The Arrival and Newgrange

(10.4.12) The Arrival and Newgrange – The plane lands smoothly and we debark after a delightful breakfast of ham and cheese on a crescent roll, orange juice and tea (or coffee). Many people may have starved in Ireland, but one thing is already apparent: No one will ever starve on Aer Lingus. The wheel chair attendant this time is some sort of management person, very young and able. Once Marge is settled into the chair, I follow Bob up the jet way, an interesting permanent feature with lots of glass and metal fretwork – Dublin International Airport really is a beautiful building – and into the gate area. We collect our wits and our bearing while waiting for Marge and young Declan, but the wait grows longer and longer. Just a few minutes, but more time than one would expect it to take to come up the jet way, so I walk back and around the corner. There is Declan, pushing Marge, carrying another lady’s carry-on over one arm and talking on his cel phone. And all this done very cheerily. I am impressed. Seems someone else requested assistance, but that attendant got delayed, so Declan stepped up. Him juggling everything puts me in mind of those old pictures of one-man bands and sets me up for the day ahead, which first off involves additional transportation misadventures.

Landing in Dublin, collecting our two checked bags and finding our rental car was easy. Locating Newgrange was a bit harder. I must admit I find it very easy to get lost in Ireland. The roads are mostly compact, as the car rental attendant put it, and while the signposting is very good, the Irish seldom use directions. I mean, if you’re on the N18, you must know whether you are heading for Galway or Ennis. Wanting to go north or south will get you nowhere. So, if you are heading somewhere in particular, you must know the names of nearby towns to ensure that you are going in the right direction.

So we drive up and down the eastern seaboard north of Dublin looking for the cut-over for Newgrange. We know the towns nearby, but still can’t seem to find it and the map we have is terrible, but I believe maps, in general, are bad in Ireland. At least, I have always been disappointed with them. Generally, though, I don’t mind stumbling along the back roads and seeing the sights along the way. We’ve got a small four-door hatchback with a standard transmission that runs on diesel, so it could be worse. The fuel is very expensive here in that drivers pay much closer to the actual cost, but the vehicles are very energy efficient. We drove more than 700 kilometers on the first tank and still had about a quarter tank left. This bit of careening around a narrow, vertical section of roadway gives me a chance to practice left-hand driving anyway, which is fairly easy. The difficult bit is adjusting the automatic calculus we all do when reversing out of a parking spot, for example. At home, I don’t have to think about it. Here, I’m backing into traffic that is running opposite to what I’m used to and my entire folk physics is knocked off kilter for a while.

We finally find the River Boyne, which runs near Newgrange, and know we are close. In the village of Slane, we run across signposts for the historical site and close in on it. All of a sudden, we’re there! We’re tired because no one slept very much on the plane and it’s about noon now. The attendant says the shuttle to the site will leave at 1:00 p.m. and to start making our way across the bridge about 10 minutes before because it is a little walk to where the bus will pick us up. We check out the beautifully displayed exhibits in the fabulous facility and learn a lot about the region and the ancient people who lived here. Sure enough, though, when we walk out to the shuttle stop, we’ve misunderstood the instructions and the bus has gone. We were to have arrived at the station at 10 minutes before 1:00 p.m., not head there then. But, being Irish, they simply send round another bus and make nothing of it. As usual, I’m struck by how considerate these people are. There is another tour leaving at 1:45 p.m. and they might have told us to wait for that one, as has so often happened to me at home. But, “Not at all, we’ll catch you up with your group, sure,” is how they handle it.

Once arrived at the site, we walk up to where the rest of the group is waiting, either for us or for the guide. I can’t tell because the guide has not come out of the little shelter yet. Is he really late or is he covering for us? Either way, we save face and join the others on the bench. Almost immediately, the guide walks out and waves us along to a pea gravel pad where we gather around to listen. He indicates that there are three very large barrow tombs and several smaller ones in the area. Some of the smaller ones have been recently excavated, but they believe they have uncovered all of those. He points to the surrounding countryside and the horizon line, and begins talking about the people who lived here and constructed these monuments more than five millennia past. He talks about their knowledge of astronomy and engineering, and the types of materials used in the structures. He talks about how they had to transport some of the granite more than 60 kilometers down the coast and inland, first floating it down the Irish Sea, then up the River Boyne, before rolling it across the countryside on huge log rollers. Like the Egyptians building the pyramids, but these Celts did it first. Then he tells the story of how the monuments fell into ruin for at least 1,600 years until a land owner tried to quarry the mounds to build roads across his property only a couple hundred years ago only to find huge carved boulders, covered with complicated abstract carvings.

