Sunday, October 17, 2010

Ramble Through Old Ireland

Sorry for the absurdly long delay between updates; I was away for two weekends and lazy this one, and I've been sick for a solid week now (but getting better). Sorry also for the unusually long update I'm about to inflict on you now. And for the song-quote title that I'm not positive is from an authentically Irish song.

So about that last archaeology trip (which was almost exactly a month ago at this point). All the stops were pulled out for this one: we went to the most beautiful landscape yet, saw more sites in one go than ever before (even I was tired of going places by the end), had some of the best meals I’ve had in Ireland, and stayed out until the wee hours of the morning (whereas on the first overnight trip Tomás ushered us out of the pub and back to our hostel shortly after 11pm). It was truly an amazing day and a half.

The Burren is beautiful. I know I’ve been saying that about everything, so let me put it this way: Remembering how my landscape photography through the bus window got out of hand when I was in France and I wound up with far too many slightly blurred pictures of the countryside eating up space on my memory cards, I had been determined that I would not take pictures from buses here, since there are so many good opportunities on the ground. I had done very well with this decision for over a month by the time this field trip took place. The Burren, much to my camera’s battery’s dismay, completely destroyed my resolve. It is wild and desolate and completely stunning. I had never seen anything like it. I met a girl at the Medieval/Renaissance Society meeting last week who comes from County Clare, and I may have been just a little over the top in my praise for the region, but I just couldn’t help myself. There are plenty of lovely places in Cork, and yet Cork is dull by comparison.

The first place we went was Kilfenora Cathedral, where there are some neat high crosses. I have now seen three of the four medieval diocesan cathedrals in Ireland (Christ Church, Cashel, and Kilfenora; the rest of the cathedrals I keep mentioning are 19th century neo-Gothic cathedrals that only look that old). Don’t get excited, though—Kilfenora, as Connacht’s cathedral, is a testament to the remoteness and to the lack of wealth, shall we say, of the West as compared to the other regions. Next to the others, it does not look like a cathedral. Admittedly, some of this is due to the fact that unlike Christ Church, which has remained in use, and unlike Cashel, which is a ruin, Kilfenora is half and half: part of it has been repaired and remains in use for a local congregation, but they didn’t need the whole structure and enclosed a section of it while leaving the rest in ruins. It’s interesting.

I don’t have very much to say about a lot of the sites we visited. Some of them we just saw from the bus, so I don’t remember much about them anyway. We went to two abbeys (Cistercian the first day, Franciscan the second), both of which were very nice, but an abbey is an abbey and I don’t remember anything especially interesting about either of them, other than that at the second, after a quick tour of the church, we were allowed to basically run amok and explore what’s left of the friary on our own. So that was cool. Also, one of my classmates said, as we were photographing the ambulatory from every conceivable angle, “I’m pretty sure this is what Hogwarts is supposed to look like to non-magic people.” I said, “… Maybe we’re in Hogwarts RIGHT NOW.”

(Yes, I know Hogwarts is in Scotland. And fictional.)

Among the other sites was a “castle” that is, I believe, unique in being a medieval tower house to which a sixteenth-century fortified house was basically added on. I guess that’s the correct way to explain that, although it sounds odd considering the “addition” was considerably larger than the original building. I’m not sure whether to consider it awesome or an architectural travesty. Either way, we only got to see it from outside the fence, because the owner of the property and whatever government organization handles these things apparently have differing ideas about how to manage the site, and the landowner’s response to not being able to get someone to build a visitor’s center is to just not let anyone into the house at all. So there’s not much to say about it except that it’s a weird house. And has an interesting history due to a woman who had three husbands, two of whom were on opposite sides of the political conflict of the day. I think one of them may actually have been indirectly responsible for the death of the other, but I don’t remember the details of the story offhand.

At any rate, the other two I don’t think are very interesting to write about are Moughaun Hillfort, which is Bronze/Iron Age and where a really cool hoard of artifacts was found, and Bunratty Castle. I was excited to go to Moughaun, but it turns out there’s not really anything to see. The path crosses over some ditches that are vaguely recognizable as being what’s left of what were once earth walls. And there are some foundations of small stone buildings built by medieval people living in the remains of the fort. That’s basically it. Bunratty Castle was also more exciting in theory than in actuality. It’s also a tower house. I want to say it’s the biggest in Ireland but I might have that wrong. It’s definitely very large and very distinctive. And it’s not only well-maintained, but furnished, with the most recent owners’ incredibly extensive collection of medieval and Renaissance antiques. So you can actually see how it might have looked five hundred years ago, which is a very different experience from wandering through empty rooms with blank walls and no ceilings. I actually learned some interesting things.

