Friday, 16 October 2015

Ireland Part Five - Passage Tombs and a Colorful Night in Dublin

One last post on Ireland and I promise I will be done.  It’s just so much easier to spread these posts out and do a little at a time.  But I can’t be done without sharing our last two days in Ireland with you so here we go.

After spending two nights in Northern Ireland, we headed south again driving across the picturesque Irish countryside.  We would be spending the night in Dublin before catching the ferry back across the Irish Sea the next day, but first, there was one more place we needed to visit.  

This is a passage tomb dating back to c.3,200 BC.  It’s called Newgrange and it located among the rolling hills of the Boyne Valley.  Newgrange is the best known of the three passage tombs found here and covers approximately 1.2 acres.  It’s quite large and quite extraordinary.  

The outside of Newgrange is very impressive with the stacked white stones speckled with black.  But is this the way the passage tomb was originally built?  You see, all those white and black stones were actually found on the ground around the base of the tomb and have been placed back on the walls in recent times.  The thought is that the tomb was originally decorated in this stately fashion to be clearly seen and appear quite impressive to anyone traveling on the river down in the valley below.  Over the course of 5000 years, these rocks have simply collapsed and ended up at the base of the tomb.  But some don’t agree with this and think the rocks were actually laid on the ground around the tomb in patterns more like modern day landscaping.  Who is correct?  We will never know.  

As the name tomb implies, inside this massive structure are basins where the cremated remains of people who lived long, long, long ago were found during excavations.  But why is it called a 'passage' tomb?  Well, because there is a 62-foot passage that leads to a small chamber deep inside the tomb.  This is where the basins containing the remains are located.  We got to go inside the chamber but we had to wait for the group before us to exit the tomb before we could enter.  This gave the girls a chance to run off some steam and chase each other like puppies around the standing stones surrounding the tomb. 

If you are at all claustrophobic, I would advise against entering the tomb.  People 5000 years ago where a lot smaller than us and could pass through the narrow stone lined 62-foot passage with ease.  It is not so accommodating to the more robust bodies of today (no photos were allowed inside so you'll just have to rely on my written description and your imagination to get the picture).  At times you needed to duck your head and turn sideways to fit through the openings.  It felt like walking through a narrow cave until you finally reached the cross shaped inner chamber where the room opens up, but as person after person spilled out of the narrow passageway, the inner chamber soon felt small as well.  They only allow a group of about twenty to enter at a time.  You all go in together and you all go out together.  There is no room for passing people in that dark little passage way.

Entering this stone structure may be a bit daunting, but the marvels you discover once inside are so worth it.  First of all, there is the corbelled roof which consists of overlapping layers of humongous rocks and gets narrower and narrower as it climbs.  On the very top sits a large capstone.  How this was constructed thousands of years ago is a wonder in and of itself, but even more amazing is the fact that not one drop of water has ever gotten through this rock roof – in 5000 years!  Is there a building constructed today that will ever be able to make that claim? 

And if the 5000 year old waterproof roof isn’t enough to ponder, there is one more very special and unique feature of this passage tomb.  The passage into the chamber faces the southeast and over the outside entrance is a small opening known as a ‘roof box.’  Every year on the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice (and for a few days before and after), the rising sun sends a shaft of sunlight through this opening, down the narrow passageway and into the chamber deep inside the tomb.  Why the passage tomb was designed with this feature is not known for sure.  Maybe because the shining sun on what the Neolithic culture considered the new year was a sign of rebirth, foreshadowing a prosperous year to come.  Maybe it was to symbolize life over death, a new life for those buried inside.  And what about those years when the sun didn’t shine early on the morning of the winter solstice?  What did that signify?  Again, we will never know for sure, but what is certain is that to design and build a structure using tons of heavy stones that would allow this phenomenon to happen year after year some 5000 years ago is truly an amazing architectural feat. 

There are two other passage tomb sites all clustered around this same area in Ireland.  We were able to visit another called Knowth which consists of a large tomb with two passages inside that is surrounded by 18 smaller tombs.  You cannot enter the passages into the tomb at Knowth, although we were allowed to peak inside and get a photo... 

but with the smaller tombs outside, this site is quite impressive as well.  This site has been used on and off for hundreds and hundreds of years.  After it’s initial use as a tomb, there was no sign of activity at this site for nearly 2000 years.   

Then, at the early centuries AD, this site was again used to bury the dead.  During the early Christian era, this site, being one of the highest places in the area, was used as a defending site, with people living around and even on top of the great mound.  

