On Sunday morning, I visited Loughcrew (in Irish Loch Craobh) to greet the dawn of the autumn equinox. It was still pitch black when I left the house, and I was glad to see the stars shining bright and clear. It meant there would be a good chance of seeing the sun rise.
There was just enough tremulous starlight to guide my way up the hill. I couldn’t help feeling that by following in the footsteps of our distant ancestors I was enacting some kind of ancient ritual, winding my way through the still velvety darkness as they would have done, perhaps earning the right to be there by participating in that steep, breathless climb at such an early hour of the day.
Meanwhile, the faint stain of dawn was already caressing the horizon in the east, and I wondered at the mysticism of the event I was about to witness.
Although the tiny car park was full, I wasn’t prepared for the amount of people waiting in anticipation, as I rounded the stony bulk of cairn T. They were queuing all the way around it, and the hum of their chatter and laughter seemed loud in my ears after all that silence.
There were people everywhere; photographers with huge cameras on tripods, dogs on leads, children running, men climbing on top of the cairn, even people on horses. Above our heads, a remotely controlled device flew around buzzing noisily and flashing red and green lights; it probably contained a camera. I felt uncomfortable, restless. I’m not one for crowds at the best of times.
I watched a small group perform a pagan ritual. No doubt it was disconcerting for them that a small crowd had gathered to watch their ceremony, but when they dress in long robes and cloaks, and process around a public place carrying wooden staves, they have to expect they are going to draw curious onlookers, I suppose. They seemed somewhat lacking in confidence.
The sun rose, but hid her face behind a thin veil of cloud that refused to budge. Still, people waited. I suspected that if there was even a hint of a sunbeam, there would be a mad rush to try and get into the cairn chamber, and I did not want to be a part of that. The cairn was open, so I asked to go in.
It was dark and empty, except for one huge spider. I shone the light from my phone on the familiar symbols, and relaxed. It didn’t matter if the sun entered the chamber or not, or how many people there were waiting outside for something stupendous and glorious to happen; this was where the magic happened, and this was what it was all about, in the dark, on my own, with the symbols and the ancestors.
Others followed me in, but I didn’t stay long. I didn’t feel I needed to. I’d paid my respects, as I always did every time I visited, not just once or twice a year at the equinox. I realised how lucky I was; I could come here any time. If the cairn was closed, I could even get the key. This is Ireland, after all. We don’t fence our monuments off and forbid people to touch and experience them.
It came to me as I walked back down the hill that the reason I felt so uncomfortable was that the crowd had unnerved me; there was no peace on the hill. Selfishly, I was used to having the place almost all to myself. I’ve never been able to handle crowds.
Inevitably in ancient times a crowd would have gathered to witness rituals and the dawning of the sun. But they would have had a common purpose, a shared goal and belief, and they no doubt understood their place in it all better than us, even if they couldn’t explain the mystery.
Today’s crowd didn’t have that. We were a gathering of individuals, some walking our dogs, some riding our horses, some celebrating our rituals, some curious, even part of a drunken wedding party straight from the reception, stinking of booze and out for a laugh.
We all came for the same thing, the dawning of the equinox, but we all wanted to experience it in our own way. That’s not a bad thing; we should be celebrating our diversity. I have probably been quick to say that no one cares any more about our ancient sites, but here I was proved wrong.
Whatever their motivations, whether it was honouring the ancestors, or mother earth, or just curiosity, people had got out of their beds before the dawn and climbed up a steep hill to be there. Nothing else matters but that.
It was a beautiful, perfect morning. At the foot of the hill, I got a fabulous coffee in the new Loughcrew Megalithic Centre, before driving home. You can read more about Loughcrew here.