Newgrange is a Neolithic passage tomb located in the Boyne Valley, Co. Meath, Ireland.
It is over 5,000 years old, which makes it older than both Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza. The site has many remarkable features, both artistically and historically speaking. But perhaps what Newgrange is most famous for is the structure’s “roof box”, a small rectangular opening at the entrance to the tomb. Every year, on winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, weather permitting, the sun shines through the roof box and illuminates the inner chamber. (Actually this can happen a few days before and after 21 December.) Quite a feat.
I first visited Newgrange as a kid, in early spring. I was in awe of the sight of it, and even more impressed once our tour guide led us inside. My group was mostly children my age, but there were also some adults, who kindly let us kids to the front of the queue. Our guide expertly explained all that he knew of the tomb; the best part (for me, at least) was when he spoke about the basin stones; human remains had been found inside or around them. One of them was broken; he told us there was a man who believed that the sun shining through the roof box at Solstice was a sign of hidden treasure, and smashed the stone in an attempt to find it.
A German woman asked, “What happened to the man?”
“I’ll tell you what happened to him!”, an older Irishman shouted from behind us. “He’s in hell! That’s what happened to him!”
Some of the adults were momentarily shocked by this outburst. I started laughing. To his credit, our guide smiled and said, “Yes, he probably is in hell.” And then he continued with his lecture.
That was my first visit. I never got to go inside the passage tomb at Solstice; there’s a lottery in September for those who want to see the sun illuminate the burial chamber; it’s a small space for such a large structure, and the event lasts for less than twenty minutes. So your chances of winning a peek are small.
I don’t know if the lottery system was in place when I was a kid; I was under the impression that you had to be a foreign dignitary or a scientist or a scholar or a politician to get inside this time of year.
Several years later…
I get depressed in the winter. I was still in my teens, so I was especially moody. Around Solstice, I was spending some time with a good friend of mine who is considerably older than me. We were drinking lemonade and reading the Bible.
By which I mean, we were drinking whiskey and playing cards.
I started complaining about how I’d never get to see the sun come through the roof box at Newgrange. “They’ll never let people like us in there.”
This friend is one of those people that constantly gets you into trouble, but it’s always worth it. He’s multi-talented; one of his talents is mimicking different accents, despite the fact that he has a Derry accent so thick you couldn’t cut it with a knife. He has several favourites, all of which never failed to make me laugh; there’s “Retired British Colonel”, “American 911 Operator”, Eamon Dunphy, Gerry Adams and a host of others. After he got tired of my moaning about Newgrange, he said, “I’ll fix this right now.”
And he picked up the telephone.
“What are you doing?”
“Getting you in to see the light. I have connections.”
I actually believed him. A little. He called up the folks at Newgrange, put the phone on speaker, and put a finger to his lips.
“Hello,” he said in the worst Russian accent I’ve ever heard. “This is professor Ivor Rockoff, famous Russian astronomer. I am in your country, and I wish to see your Newgrange on 21st, December. Please put me on waiting list.”
The poor bastard on the other end of the line wasn’t stupid, but he also wasn’t rude.
“I’m sorry sir, but…”
“Is show of good faith between Russia and Ireland!”
I don’t laugh very often, but when I do, I go on a jag. I was laying on the floor, holding my sides and crying.
“Sir, I can’t possibly…”
“Also, I wish for my son to be on list. He is what you may call ‘criminally insane.’ But is good boy.”
I was braying like a donkey.
“Sir? What was your name again?”
“ROCKOFF! IVOR ROCKOFF, I TELL YOU!”
And then he hung up the phone.
I was still on the floor.
“There’s your ray of sunshine, you little bastard. Now let’s finish this whiskey.”
I would still dearly love to be in Newgrange during Solstice, but it’s not going to happen.
And I don’t need for it happen.
Not with a friend like that.