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22 December 2003
Irish crowd for solstice watch at Newgrange

Twenty people squeezed themselves into a tight prehistoric chamber in Ireland on this year's winter solstice, the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, to marvel at an ancient "calendar clock" in operation. About 19,200 people applied this year for a coveted place inside the Newgrange tomb in County Meath - one of Ireland's top tourist attractions with over 200,000 visitors a year -  to watch the phenomenon of the sun's rays on the midwinter solstice dramatically beaming deep into the burial mound.
     "It's a once in a lifetime opportunity," said an environment ministry spokeswoman, who added that demand for a place in the tomb - available through a lottery - has soared in recent years. Only 20 people can fit into the 19-metre long chamber of the immense tomb north of Dublin.
     Newgrange, believed to be the world's oldest continuously roofed building, is orientated towards the rising sun. Only at the midwinter solstice - the shortest day of the year on December 21 - does the rising sun shine all the way down the passage into the centre of the tomb. The phenomenon only lasts 17 minutes. It is believed that the Neolithic builders constructed it so that the sun shone on the ashes of their dead deep in the tomb at the solstice.
     Three years ago, when the queue of sun watchers meant that people would have to wait about 15 years to get a chance of a place in the tomb, the ministry introduced a lottery system. Now there are 50 names drawn from the applicant list and another reserve list of 50 are picked as a back-up.Each winner is allowed to bring a partner. People chosen are also allowed in on the days immediately before and after the solstice. Apart from Irish people, the spokeswoman said the winners this year included people from Britain and other European countries, Brazil, New Zealand and the United States.

Source: ABC News Online (22 December 2003)

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