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.

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