Solstice at Newgrange reminds us what great human effort can achieve

21 Dec 2020

Image: © CPO/

Just as our ancient ancestors sought to bring light to the darkness, 21st century scientists are working towards a monumental achievement that will bring an end to Covid-19, writes Elaine Burke.

Usually at this time of year, some lucky lottery winners gather at Newgrange to witness an ancient spectacle. But, as with a lot of things in 2020, that annual pilgrimage has been curtailed by Covid-19. On the other hand, the event has, like many others this year, adapted to the present situation and pivoted to livestream.

The 2020 winter solstice at Newgrange was broadcast to the world this morning (21 December) and there will be another livestream tomorrow at 8.45am. While Sunday’s stream captured the magic of the solstice sunrise quite beautifully, this morning’s view was obfuscated by cloud – a common feature of Irish winters, unfortunately.

Even with that hindrance, it’s hard to mistake the metaphor of this year’s solstice event. For many in this moment, facing into a festive period that may be about to bring more loneliness than cheer, these have been the darkest days of a difficult year – in more ways than astronomical. Indeed, there have been dark days for so many who have encountered loss and suffering throughout the year.

At more than 5,000 years old, the Neolithic passage tomb at Newgrange predates the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge. Its incredible architecture, tailored to celestial movements, includes a roofbox engineered to capture the light of the rising sun on these short winter days, illuminating the inner chamber over the course of 17 minutes.

TU Dublin’s Dr Frank Prendergast, who was there for this morning’s live event, called the knowledge informing the build at Newgrange “ancient cosmology”. Though variation in the Earth’s axial tilt means the light reaching the chamber has slightly dimmed over the thousands of years since, the cosmos that guided these skilled engineers is much the same today.

Watching this morning’s unique confluence of the modern day and ancient history was a reminder that even over the course of five millennia, some things do not change. The world keeps turning. The sun keeps rising. And, as of the solstice, things can only get brighter from this point.

These days, our collective efforts to toe the line between life and death focus on medicine, not myth. Covid-19 vaccines are the rising light on the horizon but, just like a phenomenal feat of human engineering can be thwarted by a raincloud, there are no guarantees. All we can do is put our faith in the scientific process and hope that the days when the clouds come will be followed by clarity that lights the path ahead.

There are, undoubtedly, brighter days to come. With continued commitment to this global challenge, perhaps the world will be celebrating a monumental achievement by the time the days start shrinking again next June.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.