On the castle grounds there’s also a folk park. I had no idea what that meant when I got to Ireland, but there are quite a few of them. Basically it consists of reconstructions of historical buildings, furnished with artifacts/antiques or replicas of things that would have been in said buildings. Sometimes there are reenactors and/or period-appropriate livestock. (At Bunratty, at least the day we were there, they have the latter but not the former.) Bunratty Folk Park is a reconstructed 19th century village and an assortment of 19th century cottages that represent typical houses from different parts of Ireland. It was vaguely interesting. I think with more time to not rush around, and if I were to go on a day I hadn’t already had just about all the history I could handle from things that were far less visually stimulating, I might enjoy it. As it was, I was mostly intrigued by the apparent unconcern with fire hazards like leaving peat fires unattended in open hearths in empty cottages. And with the wolfhounds who totally refused to come to the fence so I could pet them.

Poulnabrone Portal Tomb was the most haunting site from this trip. Even if you don’t know what that is offhand, I guarantee you’ve at least seen a picture of it somewhere at some point without realizing it—it’s quite famous as an image of Ireland and of the Neolithic in general. It was smaller than I expected, but still very striking, and all the more so because it’s just there. Alone on a rise in the middle of this vast field of exposed bedrock. It kind of embodies the Burren. I could have stood and looked at it for a lot longer than we did, despite the fact that it was windy and starting to rain. (We’d had pretty awesome weather for every other trip, so we were probably overdue for a crappy day at that point.)

That just leaves Cahercommaun Cashel. A cashel is essentially a ringfort that’s made of stone instead of earth. This one is on the edge of a gorge. ON THE EDGE. Of a GORGE. Very impressive. Not something I expected to see in Ireland. There’s not as much to see as you’re probably imagining—haphazard looking piles of rocks that you can see were once walls and foundations, and some that weren’t as obviously anything. The innermost enclosure is fairly intact; parts of the outer two survive. There’s a modern wooden walkway over the last bit of uneven ground, leading up to an observation deck overlooking the inner enclosure. After Tomás gave his spiel (again, in the wind and rain), he somewhat apprehensively gave us permission to hop down and explore. He spent most of the next half hour or so standing on the wall shouting at anyone who pushed the boundaries of acceptable distance between oneself and the cliff. It was cute.

Getting out to the cashel from the road is a nice little hike of maybe 20 or 30 minutes. I spent most of it, both there and back, talking to David, whom I’ve mentioned before. We were mostly trading field school stories, and it came to light that he applied to the same human osteology internship program at Notre Dame that I applied to for this past summer. Small world.

The last thing we saw (none of this has been in order, by the way; chronologically speaking, this was our last stop on the first day) was the Cliffs of Moher (again, I promise you know what they look like even if you don’t know the name). They don’t have any archaeological significance; they’re just awesome. The wind was terrible, and I was literally almost blown off my feet a few times. The view was spectacular. It made Howth look like a playground. Even more spectacular was the very odd pattern of clouds and late afternoon sunlight that David and I couldn’t stop taking pictures of. It was always just out of reach of being able to get both the cliffs and the sun-shining-on-the-ocean effect in the same frame. I’ll include some of those pictures when I eventually post field trip pictures at all, but I warn you that none of them really do it justice. I also have video of the waves crashing against the base of the cliffs (waaayyy below the place where the camera and I were standing), but I doubt that does anything justice, either.

By the way, the main reason I have yet to post those pictures is that over the course of six days of field trips I managed to take 646 of them. Actually, I probably took more than that; 646 survived the possibility of being deleted in the field and were ultimately uploaded to my computer. The prospect of going through them and coming up with a reasonable number to post online has been somewhat daunting. I think I have fewer pictures than that from my weekends in Dublin and in Killarney combined. Possibly from everything else I’ve done combined.

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