Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Brú na Bóinne and The Hill of Tara

By Claire
We had a nice, leisurely day off from sightseeing yesterday; so this morning we were happily up and away by 8:10 am, planning to get to Brú na Bóinne the moment it opened to beat the tour buses that Rick Steves warned about. Not only did we beat them, we were the very first group to the sight and we numbered only 12. The groups after us were twice that size.

This famous archaeological site properly known as Brú na Bóinne (dwelling place of the Boyne) is also commonly referred to as "Newgrange" (actually one of the tombs). The very nice and well organized Visitors Center was impressive. We stepped into the doors and a young man came up to us immediately, asking us which place we wanted to see (we decided to visit only one tomb) and told us a tour would be starting at 9:30 and slapped a time sticker on each of us. He pointed the way to buy the tickets, €5, and explained where to go to find the shuttle bus to the site. Our timing was perfect. It's a 10 minute walk to the bus stop and we were off to visit one of two 5,000-year-old passage tombs.

View from the Visitors Center. That mound on the hill is where we were headed.

I was amused by these two posters. They had them in several languages; but I loved the contrast between the English man and the Gaelic woman. Rick Steves had advised good walking shoes for uneven, often muddy ground, and clothing for wind and rain. Isn't it odd that the poster with the man is advising the same thing. The poster with the woman, however, has her in sandals and a light shawl.

Our guide, Mary Ryan, was wonderful. She drew us in with the ancient story of this sacred spot. Dating from 3200 B.C., it is 500 years older than the pyramids at Giza and 1,000 years more ancient than Stonehenge. Our small group squeezed down the narrow passage way to a cross-shaped central chamber located under a 20-foot high stone dome. 200,000 tons of earth and stone were above us. It has stood all this time and is water tight. She pointed out the graffiti from the Victorians and the fact that nothing above arm's reach has been reconstructed. The areas within reach were damaged, again by the Victorians, who took pieces of stone as souvenirs. When the state of Ireland wanted to open the tomb for tourists, their insurance company refused, until they used cement to reinforce those areas. It seems the Victorians were quite the grave robbers. We encountered their work in Egypt and Greece as well.

Brú na Bóinne

Entry to passage grave—it is surround by 32 megalithic stones including this beautifully carved entrance stone. The famous triple spiral is featured here and inside the chamber.

We were not allowed to take photos inside; so I took a picture of a postcard I found in the Visitors Center.

Mary continued with her story about this very spiritual place. She pointed out the three side rooms where bones and ashes of cremated bodies were found. As the sun rose on the shortest day of the year (winter solstice, December 21), a ray of light would creep slowly down the 60-foot long passageway. For 17 minutes it would light the center of the sacred chamber. One thought is that this is the moment when the souls of the dead would be transported to the afterlife via that beam of light. They don't know who the bodies were; but most likely they were very important people. It could also have been a temporary resting place with the bodies being replaced after every winter solstice.

Mary turned off the lights inside the tomb and gave us a demonstration of how the sun would come inside and light it up. It really was an excellent tour.

Brú na Bóinne was eventually abandoned. No one knows why, but they believe that the weather became quite harsh and perhaps the sun did not shine for several winter solstice ceremonies. Imagine the fear if you did not know whether or not the sun would come back.

Brú na Bóinne is part of a complex of monuments. The other two principal monuments are Knowth (the largest) and Dowth, but throughout the region there are as many as 35 smaller mounds. I thought this completely untouched, unexcavated passage tomb was really special. It's just sitting in the middle of a field.

We rode the bus back to the Visitors Center where we watched an excellent video about the site then spent some time in their very good museum. They had models showing the construction and completion of the site.

Since the average life span was 35 and it probably took 50 years to build this, the tombs needed the labor of a large number of people who would never be buried in them--laborers, architects, astronomers and stone-carvers all worked together to create the monuments.

This is clothing typical of the time, made from animal skins and fur. I really liked the carry bag; perfect for a Rick Steves guidebook.

