Because there is something fundamentally sucky about being me, my immune system decided to succumb to a cold just as we were entering Dublin. I can feel it in my throat and in my head, lingering, pondering the possibility of moving down into my lungs to make things just awful. I’m hopeful that this cold will keep to its place and stay away from my respiratory system. The last thing I (or my potential seatmates) need is a cold-induced asthma flareup on the nine hour flight from London to San Francisco.
At any rate, we drove from Slane to Dublin the other day, via Newgrange and the Hill of Tara, which I believe I’ve already mentioned. Newgrange is sort of a catch all term to refer to threee major passage tomb complexes which are known to be in the area: Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth. Dowth isn’t actually open to the public, but Newgrange and Knowth are. We took the tour of the Knowth complex, though we didn’t get to go very far into the main passage tomb itself.
I’m fascinated by historical places which have been in constant use for thousands of years, and Knowth is one such place. It wasn’t always used as a tomb, of course; it started out as a tomb (though no one was actually buried in it), then became merely a gathering place for worship. Then there are signs it was abandoned for centuries, during which much of the stone and dirt on the top of the mound subsided and buried the kerbstones and doorway of the tomb, so that by the time the ancient Christians showed up, there wasn’t much left of the mound itself. They just figured it was a mound of grass, so they put a monastary on top of it, and dug a number of little subterranian tunnels (called “souterrains”) around the complex. I had fun crawling through one of them; there’s a picture of me doing just that here.
After the Christians were done with the site, the Normans came along and built a fortress on top of the mound, because that’s what the Normans did. After awhile, the Normans abandoned the site, and it went unused for centuries, until the late 1700’s, when someone built a house on top of it. Then that house was abandoned and fell down, and the hill went unoccupied until the twentieth century when the tomb was discovered and excavated. So now there’s a great big artificial mound with a hole in it. The ancient Celts used to take the cremains of their dead and deposit them in stone basins in a chamber at the end of the tunnel.
What fascinates many of the archaeologists, apparently, is that there is considerable evidence that the site of the Knowth tomb has apparently been used for religious purposes for most of its existence. Perhaps there really are places that have a spiritual draw for human beings. I don’t know; we didn’t get much time to hang out there, even after we missed the tour bus and the guides had to call a special bus just for the two of us from the visitors’ center.
After Knowth, we went to visit the Newgrange passage tomb. It’s very similar to the Knowth tomb, although the archaeologist who excavated a good chunk of it decided that the quartz rocks surrounding it were once part of a massive wall surrounding the tomb. There’s some evidence to back this up, but questions remain, even after he reconstructed the wall in front of the tomb according to how he thought it must have looked. For one thing, there’s the question of what the ancient Celts might have used for mortar; they were good at stonework, but not at that level.
Newgrange was bigger than Knowth, but I think I found Knowth more interesting.
Once we were done with the passage tombs, we made our way down to the Hill of Tara, as I believe I’ve already mentioned. You can also see the pictures we took at the Hill of Tara here. And as I’ve already mentioned, I think I found the site more interesting than Jennifer did. I don’t have much commentary about the Hill of Tara which I haven’t already talked about in my previous entry and in the photograph captions.
So then we made it to Dublin. Right away, we discovered that two days is not enough time to visit this city. We managed to make it to Kilmainham Gaol (famous mostly for being the prison where the leaders of the 1916 Easter Uprising were held and executed), and took a tour of that. We also took a tour of the Guinness Storehouse, which was very rewarding in a spiritual sort of sense for me. The most startling revelation for me was that there are many more varieties of Guinness than the Extra Stout that I’ve been drinking all my life. And new varieties are still being invented; Toucan Brew has just been released into the pubs of Ireland. There weren’t really any pictures to take at the Guinness Storehouse, so I didn’t take any. But pictures from Kilmainham Gaol are here.
Finally we went to Trinity College to visit with the Book of Kells. Because we weren’t so good at keeping track of time and because we’d had a long, late lunch, we showed up there at about five minutes to closing time. The security guard let us through without paying for tickets, and we breezed past all the explanatory and interesting panels to get straight to the glass case where the Book of Kells itself is kept. I was particularly impressed with the deocration and illuminating we saw yesterday, especially because the last time I was here, it was open to a rather boring page without much decoration. After we glanced at the Book of Kells, we rushed through the Long Room, which still has the effect of instilling me with awe and a vague sense of ignorance as we looked at the seemingly endless miles of books, two stories’ worth of them. As I recall, there’s a scene in Attack of the Clones which takes place in the library at the Jedi Academy; the library there looked pretty much like the Long Room.
We had given up the car to the car rental place when we arrived in Dublin, so we’ve been traveling around by foot and by bus. As soon as we hit the streets of Dublin, I was glad we had chosen to do that. Jaywalking is not just a crime here, but a way of life; I can only admire the agility of the average bus driver, who has to negotiate not just the cars that go zooming around the streets, but all the pedestrians as well. We’ve taken a few pictures of Dublin, but I think we’re both starting to burn out on our cameras, because we didn’t take all that many. And today, since I’ve been sick, we didn’t do much touring around at all; mostly we just lurked in bookstores and coffee shops. And in just a couple of hours, we’re going to catch a bus back to Dublin Airport, from where we will start to make our journey home. So this will probably be the last entry I write from Ireland.
I’m going to miss a lot about Ireland; the sense of history which permeates the entire country, the fierce pride that infuses the whole society. The depth of the Irish sense of place and religion. We don’t have much like that in America; sure, there’s patriotism in America, but it’s like a pale imitation, a shadow, of the sense of nation which comes from more than three thousand years of history, full of invasions and heroes and saints and criminals.
Mostly I’m going to miss Irish hospitality. Some of the best times I’ve had this trip have involved just relaxing with some of them in a pub, drinking Guinness, listening to music, and chatting amiably about nothing in particular or getting into complex discussions of history or weird little word games that I can win with the phrase “braiding the monkey”. I’ve never found a place like that in America. A ceilidh in America is not nearly the raucous, noisy collection of young and old that I’ve encountered here, and the music I’ve seen in bars is generally not the sort of folk song that everyone in the bar can sing along with, arm in arm.
Insert here a wistful sigh.
While riding around Inismor with Jennifer, the fellow who drove the horse-driven cart we took turned and asked us how we liked Ireland so far.
“It’s great!” I replied enthusiastically. “Makes me wish I was Irish.”
The driver scoffed. “I don’t know about that. If you were Irish, you’d never get to see America, would you?”
I guess it’s all just a matter of perspective.