Newgrange, Co. Meath, Ireland
Close to midnight, December 21st 2012
The white stones of Newgrange glowed in the light of campfires and lanterns. In the starlit darkness, the great Neolithic passage tomb seemed monstrously huge, dwarfing the people that milled about on its surrounding fields. Enya and Clannad were the artists of choice tonight, one swirling mystical track following after another as the party went on.
Aidan O’Neill stood by one of the bigger fires enjoying the surging buzz of the magic mushrooms he’d choked down earlier. Harvested at the autumn equinox and dried by a man who knew what he was doing, they’d been billed as powerful little bombs of feel good fun. Admittedly, they tasted disgusting, but once he was past the initial nausea, they were certainly living up to their sales pitch. A deep sense of togetherness and euphoria was putting a huge grin on his face. Everyone he saw had the same happy golden aura surrounding them, their movements trailing gold sparkles in the air.
The Daoine Sídhe, over a thousand strong, were in a jubilant mood, having eaten and drunk well in celebration of the night that was in it. Many like Aidan had taken a hit of something mood altering. Those who couldn’t take the mushrooms, the authentic choice of their ancient Celtic forebears, had popped a few E’s instead. And everyone had smoked a massive amount of weed, the sweetish herbal smell thickened the air. There was a mood of happy disbelief about them, like they themselves couldn’t quite accept that their time had finally come. No one had overdone anything, nobody wanted to miss what was coming, the big event centuries in the making. Most were congregating in small fluid groups that broke up and reformed as people drifted in and out of conversation. A close knit group, everyone knew each other and all were quietly seething with excitement as the witching hour drew closer. Aidan felt like his insides would burst with joy and a deep sense of pride; to be at Newgrange on this solstice night as part of the Daoine Sídhe.
They had the majestic site to themselves now, the Gardaí had reluctantly retreated back to their patrol cars on the road that ran around the foot of the henge, their flashing blue lights only adding to the festive illumination. The Daoine Sídhe had listened patiently to the police cautions about litter and criminal damage, but Newgrange was more holy to them than the Vatican to nuns, none would have harmed a stone of its fields. The Gardaí had taken the names of the more senior members for the official record, but on the whole, they’d been cool. Even to the point of ignoring the illicit substances doing the rounds.
Turning his back to the fire to warm his arse, Aidan found his attention captured by the imposing prehistoric structure. The noise from the crowd faded away as his boyhood fascination with Nwgrange amplified by the mushrooms took over. He never forgot the solemn thrill of laying his hands on the spiralling triskeles carved into the great stones at the entrance. Fashioned by hands long since turned to dust, yet when Aidan touched them he felt the thrill of a connection with their Stone Age carver.
The sheer antiquity was overwhelming. Its architects were long dead by the time Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza were rising from the earth and still Newgrange had lasted with them through the millennia, a triumph of primitive will. Could its builders possibly have imagined that their labours would still inspire awe five thousand years later?
It was far from just a crude monstrosity, built for show. Every solstice on December 21st, around 9am, a narrow beam of light from the rising sun penetrated the roof-box just inside the henge and gradually extended the length of the passage to the rear of the inner chamber. As the sun rose higher, the beam widened so that the whole room became dramatically illuminated. For seventeen minutes, the darkest recesses of the passage tomb, where the burnt bones and grave goods of an ancient family of kings had been placed, would be bright as day and then the light would fade returning the interior to utter blackness. The experience was a highly spiritual one, symbolising the victory of new spring life over winter’s deathly cold.
The intent of its builders was undoubtedly to mark the beginning of the new solar year, when the days began to imperceptibly lengthen and light and warmth returned. To have tracked the movements of the solar cycle must have taken many decades of careful observation. Transmitting that knowledge through generations in order to build an accurate solar computer showed infinite patience and planning. Not qualities people traditionally attributed to simple Stone Age farmers.
And yet, working together over decades, these early farmers had created a timeless monument, Ireland’s most iconic structure. An unsubtle reminder of our ancient past, their dependence on the sun for crops and life and their need to honour it. When daily life was short, hard and dangerous enough to begin with, the idea that people had devoted their lives and strength to build Newgrange was immensely touching. Proof that the human spirit could have purity of purpose in even the most primitive of cultures. Proof that there was always room for the spiritual in even the harshest of existences.