This is a model of a typical hut. They also had models with long bows used to catch deer. This brought to mind Agincourt, a crucial battle in 1415 between France and England for the dominion of France. The English side used long bows and won. Symmetry.

Driving out, I was charmed by this gate. The Center really goes to a lot of trouble to make the place fit. The stone walkways are in a spiral design and the building has a mounded roof with grass on top.


Out of fairness, I felt I should visit the Hill of Tara (€2, senior discount. The site is free; the fee is for the optional movie and tour). We saw and loved the Rock of Cashel a few days back. That was the home of the ancient Kings of Munster (~300-1100 AD). More importantly, it was the setting for parts of the Sister Fidelma series about 7th century Ireland. Tara is the seat of the High King of Ireland. This position was akin to a local god-king and was not hereditary—a king was elected to his position after qualifying for the honor. One test was to drive a chariot over the Stone of Destiny (lying on its side and, hopefully, somewhat buried in the ground). Another test was to step on the special stone—if it roared, you should be king.

There was a wonderful, short movie about the place in the Visitors Center—which is also a former Church of Ireland building. When the movie starts, the electrified screen comes down in front while darkening shades come down over all the stained glass and plain windows. We saw this first and then took the tour, available upon request. Agnes, our guide, was excellent.

Visitors Center and former Church of Ireland

Parts of the Hill of Tara are approximately 4500 years old! It is still an active archeological site: [We saw a camera crew here today in the Mound of Hostages and a team working on a grid with an electronic geophysical instrument to acquire information without intrusive digging. It looked like a electrified aerator—a man would walk along the strings laid out in uniform rows and place the device into the ground every few feet. We were told that much of the site remains unexcavated.]

The Mound of Hostages, the oldest portion of the site, is purported to have been (surprise!) the holding place for hostages. Although this practice was common in England and Continental Europe in later times, their hostages were generally allowed more freedom than would be possible in this tiny passage tomb.

Mound of Hostages—side view

Mound of Hostages—front view

Panoramic view from the Hill of Tara

Much history has occurred here: St. Patrick took on the pagan high king and converted him by using a shamrock to explain the Trinity. In 1798, Irish Rebels fought the British here in the Battle of the Boyne; but they were trounced by the clever Brits, who were not only professional soldiers, but were also relatively sober: The British commander had sent a supply of booze near the rebels, anticipating that they would liberate—and drink—it. There is a monument on the site commemorating the fallen. Finally, Daniel O'Connell, the great Irish Liberator, spoke to 500,000 (or so) supporters of the repeal of the Act of Union in 1843; he was arrested and sentenced to six years imprisonment; in later years he wished to retire in Rome; but, he died in Genoa en route. Curiously, from 1899 to 1901, a group of British Israelites were convinced that the Ark of the Covenant was buried at this location and tore up the ground until the government stopped them. Fortunately, much of the land belonged to another private landowner; this one had the foresight to refuse the group admission to his land—preserving the majority of the site.

This is the Stone of Destiny—there may be phallic/fertility implications, too; duh.

The only complaint I have is the difficulty we had in finding the place. We arrived at the nearest town with Susan's help, but were unable to find any signage directing us to our destination. We finally gave up and were driving down a new highway—of which Susan, our GPS, was blissfully unaware—when we saw a sign to Tara! We were following these quite well when we came to an intersection; it did have a number of parked cars; we thought this might be our destination, despite the absolute lack of signage; but, we were unable to find a place to park in the lot; so, we drove down the road until we found a pullout large enough for Homer. It turned out this was the site.

A well on the Hill of Tara--a surprise between our parking spot and the official site.

Near the well: There was no explanation regarding who Jack is. I hypothesize it is either Jack The Giant Killer or our friend Jack Young.

Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice. ~ Will Durant


Napamick said...

Wow. I had no idea they were as old as they are.

Karin said...

Another favourite. I was there in 1990. We entered the main chamber with only flashlights and on our own! Seems very commercial now, but you were better informed. They ARE amazing!!

I would like to go again.

Karin on Paros

Jack Young said...

I was wondering where that went.

--Jack Young