In ancient times, humans used their observations of solstices and equinoxes as a form of calendar. By tracking the path of the sun across the sky, they could tell very precisely what stage of the year they were at and plan when to plant and harvest crops and work out the other issues of daily life that were important. It is likely that rituals were performed. All over the world there are ancient sites that were constructed to be aligned to the rising or setting of the sun at the solstices and the equinoxes. The word ‘equinox’ comes from the Latin for ‘equal night’, a time when day and night are of equal length owing to the sun’s crossing the equator.
In twentieth century Ireland, the significance of astronomical alignments at ancient sites was only gradually appreciated by archaeologists. When the archaeologist Michael J. O’Kelly discovered in 1967 that the 5,000 year old passage-tomb at Newgrange was built to capture the rays of the rising sun at Winter Solstice, his discovery was greeted with considerable scepticism by some of his peers. Hardly surprising, then, that when Michael Brennan carried out a series of observations at a number of ancient Irish sites in 1980, his most significant findings were largely ignored by many archaeologists. His discoveries at Loughcrew, Co.Meath, however, provided the main headline for the Irish Independent on March 25th, 1980. ‘Golden Secrets of Our History’, the headline read over an article covering Brennan’s discovery that one of the passage tombs at Loughcrew, Cairn T, captured the sunrise at the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes, illuminating ancient carvings.
Brennan, who had studied art in New York, detailed his discoveries in Ireland in a wonderfully illustrated book, The Stars and The Stones. Ancient Art and Astronomy in Ireland (London, 1983). Of his discovery at Loughcrew he wrote: “The equinox alignments complimented the solstice alignment at Newgrange, and those who were prepared to dismiss Newgrange as either an accidental or vague ritualistic and prelogical orientation would now have to try to explain away the implications of a precise, accurate, equinoctial alignment still in excellent working order.” When Brennan went to the newspapers with the story, editors were perplexed at how archaeologists had failed to discover these alignments themselves. “We explained that archaeologists had dismissed the astronomical potential of megalithic mounds for generations, and it was unlikely that a change in attitude would come about overnight.” As well as appearing in newspapers, the discovery at Loughcrew was reported on radio and television and congratulations poured in all week. Despite this, Brennan reports, “archaeologists closed ranks and maintained a wall of silence. After our first venture into the field, we were prepared to present our evidence, but no archaeologists approached us, not even privately.”
Carnbane East, one of three peaks in the Loughcrew Hills, located between Kells and Oldcastle in Co.Meath, is the location of Cairn T, where Brennan discovered the equinox alignment. It is the largest and most complete of a number of passage-tombs located on the top of the hill, many of them surviving as little more than outlines of the original structures. Every year in March and September, people gather on the hill in the hope of witnessing the equinox sunrise. Autumn 2005 was my first visit to Loughcrew for the equinox. I was accompanied by a fellow-member of the band, Coscán, and we were very fortunate to have clear skies. Claire Tuffy from the Office of Public Works was there to supervise small groups of people going inside the passage tomb at cairn T. It was an extraordinary experience to enter the passage and scramble over the sillstones between the entrance and the chamber. Once inside, we saw a square of golden sunlight that illuminated megalithic art on one of the chamber’s stones. To think that this structure had been designed and constructed to capture the sun in this way over 5,000 years ago was astonishing. The tune ‘A Reel Around the Sun’ was inspired by this and other sites in the Boyne Valley. I have visited Loughcrew at the equinox many times since but was never quite as lucky with the clear skies as we were that first morning.
In his book Where Three Streams Meet (Dublin, 2000), Seán Ó Duinn explains how the Christian liturgical calendar is based on the four stations of the sun, the solstices and the equinoxes. He discusses in detail how the early church gradually developed its festivals. The four stations of the sun were brought into relation with two central Christian figures, Jesus Christ and St. John the Baptist. Although there are no documents that tell the exact date of the birth of Christ, it was fixed to coincide with the winter solstice. The birth of St.John The Baptist, known from the gospel of St.Luke to have been six months older than Jesus, was fixed at the summer solstice. If we go back nine months from these dates, we find that the conception of St. John The Baptist would have coincided with the autumn equinox and the conception of Jesus Christ with the spring equinox. Although the Feast of the Conception of St. John The Baptist is not found in the tridentine or present calendar of the church, it was noted in the ninth century Irish text The Martyrology of Oengus at September 24th, very close to the autumn equinox (usually the 20th or 21st of September):
The conception of the noble John the Baptist,
Who is greater than be told,
Who is the most wondrous that has been born of men
The Feast of The Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive and bear a son, is still celebrated on March 25th, very close to the date of the spring equinox. Although the date of Easter shifts annually, it was associated in ancient tradition with the spring equinox. “Here then”, wrote Ó Duinn, “we have the perfect calendrical balance in which the births of Christ and St. John the Baptist occur at the solstices and their conceptions occur at the equinoxes. This is the basic framework of the Liturgical Year.”
The Christian church, therefore, built on a tradition which went back way into the depths of prehistory in fixing major festivals. We are fortunate that at Loughcrew, as at other ancient sites around the world, we can still witness sunrise as our prehistoric ancestors did at Cairn T over 5,000 years ago.
The sunrise enters the chamber at Cairn T for some time either side of September 20th/21st. On Saturday, March 19th, the weather forecast was particularly good, so I arose just before 5.00 a.m. and drove up to Loughcrew. A beautiful full moon illuminated the whole landscape as I drove. When I got to Carnbane East and walked over to the eastern slopes of the hill, I looked back at Cairn T, with all the people assembled in front of it awaiting the sunrise. The full moon was sitting almost perfectly on top of the cairn.
Cairn T, Carnbane East, Loughcrew, Co. Meath, just before sunrise on March 19th, 2022.
The sky was perfectly clear just before sunrise as a pale orange light grew across the horizon.
Looking east from Carnbane East just before sunrise.
Just before 6.30 a.m. the top of the sun peeped over the horizon.
Within a few minutes, the full sun could be seen dancing in the east.
Although the tomb is locked and inaccessible now because of structural problems, the entrance to the tomb looked like it was lit by golden light from within as the sun illuminated the passage.
Although it can be difficult to photograph through the bars of the iron gate, the photo below shows one of the stones in the passage, just inside the entrance, at Cairn T, brightly illuminated just after sunrise.
In the following photo, one of the carvings on the back stone in the chamber can just about be seen, a sunburst of floral design, one of a number of different designs on this stone, which was drawn by Brennan in 1980.
I met Claire Tuffy, who asked if I had any music with me and got me to take the tin whistle out and play a couple of tunes. She spoke very enthusiastically about that Autumn Equinox in 2005, when RTÉ had cameras up at Loughcrew. She recalled how wonderful it was to see the main evening news end with film of the Loughcrew sunrise, no voice overs, just the music that had been played there that morning. She’s been here at the equinoxes for decades, but that morning in September 2005 clearly had a fond place in her memory.
How fortunate we all are that we can visit here twice a year in the hope of witnessing the sunrise illuminate this 5,000 year building with its mysterious carvings. Although these monuments are officially described by archaeologists as passage-tombs, one cannot help but wonder if they were not far more than that. Like the churches and cathedrals of the middle ages, they may well have included the burial of ancestors amongst a number of other functions, including funereal and other ceremonies than marked important events in the lives of individuals and festivals which celebrated different stages in the year for the whole community.