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Saying goodbye to the short days at Knockroe: 'It’s a way to think of how to go forward'

“There’s the sense, that we’re experiencing something that brings us quite close to people living 5000 years ago”

Knockroe Solstice Eve dawn 2016 by Pete Smith Knockroe Solstice Eve, dawn 2016 Source: Pete Smith

FIVE THOUSAND YEARS ago, Ireland’s early farmers built passage tombs to align with the sun’s position in the sky.

On 21 December every year, people gather at such tombs to watch as the sun’s rays
illuminate ancient chambers.

Ireland is home to a great number of remnants of the ancient past, and Knockroe passage tomb on the border of county Kilkenny and Tipperary is one which attracts many visitors on the shortest day of the year.

For hundreds of years the tomb was lost to the ages, until the 1980s when the passage tomb was rediscovered.

Dr Muiris Ó Súilleabháin, Professor Emeritus of UCD Archaeology, led excavations of
the site during the 1990s. He says Knockroe is the only site he knows which has both an east-facing and west-facing tomb which can be illuminated by both the sunrise and the sunset on the day of the winter solstice.

Over time, the tombs have lost their roofs and exist as uncovered passageways, this makes it easier for larger numbers of people to see the illumination, but also means that the weather conditions are extra important for it to occur in the first place.

Yesterday, approximately 60 people turned out to Knockroe to watch the sunrise, and more than double that number came to see the sunset.

PastedImage-31708 Some of the 60-strong crowd at Knockroe yesterday Source: Aoife Hardesty

Unfortunately, the weather conditions were not in favour for the tombs to be lit up by the sun’s rays, but for many present, visiting Knockroe was more for them than just witnessing the illumination event.

Eimear Burke has been visiting Knockroe for 10 years. She comes “every year, to hopefully see the sun rise on the chamber,” but in all that time, she has “only ever seen it once”.

For her, visiting Knockroe for the solstice is a way of “reconnecting with our ancestors and ancient times, being able to see what our ancestors saw”.

Dr Ó Súilleabháin agrees that the experience is a way of connecting with the past.

There’s the sense, that we’re experiencing something that brings us quite close to people living 5000 years ago [who] would have stood and had the same experience at that moment.

He notes that “the symbolism of the sun…is quite common in human society”, and is not just limited to the illumination of the passage tombs. Across the world, ancient peoples marked the movements of the sun by festivals, solstice rituals, and the sun’s movements are even important in Christianity; churches are built facing the east, towards the rising sun.

PastedImage-64922 The sun rising from Knockroe, just before entering a cloud Source: Aoife Hardesty

That Christmas falls so close to the winter solstice is no coincidence, in the Julian calendar year which was used until 1582, the winter solstice fell on 25 December.

Arriving to Knockroe on the morning of the solstice there is a welcoming atmosphere, lights hanging from trees light the way to the passage tomb. As the sun starts to rise, a woman plays a tune on a wooden whistle, and silence falls, not an uncomfortable or awkward silence, but a companionable one where all are united in hopes of seeing the sun’s rays shining into the eastern tomb.

The community atmosphere is repeated in the afternoon, despite the larger crowd. Tea and coffee and mulled punch are served, along with sweet and savoury treats.

This year, the sun failed to light up either the eastern or the western tomb, but amongst the group there is no overwhelming feeling of disappointment, but acceptance, and hope that maybe next year will be more successful.

Most of the visitors to the site during the day are local to the Kilkenny area, but some come from further afield in Ireland, and one couple present had come all the way from Miami.

Alexis Rouse and her husband Keith had travelled to Ireland, and sought out a place to observe the winter solstice.

Rouse described the atmosphere surrounding the site, as “powerful, the energy here was very powerful” and says that Knockroe has an “ancient” feeling.

Though she was disappointed, she was glad of the journey.

“This was beautiful, I wish the sun would have come but it was well worth being here.”

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PastedImage-14894 The western tomb at Knockroe on a sunny day Source: Aoife Hardesty

Not all who came to Knockroe were visiting to feel connected to the past. For one man, Mark Abbott, he came to mark the winter solstice, “the end of the short days”.

Abbott suffers from seasonal affective disorder, SAD, a form of depression which is linked to the seasons. For Abbott, his depression worsens coming into the winter months when the days are shorter, and there are fewer hours of daylight.

This was Abbott’s first visit to Knockroe, and he “jumped at the opportunity” to observe the solstice there when invited by his friend.

He says the winter solstice gives him hope.

“This marks the end of the short days, from tomorrow onwards the days get longer and it’s like the new year to me. It’s a way to think of how to go forward.”

Source: Pete MacGowan/YouTube

Knockroe has become a place of importance for people today, much like it was 5,000 years ago.

Dr Ó Súilleabháin believes ancient sites such as the passage tombs were built on places that were already “sacred…in the stone age world, and then they were marked by the construction of these sites”.

Knockroe is built near Slievenamon, “a dominant mountain that was sacred”. Indeed, Slievenamon dominates the nearby skyline, and was marked in megalithic times by the building of a cairn on the top of the mountain.

The river Lingaun which flows past Knockroe originates from the sacred mountain and Dr Ó Súilleabháin believes this was “an important river” to the people, possibly
because it carried water from such a special source.

Five millennia after its original construction, Knockroe, like other passage tombs, has once again become a site of pilgrimage for many. It has become important to people as a means of connecting with the past, and to others, as a way of looking to the future.

Thousands of people tuned in to watch winter solstice from Newgrange

About the author:

Aoife Hardesty

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