After this backgrounding, we go down into the tomb. The guide tells us to carry our bags and backpacks close to our chests and warns us that it will be a bit claustrophobic inside. He encourages everyone to enter, but that folks who think they will be bothered by the close quarters should enter last to facilitate easy departure if it proves too much for them. Ever practical, these Irish! We file in, I’m near the front of the line because I want to make sure I can hear everything and I’m so darned short that I don’t want to have to stand behind a wall of people. We wind our way through the passage, which is very narrow and a bit bendy, never realizing that we are angling up a slope that will bring us to an interior floor about six meters higher than the entry. Once everybody makes it to the center of the tomb, the guide indicates the three chambers opening off the central space, pointing out the cruciform shape of the structure. Inside each chamber sits the remains of a huge stone bowl, into which the cremated ashes would have been placed. Directing our attention to the roof, he tells us how they constructed it, with layer upon layer of large flat stones, each one a bit smaller than the one before, angling up toward a vaulted apex. Not a speck of mortar or mud or anything glue-like was used, he says, pointing out the clusters of much smaller stones wedged in everywhere around the layers of granite. Those large flat stones are supported by their own weight, distributed by those smaller ones. Amazingly, he says, while the skylight over the front portal and the entry collapsed, closing in the chamber, that ancient roof stood firm, solid all those many years. And, he says, in a type of archeological coup de grace, the entire thing is totally waterproof to this day. We are dumbstruck, but our guide is not finished yet.

He reminds us of the bendy route we took into the monument and tells us, then, of how we’re now standing six feet higher than we were when we entered. He further reminds us of the skylight over the entry portal that is just over six feet off the ground. (Even I had to crouch down a little to get under the lintel stone supporting the entry portal.) At this point, he returns to the bit about the ancients’ astronomical knowledge. He talks about pre-historical agricultural practices and how time was perceived differently in the days before the Gregorian and other calendars. Then he explains a few theories as to why these people went to so much trouble to put all this together. This is where he trots out the winter solstice reckoning that allows the sun to sight up precisely through that skylight out front, and asks if we’d like a demonstration. Of course we do, so he warns us that when he turns out the interior lights it will be very dark. (He actually said it would be “pitch” dark, but it wasn’t. It was quite dark, but not nearly as dark as when you take that elevator down into those Polish salt mines. Now, that was where I came to terms with the idea of not being able to see my hand in front of my face.)

We all agree that we won’t mind standing in the near-perfect dark with a couple dozen perfect strangers. He’s asked us to make a path down the middle of the tiny chamber in a line with the entry passage and he plays a flashlight down the path, making sure everybody can see the light beam. When he’s satisfied that we can all see it, he flips the switch. Darkness descends. Once it does, he activates a control panel that directs a light beam from the direction of the entry portal skylight into the inner chamber. That clear beam of light, only a few centimeters wide, floods down the path between the divided group of watchers. I know it sounds strange, but standing there in the blackness, we all gasp when the beam slides rapidly up the path. Now a disembodied voiceover in the darkness, the guide explains how this beam would have played across that path for maybe 16 or 17 minutes for up to five days in a row – weather permitting (as always in Ireland!) – during the winter solstice, marking the shortest day in the year and promising longer days ahead. He goes to great lengths to describe how that single beam would have illuminated the entire interior of the chamber, causing the granite to glow as if lit from within. He talks a bit about the entities these people may have worshiped, almost certainly including the sun, then he turns on the lights. We feel drained.

Shortly after, we all file out through the narrow twisty passage and into soft daylight. Our guide has recommended a walk-about around the monument so we can check out the huge kerbstones that line the perimeter, many of which are filled with strange and beautiful carvings. Many mortal coils, but other designs, as well. I do. The whole experience was very good because the Irish heritage folks did a very good job of orchestrating the visitor response, which is not surprising since this is a land of writers, poets and playwrights. We wait for the bus and ride back with lots of Germans, a French family, at least one Swede, and several Irish learning more about their own heritage.

It has been a great visit, but now Marge and Bob and I are really tired, and we are still on the east coast of this narrow country. We’ve got to get to Doolin tonight so we head off down the road, looking for the M6 that will take us all the way across. More delays as we find our way, but soon we’re heading toward Boston (as the Irish often say). Marge and Bob thank me for taking them to Newgrange, and confide that they’d had their doubts when we were lost and looking for the place. Marge says she thought a tomb that the sun shone into once a year would be nice to see, but perhaps hardly worth all the trouble we were having finding it. Seeing the monument and listening to the archeological account changed all that though, for both of them and I was glad.

Out on the M6, I’m doing fine, but flagging a bit so we pull off at Kennegad to find a cup of coffee or tea. We walk into a little pub on the high street and ask the bar man if he can serve us tea there. He says yes, but he’s got no food. OK with us; we just need the caffeine. After a while he brings out a pot with milk and sugar, and hangs around to talk. He’s been to the states and to Toronto, which he really likes. He has been to Chicago and New York, and prefers the former. When he runs our credit card, Marge asks him whether she can put a tip on the tab and he launches into an explanation of how tipping is not big in Ireland. He explains that servers are paid a living wage – from 9-12 euros an hour – and so don’t depend on them. He also explains that food is a bit more expensive because of that, but that he finds it much neater and fairer overall than our U.S. system. Overall, an interesting socio-economic conversation with a bar man in a pub.

This post has been very long and I apologize for that, but Newgrange is old enough to rate a detailed account. If you have read to the end, here, you will know that the next entry will be about our encounter with the last days of the Matchmaker Festival in Lisdoonvarna.

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