There is a place on the east
Mysterious ring, a magical ring of stones
The Druids lived here once, they said
Forgotten is the race that no one knows
“Newgrange” by Clannad
The first time I heard “Newgrange” by Clannad, I instantly thought of Spinal Tap’s “Stonehenge”:
In ancient times, hundreds of years before the dawn of history
Lived a strange race of people: the Druids
No one knows who they were or what they were doing
But their legacy remains, hewn into the living rock of Stonehenge
“Stonehenge” by Spinal Tap
This is Spinal Tap came out in 1984, and Clannad’s Magical Ring (the album that contains “Newgrange”) was released in 1983. Was Clannad’s oeuvre the inspiration for Spinal Tap’s brief foray into Celtic mysticism? Both songs talk of the Druids with wonder and befuddlement. What were they up to in their fancy robes, cavorting amongst those giant rocks? Even the all-knowing Wikipedia is confused by these mysterious people:
Very little is known about the ancient druids.
“Druid” entry on Wikipedia
Speaking of Celtic mysticism, another interesting comedic connection to Clannad’s “Newgrange” is the black comedy Intermission by John Crowley. I love the mockumentary format, and Intermission is doubly satisfying because it’s kind of a mockumentary-within-a-mockumentary. In the movie, one of the characters (Ben Campion, played by Tomás Ó Súilleabháin) is a TV producer who is shooting a crime documentary series. Campion’s very sure of himself (as long as it’s okay with his boss) and his ham-handed handling of the nascent show is hilarious. Colm Meaney is brilliant as Detective Jerry Lynch, the subject of this reality TV show, displaying not only delusions of grandeur, but also an earnest affinity for Clannad:
Jerry Lynch: It’s a sty, my life. The people I deal with are piss. Waste. Is that what you’re interested in? I’m a fuck, man. I mean, my only really human quality to speak of is a fondness for Celtic mysticism.
Ben Campion: What’s that?
Jerry Lynch: The music, man. Artistes like Fainne Lasta, Raithneach, Amhann na Ngealach, Clannad. You like them artistes? Their music? Of course you do.
The song “Newgrange” plays in the background throughout Intermission, and is featured in one particularly hilarious scene where Colin Farrel and his merry band of mischief makers try to sing along with the chorus (is “rum de rum rud a derimo” from an ancient Druid text or just nonsense words?).
To add a personal connection to all this, I’ve actually been to Newgrange and it was…an unexpected and emotional spiritual experience. The passage tomb there is designed such that, on the Winter Solstice, a narrow shaft of light makes it all the way to the back of the chamber (which is 19 meters long). The tour guide brought us to the end of the narrow passageway and then started an electronic reenactment of what happens on the shortest day of the year: the tomb was completely darkened and then a lone beam of light crawled along the floor until it finally illuminated the altar at the back of the tomb.
The hair on the back of my neck stood up as I witnessed this recreation… Even though I am a person of a different era, the metaphor was deeply moving. I remember hearing somewhere that the shortening days of winter might have been received with a certain uneasiness by our primitive ancestors: was the life-giving light of the sun going to eventually cease altogether? What a relief it must have been to see the days get longer once again! It’s an obvious next step to make a celebration out of this critical turning point in the seasons.
To add to the complicated meaning of the ritual, there is an overt sexual metaphor embedded in the layout of the tomb. When the light penetrates to its deepest point, it symbolically impregnated the society with the life force of the sun. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this was designed to happen on the darkest day of the year. As someone who grew up in a cold place, these glimmers of hope are needed in the midst of a long winter.
After this “insemination” by the sunlight on the solstice, life then gestates for the duration of the winter and spring, finding its fullest expression during the summer, and then begins to fade in the fall, finally dying away in the winter. Providing reassurance that the cycle would continue indefinitely, this important and visual marker of time was undoubtedly comforting to the the Stone Age farmers of Newgrange.
And today too, for anyone with the requisite Celtic soul.
- Header image: Stonehenge, near Salisbury, England. Ca. 1890-1900. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2002708089/.