We woke up in Dublin, in the only camper park in our entire book that was listed as open all year round. It wasn’t full, but it was surprisingly crowded, and we even saw quite a few people had camped out in tents…. brrr!!!! The kids were happy there was a playground. It is really nice that they are old enough now to go over to a playground while André and I get ready to go. Of course, they need occasional supervision, but I think I can cautiously say the ‘constant vigilance’ phase of motherhood is over for me. That’s good, because constant vigilance has never been my forté. I prefer a form of benign neglect. Of course, when I went over to collect them, they weren’t actually playing on the playground equipment, but rather collecting sticks from the woodchips to make a road for the fairies. Lucky things. (Notice the carefully selected orange and black clothing choices saved, ever so carefully, for this day. Yes, I do know I’m nuts – especially when you consider we each only had 4 outfits for the 12 days)
We were actually ahead of schedule for once this entire, crazy journey, and decided we would try, one last time, to see a real castle. I’m sure it’s not very politically correct for me to insinuate that the ruined shells of stone are somehow fake. I mean, they are just challenged, or differently abled, right? Prejudiced as it may have been, I really wanted to get some idea of how all these Irish castles used to look, before they rotted away! And so, we headed off for Malahide, armed only with our map, a brochure and the hope against all hopes that this time, it would be open. We got a bit lost on the way over, and, following what we thought were signs for the castle ended up driving ever so slowly down the road pictured left. In any other country, we would never have thought this could be the way to an actual tourist attraction, but our time in Ireland had convinced us this was a normal road. We saw a jogger ahead on the path, who ignored us. After a few more minutes a man in his stroller pulled out in front of us and (also ignoring us) proceeded to, ever so slowly, stroll right in front of the van. We were politely patient, figuring maybe he would lead us to the castle but, after a few minutes he turned around and (not so nicely) informed us we weren’t allowed to drive on these roads and to go back to the main road to find the parking area for the castle. Any reason why you waited so long to give us a head’s up? Are these people ethically opposed to proper signage or what? Would it kill you to put up something saying – no vehicles allowed? And do you have any idea how hard it is to turn a giant camper van around on a road like that?
Soon enough, we found ourselves, along with 6-8 giant tour buses (good sign) in the parking lot of Malahide Castle . Hallelejuh and Glory Be – it was actually open! We wandered around the gift shop until the time came for our turn at the guided tour. It is a huge castle (thanks for the picture above to http://www.touristr.com/destinations/2964574-dublin/attractions/105-malahide-castle?locale=fr- FR) and was surrounded by acres and acres of amazing gardens so we were totally psyched. The weather was the best we’d had all week, with almost no clouds in the sky and we tried again for a cool shadow photo. I look a bit deformed, but that’s only because I was holding the camera, my purse and everyone’s coats. I’ve decided I like this type of photo since I don’t have to worry about anyone’s expression (note expressions, right).
We weren’t allowed to take any photos in Malahide (thanks to http://www.malahidecastle.com/history.asp), although I got a shot of this handrail before we started. Before the castle was built, the land belonged to Hammond MacTurkhill, the last Viking king of Dublin. After the Anglo Norman invasion, in 1185, the loyal French knight, Richard Talbot, was awarded these lands by a grateful King Henry the Second. Now, here’s the amazing part. The Talbots kept this land for the next 800 years. That’s right – the lands were in the hands of the Talbots for eight centuries – 30 generations! Now that’s what I’d call a dynasty. In fact, the lands were only sold to the Irish State in 1975, partly since they couldn’t afford all the taxes. The last surviving member of the direct Talbot line, Rose Talbot, only died in February of this year. The loyal staff seemed genuinely saddened by this fact. I was a bit sad as well. Of course, if Rose or her brother had pro-created, the castle probably wouldn’t be open to tourists, so I really shouldn’t complain. The only time the castle was not lived in by the Talbots was between 1649 and 1660 when it was under Cromwellian control (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cromwellian_conquest_of_Ireland). Oliver Cromwell, best known to me through a Monty Python tune, is still fiercely hated in Ireland for the viscous siege warfare tactics he used to take over the country. (Some claim it wasn’t his fault – yeah, sure, just like George W. Bush didn’t know about the torture stuff, right?) In fact, somewhere from 15 to 50 percent (depending on which historian you ask) of the population of Ireland was lost, with the most pain visited on the Roman Catholics. The most scintillating tidbit was during the siege of Drogheda when "Arthur Aston was beaten to death by the Roundheads with his own wooden leg.” I mean, that’s cold – cold enough that people have remembered the specifics for almost 350 years. Cromwell continued his conquest of the country and eventually stopped all organized resistance after conquering Galway. Still, an underground resistance was formed and thrived throughout his occupation. The reaction to this subversion was to sell anyone caught (or even suspected) of treason into slavery. It is estimated that they sent over 12,000 Irish as slaves or indentured servants to the West Indies (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Redlegs) during this time. Turns out white slavery was all the rage, mostly in Barbados, until the 18th century when Africans became readily available, and easier to capture. The descendants of these poor souls, still existing in some areas, are known to this day as Redlegs (or less popularly, Ecky-Becky’s – just couldn’t resist tossing that one in).
