Friday, March 13, 2015

County Meath and Dublin: To the Stone Age and Back

We bought a copy of this print by Honor Hales
depicting the seasons at Newgrange
When we looked out our window first thing this morning, the fields across the road that stretched nearly as far as we could see were white with frost. Since our car was completely frosted over, too, and nobody had a window scraper, Bridie’s husband Paul offered to move it into the sunshine for us while we ate breakfast.  A while later, when we were ready to check out, we discovered that we could not pay for our room by credit card, so Paul offered to show Michael how to get to the nearest ATM. It was out of service, so as they drove on to the next one, almost eight kilometers away, Paul shared a bit of the Lynches’ story. Paul had grown up in a farmhouse near those fields across the road. His father had managed the estate for the landowner, but Paul took a different path and became a carpenter. Bridie had been a legal secretary, but due to age restrictions she had been forced to retire before she was ready to quit working. To keep her busy, they decided to open a B&B. Paul built the house (including the kitchen cabinets and all the handsome wood furnishings we had admired in our room) and they welcomed their first guests last year. But Bridie and Paul soon discovered that running a B&B keeps one very busy—too busy, as it turns out. Because they want more time for themselves, and more time at their vacation home in Portugal, they have decided to sell Burtonstown House. Too bad, because the Lynches are the most gracious hosts we have had on the entire trip. (If you’re interested in buying a beautifully built Irish guesthouse, we can put you in touch with them. To see photos, click here.)
Prehistoric Burial Mound at Newgrange

Entrance to the Passage Tomb at Newgrange
Today’s sightseeing program took us several kilometers farther into County Meath, and several millennia farther into the past. Newgrange is the center of a region filled with the remnants of an ancient community, notably some huge mounds containing passage tombs that date from 3200 B.C.—older even than Stonehenge and the pyramids of Egypt. At a visitor center designed to mimic the elegant simplicity of the mounds themselves, we learned about the daily lives of the people who had populated the area, saw a full-size replica of the burial chamber we would be visiting, and pondered why subsistence farmers and fishermen would devote so much of their short life spans to constructing such monuments.
River Boyne

Entrance Stone with Prehistoric Carvings
At our assigned tour time, we left the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Center and crossed a tastefully engineered footbridge over the River Boyne. On the other side, we boarded a shuttle that took us farther into the rolling hills and dropped us off at the Newgrange mound. Its simple but striking exterior was reconstructed from what are believed to be the original stones during the 1970s, after years of archaeological excavation and study. The burial chamber inside can accommodate only a dozen people at a time, so we walked around outside while we waited for our turn.

Note the subtle color gradations in Newgrange's stone wall
The mound at Newgrange is notable not only for its tomb and Neolithic carvings, but also because it was constructed so that on the day of the winter solstice, the first rays of the rising sun will shine directly into its main passage. (Every year, tens of thousands enter their names into the Newgrange lottery, hoping to win one of only a hundred coveted spots to witness the event.) Even though we visited closer to the spring equinox and thus missed the mystical winter celebration, it was still incredibly awe-inspiring to look up at the stone dome over our heads and realize that it had been built more than five thousand years ago. 

Stone work continues around the back of the Newgrange mound
Researchers have determined that many of the heavy building blocks came from the beach at Clogherhead, twenty kilometers away. What planning and determination must have been required for prehistoric people to complete such a structure without metal tools—let alone no backhoes, jackhammers, and cranes! What faith motivated their desire and dedication? No one really knows.
Ancient people decorated the stones around the mound

A smaller burial chamber nearby

Ruins of other Neolithic structures at Newgrange

The other large burial mounds at nearby Knowth and Dowth were not open so we returned to the visitor center, where we watched a short film about Newgrange and the solar calendar, and then had lunch at the café (excellent parsnip soup and a five-salad sampler plate). From there, we headed toward another historically significant point in County Meath: the Hill of Tara.

Hill of Tara
Like the fictional O’Hara family that named its beloved Georgia plantation after this site, the civilization that built the now-ruined monuments atop the Hill of Tara also is gone with the wind. This is the spot where the most powerful men in Ireland once convened to settle disputes every three years during the Middle Ages—the era we call “Dark” only because written history shines but feeble light on it. In today’s brilliant sunshine, however, it was easy for us to imagine a host of nobles in glinting armor, their colorful banners snapping in the wind, gathering here to crown a High King.

A sign identified this mound of grass as Cormac's House—
obviously not as well preserved as his digs at Cashel and Blarney
The Lia Fáil (Stone of Destiny) where the High Kings of Ireland were crowned.
According to legend, the stone would cry aloud to identify the rightful ruler
Archaeological evidence shows that before this period, Tara had been a sacred burial place; after Christianity became the dominant force in Ireland, the Hill again took on a spiritual air with the addition of a church dedicated to St. Patrick. Fun fact: in the 1800s, a group of Jewish zealots became convinced that the Ark of the Covenant was buried at Tara and further ruined the Hill’s ancient structures while trying to locate it. No matter what its political and religious history has been, the current serenity of the place certainly inspires reverence.
We would not have been surprised to learn that Aslan,
the lion king of Narnia,had been held within this “Mound of the Hostages”
while awaiting his execution by the wicked White Queen

Ravens were nesting in this tree
The Church of St. Patrick on the Hill of Tara
Late in the afternoon, we left ancient history and our tour of the idyllic Irish countryside behind as we re-entered the national highway around Dublin with its twenty-first century traffic. After a couple of weeks on the road together, we have become a pretty good team: Nancy navigating from a combination of GPS signals and the atlas (“Turn right on R-151 toward Rathfeigh, which should be the third exit in the roundabout”) with Michael behind the wheel, trying to keep up with her directions while avoiding oncoming traffic on his right. So when the imperturbable voice of the GPS insisted on sending us around Dublin even though electronic highway signs were warning of accident delays on the ring road, we decided to find our Dublin accommodations by striking off through the middle of the city on our own. And you know what? We did pretty darn well—especially considering that it was rush hour, and that neither of us had previously seen anything of Dublin beyond the bus route from the airport.

