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Irelands Ancient East

 
Newgrange

Emerald Sun

by Edward Rutherfurd

Newgrange - Winter Solstice



Emerald Sun: a prologue to the historical novel The Princes of Ireland - The Dublin Saga by Edward Rutherfurd. The novel begins in the year 430 and the following prologue sets the scene of ancient Ireland with the winter solstice at Newgrange in the Boyne Valley the centrepiece.

Emerald Sun: Long ago, long before Saint Patrick came. Before the coming of the Celtic tribes. Before the Gaelic language was spoken. At the time of Irish gods who have not even left their names. So little can be said with certainty; yet facts can be established. In and upon the earth, evidence of their presence remains. And, as people have done since tales were told, we may imagine.

In those ancient times, on a certain winter's morning, a small event occurred. This we know. It must have happened many times: year after year, we may suppose; century after century. Dawn, the midwinter sky was already a dear, pale azure. Very soon, the sun would arise from the sea. Already, seen from the island's eastern coast, there was a golden shimmering along the horizon. It was the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. If, in that ancient time on the island, the year was designated by a date, the system of designation is not known.

The island was actually one of a pair that lay just off the Atlantic edge of the European mainland. Once, thousands of years before, when both were locked in the great white stasis of the last Ice Age, they had been joined to each other by a stone causeway that ran from the north-eastern corner of the smaller, western island across to the upper part of its neighbour which, in turn, was joined in the south by a chalky land bridge to the continental mainland. At the ending of the Ice Age, however, when the waters from the melting Arctic came flooding down the world, they covered over the stone causeway, then smashed through the chalk bridge, thus creating two islands in the sea.

The separations were quite narrow. The drowned causeway from the western island that would one day be called Ireland to the promontory of Britain known as the Mull of Kintyre was only a dozen miles across; the gap between the white cliffs of south-east England and the European continent was just over twenty. It might have been expected, therefore, that the two islands would be very similar. And in a way they were. But there were subtle differences. For when the floodwaters cut them off, they were, as yet, only slowly warming up from their Arctic condition. Plants and animals were still returning to them from the warmer south. And when the stony causeway was flooded, it seems that some species that had reached the southern part of the larger, eastern island had not yet had time to cross to the western. So while the oak, hazel, and ash were abundant on both islands, the mistletoe that grows upon British oaks had not found its way onto Irish trees. And for the same reason - singular blessing - while the British have been plagued with snakes, including the venomous adder, there were never any snakes in Ireland.

The western island upon which the sun was about to rise was mostly covered with thick forest, interspersed with areas of bog. Here and there, handsome mountain ranges arose. The land had many rivers rich in salmon and other fish; and the greatest of these flowed out into the Atlantic in the west after meandering through a complex series of lakes and waterways through the island's central interior. But to those who first came there, two other features of the natural landscape would in particular have been remarked upon.

The first was mineral. Here and there, in clearings in the dense forest or upon the open mountainsides, outcrops of rock appeared, forced up from the bowels of the earth, which contained a magical glint of quartz. And in some of these glittering rocks there were deeper veins of gold. As a result, in the several parts of the island where these outcrops were to be found, the streams literally ran with the dust and nodules of gleaming gold.

The second was universal. Whether it was the dampness of the wind sweeping in from the Atlantic, or the gentle warmth of the Gulf Stream, or the way the light fell at that latitude, or some confluence of these and other factors, there was in the island's vegetation an extraordinary emerald green found nowhere else. And perhaps it was this ancient combination of emerald green and flowing gold that gave the western island its reputation as a place where magical spirits dwelt.

And what men dwelt upon the emerald island? Before the Celtic tribes of later times, the names of the people who had arrived there belong only to legend: the descendants of Cessair, Partholon, Nemed; the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha De Danaan. But whether these were actual men or the names of their ancient gods, or both, it is hard to say. There were hunters in Ireland, after the Ice Age, then farmers, that much is certain. No doubt people came there from various places. And, as in other parts of Europe, the people of the island knew how to build with stone and make weapons of bronze and fashion handsome pottery. They traded, too, with merchants who came from even such faraway places as Greece.

