August 17, 2011
For me, the highlight of last week, other than spending seven solid days with Alana, was taking Mary Gibbons’ escorted tour from Dublin to the Hill of Tara and Newgrange/Bru na Boinne (pronounced, as I heard it, brew na boy-nuh, and it has accents on Bru and Boinne which I didn’t have on my computer ...).
The Hill of Tara was the inauguration site of the High Kings of Ireland, and is situated in the rich countryside of the Boyne Valley, 30 km north of Dublin. There are over 30 visible monuments on the hill, some as old as the Neolithic period, from 4,000 to 2,400 BC, and the latest to be as late as 1,000 AD. These monuments include burial places, stone pillars, and earthwork enclosures that held both ritual and sacred ceremonial purposes.
Bru na Boinne consists of the passage tombs of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, and is now designated as a World Heritage Site. As such, it is a hugely popular tourist attraction, and I was warned that once you arrive at the site (by bus from Dublin) it was likely that you would wait in line for several hours for the shuttle bus to the tomb and the guided tour, which is the only way to get close, and even inside, the tomb. However, for about 7 or 8 extra euros, one can get a guided tour from Dublin, with a pre-scheduled visiting time for the tomb at Newgrange. I figured this was worth the extra money, so we booked with Mary Gibbons’ tours.
And what a great decision that was. Not only did we get an historical overview of Ireland on the way, from the Stone Age to current history, but we got lots of amusing anecdotes as well ... “Now the Lord of these lands had four daughters, but they didn’t get along ... so he built each of them a very large house ... you’ll see them at each of the four corners up here ...”
And, when we drove through the village of Slane ... “Now that’s Slane Castle on your right, which hosts a yearly rock festival for up to 100,000 people. The village is well equipped to handle that many people, with 6 pubs, a coffee shop, and a hotel that sleeps 16. And, U2 recorded a live album there.” She was a hoot, and looked after each one of us from the time we boarded the bus to the time we got off – including the very busy and somewhat confusing Visitation Centre at Newgrange - like a shepherd looking after her flock.
Newgrange is the best known Irish passage tomb, and is surrounded by a kerb (a continuous circle of large stones) of 97 stones, including the highly decorated entrance stone. It covers a single tomb consisting of a long passage and a cross shaped chamber. At the top of the entrance is a roof box, through which the rising sun on December 21, the midwinter solstice, shines through a gap in the floor of the roof box and into the tomb chamber. For 17 minutes, direct sunlight enters the inner tomb chamber. Each year there is a lottery for the very few people who can actually be inside the tomb on sunrise of the winter solstice.
There were so many things about this place that just boggled my mind. It is remarkable to think that people built this with such precision 1,000 years before the Pyramids, and even before the astronomical constructions of the Mayans. Archeologists can trace the stones used in the building to sites many miles from Newgrange, including some from the Wicklow Mountains south of Dublin. The intricate carvings on the entrance stone and on a few of the kerb stones were done with stone implements, as it was before metal tools.
The irony was not lost on me that while we were exploring the tombs of folks from 5,000 years ago, my own mother was breathing her last breaths. It made the day bittersweet, and that’s what my memories of the day will be.