I could tell you a lot more about these amazing ancient monuments that are regarded as some of the most remarkable prehistoric sites in the world but really, you just need to visit them in person and see for yourself.  They are so worth seeing and Ireland in general is an amazing and easy place to visit.  Now I completely understand why so many people I know have traveled here.  There is just so much to see and do and learn about.  As we headed south back towards Dublin, I asked Eric if we could stay for another week and just keep driving right past the city to the southern end of the isle.  We didn't have a chance to explore that half and I wasn't ready to go home.  But alas, real life beckoned to us so we headed into Dublin.  At least we had one more night here and that would be spent in the city.  

Oh Dublin - you are a colorful and vibrant place, full of beauty, history and people - lots and lots of interesting people.   We only had a few hours to spend there, but I wish we had had more.  Before I get into what we did see, I have to share one thing about this entire trip.  As you have probably noticed from the photos of our trip to Ireland, we had an extra girl with us.  No, Eric and I did not adopt a 19 year old.  That is Taylor, my niece from Minnesota who spent over a month living with us in England and got to come along on our Irish adventure.  She was great to have around, and the girls were especially fond of the fact that she sat between them in the back seat of the car wherever we went and her shoulders were the perfect height for headrests.  This was usually the picture I saw when turning around to check on them back there.  

(Leah's going to love me when I show this photo to her boyfriend someday.)

I am so very, very happy Taylor got to stay and travel with us, but there was one complication with traveling with five people - finding places to stay that would accommodate all of us in one room.  Usually, with four of us, we can find hotels that have family suites or rooms, but for five, that is another matter.  But we did fine while in Ireland, finding an apartment for our time on the Dingle peninsula, getting two rooms in Northern Ireland, but when we arrived in Dublin, we got the creme dela creme of family rooms - one huge room with two queen beds and a single!  

It was perfect!  It had the character of an attic room in a big old house and was plenty large enough to accommodate our loads of luggage with room to spare.  Thank you Best Western - thank you!

Back to Dublin.  As I mentioned above, our time in Dublin was short, basically a few hours that last evening and a quick morning dash around the city the next day before we had to board the ferry heading for home.  We mainly just wander the streets taking in the beautiful architecture and bridges over the River Liffey...

stopping in a few shops here and there, and people watched because, let me tell you - Dublin is a great place for people watching.  It was Saturday night and it didn't take long for us to discover that Dublin is clearly the place to be for any and all outings that involve drinking - like bachelor and bachelorette parties (stag and hen parties as they are calling in Ireland and the UK).  We passed group after boisterous group of dressed up people heading in and out of different establishments.  We spotted a very lively area down a side street, a narrow street filled with restaurants and people.  As we wandered towards it Ellie asks, "Why is there a man wearing a sign with a nearly naked lady on it?"  Maybe we won't go down that street after all.   After a few more questions about interesting people and things we saw while walking around, we decided to just find a nice place to have dinner and then we would head back to the hotel.  Dublin on a Saturday night maybe isn't the best place for a seven and ten year old.  

But even at dinner we couldn't seem to escape the party happen in this city because we had no sooner sat down at a table on the back wall when a bachelor party entered and parked themselves at the bar directly in front of us.  It was early in the evening.  They hadn't drank much yet.  I wasn't too worried until...until one of the girls asked why there was a man dressed like an oompa loompa (you know - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - green hair, orange face, brown overalls, short stature) and why was he chained to one of the men in the party!  Yikes!  This was a new one for all of us, obviously some crazy Irish tradition we weren't previously aware of.  And to make it even more interesting, the oompa loompa man waves at the girls when he sees them staring.  Who needs a dinner theater when you have a bachelor party with an oompa loompa in front of you.  

I apologize because I do not have a picture of this spectacle to share with you, but somethings you just don't feel right photographing.  Was this funny?  Was this strange?  Was this a little disturbing?  All of the above, and in those circumstances, you just can't bring yourself to take a picture.  If I was Irish, I probably would have understood, but I'm not.  And that is that. 

To be honest, the group was quite entertaining and well behaved, and after they had lingered for awhile, one of them asked Eric if he would take a picture of the group and then said they were leaving because they didn't want the be a bad influence on the girls.  That was sweet, but the image of the oompa loompa chained to the husband-to-be will be etched in my head for a long, long, long time.  

And that was our time in Dublin.  I leave you with the photos we took during our mad dash around the city before heading back to England.  I am so very glad we took this trip to Ireland, the one I didn't really want to go on if you remember back to my first post.  How glad I am now that we did go because Ireland will always hold a special place in my heart.  Beautiful land and beautiful people.  Enough said...

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