Above all, they made ornaments from the island's plenteous gold. Ornaments for the neck, bracelets of golden twist, earrings, sun discs of hammered gold, the Irish goldsmiths surpassed most others in Europe. Craftsmen-magicians they might be called.
     


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  At any moment the sun would appear over the horizon, blazing its great, golden path across the sea. At a point approximately halfway up the island's eastern coast there lay a broad and pleasant bay between two headlands. From the southern headland, the view down the coast was of a range of hills, including two little volcanic mountains rising by the sea so elegantly that a visitor might have supposed himself transported to the warmer climes of southern Italy. Above the other headland, a broad plain stretched northwards towards the more distant mountains that lay below the vanished causeway to the second island. In the middle of the bay spread the wide marshes and sands of a river estuary.

Now the sun was breaking over the horizon, sending a burning, golden flash across the sea. And as the sun's rays hurtled over the bay's northern headland and across the plain beyond, it encountered an answering flash, as though, upon the ground, there lay a great, cosmic reflector. The flash was indeed of singular interest. For it emanated from a large and remarkable object that was made by the hand of Man.

About twenty-five miles to the north of the bay, and flowing west to east, there lay another fine river. It ran through a valley whose lush green land contained some of the richest soil on Earth. And it was on the gently sloping ridge on the northern bank of this river that the people of the island had built several large and impressive structures, the chief of which had just sent the dazzling flash into the sky.

They were huge, circular, grassy mounds. But they were by no means clumsy earthworks. Their sheer, cylindrical sides and broad, convex roofs suggested a most careful internal construction. Their bases were set with monumental stones whose surfaces were incised with designs: circles, zigzags, and strange, hallucinatory spirals. But most striking of all was that the whole surface towards the rising sun was faced with white quartz; and it was this huge, curving, crystalline wall which now, catching the sunrise, sparkled, gleamed, and flashed a reflected solar fire back into the sky on that clear mid­winter dawning.

Who built these monuments above the quiet, swan-glided waters of the river? We cannot be sure. And for what had they constructed them? As resting places for their princes: that is known. But what princes lay within and whether their spirits were benign or threatening can only be guessed. There they lay, however, ancient ancestors of the island's people, spirits in waiting.

Entrance to Newgrange Passage Tomb
As well as tombs, however, these great mounds were also sanctuaries which, at certain times, were to receive the divine and mysterious forces of the universe which brought cosmic life to the land. And it was for this reason, during the night which had just ended, that the door to the sanctuary had been opened.

For in the centre of the flashing quartz facade there was a narrow entrance, flanked by monumental stones, behind which a thin, somewhat uneven but straight passageway, lined with standing stones, led into the heart of the great mound, ending in a trefoil inner chamber. Within the passage and chamber, as outside, many of the stones were inscribed with patterns, including the strange set of three swirling spirals. And the narrow passage was oriented so that precisely on the dawn of the winter solstice, the face of the rising sun as it broke over the horizon would penetrate directly through the top of the doorway and send its warm rays along the dark passage into the centre.

Up in the sky now, the sunbeams flashed over the bay, over the island's coastline, across the winter forests and little clearings which, as the sunbeams passed, were suddenly bathed in the gleam of the sun's face as it emerged from the watery horizon. Over the river valley the sunbeams flew, towards the mound whose flashing quartz, picking up a reflected light from the green landscape all around, seemed itself to be on fire, shining like an emerald sun.

Was there something cold and fearful in that greenish glare, as the sun's rays burst through the portals into the dark passage of the mound? Perhaps.

But now a wonderful thing occurred. For such was the cunning construction of the passage that, as the sun gradually rose, the sun's beams, as though abandoning their wonted speed entirely, slowly and softly stole along the passage, no faster than a creeping child, foot by foot, bringing a gentle glow to the stones as they went, until they reached the triple chamber of the heart. And there, gathering speed once more, they flashed off the stones, dancing this way and that, bringing light and warmth and life to the midwinter tomb.

Emerald Sun: a prologue to the historical novel The Princes of Ireland - The Dublin Saga by Edward Rutherfurd.
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