Oh-o, It’s Magic (the Cars Version)

Day 6 / Sunday, 16 September 2012

When we were in Bettystown last night, Margaret noticed a little restaurant that served breakfast, so that’s where we headed this morning after Margaret had a nice lie-in (which was great, since she’d been sick with a cold). The Red Rose Café was small and busy, but the service and food were grand.

We’d decided to head to Brú na Bóinne (pronounce this BREW-nah-bowANN) today. This translates as Palace (or Mansion) on the Boyne—the Boyne being a river bisecting a beautiful valley in County Meath. A historic river, I should add: the site of the Battle of the Boyne in July of 1690, the outcome of which set the stage for more than three centuries of sectarian violence in Ireland. And the Orangemen still march in Ulster.

It’s all quite peaceful now, this valley. And long before that #&%@!! Dutchman came along, Stone Age men were building cairns, chamber tombs, standing stone circles, henges, and other megalithic structures in a roughly 1900-acre area along the north side of the Boyne.

You may know it as Newgrange (see this too), but the site also includes Knowth (pronounce this NOE-th), Dowth (DOE-th) and many smaller mounds. These are called passage tombs—a cruciform chamber in the center of a mound of rocks, connected to the outside by a long passage. Tomb is a misnomer, as it is not believed the dead were interred here. The mounds are aligned with the sun: at sunrise of the winter solstice, light shines directly along the long passage into the chamber at Newgrange for about seventeen minutes. It’s too precise for this to be accidental; the builders of the cairns knew exactly what they were doing. These mounds exist all over Western Europe, but this is quite a collection here in a bend of the Boyne.

I had seen Newgrange before (in fact, I lost a beloved necklace there; eventually that story will be in the archives) in 2003, so we opted for the Knowth tour. You can see either or both; in 2003 Dowth was included with Knowth but it isn’t now, although you can visit it if you can find it. (If you’ve been to Ireland you are laughing now. Finding it is the issue.) Regardless, Newgrange and Knowth are guided tours only. (Unfortunately, the woman who sold us our tickets also sold us each a 50-cent explanatory brochure—in German, which we didn’t notice until we’d gotten home. What a disappointment!)

It’s beautiful country, the Boyne River Valley.

You have to cross the Boyne on a foot bridge to get to the tour bus.

It’s a fantastic, rustic site of six or seven mounds; Knowth1 is the largest.

Here are a couple of them. I wish I’d photographed all the kerbstones.

I have a photo without the guy, but here you can see the size by comparison. It would’ve taken awhile to build this.

Some haven’t yet been excavated.

This is one that has collapsed; the cruciform shape is there: the “arms” are just past the fallen rock. This is what they all look like inside.

This is Knowth1, the largest at this site.

One of the most appealing features, of course, are the kerbstones that surround Knowth1 (and Newgrange). Imagine prehistoric men carving these shapes into rocks, using other rocks as tools!

Concentric circles and spirals are a symbol used frequently by the ancients.

More kerbstones. Can you see the triple spirals on this one?

This one seems to illustrate a plan for a henge, seen from above.

Hold a straight stick in the hollow from which the lines emanate here, and you have a crude sundial.

We were allowed to climb to the top.

They’ve carved a tiered path out of the cairn. It’s steep; those chain handholds are there for a reason.

Gorgeous view, though! That’s the Boyne again.

At the end, we were allowed to climb through the “back door” into the chamber inside. It’s a completely different experience from Newgrange, which is significantly larger (the passage from the front door to the central chamber is sixty feet) and much more fixed up, but I am really glad we saw Knowth.

And our docent was very well-informed and interesting. Something she mentioned set in motion our plans for the rest of the day: the land on which the mounds lie was a part of a large monastic settlement—the Abbey of Mellifont, which was the first Cistercian house in Ireland, founded in 1142. It “replaced,” in a sense, the much older Monasterboice (pronounce this MON-a-ster-BOYSE), which was formed in the fifth century by St. Buithe. Monasterboice had been in decline since its last abbot died in 1117; when the highly organized Cistercians arrived, that was truly the end of Monasterboice.

The ruins of Mellifont were just two kilometers away (and Monasterboice just 2km further), so we dashed into the Brú na Bóinne gift shop and the café for bottled water, then hit the road to Mellifont Abbey.

You drive in at Mellifont and you think, Um, there’s nothing here. I mean, there are a lot of old piles of rocks in Ireland (ahem: ruins), but of all the ruins I’ve seen, Mellifont is the most ruined of all.

This is what you see when you arrive at Mellifont. Meh.

And then you take another look. It was late afternoon, which was lovely light.

The lavabo (where the monks washed their hands). Look at those long shadows. Soon to get longer.

Take a closer look.

Closer. Lovely hearts and fleurs-de-lis top this capital.

We walked around and around. It was peaceful.

The sky darkened. Storm’s coming. Somewhere.

I just like the interplay of light and line.

And then we saw our first rainbow. Magic.

