Ireland: Day Seven Minus One

When we were planning our trip, one of the places on the top of my list was the passage tombs at Newgrange. Older than the pyramids, older than Stonehenge, the oldest solar observatory in the world, the more than 40 tombs in the Boyne valley are a World Heritage Site, and something that I felt must be on our list.  Over 60% of the neolithic art in all of *Europe* can be found at these quiet monuments. I had booked our seats the night before, and chose to meet the coach in front of The Gresham Hotel. When I chose that departure point, the travel office lady asked me if I knew where it was asking “by the Spire?” I nodded confirmation. The earliest departure time was fully booked, but, there was room on the later bus, so I took it.

By this point, dad had not appreciated churches, nor world-famous libraries, and I was worried that pre-Christian pagans were going to be yet another thing he was not going to appreciate. He had forgotten what we’d said about the place before we left, so, I turned to the correct page in the guidebook, and handed it to him. He didn’t seem to be excited about it at all. Inwardly, I sighed, and prepared myself for whatever commentary was going to await us.

We set out after breakfast, but, at a leisurely pace.  After taking our friend the LUAS (light rail) to the same stop as the day before, we headed in the opposite direction, this time heading north. As the main street of the main city in Ireland, there’s tons to see all around.  There’s the General Post Office, which was also a center for the 1916 Rising, bullet holes still mark the exterior (but aren’t very obvious from across the street).

Me and the James Joyce statue

Me and James Joyce. Neither my sister nor my father know who he is.

Just as we were about a block from our destination, the famous Gresham Hotel, which is across the street and slightly north of the post office, I see it. It’s about half a block ahead of us, to our right. It’s the statue of James Joyce. It’s a sculpture I’ve seen in pictures, and always admired, and I’ve long had a fondness for Joyce’s short stories. I told my sister I needed her to take a picture, and she said, “Oh. Ok.” And she did take the picture. Dad finally realized we’d stopped, and asked my sister why we were stopping, and she told him, “Kate wanted a picture with the statue.” There was no flicker of recognition as they looked over the bronze man in front of them. They shrugged and chalked it all up to my general eccentricity.

Not your normal post office

The General Post Office. It’s an impressive building for a post office, don’t you think?

I was not really surprised by their reaction, but, it’s a lonely feeling to be wandering this city of writers with two people who were not acquainted with any of the famous authors who called the place home.

We arrived at the hotel, with the Spire in front of us. The hotel was built about the same time as the post office, and famous Hollywood types used to stay there. The three of us held down the sidewalk in front of the hotel, and waited for our ride.

Once on the bus, we went across the river to pick up the rest of the passengers. Dad listened as our driver, Dennis from Latvia, reminded us that the fare we paid for the bus didn’t cover seeing the monuments.  Dad did a double take and looked at me. “Did you know that?”  I told him, yes, I did know it. It was on the brochure and it’s in every guidebook.  Dad was stunned. He couldn’t believe that we’d be shelling out more cash when we got there. He looked only slightly mollified about the situation, and I hoped he’d hold onto whatever lecture he was preparing until, well, the far side of never. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that at the peak season, there’s not even a guarantee that you will get a ticket, since they can’t be purchased in advance.

When we arrived, the driver told us that at the center they’d ask us if we wanted tickets to Newgrange only or both Newgrange and Knowth. We opted for both, and had just enough time to buy our tickets and trek across the river to catch the shuttle up to Newgrange.

Boyne River

The Boyne River. There’s just something about Irish rivers.

We climb to the top of the hill, toward the entrance to the monument. The tour guide tells us about the place, and we wait for the group ahead of us to leave, and then we’d go into the place. As we stood outside, dad has apparently really absorbed the information from the tour guide. He’s actually excited, and he’s telling me that he’s really glad that I wanted to come here, and this was really amazing.

I was not prepared for that response.

And yet, I’ll totally take it. I can’t believe we finally found something that dad actually liked. Don’t let anyone tell you that miracles are a thing of the past.

Newgrange passage tomb.

Newgrange. The white stones are quartz.

Crossing the threshold to the passage that leads to the inner chamber, you travel back nearly 5000 years to see a space which is much as it was then. Though it was raining outside, the structure, made with no mortar, was absolutely dry. No moisture had ever entered here.

There is room for about 15-20 people, and we lined the outer wall of the inner chamber, and listened as the guide explained what happens every year on the winter solstice. On that day, the sun comes into the roof box, first diffuse, and then it concentrates into a beam straight to the back of the chamber, like a laser beam.  In a minute, she would turn out the lights, and they would simulate the phenomenon.

The lights went out. It was pitch black inside, just as it would be the entire year, until the shortest day. Everyone was silent.

And then the light came on.

On the solstice, the beam of light lasts for about 8 minutes.  For the purposes of the tour, the light stayed on for only a few minutes, maybe even only a minute, but, for me, even just recalling it weeks later, I still get chills to recall that magnificent light, the return of light and warmth to chase away the cold and dark.

As we made our way out again, the assembled group was quiet, still holding that sacred space that we had just shared. Outside, dad was even more excited, and wanted to know if I thought the gift shop would have a picture of the light coming into the passage, or a book for kids to show them this marvelous place. He wanted to share it with his grandchildren, and tell them about this place, built with almost no tools and surrounded by megaliths from far, far away.

I told him there was a good chance that they would have all of those things.

Entrance to Newgrange.

The entrance, and the roof box above, where the light enters at the winter solstice.

We walked around until it was time to return to the shuttle. Dad understood now why the tickets weren’t included in the bus fare, because of the limited amount of space in each tour.  He marveled at the effort it would’ve taken to move each of the kerbstones, and to fit all the other stones together in such a way as to keep out the damp and be a lasting structure.

He was glad we’d gotten tickets to the other site, Knowth, too, and was excited to look for souvenirs and gifts in the shop, and then go to see the other mounds.

One of the mounds at Knowth.

Passage tomb on the Knowth site.

At Knowth, there are a number of mounds, newer than Newgrange, and all of smaller size. A few are aligned to key dates on the solar calendar, but not all are. These are too unstable for tourists to enter.

Here, though, dad became curious about how they maintained the grass-covered mounds, and learned that they mow them with special equipment. He spent a chunk of our time here to seek out the mowing crew, which happened to be mowing that very day.

We wandered among the mounds, and climbed to the top of the largest one, Knowth, which had a pretty amazing view. From here, on a clear day, you can see the Hill of Tara, and, of course, Newgrange. Today, as you might notice, it was a bit overcast, and there were some scattered showers, so we could make out neither of these features. We could, however see the river, and yellow fields of the seed that gets made into canola oil.

All too soon, it was time to turn back.

The carved kerbstones around one of the Knowth  tombs.

The carved kerbstones around one of the Knowth tombs.

As I started writing this on Thursday night, I learned that there was a pretty horrible act of vandalism at Hill of Tara this week.  This sort of intentional harm to such an important monument makes me sad that we weren’t able to visit that site.

Of course, I admit, the Hill of Tara is mostly just a hill, even if it has great significance to Irish history and folk lore. With the curse of limited time, it was a site that just didn’t make the cut. And, while I didn’t feel too much guilt then, well, there’s a bit of regret from here.

Tombs at Knowth

More of the tombs at Knowth

Carved kerbstone

Carved kerbstone


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