Newgrange’s stern solidity was one of its defining features, so the disconcerting impression that the mound was slowly expanding and contracting, almost as if it was breathing, was making Aidan nervous. Maybe he had overdone the mushrooms, Newgrange shouldn’t move.
A ripple of laughter distracted him. Seamus and Michael were cavorting wildly, with windmilling arms happily galloping in circles, mad with excitement, probably working off the excess ecstasy in their systems. Their energetic antics were in contrast to the small still group of elders in long white robes, standing in a circle lost in meditation. Excited chatter and music filled the cold night air, the atmosphere was now electric with sparks of ecstasy jumping from one person to the next like a contagion of joy. A half moon beamed serenely in the heavens, a lunar benediction on their celebration of the solstice.
Aidan’s heart lifted as he caught sight of his girlfriend Niamh, spinning round and round with her bare arms stretched up to the night sky. His eyes traced the trail of coloured lights her fingers left in the air as she danced. Her deep auburn hair fell halfway down her back and she had left it loose tonight to welcome the Tuatha Dé back from exile. Her slim body was covered only by a thin silk dress, certainly not warm enough for an Irish December night. And yet she danced and laughed in the light of the fires and the half moon, her joy infecting those around her. Everywhere Aidan looked he saw people he’d come to think of as family, the Daoine Sídhe or People of the Faeries. Their shared ambition was to bring about the return of the Tuatha Dé Dannan, the People of the Gods. They hoped for a resurgence of light and magic in the world, for the Tuatha Dé to share their ancient wisdom thus enriching the modern world and saving it from the darkness they saw all around them. It was a night of joyous anticipation for the Daoine Sídhe, but Aidan couldn’t shake the guilt in the pit of his stomach.
Aoife, his older sister had been so disappointed that he wouldn’t be home for Christmas. Since their father had died, Aoife had attached a lot of meaning to holiday celebrations and a Christmas celebrated at their little family farmhouse in Mayo was her favourite. This would be the first year they weren’t all going to be together and Aidan knew his absence would be felt. But how could he miss all this? Everyone there was full of hope, awaiting the return of the Tuatha Dé, the beautiful Faeries of legend.
The white robed elders of the Daoine Sídhe broke their circle and as one faced the huge mound, their faces lit with expectation. A hush fell over the crowd as everyone focused on the great monument, one of the gateways to the Faerie Realm, or so they fervently believed.
‘It is time, my faithful ones,’ announced Conor O’Donovan, the founder of the group, ‘turn your thoughts to our magnificent purpose.’
Aidan shut his eyes, smiling when he felt a cold hand slip into his, Niamh was beside him.
‘Reflect on the glorious past,’ said Conor, his voice deep and mesmerising, ‘reflect on the great crime of our ancestors.’
A wave of inherited guilt swept over Aidan and by the squeeze Niamh gave his hand, he knew she felt it too. The legends told of the shabby trick the Celts had played on the Faeries, consigning the beings of light to an eternity of darkness beneath the earth, leaving the Celts undisputed masters of the island of Ireland.
‘Call to them,’ said Conor, his voice rising fervently, ‘call to those poor wronged ones of old!’
Aidan shuddered as the voices of the Daoine Sídhe began to rise one by one.
‘Forgive us, Badb.’
‘Forgive us, Manannan.’
‘Forgive us, Fodla.’
‘Forgive us, Banba.’
The list went on as each Tuatha Dé name was cried out by a specially chosen member of the Daoine Sídhe. Every ancient one that had been forced beneath the earth more than four thousand years ago was remembered and poignantly entreated for forgiveness.
‘Forgive us, Nuada,’ Niamh called.
‘Forgive us…’ the voices trailed off, all the names that could be rescued from the earliest records had been called.
‘We rescind the ancient bargain so shamefully struck by our ancestors,’ Conor recited the formal words in a steady voice, ‘we beg your forgiveness and ask that you walk among us once again.’
