On Monday and Tuesday we went to Dublin. Monday we took buses and went to the zoo, supposedly Europe's largest as well as one of its oldest, but not particularly impressive to American eyes used to the St. Louis and National zoos. When we got back, the landlord was hard at work breaking into our self-cater house, since I had alerted him (by phone from the zoo) to a problem with the lock, a problem that rendered the keys inadequate for gaining entry that day. I did not envy him, having to damage his own rather nice window, and struggling with it for much the better part of an hour with children letting us all know how badly they needed to make it into the bathroom.
Tuesday, we decided (correctly) that taking the car would be easier after all, and without too much difficulty we found and parked in a multi-story car park, for barely a third of what we had paid in bus fare the day before. We took a walking tour of the south side sights including Trinity College, St. Stephen's Green (where we ate the sandwiches we had brought), and Merrion Square. We passed the birthplace of Oscar Wilde, round the back of Trinity, and a house in Merrion Square where Yeats (identified as "Senator" on the plaque) had resided through much of the twenties. We also took in the National Museum, largely devoted to stone-age through medieval archaeology, but with a couple of other interesting exhibits as well. One small exhibit featured objects created by Irish schoolchildren inspired by objects elsewhere in the museum, and also common objects that they had selected to represent their own era. Another gallery preserved memorabilia from the modern struggle for Irish independence, and told that story.
Today we set out early for Brú Na Bóinne, the great aggregation of megalithic tombs in County Meath, west of Drogheda, on the river Boyne. (It is sometimes styled the Irish "Valley of the Kings," but in comparison with the Egyptian version it is decidedly older and possibly not so elitist.) The experience of touring the site has been rather tightly engineered and restricted. You enter through a visitors' center across the river, cross on a footbridge, and ride a little bus to whichever of the sites you have paid to see. (We opted for Newgrange alone, that being the most elaborate of the passage tombs and the only one that you can go inside, as well as having far the most relevance to the mythological cycles.) This shepherding allows the site to handle its enormous visitor load, but we were early and/or lucky enough to be there when there was no overcrowding or lines, and to us at least the whole place seemed extremely well set up and run. The photo here shows Stas and the children on the footbridge. I commented that we were here crossing the river Boyne on the very day King Billy did in 1690, in a battle commemorated by the Orangemen today in the North--the climax of their highly contentious "Marching Season." Stas urged me to speak lower about that if at all. I have not yet heard much news of how it has been going today in the North, but the lead-up has not been without trouble.
The great Neolithic tumulus or passage tomb called Newgrange predates the pyramids and Stonehenge, according to the guides here. Its somewhat conjecturally restored white-quartz facing is visible from as far away as the hill of Tara (though barely so on the inclement day we were there with Richard); and that may have been precisely its purpose. The inner chamber has a corbeled roof made of huge stones and smaller filler stones, all laid without mortar but apparently quite watertight to this day. On some of the huge kerbstones ringing it outside, and on some of the stones of the passageway and inner chamber, there are incised designs, featuring spiral and diamond patterns. (These engravings throughout Brú Na Bóinne make up a majority portion of the Neolithic art work surviving in western Europe.) The guide mentioned several theories about these designs but conspicuously omitted to mention any magical purposes they may have served. On the other hand, she mentioned a theory that cremains were entombed in the tumulus only temporarily, until the winter solstice. At dawn on the winter solstice the rays of the rising sun enter through the "roof box" just above the doorway and shine along the passage, giving the inner chamber its only few minutes of natural illumination during the entire year. Perhaps in the process these rays somehow released the spirits of those whose ashes had accumulated there that year, and these ashes could then be removed. If that was indeed the practice, the tumulus, despite the small size of the inner chamber, could well have served the funerary needs of a whole community large enough to have built it. This last possibility is just a little too emphatically ruled out by the museum placards in the visitors' center, in favor of a more stratified and exclusive vision of Neolithic society.
The tumulus itself is neighbored by other archaeological remains, including a ring of standing stones like this one around it. Archaeologists report the fainter remains of a "woodhenge" nearby that became the site's main focus in later prehistory. Little mentioned, but much on our minds, was the significance of this place as the capital of faeryland, so to speak: the chief Sid of all the Sidhe. The word Sid, plural Sidhe, originally signified just such a mound or tumulus, which iron-age and early medieval poetic legends associated with the supernatural race of the Tuatha Dé Danann, rather than with the ordinary folk of some three or four millennia before their own time. Thus this faery race came to be known as the people of the Sidhe, and ultimately as the Sidhe ("SHE-they") themselves. Newgrange was the site of Cúchulainn's first begetting (first of three, that is); of Diarmaid's fosterage with the love-god Aonghus Óg; and of various tales involving Aonghus and sometimes his father too, An Dagda Mór, chief of the Celtic pantheon.
Afterwards, at lunch in Drogheda, we questioned the children closely to make sure we still had the same authentic ones and not changelings from the Otherworld of the Sidhe!