Monday, October 24, 2011

Ancient Mystical Birthday Adventure

[Yes, this blog post is about four weeks late. I'm catching up.]

I had no idea what Jenny was planning for my birthday near the end of September. I figured she had it all sorted out, though, and was just waiting to spring it on me.

Which she did. Sort of.

You see, Jenny had come up with two ideas so different, and yet both so thrilling, that she simply could not decide between the two. So she presented both options to me not long before the day of jubilant celebration, and made me pick. I'm an indecisive fellow, so I took my time. The decision-making process was rough and brutal, because both options were stellar. And in the end, I opted for the tour of Newgrange and the Hill of Tara, both ancient sites very important to the archaeological, anthropological, and spiritual history of Ireland.

(What was the other option, you ask? Well, you think we'd let such an excellent second option go unfulfilled? We'll write about it -- when we find a beautiful day to accomplish it!)

As it turned out, I made the right decision, not only because the sites were exceptional, but because it was the rainiest day we had yet seen in our four weeks in Ireland. We spent a chunk of the day on the tour bus itself, which was guided by an anthropologist who detailed the history of the land surrounding us, whether we were still getting out of Dublin or were tootling through the rolling green hills and old stone walls of the countryside. She was quite informative, too, and a pleasure to listen to (when she wasn't gurgling snot through her sinuses--seriously, lady, take the microphone away from your face when you do that!).

First, we arrived at the Hill of Tara by late morning. The Hill is one of the highest points on the island, and on a clear day you can see about three-quarters of Ireland's counties from its summit. (We did not have a clear day, and still the view was impressively vast.) We climbed from the end of the road to the top of the hill, which is a fairly wide, relatively flat expanse. Man-made mounds and trenches cover much of the summit, and these served various purposes in the ancient religions of the land. The Hill was believed to be a center of spiritual energy, and is therefore still revered by certain mystical types today. The Hill is also where all the old pagan kings of Ireland were crowned, both because of this spirituality and because of the commanding view of the island.

We got rained on pretty heavily, but the wind was even nastier. Still, Jenny and I disregarded the suggestion of the guide that we stay off the paths due to slipperiness (ah, youth!) and we experienced a couple perspectives that no one else on the tour saw. Frolicking across ancient ceremonial grounds in the wind and rain, with your love by the hand: magical!

(Also, there was a very impressive stone phallus on the hill. I posed with it for a picture, and partook of its energy. Not that I needed it, but what the hell, right?)

Then we drove through the Boyne Valley on our way to Newgrange. The Boyne was the site of a critical battle with England, but more than that, it's a gorgeous valley molded by a small, calm river. We could feel the energy of this place. It is still one of the more beautiful sights we have found in Ireland.

Newgrange itself is both the oldest and largest example of a ceremonial burial mound in Ireland, and is apparently the oldest standing man-made structure in the world, older than both Stonehenge and the Pyramids by several centuries. Don't be misled by the term "burial mound," though--while there is evidence of funereal activity here, the site was clearly more than a place for sticking the dead.

We arrived at the visitor's center and ate a yummy lunch of soup. The visitors to Newgrange are strictly limited each day, and so thankfully our tour ensured our entrance to the site. The only way to go into the mound is through this center, walking a bridge over the Boyne, to a shuttle bus that drives up to the ticket window in front of the mound, and then walking up the hill to it. Of course, it was raining again at this point, but that took nothing away from the sight of the mound. Its front has been restored using original stones, and it's a great wall of quartz with a small entrance in the middle. There are various carved stones standing around the site, and from the front you can see a couple other much smaller mounds dotting the landscape.

Our half of the group was the first to enter the mound itself. Claustrophobes beware: the entrance is tight. You squeeze through some very narrow stone passages, climb ever so subtly uphill, watch your head on the cross-stones, and suddenly you enter the main chamber. Considering the size of the mound, the interior is very small, but incredibly high. Ancient geometric carvings of swirls and chevrons decorate the stones (as well as carved graffiti from as far back as the 1800s, before entrance was more recently regulated), and three very small chambers go off from the main chamber. The ceiling is an ever narrowing stack of rocks with one enormous capstone peaking it. (More than five thousand years old, and the roof has never once leaked.)

Standing there, you can smell the stone. You can sense the earth surrounding you. You can't help but reach out and touch one of the ancient carved stones.

The guide (a site-specific one here, rather than our bus guide) discussed the architecture and the history, and then dimmed the lights to give us a taste of the solstice experience. You see, the ancients knew their astronomy. This mound was designed to line up precisely with the winter solstice. So at dawn on the shortest day of the year (and two or three days either side of it), the sun rises and throws its beams directly through a small window above the entrance, through the air above the passageway into the chamber, and then for a few brief minutes, the chamber is brilliantly lit from the floor up.


We had a simply wonderful time. Wonderful doesn't actually cover it. We nerded out, loved every moment of it, and it was a delightfully thrilling way to spend my twenty-sixth birthday. Then, of course, we topped it off with a birthday pint at our local, the Charles Fitzgerald, which thankfully serves Beamish (better than Guinness!), and then home for a delectably (warm!) meal of leftovers.

I know that sounds like a lame way to end a birthday. Leftovers? But this stir-fry was made by Jenny, and it was the perfect taste I craved to end my fantastic birthday of ancient adventures.