Something heavy nudged Aidan’s foot and he looked down. He swallowed convulsively upon seeing the pale glow of a chalk white stone next to his foot. Those stones belonged securely in Newgrange’s walls. Not one was ever allowed to litter the ground. Aidan looked at the great mound just as a rush of excitement swept through the Daoine Sídhe. Out of nowhere, a sense of foreboding took hold, he began to back away from the monument pulling Niamh with him. All the time his mind was jabbering, it’s just the paranoia, you’ve had a lot of mushrooms.
‘Is anyone else seeing this? Newgrange is moving!’ he asked in as loud a voice he could muster.
No one had tome to answer before the mound heaved outwards as though bursting at the seams, several more of the white stones fell from their slots in the wall, rolling down the grassy hill. Aidan took another few steps back. As the others cheered and clapped, his paranoia only grew more intense. Why was no one else feeling it? This was not how it was supposed to be. The Tuatha Dé were supposed to exit their ancient prison in a joyous peaceful procession, bringing a new light of wisdom to the human world.
The mound breathed again and expanded suddenly. A white stone shot off its place on the wall, disappearing into the darkness before he heard it land with a heavy thud. Aidan heard a scream from the crowd as other stones were forcefully dislodged. Suddenly Newgrange, a solid mound of earth and massive stones, looked like a flimsy water balloon about to burst.
He turned from the great mound and intending to run down the hill to the Gardaí still parked below on the road. Their flashing lights suddenly looked very reassuring. Niamh pulled on his hand.
‘Aidan, stop!’ she said, digging her heels in and refusing to budge, ‘where are you going? It’s happening, it’s really happening, they’re comi….’
The rest of her sentence was cut off by a deafening roar. The ground heaved beneath their feet and he and Niamh lost their balance, rolling down the side of the hill. Flat on his back at the bottom, Aidan witnessed the great capstone of Newgrange fly upwards into the night sky as though a giant hand had tossed it at the moon. The rest of the mound swiftly followed, ancient slabs and clods of earth flung upwards in a great explosion.
‘Oh God,’ he said, as a deadly rain of rock began to fall on the helpless members of the Daoine Sídhe.
He covered his head as best he could, sheltering Niamh’s body with his own. A few small rocks bounced off his arm, but gradually Aidan realised that the initial rain was over. Two Garda cars had been hit, their lights extinguished. From what Aidan could see the Gardaí inside were unconscious.
An unearthly shriek tore through the air, Niamh cried out soundlessly and they both covered their ears. When it ended, Aidan could hear cries and moans from his friends still upon the hill, some cried in pain from injuries but a few were now crying out in terror.
‘Aidan, what’s happening?’ Niamh gasped, ‘what’s happening?’
They could see nothing from their position at the bottom of the hill.
‘Niamh love, stay here,’ he said, trying to keep the fear out of his voice, ‘I’ll be back, everything will be ok, just wait for me.’
Aidan started crawling back up the way they’d fallen. Low to the ground he wriggled to the crest of the hill to get a view of Newgrange.
It was gone.
The great mound was flattened, its surrounding fields littered with rocky debris. A great light glowed viciously bright from the crater that remained. Its harshness revealed the bodies sprawled lifeless on the ground. With an internal lurch Aidan recognised Seamus, his energetic form now utterly still, his head crushed by a jagged piece of stone. Turning away, Aidan threw up, spewing silently as his brain raced frantically to make sense of what he was seeing. Whatever hallucinogenic effects the mushrooms had been having on him were fading rapidly as he took in the devastation around him.
And then he heard them. Laughing. A sound so unutterably beautiful it almost stopped his heart. Turning away from the wreck of Seamus’ head, Aidan looked up.
Thin tendrils of light were extending out and away from Newgrange’s ruined centre, each coalescing into a column of shining beings. They were the source of the entrancing laughter, drowning out the cries of pain and terror from the injured.
Aidan stared at them hungrily. He had waited and hoped for years to finally see a real Tuatha Dé, he’d sacrificed his college career and more to that dream. And now here they were in the flesh and so beautiful, more beautiful than he could ever have imagined. And yet something was wrong, a chill fey dread gripped him as he watched the shining Tuatha Dé upon their leisurely progress from Newgrange.