Tuesday, 23 September 2003
Boyle, Co. Roscommon – Dublin, Co. Dublin
This is the story of our foray into the Midlands (technically: Counties Cavan, Monaghan, Louth, Longford, Westmeath, Meath … mostly just driving through).
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines dolmen as “a prehistoric monument of two or more upright stones supporting a horizontal stone slab found especially in Britain and France and thought to be a tomb”; Celtic in origin, it literally means “stone table.” Ireland is full of them, and a dolmen is a thing I’d put on my list of things that I particularly wanted to see … and I hadn’t actually seen one yet. We skipped one (Browne’s Hill) on our route on our first day out—mostly because I was still getting used to driving and we both doubted my ability to find it—and we’d failed to find two or three others that we specifically looked for, most notably the Poulabrone Dolmen (pronounce this POWL-na-BRO-na) in the Burren, which is probably one of Ireland’s most famous images. (In fairness, we did search diligently for it, but that was the day it was raining, when visibility was about ten feet and not conducive to finding things, even large things.)
So you can imagine my pleasure when I learned from a Co. Roscommon brochure I’d picked up that the Drumanone Dolmen was just 5km away, and it reputedly has the largest capstone of any dolmen in Ireland. It wasn’t in our planned direction, but we had plenty of time, and hey, what’s three miles? Off we went … and once again, we failed to find a dolmen! We followed the signs, we followed printed directions in the guidebook, and we must’ve put twenty miles on the odometer (and at eighty-eight European cents per liter of gasoline, that is not an inexpensive investment), but we never did find that thing. I’ve just now looked up a photograph of it, and am pleased to note in the accompanying text that those tourists had a hard time finding it too (the page has since left the Internet, but even Lonely Planet says it’s “tricky to find”).
It was Gerry’s opinion that I was fated not to see a dolmen on this trip, which simply means that I must return. We’d been amusing ourselves with how to organize return trips, starting with the obvious, such as a golf course tour, lighthouse tour, or castle tour. But how about a “brown sign tour” (brown signs signifying historic sites), or a county-by-county tour, or, hey, a dolmen tour. We ourselves were currently on the Interesting Showers tour, since we had yet to find any two of the same brand or method of operation.
The possibilities, as you can see, are limitless.
In the end, we admitted defeat and drove on to Clonmacnois, another ruined-but-indescribably-lovely monastery, situated just beside the River Shannon in County Offaly, about twelve miles from Athlone. (Pronounce it in English: clon-mac-NOISE; in Irish: clon-mac-NO-iss.) The nearest village is Shannonbridge but it is not an easy place to get to, especially for those who do not drive or only have access to public transport. I’m told there are boat rides to Clonmacnois from Athlone, and I can imagine that it’s particularly nice to approach it like that.
From the sixth to the twelfth century Clonmacnois, whose name means “the Meadow of the Sons of Nos,” was one of the most important monstaries and universities in Ireland. During this time the River Shannon (running north–south) and an east–west road through the surrounding bog were the two main routes in Ireland, and Clonmacnois was built at this medieval crossroads. The monastary was founded 545 by Saint Kieran, but of course none of the first wooden churches have survived.
It became a monastic city, a University of Saints and Scholars, attracting many of the scholars of Ireland and from across Europe; and it flourished under the patronage of various High Kings of Ireland, including the last High King, Rory O’Connor, whose remains are buried there (1198). It was plundered in 800 by the Vikings and then again by the Normans. During Elizabethan times the monastery and the castle were destroyed by Cromwell.
No single large cathedral exists, or ever existed, at Clonmacnois, unlike most of the other Christian sites we visited. Instead, there were a number of small churches of simple plan. It has two round towers, one which was strictly a bell tower, another which functioned as a sanctuary from invasion (the Vikings having discovered that the churches in Ireland were easy pickings); I find it interesting to have read since that round towers are unique in their shape and form to Ireland. Also there are three early (ninth century) high crosses; for protection from the elements, they’ve all been moved indoors to the museum, and replicas put in their places outside.
If you ever find yourself in Ireland, my personal opinion is that Clonmacnois should not be missed. The high crosses are stunning and the scenery from the churchyard is breathtaking, the Shannon in particular. We were there early enough in the morning that it hadn’t become overrun with tour buses, so you could still feel the peace and quiet and spirituality of the place.
Our next destinations were to be the Hill of Tara (seat of the “northern” high kings of Ireland, as the Rock of Cashel was the seat of the “southern” high kings), and then Newgrange, one of the most important prehistoric passage graves in all of Europe. However, we learned that Tara had closed for the season on September fifteenth, so we had some time in our schedule. Since Trim was on our route, we decided to stop and visit Trim Castle.
I’ve got to tell you, Trim Castle is quite a sight: you can see it as you approach the town, in County Meath (pronounce this MEED), it’s that huge.
The castle was founded in 1173 by Hugh de Lacy, a Norman knight, and is evidence of the Anglo-Norman domination of Ireland in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. The keep is laid out in a unique cruciform design, and is positively huge. The Eyewitness Travel Guide says, “It makes a spectacular backdrop so is often used as a movie set, most recently seen in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995).”