On a happier note, the Talbots were reinstated after the death of Cromwell and stayed for the next 300 years, despite being almost wiped out during the Battle of the Boyne. We got to visit the Great Hall where 25 people could comfortably fit around the table. In this room, 14 male members of the family dined the morning of the 1690 battle and not one was to return alive. This room, available for rental, is thought to be haunted by the castle ghost, a servant named Puck. The library featured a wooden table inlaid with the most beautiful Celtic patterns I have ever seen. I am still dreaming about this table. Sort of like this thing from kingbrown.netfirms.com but even exponentially better. I covet!
We had some lunch and hopped back in the van to head over to Newgrange. Of course, the kids watched a DVD on the way over. Here is how they look, mesmerized by what my mother always called the boob tube. We also finished off a box of Jelly Babies. These candies were unfamiliar to me and, when I asked the store keeper about what they were his reply was. “What, you don’t know jelly babies? They’re massive!” Of course, knowing they are ‘massive’ I had to give them a try. They are quite good, actually – soft sugar coatings with a very soft fruit jelly inside. Of course, I ended up looking them up (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jelly_baby) and found out that they were initially named ‘Peace Babies’ and released in celebration right after the end of World War I. Of course, when World War II came along, they just had to change the name. Later in history, George Harrison of the Beatles foolishly mentioned liking them in a fan letter. From that day forward, ecstatic fans pelted the band with the candy and, when they came to the US, with the closest substitute we could find - jelly beans. (Those were harder –yikes!) I also realized I really should have bought an extra box to bring home since, if you put these things in molten potassium chlorate, they reportedly burst into flames and emit a screaming sound. This experiment, called Screaming Jelly Babies, is quite popular in UK science classes. But the real question of this entire episode is, what does it mean for something to be massive??? My opinion is that it means really great in the sense of 'hey you really should try them because they are delicious' and André's is that it means very popular in the sense of 'everyone knows about jelly babies - how come you don't?'
We reached Newgrange around 2pm and were lucky to get a space in one of the last tours of the day, leaving at 3:15. We spent the time learning lots about the Neolithic people who built this place in the wonderful museum they had set up nearby. Of course, no one knows much about these people who lived so many thousands of years ago. But they have discovered some things – and they made it wonderfully accessible and interactive for the kids. They even had a small film and a full scale model of the interior of the Newgrange dolmen open for exploration. Since no photos (or touching) are allowed in the actual interior, I took one of the famous triple spiral in the fiberglass wall instead. Hey, we have to do what we can, right? I thought the time line they had was great, using simple visuals to show how this structure was erected before the pyramids, back when the only tools they had were made of stone and bone.
Then it was off to the main event (thanks to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newgrange and our amazing tour guide). This Megalithic tomb is particularly special for several reasons. One is it’s size. Although these types of structures can be found all over the eastern edge of Europe as far as Portugal, most of the tombs are small in size, about a fifth the size of Newgrange. It is an immense structure, 250 feet across and 40 feet high and consists of several thousand tons of stone. There are two other very large tombs located nearby, Knowth and Dowth, as well as 37 smaller cairns. You can see one, set off in the field behind where Callie and Griffin are playing. This complex is unrivaled anywhere else in the world. It was not actively in use for many thousands of years, but the local Irish always left it undisturbed, respecting it as a sacred place.
In fact, Celtic legend (http://www.newgrange.eu/novel.htm) holds that Newgrange is a fairy mound, or sidhe, these mounds are associated with “the legendary Tuatha de Danann, the ancient rulers of Ireland. From earliest times it was believed that Newgrange had been erected as a burial place for the chief of the gods, the Dagda mor, and his three sons. The Dagda was noted for his cauldron of plenty which no one could leave without being satisfied, and for his harp which could play three airs: the sleep strain, the grief strain, and the laughter strain. One of his sons, Aonghus, known as the great God of love, was the product of a secret union between the Dagda and Boann, the river Boyne. Aonghus, so the legend goes, asked his father if he could have Newgrange for one day and one night. The Dagda gave him his wish, but Aonghus tricked him by saying that one day and one night meant forever, and so he remains there, forever in possession.”