Rainbow! It’s there!

From there we drove to Monasterboice. It was harder to find, and the last little bit of it was on a one-lane road with high hedges. (Driving in Ireland can be exciting.) Now the sun was very low.

Honestly, there’s not much left at Monasterboice, either. A round tower. A piece of a wall. A large cemetery.

There’s not much left here either … except this magnificent cemetery.

There are five members of one family buried beneath the cross in the foreground; the last died in 1950.

And then we saw it: a “Celtic” cross. We could tell immediately it was important. Further investigation yields this: it is Muirdach’s Cross, and it dates from 900–923 AD.

Muirdach’s Cross.

It’s gorgeous. That’s a bishop, though, not Christ. He’s on the other side.

Remember, these crosses were intended to tell the gospel story to an unschooled population; every panel tells a story.

What Bible story do you think this tells? Those are the tonsured heads of monks, but are those snakes? Dragons? The head of the upper snake looks sort of fox-like, don’t you think?

In their time, crosses like this would have been brightly painted too. I think they’re lovely now, but imagine what they might have looked like in living color!

Muirdach’s isn’t the only important cross here. There’s the West Cross and the North Cross.

West Cross. It was getting dark very quickly. This isn’t great, but the best of those I took.

North Cross. This simple crucifix is similar to one we’ll see at Kilfenora.

Back of the North Cross.

These are some other Monasterboice images I liked:

At Monasterboice.

IHS: the first three letters of the Greek name of Jesus, iota-eta-sigma.

Muirdach’s Cross again.

Detail on a cross at Monasterboice.

I just liked the way this turned out, with the sunspots and all.

Eventually it was just too dark to take pictures, and we were hungry. We came home through Drogheda and stopped at the Black Bull again for dinner. The pear and blue cheese salad I had was delicious.

At the end of our trip, Margaret and I were discussing some of our favorite moments and this day—every bit of it—was the first thing that sprang to my mind. It was as nearly perfect as a day can be. Magical.

Today’s Image

Monasterboice at sunset was … indescribable. Indescribably beautiful. Surrounded by shade trees that brought the dark on quickly and filled with monuments to the dead that had unimaginable grief still clinging to them in words and visuals. If you ever get the chance, you should see it. I’m glad I did.

If It’s Wednesday, This Must Be Dublin

Day 2 / Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Air travel is … well, not fun. Prices are fairly reasonable but now most airlines make us pay to check even one bag and bringing a second* runs anywhere from sixty to a hundred dollars more. This forces us to carry things we’d rather not (I actually packed my Canon EOS—something I would never normally do—because it’s pretty heavy and I couldn’t bear the thought of carrying it). Which is why the airport looks like a refugee camp, and the overhead luggage racks are scenes of intense territorial warfare. From the full body scans to the shrinking leg room and the recycled but unfiltered air that simply assures every germ on the plane is shared with every person on the plane, it’s no wonder we’re all cranky about flying.

So I’d like to propose a few rules of conduct:

1. Be polite, for heaven’s sake. Be friendly. Make eye contact. Smile. We’re all in this miserable experience together.

2. Don’t be so stinkin’ demanding. This means you, middle-aged Irish lady, moving back into the plane against outbound traffic trying to retrieve a carryon stowed a dozen rows behind your seat, loudly demanding we move out of your way. Just wait until the aisle has cleared; it’s the polite thing to do.

3. Be kind. We’d all like to get where we’re going, so don’t think your rush is more important than my rush.

4. Be humble. You may be a Master of the Universe in your Wall Street world but to me you just look like an arrogant jerk in a suit if you’re not polite, kind, and humble. And would you mind obeying the rules about the amount of carryon? You’re not that special.

5. Must you recline your seat during “dinner”? You are tempting me to spill mayonnaise on the top of your head.

6. Be considerate. No matter how slim you are, if you’re in the window seat, you’re going to make two people get up and stand in the aisle when you decide to go to the loo. We will do this more cheerfully if you’ve been nice to us (as opposed to grumpy and resentful) and if you do it, say, right after dinner and before they’ve turned the lights out. You know you’re going to have to go, right? Don’t wait until we’ve finally managed to doze off a couple hours after lights out; that only makes us despise you. I, for one, will not be held accountable for the look on my face.

Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. 🙂

And yes* I brought a second bag, because I now travel with a CPAP machine, which is both bulky and heavy. Additionally, I would be attending a wedding, so I had to bring clothing and shoes I’d only wear once. Not to mention the things I’d be bringing for my Irish family. (I’m not legally a member of the fam yet—that’s a US Immigration issue—but Gerry and I have been together for more than ten years, and as far as I’m concerned, these delightful people are all my in-laws. What a happy, happy day it was that brought me to them!)

We landed at 9:40am. Ireland at last! We got our passports stamped, walked unimpeded through customs (on my previous two visits, that station was actually manned, but it wasn’t this time—although I’m told we were, in fact, being watched), and found Gerry waiting for us.

