Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Royal Plains of Meath

Sleeping in bunkbeds in the narrow dorm overlooking a farmyard, with its old-fashioned country style furniture and ten girls to a room, felt weirdly like being in a storybook orphanage. Someone likened it to being at camp, which I wouldn’t know anything about, but was probably accurate. All of us downstairs in the kitchen the next morning scrounging for cereal and lining up to use the toaster, and then a large chunk of the class sitting on every piece of furniture in the living room and most parts of the floor and taking turns playing with the dog, all kind of felt that way too.

Also, the class is about 80 or 90 percent female, and all the girls slept in three or four rooms like the one I was in on the second floor of the main building. The boys were in a small room on the ground floor that had to be accessed from outside. I, for one, thought that was pretty funny.

Anyhow, our first stop for the day was the Bend of the Boyne Cemetery and our long-awaited tour of Newgrange. If you didn’t know/look it up already, Newgrange is an enormous Neolithic tomb, one of three at the Bend of the Boyne. The three of them are roughly contemporary and are all oriented on the rising and/or setting sun at different times so that together they mark the cycle of the year. It’s very cool, and they’re very obvious on the landscape. We passed the tomb of Knowth on the way to Newgrange. I was surprised at how far apart they are; I guess the word cemetery had made me imagine something fairly consolidated, but they’re actually rather spread out. You can only get to the tombs themselves by first going through a visitor’s center that then packs you into small shuttle buses at your appointed tour time, so there are never more than a couple of groups at the actual sites at once. There’s a neat little exhibit about the cemetery and the region and about Neolithic life in general at the visitor’s center, and they show a short film about the astronomical aspect of the tombs that was pretty much THE cheesiest and most unnecessarily dramatic thing I’ve ever seen. It was easily as bad as those middle school science videos that play weird New Agey music while cells are dividing and crap like that. And there was a sort of recurring theme of the great mystery of the seasons and how Neolithic people must have felt so uncertain and feared that without their rituals to appease to ancestors or the gods or whomever, the earth would stop turning and the sun wouldn’t rise again. I actually found it somewhat offensive (when I wasn’t laughing out loud at the narrator’s excessive flair for the dramatic). I mean, that’s a possibility, I guess. But you really have no idea what Neolithic people thought, or what their rituals were, or why. None. Whatsoever. It seems to me that we could give them the dignity of not just assuming that they believed that the pattern that had existed for all time might stop any minute or that the world would end if they slipped up. That seems a little extreme for people who had obviously observed enough continuity to build these massive tombs aligned EXACTLY RIGHT to match up with things that happen consistently year after year.

I digress. We went to the tomb, after a pretty walk across the river and past some cows to the shuttle bus, and a short bus ride down some back roads that was briefly delayed by a herd of more cows. The tomb is large, and impressive, and stands on a hill overlooking the valley, which is beautiful. The front of the tomb is all reconstructed according to someone’s “educated guess”, which is a little disappointing, but what can you do. Inside, on the other hand, is all completely intact and has not changed for more than four thousand years except for the addition of a few support beams (just in case) and a handful of electric lights. The passage into the burial chamber is not for the claustrophobic; it has a low roof and is sometimes narrow and slopes up because the chamber is several meters higher than the ground outside. But the chamber itself has a high vaulted ceiling that is easily as impressive as a Gothic cathedral, as far as I’m concerned, especially considering it was built without mortar and before the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza. And while we were inside, the guide turned off all the lights except for one bulb near the entrance that’s been positioned to simulate what happens at sunset on the winter solstice, when the last rays of sunlight enter the space above the doorway and shine directly into the tomb. It was very cool.

They apparently hold a lottery to choose a small group of people who get to be there at sunset in December for a couple of days around the time it’s supposed to happen, but since I already have a flight home on the 19th, I didn’t enter myself even though it would be amazing to be there for real. Oh well. The odds of being chosen are like a zillion to one anyway.

That afternoon, following a lunch that included some truly fantastic chocolate cake, we went to Trim Castle, which is the biggest Anglo-Norman castle in Ireland and is pretty impressive in its own right. The keep is pretty intact, and some of the curtain wall with a couple of its gateways. There are some ruined outbuildings and across the river, at a fairly short distance, the remains of what was once an abbey. (I think our teacher was over there checking it out while we were on our tour of the keep.) It was pretty cool. I think I found the grounds more interesting than the castle itself. But our guide was very interesting and knowledgeable, and told us some fun stuff about medieval life instead of just sticking to the bare facts about the castle. And he did it in a way that didn’t make me feel like he was just assuming we didn’t know anything about history, which I appreciated because that’s a problem I sometimes have on tours. (The colonial-era Burgwin-Wright house in Wilmington with the tour guide who looked at me as if I were just adorably precocious every time I knew the answer to something pretty obvious comes to mind.) I learned some fun things about where a few English idioms came from. Come to find out, near the end of the tour, that one of the reasons for his enthusiasm was that he grew up in the town of Trim and as a kid would skip school and come play in the castle (which at the time was basically abandoned as far as I can guess, since it wasn’t excavated until the 90s and wasn’t open to tourism until 2000). Like, actually. His playground was a castle. How awesome is that?!

Near the top, before taking us up to the ramparts, he asked if anyone was afraid of heights. I raised my hand. I think I may have been the only one, which was a little embarrassing. But he was really nice about it, and said it was perfectly safe and blah blah blah and there was no need to feel bad because he’d had a PILOT on a tour not long ago who refused to go up to the roof. That’s a little unnerving, and not for any reason having to do with the castle…

Anyway, I was standing there going, “Yeah, I’m not actually that worried… you just asked, so I answered…” I figured the stairs were more of an issue than actually being on top of the building was going to be, and even they weren’t that bad because they had a rope to hold onto like the ones at Blarney. And I was right; between the walls and the very substantial iron railings that have been put up in modern times to keep people well back from the edge, there’s nothing even remotely frightening about being up there. And I really am afraid of heights. I get vertigo and everything. Just not under circumstances like the ones that exist at the top of a building that thousands of visitors are encouraged to stand on top of.

So that was pretty much that. We left for Cork after Trim, and it took the better part of four hours to get back. My iPod held out the whole way even though I’d been using it a lot for two entire days at that point, so I was pleased. It was raining for a lot of the drive, and when we got back into Cork City we were stunned to find that the river had risen so high that a couple of low bridges were almost flooded and the places along the Western Road where I watch herons on the way to town and back were totally underwater. It was quite a surprise. I guess it rained here the whole time we were gone. It reminded me of Belize last summer and coming back to San Ignacio from a long weekend to discover that the river had actually flooded and the bridge was actually underwater and the storm had taken out the tree behind my cabin. Except obviously this was not as bad. And everything was back to normal by the weekend.

I spent most of the weekend, except for a small adventure I’ll recount later, trying in vain to write that essay, which is now complete, still a little too long, and ready to hand in tomorrow when I get on the bus. Lectures are over. One more overnight field trip and then the class is over.


To the Burren tomorrow. I’m excited.

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