Newgrange, Co. Meath
When it comes to winter solstice, Newgrange is the High King. The thin shaft of light that threads through its roof box opening on December 21st, creeping 19 metres into the heart of its chamber, is a direct connection between today and 3,200 BC. As the sun rises, the chamber is bathed in light – and the smiles of 20 lucky souls (selected by lottery from tens of thousands of applicants) there to see it happen.
Details: Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre (041 988-0300; heritageireland.ie).
Knockroe, Co. Kilkenny
‘The Caiseal’ doesn’t have the profile of other Irish passage tombs, but that suits the small crowd that pitches up here on winter solstice just fine. Discovered in 1990, Knockroe has been dubbed “the Newgrange of the southeast” by the archaeologist excavating it – although, unlike Newgrange, it boasts two chambers with astronomical alignments, providing illuminations both at sunrise and sunset.
Details: From Kilkenny, take the N77 (signposted Durrow).
Drombeg, Co. Cork
Dropped like a miniature Stonehenge in the Cork countryside, Drombeg is one of the most visited megalithic sites in Ireland. A perfect, manicured circle comprising over a dozen stones, Drombeg is also known as ‘The Druids’ Ring’, and winter solstice sees an alignment across the axis of the circle towards a notch in the horizon when the sun sets. The horizon is high, so arrive at least an hour early.
Details: 1.5km east of Glandore, Co. Cork on the R597.
Hill of Tara, Co. Meath
There’s no alignment event at Tara, but the ancient seat of power in Ireland always attracts visitors at winter solstice. Amongst them, you may find the Druids of the Dark Moon Grove, who hold regular monthly rituals at the site, as well as at summer solstice, Samhain and Imbolc (St. Brigid’s day). Despite recent controversies over the M3, Tara remains a hugely powerful place.
Details: 12km south of Navan, Co. Meath. Off the N3.
Killadangan, Co Mayo
Winter Solstice began as a celebration of winter’s end, the cycle of life beginning anew. Killadangan, a scattering of stones strewn around a salt marsh on the shores of Clew Bay, draws you right back to those Neolithic times. The mossy monoliths connect through a winter solstice alignment to a notch in the hills opposite, but get there early – the sun sets behind the hills at around 1.45pm.
Details: Approx. 5km southwest of Westport, on the Louisburgh road.
Baltray, Co. Louth
Most winter solstice sites date back thousands of years, but Baltray hinges on a discovery made in 1999, when three local investigators were astonished to find its standing stones oriented towards Rockabill Island on December 21st. A slight shift in the earth’s axis since the stones were erected means the sun rises just over one-and-a-half diameters to the left, or east, of Rockabill today.
Details: North of Boyne estuary beside Baltray Golf Club.
Beltany Tops Stone Circle, Co. Donegal
Beltany derives from the springtime festival of Bealtaine, when hilltop fires were lit to regenerate the sun. With some 64 of a possible 80 or so stones remaining, the circle looks like a jagged, sinking crown, and may once have been a passage tomb similar to Newgrange. The sun aligns with certain larger stones on winter solstice – toying with, rather than washing straight through the circle.
Details: Two miles south of Raphoe, Co. Donegal.
Beaghmore, Co. Tyrone
Discovered by locals cutting peat in the 1940s, Beaghmore remains one of Ireland’s best-kept megalithic secrets. Archaeologist Aubrey Burl has suggested that some stone rows were aligned to the sunrise, whilst others bracketed that date to warn of its approach. Whatever its magic, a dawn visit to the huddle of stone rows, circles and cairns is both ghostly and gorgeous.
Details: Beaghmore is 8.5 miles northwest of Cookstown, off the A505 to Omagh.
Dowth, Co. Meath
Dowth is the Inis Óirr of the Boyne Valley’s passage tombs – the least visited, but also the most mysterious. Marked by a lonely tree straight out of a fairytale, the passage tomb has never been scientifically excavated (despite many botched attempts), but a short passage aligns an inner chamber with the setting sun on winter solstice – providing an alternative to Newgrange for late risers.
Details: Take the N51 west from Drogheda.
Slieve Gullion, Co. Armagh
The mountain of Slieve Gullion plays a starring role in An Táin Bó Cuailnge, and legend suggests it is where Finn Mac Cumhaill turned into an old man after bathing in the summit lake. There are two cairns at either side of the water, with the southern passage tomb reported to have a winter solstice alignment at sunset. On a good day, the views stretch as far south as Dublin Bay.
Details: Slieve Gullion is a short drive southwest of Newry, Co. Down.