Caught a shuttle to the rental car location, where we learned our car wasn’t ready for us yet. (“You said it would be noon when you picked it up.” What? You had my flight number and arrival time. You’re located at the airport. What business are you in again?) We were dealing with a woman who was probably from somewhere in Eastern Europe but who’d been living in Ireland for some years—strangest accent ever, with a nasal voice like Fran Drescher. I kept saying, “I’m sorry—what?” and eventually she was a little put out with me. She offered me a different car (a Volkswagen Passat station wagon) than we’d ordered (a Ford Mondeo) but when we got in it and I started driving, it was so uncomfortable that I simply drove it around the block and returned it.

Needless to say, we were at the Budget Car office a lot longer than we wanted. This ended up being the Trip of the Ever-Changing Itinerary, and this day was only the beginning. Traditionally we drive back to Gerry’s for a fry-up (part of the Big Irish Breakfast), but that became brunch instead. Don’t know what a Big Irish Breakfast is? Oh, let me explain. 🙂

There’s a thriving B&B industry in Ireland, and it’s lifted the humble breakfast to state of the art. I know a lot of folks who don’t eat much (or any) breakfast, but that’s a mistake, in my opinion. How could you resist, anyway, when you wander in to a cheerful dining room whose central table is groaning with … two or three fruit juices and milk in pitchers, fresh fruit, canned fruit in bowls, a variety of yogurts, at least three cereals, often freshly baked scones, Irish brown bread … and are greeted with, “Tea or coffee?” You stroll over and spoon some muesli into a bowl, pour yogurt over it, and call it good. Pears are in season, so you pick one up for dessert. Tea arrives. And then your hostess asks, “Would you like a fry up?”

There’s more?

Oh yes. An Irish fry up typically has two rashers (very lean bacon; more like a slice of ham than what we Americans call bacon), two sausage links (also leaner), two eggs, a grilled tomato half, and a piece each of black and white pudding. Don’t be misled by that pudding—these are pieces of sausage whose secret ingredient is oatmeal. And don’t turn your nose up at black pudding, either; it’s delicious. As in the States, there are various mass-made brands of sausages and puddings (I particularly enjoy the Clonakilty brand), but most butchers make their own blends. And I’ll just say Gerry’s butcher is skilled in this capacity.

Now that we’d eaten and relaxed and gifts had been presented and the luggage divested of things I was asked to bring from the States (just call me www-dot-Jamie-dot-com), we were ready to see where we’d be staying for the next few days. One of Gerry’s nephews, Neil, and his fiancée, Maureen, had generously offered to let Margaret and I stay at their home in Laytown, in County Meath (pronounce this MEED). I’d met Neil on previous trips, and spoken to him on Skype in between. I know him to be smart and funny. I’d been Facebook friends with Maureen, but hadn’t met her yet. Margaret and I were extremely grateful for this kindness.

About twenty-six miles north of Dublin, the village of Laytown sits right on a beautiful beach; Neil and Maureen live in a lovely subdivision called Inse Bay. And we only drove around lost a little bit. 🙂 After we were settled in the guest rooms and had the instructions on how to turn on the hot water and the radiator, we all went out to dinner in Drogheda (pronounce this DRAH-hedda), a good-sized town just ten minutes north of Laytown.

Neil recommended the Black Bull Inn, and we were in time for the early bird special (we would find this all over Ireland): a special price for two or three courses, usually for diners arriving between 5 and 7pm.

The Black Bull Inn: no shirt no shoes no service. (Margaret took this photo.)

The place was cozy—and busy. And the food was wonderful. (This was no surprise to me; I’ve had wonderful meals in Ireland. If you enjoy good food, you can find it here.) I had a steak. And apple tart (that is, pie) for dessert.

Back in Laytown we lingered, talking with Neil and Maureen, until late (for two gals who’d been up for thirty-six hours). Once Gerry and I got upstairs, though, another disaster: I got out my adapter and we realized it was the one we keep at home in Tennessee for Gerry’s Irish things; the adapter I’ve used in Ireland in the past now lives at Gerry’s house so he can plug in electronics purchased in the States. Like his iPad. Ha. So … the CPAP machine was looking like a dim hope and I was close to tears, because I love that thing (I should say: I love the quality of the sleep I get with it). But while my mind was mush at this point, Gerry remembered he’d brought Neil a Kindle from the US. They were still up, thank goodness, and the adapter was procured posthaste. By then it was 11pm and I was completely worn out. Tomorrow, though, would be a better day.

Today’s Image

While we were waiting for our car at Budget, we watched people arriving to pick up their rentals. This was one: a woman, bleached blonde hair down to her rear end, dressed in a schoolgirl getup. No joke. It was all whites: a white/black plaid pleated skirt  that barely covered her important bits, a long-sleeved blouse and little shortie vest. Plus thigh-high boots with sky-high heels and white stockings. Heavily made up. I would say she was forty-two to forty-five, but trying to look ten years younger. It was … an eyeful.