Welcome to the Pembroke
We were headed for Pembroke Road in the southeastern quadrant of the city, a wide avenue lined with well maintained Georgian-style townhouses and the compounds of several foreign embassies. When we found the road, we began looking for Pembroke Townhouse, a hotel that occupied one of those Georgian brownstones. Although the Pembroke’s website had advertised free on-site parking, there was no garage or car park in sight, so we pulled up on the street in front, checked in, and then got directions to the hotel’s gated lot through an alley behind the row houses.

Pembroke Townhouse

We had reserved tickets for a play at the Gate Theater tonight, so when we had changed our clothes and figured out where we wanted to go for dinner, we got back in the car and drove about seven kilometers across the River Liffey to a parking garage near Parnell Square. On our way, we went up O'Connell Street, a broad boulevard with a landscaped median, lots of monuments, and lots of pedestrians. The street’s most distinctive feature is a gigantic metal spire that sleekly rises from the middle of the median (purpose as yet unknown). Nancy said, “This looks like Dublin’s equivalent of the Champs Elysées.”

“Look again,” Michael replied. “The shops aren’t chic enough, and neither are the people. It’s more like Rue de la République.” (He was right, of course.)

Skirting around Parnell Square on foot, we found a row house on the west side with a small sign directing us down the stairs to The Hot Stove. Happily, this very nice but unpretentious restaurant offered a three-course pre-theater special that turned out to be one of the best dining experiences of our trip so far. While we perused the menu, we were treated to an amuse bouche of fennel-stuffed pastry with mushroom coulis, then Michael chose a starter of wild garlic risotto and Nancy the smoked salmon ravioli in a bowl of fennel soup. Even though Nancy isn’t terribly fond of smoked salmon, the ravioli was such a nice complement to the soup that she actually ate every square instead of tasting one and giving the rest to Michael as planned. For the main, Michael enjoyed the pheasant en croute with apple stuffing, while Nancy relished her “bacon” (more like cured pork brisket than the fatty strips we call bacon) with cabbage, colcannon (a traditional Irish dish made with mashed potatoes, chopped kale, and scallions) and parsley sauce. Michael’s dessert included separate dollops of chocolate and white chocolate mousse served with a tasty granola bar (definitely not the kind that comes out of a box); Nancy had passion fruit créme with crushed meringue and macadamia nuts.

Gate Theatre
Michael might have been happier had the evening ended there, as the show at the Gate Theater, The Caretaker by Harold Pinter, was so . . . Pinteresque:  cerebral, multilayered, occasionally hilarious, but more often hopelessly bleak. It was the glacial pace that really got to him: interminable pregnant pauses bracketed by bits of terse dialogue. At the interval, the woman seated in front of us said she hoped the tempo would pick up in the second act. Having seen or read some other Pinter plays, we could offer her no such assurance.

The story of The Caretaker involves two brothers, the younger a brusque man of business, the older a sensitive savant with severe psychological problems. One night the laconic older brother, who lives in the dumpy garret of an apartment building owned by the younger, invites a garrulous homeless man to come in out of the cold. When the younger brother finds the vagrant still living there weeks later, emotional mayhem ensues. The audience is never quite sure which of the characters has the best grasp of reality, or whether the “care” any of them takes for any of the others is meant to be cruel or kind—or both at once. The drama ends basically at the same place it began, leaving viewers feeling much like readers of a typical “slice of life” story in the New Yorker—shaking their heads and wondering what it all meant. Nancy loved it; Michael not so much. For him, it was too depressing after the edifying, truly awesome experiences we had had at Newgrange and the Hill of Tara.

Michael found the interval a much more intriguing cultural experience than the play itself:  most patrons were at the bar, not drinking alcohol, but drinking coffee from real china cups on real china saucers—no Styrofoam or insulated cardboard cups in sight. He also had been impressed with the unusual courtesy of the man who welcomed the audience before the play began. Besides asking everyone to silence their cell phones and other noisemaking devices (which some incredibly inconsiderate person still neglected to do), he explained that the adjacent parking garage closed promptly at 11:00 and advised anyone who had left their car there not to dawdle after the show. He also mentioned that the garage’s payment machines did not accept credit cards or make change, so if anyone was in need of the proper coinage, they should see a member of the theater staff during the interval to obtain it.

The garage where we had left our car was not the one adjacent to the theater, but a few blocks away. Walking back there after dark, we realized that we had entered a pretty sketchy area where the only people on the trash-strewn street looked like they were either drunk or peddling drugs (maybe both). We had to swipe our parking ticket through a card reader next to the door of the garage before it would unlock and let us in, and we made sure that it closed securely behind us. Fortunately, Pembroke Townhouse is in a clean, more affluent section of town, and our room is located off a quiet hallway at the back of the well-secured building. Once inside, we could leave our worries behind.

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