Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Tara and Loughcrew aligned for Lughnasadh sunset?

Back in February of this year, at Imbolc, myself, Ken Williams and Lar Dooley witnessed the sunrise shining into the ancient passageway of Cairn U at Carnbane East, Loughcrew. That day, I noticed that when I was crouched in the chamber of Cairn U, the Hill of Tara was visible through the entrance of the passage. Based on that observation, I figured that a viewer on the Hill of Tara might see the sun setting over the hills of Loughcrew at Bealtaine (May) and Lughnasadh (August).

The Loughcrew Hills viewed from Duma na nGiall, Hill of Tara, with labels.

I was unable to get to Tara at Bealtaine, so I was determined to go there for Lughnasadh to see if I was right. This evening, standing on top of Duma na nGiall (Mound of the Hostages) at the Hill of Tara, I watched the sun get lower and lower in the western sky with my son, Finn. Above is a photo showing the hills as they appear from atop the Mound of the Hostages. It looked like it was heading for Loughcrew, but I couldn't be sure. So I watched and waited.

The sun setting over Cairn D, Carnbane West, and Carrigbrack, as viewed from Duma na nGiall.

And sure enough, as the sun set, it did so over Carnbane West and Carrigbrack, which appear almost as one hill as viewed from Tara. It was a beautiful sunset, and as the sun went down there was a lovely sun pillar (a vertical shaft of light extending upwards from the sun) reaching into the sky.

The sun pillar visible in the sky as the sun sets behind the hills of Loughcrew viewed from Tara.
So it appears that Duma na nGiall, the oldest monument on the Hill of Tara which is thought to date to the late Neolithic, around 5,000 years ago, is aligned with Loughcrew for (a) sunrise on Samhain/Imbolc viewed from Cairn U Loughcrew towards Tara; and (b) Bealtine/Lughnasadh sunset viewed from Tara towards Loughcrew.

The actual date of Lughnasadh this year was (I believe) August 7th, so the sun has moved a little bit to the south (left) since then. And I'm not sure how much the sun's position has changed at Lughnasadh from where it was 5,000 years ago. But it's would certainly appear that there is an alignment. Whether it was intended is another question entirely. But this is just one of many examples of alignments of sites over long distances. Seeing Tara framed by the ancient stones of Cairn U at Loughcrew in the cold dawn of Imbolc six months ago certainly was very fascinating to me. "This is hardly all coincidental," I said to myself. Indeed it might not be, but we may never know whether it was intended by the builders. All we can do now is watch and wonder.

The author atop Duma na nGiall watching the sunset over Loughcrew tonight. Picture: Finn Murphy.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Lughnasagh sunset still shines into the passage of Cairn S, Loughcrew, more than five millennia after it was built

37 years ago, in 1980, Martin Brennan, Jack Roberts and their team of researchers made several significant discoveries relating to the astronomical alignment of several ancient chambered cairns (passage-tombs) in the Boyne Valley region. One such discovery, made in early August of that year, was the apparent alignment of the passage of Cairn S at Carnbane East, Loughcrew. Sitting in the chamber of the (now roofless) cairn, Brennan and his team saw that the Lughnasadh cross-quarter sunset was visible through the passage.

Lughnasadh sunset shines down the passage of the ancient Cairn S at Loughcrew.

Tonight, for the first time in my 18 years of research and photography, I witnessed what Brennan’s people excitedly discovered back then, and it was spectacular, as you can see. There is a story behind this photograph. With my son Luke accompanying, I drove an hour from Drogheda to Loughcrew this evening with the express purpose of witnessing and photographing this alignment. However, when we got there, a massive cumulonimbus cloud was looming over the whole western horizon. After sitting in the car for a few minutes, we figured that it was moving, albeit slowly, towards us. The sun was hidden. It was clear that this cloud was giving out a lot of rain. So we decided to sit it out. We arrived at 8pm. We knew the sunset would occur at about 9.10pm or so.

We sat and waited. Another man who had arrived with camera gear got out of his car and they went up the hill. “A big mistake,” I thought to myself. I could see the rain wasn’t far away and that it was extremely heavy. Sure enough, by about 8.25pm or so it was raining very heavily. The problem was that the cloud was moving extremely slowly. With no let-up in sight, we considered leaving. But having spotted a small patch of blue behind the grey sheets of rain, I decided we’d wait. In the meantime, the gentleman who had gone up earlier returned, quite soaked. After a few minutes, he left in his car.

“If needs be, we can leg it up the hill as soon as there’s any let-up in the rain,” I said to Luke. We planned our departure. When the rain finally started to ease, we made a dash for it. It was 8.45pm. Surely this was an exercise in futility?

As we ran up the hill (and it was a struggle for me, I can tell you, with the heavy camera equipment on my back), I turned and the sun was appearing beneath the huge black shower cloud. “We might be lucky yet,” I said as we scrambled up that hill. The thing about Sliabh na Calliagh is that, when you want to get up it fast, it seems to take every bit of your energy and determination. By the time we hit the last ascent, the steepest part, I was breathless to the extent of being in a state of near-collapse. Luke took the camera bag for the last stretch. What a fantastic companion to have on this trip – a sprightly, nimble and energetic 15-year-old.

After getting in through the gate, we reached Cairn S. I dumped the tripod on the ground, and ordered Luke to put the camera bag down. It was still raining, but the sun was out. I needed to act quickly. We might only have a minute or two to get a photograph. “Which camera?” I thought to myself as I worked out which would work better with remote flash. I decided on the D3X and quickly got set up with the 14mm f2.8 prime lens. It turned out to be a good decision. The photo you see above was taken with this setup. As you can see, the enormous cumulonimbus cloud occupied a huge portion of the sky – but crucially, the sun was out, and just at the right moment! What a capture. What a journey. What a brilliant climax after such an uncertain wait.

A wider view of the Cairn S Lughnasadh alignment from outside the chamber.

I actually got plenty of time to take photos then – with both cameras, and a variety of lenses. But within a short time the sun went in behind some cloud and the magical moment had passed. Nonetheless, we had captured it, in all its fabulous glory. We were wet. We were cold. We were out of breath. But boy were we happy.

After that, we relaxed a bit. The almost-full moon was out. We got lots of other photos – of Cairn S, of Cairn T, of the Hag’s Chair, of Cairn U, and Cairn V. But for now, the magical, mystical shot of the sunset from the chamber of Cairn S is putting a big smile on my face. I feel like I’ve caught up with not just 37 years of history tonight, but over 5,000 years of it.

Because of its short passage and wide chamber, it is obvious that Cairn S will align with the sun for some time. I will have to make a return visit in a couple of weeks to see if it is still aligned.