Friday, September 23, 2011

A Tour of Ireland: Day One

The last I saw of Ireland was through the small rectangle of window, eclipsed by a slice of wing.  The tarmac flashed by with gathering speed.  Way off in the distance, the green hills wavered and faded beneath the clouds.

* * *
September 8, 2011

View from Knocknarea
Getting there was not easy.  Hurricane Lee had unleashed its fury on the Mid-Atlantic and was flinging buckets of rain against the windows as we pulled the last of our stuff together and packed it into the car.  The radio warned of flash floods and road closures.   Fortunately, we had plenty of time to drop the dog at the kennel and get to BWI for our flight to Newark.

Halfway to the airport, Monica, our friend and the director of our tour, called to say that Continental Airlines was "canceling flights left and right" due to the weather.  We gave her our flight number and learned that it was an hour behind but still scheduled to go.  So far.  Since this could change at any minute and we could not miss our plane to Ireland, she suggested Amtrak as an alternative.   Leanne phoned Continental to try to salvage our investment in the fare while I called Amtrak to reserve two tickets.  New destination: Penn Station, Baltimore.

We arrived at the station with minutes to spare for the 11:03.  Out of the car at full tilt and off to the ticket counter.  I reached for my phone to retrieve the reservation number and -- no phone.  Stomach takes fast elevator to the ground floor.  I tell Leanne and she bursts out the doors to try to catch our neighbor Brent, who is now driving our car back home.  Brent has no cell phone.  I chew my finger nails.  Long minutes later, she's back, waving my phone.  I had knocked it off of my belt in my haste getting out of the car.  The man who maintains the taxi stand had spotted it on the sidewalk and was getting ready to report it when he saw Leanne run out to the street, then run back.  Putting two and two together, he stopped her and showed her the phone.  Our hero!

With tickets purchased we scuttled toward the platform, only to learn that the train was running late.  Good -- time enough for a bite of lunch.  Around the corner to the little cafe for some pre-packaged sandwiches -- just as it's being announced that the train is not arriving in half an hour, it's arriving now.

The ride to Newark International was uneventful.  This was good because, frankly, we'd had our fill of events.  Soon after arriving at the airport, we were greeting our friends: the dozen people with whom we'd spend the next 10 days.

* * *

It takes a bit more than six hours to fly the 3,200 miles from Newark to Dublin.  Most of this was in the dark.  I had an e-book to keep me company so the bulk of my time was spent in the glow of an iPad.  I slept a very little in the cramped seat, fidgeting to find the least-uncomfortable position.  Finally, as day was breaking, patches of ground appeared beneath the thinning clouds.  Several more minutes and we were touching down in a place further from home than I'd ever been; an island in an ocean I'd seen only from one side.

Fuzzy-headed and coffee-deficient, we gathered up our luggage and walked the long corridor to customs.  Our newly-minted passports got their first stamp.  After changing our money to Euros, we collected in the lobby to meet John Byrne, who would be our driver, guide, historian and Irish language tutor for the next several days.  First stop: breakfast.

* * *
September 9, 2011

The Man-O'-War Pub lies on the old road between Dublin and Belfast.  It has been there a long time. The earliest deed says 1595.  Much of it has been renovated (probably several times) so that what one sees is a cozy and well-kept wood and stone interior, housed in the typical white-washed building that can be found everywhere on the island.  You can still find a part of the original stone wall inside the thatch-roofed section of the rambling structure.  Breakfast was rich and meaty by American standards: link sausages and rashers (bacon), poached eggs, a patty of hash-browned potatoes and something called "black and white pudding".  You can look this up, if you like.  I thought that they were "putting on the dog" for the benefit of the American tourists but soon discovered that this is the archetypal Irish breakfast.  By the end of the trip, we were happy for a break from all that protein!

* * *
Stone of Destiny on the Hill of Tara

Though we love our pubs, the heart of our excursion to Eire was to listen to the echoes of the deep past -- specifically, those of our Celtic and Pagan roots.  Not far from Dublin, along the M3 road is the ancient Hill of Tara.  This is where the old Kings were crowned and it is one of the most sacred sites in Ireland.  Parts of it date back to the Neolithic Era -- perhaps as early as 3,400 years B.C.E.  We were greeted there by an engaging young woman name Agnes, who filled our ears with stories of Tara, stressing its significance from ancient into modern times.

Entrance to the Mound of the Hostages
The passage tomb called "The Mound of the Hostages" is the oldest place on Tara.  It consists of a circular structure of stones mounded over with earth.  From the outside, it simply looks like a low hill but there is a doorway in one side that opens to the interior passage.  Here have been found the cremated remains of a several dozen people -- probably people of prominence within their community.  Archeologists have also found one of the most curious and inexplicable set of human remains here: on top of the mound is the skeleton of a teenage boy, buried curled up on his side.  He wears necklace of amber and jet beads -- items that would have been rare and precious at the time of his death.  There's also evidence that these remains had been disinterred and carried to Tara from elsewhere.  Who was this boy and why was he so important to the ancients?

* * *

The next stop was the Brú na Bóinne (Palace of the Boyne) Visitor's Center, just a little up the road from the Hill of Tara.  They have an extensive exhibit of artifacts and dioramas that allowed us to gain a bit more information and context before marching across the River Boyne to the bus that would take us to Knowth.

Kerb Stone at Knowth
At Knowth, they did passage tombs with a vengeance.  While less famous than the nearby Newgrange site, it still features a number of tombs.  One -- the Great Mound -- measures nearly 70 meters in diameter and contains the longest passage (about 40 meters) yet found in Western Europe.  We were allowed into the mouth of the passage (duck your head!) and off into a side chamber fitted out as an exhibit space.  Because of the great age of the artifacts and the fact that the ancient Irish had no written language, little is known save through inference or speculation.

Most of the larger tombs are completely ringed by massive "kerb stones", many of them decorated with carved designs.  There are spirals and serpentine (snake-like) shapes, as well as one that might have served as a sundial.

After a spot of lunch and shopping back at the visitor's center, we re-boarded the 20 passenger bus that would be our home-away-from-home for the duration of our travels.  Driver John filled us in on local lore and some political history on the long road to Letterkenny in County Donegal, and taught us our first phrase in Irish: Dia duit (pronounced "dee-ya gwit") the common way of saying "good day".   And with that, I bid you dia duit!

More to follow