Ireland is a country rich in history, music, and art. They are passionate about philosophizing and writing. They are excellent at moving others, and being swept up themselves, toward noble causes. They also excel at losing those noble causes.
But it’s never a final loss. Nothing is final in Ireland. It’s just the first (or second, or third) attempt at achieving a success that will no doubt be realized. One day. Retribution, accomplishment, vindication, success is out there waiting to be grasped.
Ireland experienced a huge economic boom in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Wall Street-types were calling them the Celtic Tigers. The economy expanded by over 9% a year until 2000 and then by almost 6% until 2008. Rich business men were buying up condos in New York City like other people pick up donuts at the corner shop. (I’ll take 3, no, make that 4 of those. And do you have any to the east of Central Park? That will be fun.)
They went from one of the poorer countries in the world to one of the richest. Those were heady days. They began loads of construction and renovation work they had never before had money to start. However, the Irish are ever mindful that they are a land full (literally the lands are full of) ancient sites. They are also aware they are made culturally and physically richer by preserving these ancient sites. Archaeologists were being well paid and heavily employed to complete surveys of building sites and motorway plans to ensure that no significant finds would be destroyed in the rush to build.
And then, just like the rest of the world in 2008, it all fell apart. But the attitude in Ireland seemed to be: Well, this has happened before. We’ll have success again. Dublin has an air of patience and optimism at its core with touches of fatalism around the edges. This results in an easy-going and relatively cheerful people, especially the tour guides.
For our second full day I booked us on a trip to Newgrange and the Hill of Tara. We hooked up with a group of other people and our archaeologist tour guide. He deftly herded us onto a huge, comfy bus and the driver whipped us out of downtown Dublin and onto the highway.
The country side of Ireland is beyond beautiful. This was the end of February and it was green. I mean GREEN. The trees were still bare and the first of the spring bulbs were just starting to bloom and come up, but the grass was green, green, green. It was refreshing.
The countryside is also covered with farms and pastures dotted with cows or sheep. It felt like a slightly hilly Iowa. I kept thinking My Dad would love this My Dad would love this as we drove along.
A word about driving in Dublin. It’s on par with driving in DC. Drivers don’t look and drive offensively and pedestrians have their lives in their own hands. It is soooo unlike Basel and I realize that I have gotten used to, and enjoy, knowing that if I or my kids approach a roadway cars are going to see them and stop.
But I digress….
We were exploring the Boyne Valley! Sleann na bóinne! On the map below you can see Newgrange in the middle of a cluster of pictures to the northeast and then to the southwest you can see the double rings of the Hill of Tara.
Our first stop was the mystical Newgrange. I had also been there in 1997 with Shaun and I remember it like it was yesterday. Newgrange is a monument built at about 3200 BC during the Stone Age, or Neolithic period. It is actually older than the pyramids of Egypt! It is a circular, mounded temple that is made out of huge stones carefully stacked (corbelled) on top of each other. When you stand inside the central chamber you have about 200 tons of rock above your head held together with nothing except a Neolithic workers concept of balance.
You have to duck as you walk down the very narrow hallway until you get to the center chamber. Well, H didn’t have to duck. He gleefully pointed this out to every adult massaging their backs after making the awkward crouched walk back outside.
There are three alcoves inside that adjoin the central chamber. Each alcove has a large slightly bowled stone on the floor of each one. One theory is that the cremated remains of loved ones were put into those bowls. During the Winter Solstice, when the sun crests over the hill, a beam of light creeps up the passage way and hits the back wall of the chamber. The walls have enough reflective qualities that the whole chamber is lit up. Maybe they though the spirits of their loved ones would be picked up by the light and carried out?
One of the odd and cool things inside is the graffiti carved into some of the stones. I found names and dates from 1790, 1812, 1887, and on. Our tour guide summed it up well when he said, “As long as we’ve had the power to write we have carved our names into every surface we could reach.”
All the stones also have Neolithic artwork carved into them. You can see some of them and some are deliberately faced in towards the mound, away from sight.
The entrance stone is wonderfully carved. It reminds me a lot of the free-hand quilting I do for some pieces.
There are 2 other large mounds in the valley, Knowth and Dowth. I thought they sounded like the names the two ugly stepsisters from Cinderella would have. However, they are also large temple mounds with door boxes that let in a beam of light on other important solstice days. As a matter of fact, Knowth has been complete excavated and studied and a lot of the assumptions about Newgrange’s interior comes from that excavation.
We spent just over 2 hours at Newgrange. In the intervening years they added a huge visitor’s center, complete with a cafe! We got some yummy and warm food to chase away the chill the gusty wind blew into our bones after our walk around the mound. In no time we were herded back on board the bus and we were driving to the Hill of Tara.
