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.

Home Again, Home Again …

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.

The river is just … right there. In this photo you see the smaller bell tower.

The river is just … right there. In this photo you see the smaller bell tower.

It’s a beautiful site. Clonmacnois 2003.

It’s a beautiful site. Clonmacnois 2003.

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.

This is the round tower.

This is the round tower. Gerry in foreground.

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.

In the foreground, the very old graves; the more crowded cemetery you see at the back is what they call the “new” cemetery.

In the foreground, the very old graves; the more crowded cemetery you see at the back is what they call the “new” cemetery.

Clonmacnois 2003.

Clonmacnois 2003.

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.

Privately, I always think of this as “the smiling monks.” :) Clonmacnois 2003.

Privately, I always think of this as “the smiling monks.” 🙂 Clonmacnois 2003.

Me and the smiling monks, 2003.

Me and the smiling monks, 2003.

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.

In spite of what is missing … it’s pretty big! Trim Castle, 2003.

In spite of what is missing … it’s pretty big! Trim Castle, 2003.

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).”

What remains of the moat at Trim Castle.

What remains of the moat at Trim Castle.

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).

There are several mounds in this photo, not all of them easy to see. But you can click to enlarge and zoom in. At Newgrange 2003.

There are several mounds in this photo, not all of them easy to see. But you can click to enlarge and zoom in. At Newgrange 2003.

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 kerbstone at the entrance to Newgrange.

The kerbstone at the entrance to Newgrange.

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.