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May 31, 2006: Ireland Trip - Newgrange and the Hill of Tara

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As we packed up our things this morning I couldn't help but feel a little bit sad about the fact that this was our very last B&B. Tonight and tomorrow night we're spending in a Travelodge that's in the less attractive area of Dublin (south of the Grand Canal), mainly because we just wanted to make sure we'd have a room somewhere (it's a bank holiday on Monday and everyone kept telling us it would be next to impossible to find a B&B if we put it off like we've done for all the others). But we have already realized just why it is that it was good we gave up our car this afternoon. Driving in Dublin would have pretty much turned both of us into a quivering wreck. It was bad enough sitting in the back seat of the taxi as the driver careened through the streets for us.

But I am getting ahead of myself. This morning we started of in the teeny tiny little town of Slane, in elaborately decorated house of our very last B&B. We ended up chatting with a young couple from Ottawa who were traveling with their three-year-old son, who was pretty cute and quite charming to everyone, and our host, who was an elderly gentleman who loved to chat. When he found out we all intended to go to Newgrange, he volunteered to call and make reservations for us, which was very nice since this is one of the few sites in the country where the number of visitors is restricted.

It didn't take long to drive to Bru na Boyne, which is the Visitor's Center for both Newgrange and Knowth. We checked in and managed to get seats on the tours for both of the tomb sites, and then had a short period of time to mill around in the exhibits before hiking off to the bus stop, which is located down a ramp and across two bridges from the visitor's center.

Our first tour was of Knowth, which is the largest of the passage tombs they've uncovered (there are three main ones, Knowth, Newgrange, and Dowth). It's quite an impressive thing to see - this giant mound that was constructed completely by hand, first creating the central chambers, then the passageways lined with huge stones, and then layers of stones and earth over that to create the huge dome of the tomb. Knowth is surrounded by lots of smaller passage tombs which aren't nearly as grand in appearance or structure, but still impressive when viewing the site as a whole.

We didn't get to go inside the main tomb in Knowth very far, since the inner chamber has collapsed and they cannot really repair it without doing serious damage to the entire structure of the tomb. Knowth is the site with more archeological interest because first there were the tombs (built thousands of years ago, and at least 500 years before the oldest pyramids in Egypt), but then various groups built settlements on top of the main tomb, digging ditches, carving out suterains (underground food storage areas that also served as places to hide during times of battle), and so on. In a way, their activities helped to protect the tomb itself, because when the first group dug the ditches around the tomb, they tossed the excavated dirt over the kerbstones, which are massive stones (brought from miles away, according to the archeologists), thus protecting them from erosion so that many of the original carvings are still visible today.

After the tour we were allowed to wander around the site on our own, and here is where Richard and I ended up being the idiot tourists I'm sure all the guides mock. We really did think we were okay on time, but suddenly Richard looked at his watch and realized we were supposed to be getting back on the bus right then, and as we both went dashing down the hill, we heard the tour bus drive away.

Luckily this was still early enough in the day that the tourguides on site were able to contact someone and send out an extra bus just for us, but if it'd been later in the day or later in the season when they're much busier, we'd have been stuck there til the next tour arrived, which would have also meant we'd have missed the trip over to the Newgrange site. As it was, we roared back into the tour bus stop just moments before the Newgrange tour was to board.

The Newgrange tomb is, of course, the most well-known, since it was found over 300 years ago. And it's more interesting from a tourist's perspective because unlike Knowth, you can actually go inside the passage and chamber of Newgrange and see the carvings on the stones above the little chambers, as well as the huge stone basins at the end of each of the little chambers where they found cremated remains of ancient humans. For whatever reason, it appears no one decided to do any kind of settlement on Newgrange, unlike on Knowth (or at least they've found no evidence of settlement) so the tomb has remained far more intact.

I'm glad we were able to see both tombs because I think otherwise we would have missed out on some of the interesting history and information surrounding the tombs. The guides were quite clear that there is only speculation on the reasons for why the tombs were built, why or how they were used, and even whether they are even tombs at all; nor is there anything but a number of educated guesses as to the meaning of all those concentric spiral patterns that are seen all over the rocks lining both the outer edge and the inner passageways of the tombs themselves. Still, it was fascinating to see them, in the same way it was so fascinating to walk around Staigue Fort - we were standing in a structure built by humans who were intelligent enough to grasp rather complex math, science, astronomy (the way the entrances to the main tombs are aligned); people who lived thousands and thousands of years ago.

We ate lunch in the visitor's center at Bru na Boyne, since by then it was nearly 2 and we were really hungry. And then we hopped back in the car and headed off to the HIll of Tara.

Tara is an area of great significance in the mythology and history of Ireland, since this is where the ancient Kings of Ireland were crowned, and where each successive civilization made their mark, all sharing the same feeling that this was a symbolic and sacred space. Over the centuries, such as when Patrick showed up to spread Christianity, and even in more recent times when political leaders of Ireland wanted to make a statement, they would use Tara to do it.

Knowing all this, it was still not as interesting to actually *see* as Newgrange and Knowth. For one thing, it's really just a bunch of hills and mounds and valleys. There's a tiny little passage tomb (and they're pretty sure it is a tomb this time, since they've found lots of remains inside, and lots of bodies buried in the earth covering the mound as well), and even after thousands of years, when viewed from the air it is obvious that there was once something there, just by how the ground has been shaped from digging and building and so on. But it seems a little disconcerting to wander around a site of such historical and legendary importance, and to do it while having to watch where you're walking for fear you're going to step in one of the too-many-to-count sheep patties that were everywhere.

And on that note, we were done with driving around on our own. We dropped the car off at the airport (and it was a lot easier to find our way this time, now that we've got the hang of the roundabouts and the road signs) and then found ourselves a handy taxi, piled all our stuff into his trunk, and set off for Dublin itself.

So here we are, having made pretty much a complete circle around an entire country in just under three weeks (and having already compiled a rather huge list of things we really hope to have time to see the next time we can visit), finally in Dublin, and only two days to see as much as we can see here. Our first night here and we've already tracked down two laundrettes (not that we need either of them), four internet cafes all within the span of one block, and the presence of more Spar markets than might be considered necessary within walking distance. As I mentioned above, it's not the most attractive area of town, but it's a room, and it's a bed, and for two nights, it doesn't really matter.

Pictures are online for Slane, Newgrange & Knowth, and the Hill of Tara.

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