It was incredibly windy! The hill is bare and so there is nothing to stop the wind that threatened to blow us to Oz.
The Hill of Tara has an amazing view of the country. You can see for miles and miles! The view and proximity to the River Boyne made it perfect as the coronation spot for the High King of Ireland.
Most of us Americans know the Hill of Tara as the place where St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland in (probably) the 5th century.
The Hill of Tara was an incredibly sacred place and, legend has it, Patrick selected Tara as the place of a 40 day fast. During his fast he was supposedly attacked by snakes and was able to banish them completely out of Ireland. Indeed, there are no snakes in Ireland, but most modern scholars believe that “snakes” is code for “druids” and the story illustrates how St. Patrick’s teachings helped Christianity replace Druidism as the dominate religion in Ireland.
Accordingly, there is a small church and a small graveyard to the side of Tara. The church and the graveyard are still being used today by the local families.
There are indications that the Hill of Tara has been used for burials and celebrations for thousands of years. Even just a little digging by archaeologists have revealed pottery shards, bits of metals, and some funerary goods.
As one person said, for a must-see location there isn’t a lot there. And they are right. It is “must-see” and there isn’t a lot there, but there is something about it. It’s away from the city and there aren’t a ton of houses built up around the pasture. It’s open and it feels special.
We were back by the middle of the afternoon and had plenty of time to visit Christchurch Cathedral – conveniently located right across the street from the hotel!
Christchurch Cathedral is the 2nd, and older, of Dublin’s two cathedrals. (The other being St. Patrick’s where we went to in the last episode.)
It is smaller than St. Patrick’s. It feels narrower and a little shorter. Part of that is because the altar is upper middle of the church and a Chapter House is directly behind the main altar.
It also helps that there are two tombs right in the nave of the church.
Why is Strongbow, of all people, in an Irish cathedral? Well, it’s because he, along with other rich Normans, paid to have this cathedral rebuilt from a wooden structure to one of stone around 1180. They built the main section, 3 chapels, the choir, and the crypt area.
And then you go down into the crypt. It was a lot like my grandparents’ basement. Smelly, dank, and full of old stuff, clothes, and a small cafe.
Oddly placed near the center of the crypt were costumes used in the television series The Tudors. It turns out the altar area and parts of the cathedral were used for filming many scenes, including the baptism of Mary and the wedding/coronation of … um … one of his wives. There were 6 costumes in total, but these were the only two that were actually lit so that I could take a picture.
The other pictures I took of the costumes show shadowy, menacing forms looming up from the darkness. Whoops.
There didn’t seem to be any actual remains in the crypt. This is one of the things which I remember differently from my last trip. I do not believe “The Foxy Friar” cafe was there and I remember more dedication monuments. They seem to be taking the opportunity of the space to turn it into museum and exhibition place. Here’s a bit of advice: Get more light.
One of the deans of the cathedral (and hugely important person in general) was a gentleman named Lawrence O’Toole. All I could think of was Peter O’Toole dressed as Lawrence of Arabia. Is that blasphemous?
The kids were knocked out by the time we were done and so we sat down to a good pub meal and planned to see Dublin Castle before we had to leave for the airport at 10am the next morning.
Dublin Castle is an unexpected space in the middle of Dublin. From the outside it looks like your typical town hall or courthouse, but once you get inside the gates it’s just a massive open space.
This courtyard seems very modern. And it is. It’s built in the Georgian time period and finished around 1760. This is where all the inauguration ceremonies happen, where the official State visits take place, and where foreign dignitaries are hosted.
But this isn’t all of Dublin Castle. There is actually a castle there! You just have to sneak around the corner….
The tower (seen close up below) is the oldest part of the castle. It was built under the orders of King John in 1204. (Yes, that King John.)
But that’s not all! They have a backyard!
The lawn was covered with a Celtic knot of snakes. Having just set in our own patio a couple of year ago, we really appreciated how meticulously the bricks are set and curved around the lawn.
A hidden contemplation garden off to the side of the main lawn. It’s a small space with just two benches. Mark and I both agree that this is probably what the previous owners of our house were going for when they tried to create that failed garden where we ended up putting the patio. I could sit there for hours sipping my coffee looking at this incredible mosaic medallion.
All too soon we needed to pack up and get to the airport. Dublin threw us a little going away surprise – a snow storm. In a country where they just don’t get that much snow it threw a spanner into the entire works. We sat on the plane for 3 hours waiting to be de-iced and as we sat I was suddenly thankful that Expedia had stupidly planned a 7 hour layover in Frankfurt for us.
Dublin and the rest of Ireland should be on everyone’s bucket list. It’s a magical and mystical place full of the friendliest people you’d ever want to meet. I’m already telling Mark how much he’d enjoy the Wicklow Mountains, so this won’t be our last visit.
Now to plan our next great adventure!