Castle and Coastline Adventures

Last Monday, Zach and I took a day trip up to the town of Malahide, where the famous Malahide Castle sits. 

We had yet to really travel north of Dublin. The confines of homework (lots of reading and writing) meant that in the whole weekend we only had enough time for a day trip. And these factors all combined to make Malahide the ideal destination. 

We set out on a partly cloudy and extremely windy morning. Travel was easy enough. We had to walk through our little town of Sandycove to the Dart stop (the Dart being the Dublin-area commuter train). We boarded and road to the end of the line--one of two lines. There is a junction where the trains split, sending some to Malahide and others to Howth (which, incidentally, is the huge land mass in the picture at the top of this website). 

Leaving the train station we set out on what looked like a main road and encountered something we thought to be a bit of a rarity in Ireland: signs! Clearly marked and extremely visible signs telling us exactly where Malahide Castle was! It was a miracle. Signage is not a big thing here. Not on campus and certainly not on the streets where the road name changes every fifty feet or so. But this was the exception. 

We followed the the sign to a public park (which was a massive grassy field ringed with clusters of trees). Following the path which skirted around the park we eventually came to another sign directing us down a shady concourse curving deep into a thick woodland. 

It was an ominous undertaking at the time. The wind battered and bullied the trees, wringing from their boughs and limbs the churning and charging roar of the ocean. But into the woodland we went--fearless adventurers that we are. The forest was gorgeous even as the wind swirled the tree tops and clattered the leaves. Debris fell all around us, but onward we progressed. At last the path opened up onto a parking lot for the castle. We passed through the lot and around a grassy hill where we were finally able to glimpse the great round bailey of the castle jutting out over the landscape. 

Malahide Castle sits amid a vast acreage of grassy hills and woodland clusters, much like the one we traversed to reach it on foot. Walking the gravel road leading up to the formidable structure was like hiking back in time--or became more so like that as soon as the service van parked out front made its deliveries to the gift shop and cafes inside the castle and drove away.

All joking aside, it was stunning. Ivy-swept stone walls. Mullioned, oriel windows, thick stone teeth lining the battlements. We were both in awe!

The wind flogged us until we nipped through the front entrance. We had read in a guide book that castle tours were all audio, so we expected to pick up some headphones from the gift shop and start meandering. In fact, visitors to the castle must go on a tour of the castle at particular times throughout which speakers and sound systems installed in various nooks and crannies broadcast the audio tour. We were only ten minutes away from the next start time and as luck would have it, we were the only two visitors in the entire castle at the moment!

(Unfortunately photography is absolutely forbidden so we only have pictures of the exteriors.)

Feeling very exclusive, and every giddy at the thought of roaming through a castle unsupervised, we took our tickets and scurried into the first room. The recordings started playing background music appropriate to the historical period of discussion and the narrator continually reminded us to not touch anything! Some areas of some rooms were roped off or enclosed behind glass walls, but we could otherwise move freely about the room and examine the dressers, the wood paneling, and the furnishings, which were as luxurious as they were musty!

Guilt-wood dressers, marble-topped everything, ruffled and tassled window dressings, cornices and wainscoting filigreed with wood-carved birds, fruits, and mythical animals! Much of the furniture was beautifully hand-crafted and inlaid with the kind of floral and Arabesque accents that would make normal people swoon, while a carpenter like my dad might be inclined to shoot a cool glance and mutter, "It's not aplomb."

The best room in the house was a small library located just off the dining hall. As the recording talked ad nauseum about all the portraits hanging in the dining hall, we snuck off to see this room. I'm sure you can just picture two nerds , gasping and gawking at the many shelves, stacked floor to ceiling, with old musky books! I'll not go into the depravity of our geekery here, for the sake of decency, but suffice it to say, we were in a small slice of heaven!

We learned a lot about the the castle, which passed from Viking to Norman hands after the Norman Invasion in 1066. Don't even get me and Zach started on the Norman Invasion, as it is one of those historical topics that both of us can talk about endlessly and with extra nerdy zeal. Suffice it to say that for those who don't know, this invasion of the Normans into England and the surrounding islands, changed the world!  

After the castle tour, we wandered back outside to the brutality of the wind--which howled and moaned through the castle crevasses like something out of the best Gothic novels! We found many fine lanes to walk which wrapped around the the castle. At last we emerged back on the main road and reluctantly gave up the thick woods for the sandy beaches girdled around Malahide's coastal town. 

We walked the scenic road through the village, which reminded me of Georgetown. Finally we reached the dunes of the beach, all spiked with tall grass. Though the wind blustered and barked and shoved us along, we stopped to pick up shells and poke at the carcasses of dead crabs. We shot some footage of the churning breakers which clawed at the beaches like the great foamy hands of deep-sea beasts fighting to be free of the water.

It was when we turned back that we saw a vibrant rainbow spanning the estuary. Soon after this discovery, rain fell like spittle from the looming black clouds encroaching from the south. We hurried off the beach and snugged up inside a coffee shop just as the rain began to pour down in earnest. We gave our feet a much-needed rest, warmed up with some frothy Italian-style coffee, and filled our bellies with a brownie--sent all the way from Cravin' Cookies.

With much reluctance we quit our day trip and made our way back to the train, happily knowing that not even gale-force winds could blow away the charm of Malahide, its castle and its coast.