Of course, it is important to note that the Celts only came around about 2000 years after the completion of the temple. The opening was sealed by soil and left untouched until after the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. This important battle (yes the same one that 14 Talbots died at) contributed to the continued Protestant supremacy in Ireland and much land went into the hands of the English – who started settling the entire country. They could care less about the sacred history of the Irish and immediately saw the ccairns as a convenient place to retrieve rocks to build their manor houses. Soon workers came to Newgrange and started digging. The first thing they hit was the entrance stone (shown right) and they knew this was no quarry. Now, keep in mind this mound is 250 feet across and covers an acre of land – and they just happened to start to dig right where that stone was. I think that the Tuatha de Dannan were making sure this site would be kept whole – as it is meant to be. The entrance stone is one of the most magnificent examples of megalithic art in the world (that would be art inscribed into stones made by prehistoric peoples living between 5 and 2 thousand years ago). It was very strange to realize that this spiral design which I have always thought of as Celtic, predated their art and ideas by over 2000 years. The form of the triple spiral is very similar to other megalithic art found in the Isle of Man, North Wales and Sicily. Many anthropologists now believe these designs were made when the people were in a state of altered consciousness. Amazing that people, their hallucinogens, and their ideas were so spread out so far back into pre-history. Even now, most people think we are crazy to travel so much – and we travel easy, planes, trains, cars etc… They didn’t even have the wheel. Then they took all the stone, assembled it, carved art into it, and made it all so perfect it is still standing for us to experience today. There is even speculation that the entrance caved in by design, since the original people wanted to seal the tomb. For thousands of years after Newgrange was completed, other peoples lived near it, erecting a stone circle around it about 1000 years after it was completed, and a wooden circle near it about 2000 years after completion. During all those years, the tomb was sealed, but that did not, obviously, detract from its spiritual significance to the people of the land. Indeed, it was clear to me that the current staff who works there are in awe of the structure and feel blessed by their chance to work there.
By the early 1700’s the tomb opening had been cleared and, for about the next 200 years, people came in and out as they pleased, clambering over the entrance stone, scattering the remains inside the tomb, and even etching their initials into the rocks. It wasn’t until 1967 that major archeological work was undertaken at this site by Professer M. J. O’Kelley. He was responsible for cataloging what was left of the remains from the tomb and also undertook the clean up and rebuilding of the facade. He did extensive research and believed it to be accurate to the original as possible. Although most of the rock of Newgrange is locally sourced (within 20km – which is pretty darn far when you had no wheel to deal with and you were shifting immense rocks such as the kerbstones that line the monument) the front facade consists of quartz and granite. These stones were no where to be found in the area. The quartz is believed to come from Wicklow and the granite from Dundalk Bay. These locations were hundreds of kilometers away. Even in today’s car it would take about 6 hours to drive from Newgrange to Wicklow. Imagine it on foot, carrying tons and tons of stone – on the back of an animal, or perhaps by boat. The commitment of these people to this project must have been deep– and the influence of the people who built this must have been immense for that time period. People from a very large geographic area knew of Newgrange – and were respectful of it.
But, besides rebuilding the tomb face and generally helping to protect the history of the monument, Professor O’Kelly also made another amazing discovery. He uncovered what is called a roof box above the entrance to the chamber and then realized that, on one day per year (the Winter Solstice) the rising sun shoots it’s beams through the roofbox, down the 80 foot long passage and into the cruciform chamber, completely illuminating it for about 20 minutes before the sun moves past. Keep in mind that it is usually pitch black in there, and the roof rises 60 feet above your head. Our tour guide, who has been there for the real event, says the entire room becomes brilliant with light. Today, they have a lottery to give people the chance to be in the chamber on the actual Solstice – last year over 30000 people applied for only 100 spaces, and, if it’s rainy or cloudy, (not uncommon in Ireland) it doesn’t even work. But at least they are all still dry – since with absolutely no modern intervention, this place keeps out the water. Here is this thing, built so long ago, that hundreds of people tramp through every day and it is still essentially unchanged, just simply incredible. I found it amazing that: “today the first light enters about four minutes after sunrise, but calculations based on the precession of the Earth show that 5,000 years ago first light would have entered exactly at sunrise.” 1000 years before Stonehenge, and much more accurate. Who were these people??? We got to go into the tomb and they re-enacted this moment, to some degree, (with a lightbulb) for us. It was an amazing experience. This brings new meaning to the phrase “built to last”. And to inspire.
We left with one last look at the Boyne River and a quick appreciation of how the gate and windows all match my new ring. I am going to have to stop calling it Celtic. I am officially wearing Megalithic art, people.