing.)
Also to visit nearby is the Giant’s Grave, a collection of hilltop ringforts at Carraig Aile, and a visitor centre at Lough Gur, where you can learn about the incredible Viking shield discovered in the lake.
The most popular place of celebration for the Summer Solstice is the Hill of Tara in County Meath, tucked into the very heart of Ireland’s Ancient East. The ancient seat of the Irish High Kings of the east is a multi-era collection of hills, ringforts, and passage tombs where crowds that can number in the hundreds come together on the morning of the solstice to celebrate with bonfires, feasting, and more.
This congregation often has an especially strong emphasis on the spirituality of the event, tying into the tradition of mystic elements that has been part of Irish culture for millennia.
In some ways, the shorter days of the Winter Solstice actually makes it easier to witness, as you won’t have to wake up at the crack of dawn, or stay out late in the evening. Also being of the off-peak season, its unlikely they’ll be many other visitors crowding view; instead, it’s likely to be a handful of locals who have come out to these ancient sites to see the Winter Solstice. Do keep an eye on the weather though – the weather can be a bit more tricky in December but it also has some of the most incredible sunrises!
At the opposite end of the calendar, the Winter Solstice also has numerous points of significance. Most famously, Ireland’s largest Neolithic tomb, Newgrange, (which is located in the County Meath, 45 minutes outside of Dublin) is aligned with the sunrise of the Winter Solstice. Newgrange is part of the Boyne Valley, which is one of Ireland’s most important clusters of Neolithic monuments.
As the sun rises on the shortest day of the year, Newgrange’s huge chamber is illuminated, an experience similar to what I experienced in Carrowkeel at the Summer Solstice. Access to this experience, though, isn’t easy: visitors must win their space through a lottery that takes place months before the solstice in September, with thousands of competitors trying for just 50 spots.
While not the same thing, it’s of note that on each tour, the guides provide a mock version of this experience using lighting.
Those who aren’t feeling lucky with the Newgrange lottery can also mark other ancient destinations such as the Drombeg Stone Circle of the Baltray Standing Stones as potential winter solstice destinations.
The Drombeg Stone Circle, located in County Cork, is one of the best known stone circles in Ireland. Though worth visiting year round, visitors on the Winter Solstice will see that the stones line up with the Winter Solstice in the afternoon.
Superstitious visitors though should beware – though it looks harmless enough, Drombeg Stone Circle, nicknamed the Druid’s Altar, has many legends of a history steeped in sacrifices surrounding it.
At the opposite end (and coast) of the country, head up to Northern Ireland to the beautiful Ballynoe Stone Circle in County Down, a large circle encompassing 50+ stones over an area roughly 35 metres across.
Here, you can view the Winter Solstice, where the sun seems to slide down the incredible Mourne Mountains as it sets (in much the same way as the sun at Croagh Patrick at certain times of the year). Because the days around the Winter Solstice are so short, the sunset should be in the mid afternoon.
There are several good walks in the Mourne Mountains, are easily accessible from Belfast.
The Baltray Standing Stones, less well known than many of the others listed here, are located in County Louth on Ireland’s East Coast, and are accessible from Dublin.
During the Winter Solstice, you can observe the standing stones that make up Baltray as they align with the rising solstice sun. Incredibly, during the Winter Solstice, the sun is directly placed between the stones and the nearby island of Rockabill.
If you’ve got your heart set on witnessing the Winter Solstice from within a passage tomb, head to Co Armagh to climb the hill of Slieve Gullion. Here, find the spectacular passage tomb atop the mountain whose chamber is illuminated by the setting December sun, built some 6,000 years ago.
Do be sure you’re ready for a hike – the passage tomb of Slieve Gullion is the highest surviving passage tomb in Ireland, and sometimes called the Calliagh Beara’s House (learn more about the Hag of Beara here).
In many ways, the Summer and Winter Solstices offer a unique experience that brings together several aspects of what makes Ireland so special: its natural beauty, fascinating history, rich folklore and legends, and an overwhelming sense of community.
For thousands of years, the people of Ireland have gathered in these sites to celebrate the solstice. Though the ancient religious rituals have fallen out of use, the solstices continue to mark a special moment on the Irish calendar.
Today, like the ancient cairns, stone circles, and standing stones themselves, this longstanding practice survives as people continue to come together, year after year, to step back into history in a moment of beauty and celebration of this amazing natural phenomenon.
In Ireland, the Summer Solstice takes place on or around June 21st, with the solstice effect often visible for 2-3 days on either side of the actual date, and marks the longest day of the year.
The Winter Solstice takes place on or around December 21st, and marks the shortest day of the year. The effect is often visible on the 2-3 days leading up to and away from December 21st.
The Spring Equinox, halfway between the Winter and Summer Solstice, marks the start of the “light” half of the year in which the days are longer than the nights. It is celebrated on March 21st, and may be connected to St Patrick’s Day, which is celebrated March 17th. The best place to view the Spring Equinox in Ireland is from the Loughcrew Tombs – specifically Cairn T – aligned with the sunrise and illuminating the passages.
The Autumn Equinox is halfway between the Summer and Winter Solstices, and is celebrated on September 21st. This marks the start of the ‘dark’ half of the year, when the nights start to be longer than the day.
By Adam Rainbolt
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