From Trim, we headed to Newgrange, although it took us extra time to get there, because the UK Auto Association (from whose web site Gerry had downloaded detailed driving directions) is a couple years out of date—Duchas, the Heritage Service of Ireland, has recently built a lovely visitors’ center for Newgrange, which is moved from where AA was trying to send us (our detailed road map was out of date too). This had us in a tizzy for a bit, because one shouldn’t be lost trying to find one of the premier tourist attractions in Ireland, y’know? Not finding the Drumanone Dolmen is one thing, but losing Newgrange takes getting lost to a whole new level.
As you know, I am fascinated by prehistory, so Newgrange was a must-see for me. Actually, these megalithic “passage tombs” were generally built in clusters, and Newgrange is no exception: Knowth and Dowth (pronounce these with a long O: “noe-th” and “doe-th”) are nearby, and are included in the tours which start from the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre located near the village of Donore, Co. Meath. Other smaller (and as yet unexcavated) mounds can be seen from the site at Newgrange (I counted three).
These Boyne Valley mounds at Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth were built around 3200 BC, making them older than Stonehenge in England and the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt.
Passage tomb monuments have clear astronomical alignments, such as the Winter Solstice sunrise at Newgrange, which illuminates the passage and inner chamber for five mornings every December. (Admission to the chamber of the tomb at Newgrange for the Winter Solstice sunrise is by lottery; in 2003 nearly 20,000 applications were submitted! Each October, fifty names are drawn, ten names for each morning the chamber is illuminated, with two places in the chamber awarded to each of the names drawn. Of course, there’s no guarantee that the skies won’t be overcast.)
“There is a lively debate about whether these wonderful megalithic structures were built primarily as burial tombs, sacred temples or astronomical observatories. While passage tomb is the traditional description for Newgrange and similar structures, chambered cairn or passage mound are the descriptions favored by those who consider the passage tomb description too narrow. The large stones surrounding and inside the passage tombs are decorated with Megalithic Art such as spirals, concentric circles, triangles, zigzags and images which have been interpreted as the sun, moon and the human face.” (Quote from Knowth.com.)
The Boyne Valley cairns of Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth have been designated World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, which should tell you something about their importance as historic sites, whether one calls them a burial tomb or temple or whatever, and they attract 200,000 visitors per year … thus the fancy new visitor center. It’s not for the faint of energy though: it’s quite a hike from the parking lot to the center, and then another hike out to the buses which shuttle visitors out to the mounds themselves. All in all, one could spend a lot of time there, especially if opting to visit all three sites. (This explains my lack of photographs. I was getting tired.)
I only visited the Newgrange site, which was rediscovered in 1699 by the removal of material for road building. For the next 250 years, it was a local oddity, and there are 250 years’ worth of graffiti inside to attest to that! A major excavation of Newgrange began in 1962; the original facade of sparkling white quartz was rebuilt using stone found at the site. The mound itself covers over an acre, and is retained by 97 “kerbstones” which lie horizontally. Many of these have beautifully carved designs of spirals, lozenges, zigzags, and other symbols. The most famous of these is the stone marking the entrance, with its carvings of a triple spiral, double spirals, concentric semicircles, and lozenges. One sees that spiral motif everywhere in Ireland, from packaging for granulated sugar to jewelry.
The passage is very narrow, and they warn those who might suffer from claustrophobia to enter near the last, in case they find it overwhelming; there was one woman in my group who came barreling back out. The guides ask that one remove one’s bags and cameras and carry them in front, so as not to scratch the sides of the passage. This was to prove fateful for me, as I believe it’s when I jerked on my necklace (you know the one: a heart and cross hanging together on a gold chain) enough to cause the clasp to give way on my walk back to the visitors’ center.
But more about that later.
From Newgrange, we were headed back to Dublin, but planned to stop first in Lusk to visit Gerry’s younger brother, Richie, his wife Isolde (iss-SOLE-da), and their twin daughters Grainne (GRAHN-ya) and Ashling (exactly like it looks). The girls had just graduated from high school, and this was the night of their “debs” (prom, to us Americans). You’ll be happy to know that this particular ritual happens much the same in Ireland as here: girls in formal dresses, boys in tuxedos, a limousine, and a host of family and friends snapping dozens of photographs! The twins, I must say, were beautiful.
While in the midst of this wonderful celebration, I discovered that my necklace, the one I’d worn every day for over twenty years, was missing.
Wednesday, 24 September 2003, back in Dublin
We’d planned to tour Dublin on this day, but instead we found ourselves driving back to Newgrange—I’d called them first thing in the morning, and before I’d even gotten the whole story out had been told that the chain had been turned in! It was only a forty-five-minute drive one way, so back we went. The staff was very sympathetic, and told us where the chain had been found, and let us walk out on the grounds to search for the cross and heart.
I didn’t expect to find them, of course, and we didn’t; the staff allowed me to leave my name and address, and promised to return them if they turned up. I was happy to have the chain back, though.
Back in Dublin by lunchtime—but a little deflated—we went to “the chipper” (the proverbial fish-and-chips take-out joint, which also made great friend chicken) and then on to a late afternoon movie, Le Divorce, which I found hilarious given its subject matter (the culture clash between Americans and Europeans) and my location.
This ended up being a short day, which was just as well: the ten-day driving trip, while lots of fun, had been exhausting, and losing my necklace (lots of sentimental attachment) just knocked the wind out of my sails. So I made an early night of it—I was back at the B&B around the corner from Gerry’s house, although in a different room this time—to rest up for the big walking tour of Dublin for the next day.