Behind the Scenes at Newgrange at the Winter Solstice

Published: 14 May 2020

We have a special Throwback Thursday today; Clare Tuffy, manager of the OPW Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre, brings us behind the scenes on the magical experience that is Winter Solstice at Newgrange. Photos: Ken Williams, Shadows and Stone Photography.

A place in the chamber at Newgrange for Winter Solstice dawn is highly prized. In 2000, the Office of Public Works introduced an annual lottery for those sought after spots and ever since then the Winter Solstice starts for us on the last Friday in September. That is the day when we have the Draw to select our lucky Lottery winners.

Thirty children from our local schools - Slane, Donore and Knockcommon National Schools, come into the centre in a flurry of excitement after being collected from school by one of our Brú buses. They pick out 120 names from the large number (28,595 for Solstice 2018) of application forms spread out on the floor. The first 60 names drawn are offered the initial places on the six days we are open for dawn. The other 60 are put on a reserve list.

Every year we ask the children where they would like the winners to come from and they invariably say that they wish all the winners to be from the locality. However, when the origin of the winners is called out, the biggest cheers always come for the countries the furthest away. The children attend to their Solstice duty in a very responsible way, taking their time and choosing carefully. We are so proud of them all, they are all very well behaved and very well-mannered. They are a credit to their families and to their teachers and we are very grateful to them all for their invaluable help.

On the days we contact people to tell them that they have won, we think we have the best job in the world. What always strikes us is how many lottery winners tell us that they had a strong feeling that they were going to win and that their visit to Newgrange had been one of the most memorable days of their year. We scan a copy of their original application and attach it to the email as some of our winners don’t believe that they have won until they see their own signature.  

Some people get back to us within an hour, sometimes making a commitment to travel half way around the world on the off chance that they will see the sun shine in distant County Meath in December. We are astounded by what can only be called their ‘act of faith’.

Sometimes our email to the winners gets caught in spam. We try to avoid the word ‘lottery’ and ‘winner’ in the text so that firewalls don’t shut us out. However, we have telephone numbers and postal addresses for all so we don’t give up if we don’t hear back after our first contact. We only go to the reserve list once we hear back directly from the person concerned that they are unable to attend. Of course not everyone who wins is in a position to travel and we understand that.

We are open to the public for 6 mornings, 18th to 23rd December, with ten lottery winners plus a guest inside on each of those days. We think it is only right that on such a special occasion, each winner has someone to share the experience with in the darkness. By the beginning of December, all of the six days are filled. We double check we have mobile phone numbers for everyone and that everyone knows where to go on the morning and at what time.

We have our Pre-Solstice planning meeting at the end of November. As with every big public event, the Winter Solstice event doesn’t happen by chance. Different sections of the OPW meet with their colleagues from the Gardaí and Meath County Council and we form a plan that we are all happy to sign off on. The Gardaí help manage the traffic and keep the roads open and Meath County Council keep the roads passable if we have bad frost or heavy snow. The OPW Press Office and National Monuments Units coordinates with national and international media outlets to arrange access to the site. This high profile event captures interest globally and coverage is highly prized.

There is a wonderful infectious buzz to the event and as we approach the Solstice dates, we become obsessed with weather forecasts. However, after many years’ experience we know that no matter what the weather is like or is predicted to be like, it is impossible to forecast precisely what will be happening in a small patch of sky opposite Newgrange at 8.58am. On cloudy days, we tell ourselves and our lucky lottery winners not to give up hope. We also have to be mindful that even on promising mornings, it still may not all turn out as we anticipate.

We ask our Solstice attendees to be at the Centre by 7.00am or shortly afterwards. We greet them at reception with warm congratulations and ask their names so we can check them off our list. We then give the people who are going inside the chamber a special Solstice badge to wear around their necks so we can identify them at the site. As we have plenty of time to spare before we go to the site, our guests relax over a cup of tea and biscuit. We started the tradition of giving our lottery winners something to eat before dawn because we had a run of people fainting in the chamber some years back. Visitors are so keen and excited to get here that we discovered some had forgotten to eat.

Another reason we offer some food is that there were times when as we have waited in silence in the dark chamber when the only sound to be heard was the rumbling of hungry tummies!

At the monument itself, before any visitors arrive, our colleagues are preparing the site for its moment in the light! The gravel is swept in the chamber and raked into a spiral design, the bollards in the end recess are removed and the power generator in connected...just in case. Once the horizon begins to brighten, the gates are open. On the 21st, each person who comes through the gate is given a numbered card. This is how we organise those who are not lottery winners getting into the chamber after dawn.  

Shortly after 8.00am, the lucky group who are going inside the chamber are gathered and we head across the Boyne from the Centre to the bus stop.  A Special Solstice bus is always reserved for the winners and as we pull out on the road, the excitement within the bus generates enough anticipation and energy that we feel the bus could fly up the lane to the monument.

At Newgrange, we wait outside for a while watching the horizon and then at about 8.35 am the group goes inside with a guide who reminds them that they are there to witness an event planned over 5,000 years ago and that cloud or sun, they are fortunate to have been chosen.

While the lottery winners are inside waiting, the people on the outside gather. On December 21st, we will have several hundred people and on the others days there will be fewer. The atmosphere outside is totally different from that inside. People are more relaxed and they watch the sun rise with eyes totally fixed on the horizon. As all of our regulars know, the people inside the chamber will have lost sense of time and will be wondering what’s happening outside.

Once the sun rises above the horizon, those of us on the outside cheer very loudly so that those in the chamber know that the sun is up and on its way. The group on the inside have to wait until four minutes after sunrise to see the first beam of sunlight on the floor so that cheer from the far side can be very reassuring.

On the outside we chat and take photos while old friends compare solstice experiences. When the lucky winners emerge blinking in the sunshine and grinning like their faces might crack, we cheer in celebration. Then we start bringing everyone who has been standing outside into the chamber in small groups. This can take a long time on Dec 21st.

When all the excitement is over our minds turn to food. All year long we look forward to the Solstice breakfasts. It is the only time of year that our Tea Rooms do the Full Irish. On December 21st, we invite friends who have supported us during the year to breakfast and it is a great gathering. We sit down to eat as an extended family and to celebrate our good fortune at being the guardians (for now) of such wonderful monuments.               

Our thanks to Clare Tuffy for these wonderful memories. For information on visiting Newgrange and Knowth see our Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre (above) page

Would you like to witness Solstice at Newgrange? For the very first time the Office of Public Works (OPW) are accepting email applications to the hottest tickets in Ireland; click here for details.