Ireland – day 25
We headed out of town today, along some very nice motorways. A sneaky little “Toll Plaza” (honest – that’s what they call it) that didn’t appear on the map charged us a princely two Euros for the privilege, but I would gladly give them everything I own (apart from the Airstream) if they would make all the roads in Ireland this good. We aimed North West, to the Boyne Valley.
This little corner of Ireland looks, at first glance, much like any other stretch of green and pleasant land, but it sits at the core of Irish culture. Finding where, exactly, wasn’t quite so easy.
Once we had left the velvet motorway and made it down to the minor roads, it was business as usual. Needless to say, there were road works in the way, and we had to negotiate diversions and the consequent absence of “brown signs.” Eventually, we made it to the Bru na Boinne visitors centre. As is typical of all the OPW (Office of Public Works) sites we have visited, we were greeted with a smile. The steward explained to us exactly how the centre operates (timed, guided visits) and what tours were available. Way back at the beginning of our Ireland trip, we bought Heritage Cards. €21 buys you unlimited, free access to all the OPW sites, and in every one we have visited since, we have been treated like royalty. It’s a bit of a faff (you have to sign a book), but the people behind the counter have been, without exception, cheery, polite and informative – they know what they are talking about, and enjoy saying it. This was reinforced a couple of days later, but I’ll come to that. We chatted to the lady behind the desk while she processed our membership details. She helpfully pointed out some more sites we might be interested in on our travels, which were on our hit list anyway.
Bru na Boinne (literally Bend in the Boyne River) visitors centre is the access point to Ireland’s greatest megalithic architecture. The only way you can get to these monuments is through the centre and taken on a minibus to have guided tours of the sites. The system is well thought out, and it works. We had a few minutes to grab a quick cuppa before heading off on the first bus trip. The journey isn’t a long one, just a few minutes, but the fact that the visitors centre is away from the sites themselves means that once you are there, there is only you and your minibus load and your guide. No tearoom, no gift shop, just what you came to look at. Which was Knowth.
Knowth, put simply, is an old grave surrounded by a bunch of other old graves. More accurately, it is a large, prehistoric passage tomb with eighteen smaller “satellite” tombs around it. There are a couple of staggering things about Knowth. Firstly, there was the discovery of a huge number of decorated stones during excavation in the 1960’s. Bru na Boinne possesses over 600 decorated stones, which makes up nearly 90% of all the megalithic art from Ireland’s tombs, and over half of the megalithic art in the whole of Europe. Knowth alone supplies half of this number. The second important thing is its age. Knowth was built around 5000 years ago. That’s nearly 500 years before the Great Pyramids in Egypt and nearly a thousand years before England’s Stonehenge. It is estimated that the main tomb, about an acre in size, took upwards of 15 years to build.
This must show that back then there was a large, stable community, well organized and capable of long term planning, with a system of agriculture efficient enough to provide food for the large labour force involved in the building of the tombs. It is interesting that they have left almost no trace of how they lived – their homes were wooden huts - but they must have held their ancestors in such high regard that their monuments to the dead are still here, 5000 years later.
There are two passages at Knowth, facing East and West. The chambers at the ends of the passages are illuminated at dawn (East) and sunset (West) on the spring and summer equinoxes. Sadly, there is no public access to these chambers, but their existence is further proof of the builders’ knowledge and understanding of the calendar and the movement of the sun.
A couple of short bus rides later, we were outside Newgrange.
Older (by a couple of hundred years), and more spectacular than Knowth, Newgrange is a testament to the ancient architects who built it and the archaeologists who restored it. Although it was first written about in the late 17th century, it wasn’t until the 1960s that archaeologists first had a rummage around. The mound had slipped and expanded under its own weight, concealing nearly all of the kerb stones and the white granite of the façade. It’s worth pointing out that these aren’t the sort of kerb stones that you get at the edge of the pavement. These are in the region of ten to twelve feet long, about four feet high and Newgrange has 97 of them (Knowth has 127). Many (particularly the one at the entrance) are decorated.
The real thrill of Newgrange, though, is the passage and tomb – you can go inside! The passage is low and narrow, but the 60’ long corridor is soon forgotten when you get to the chamber at the heart of the mound. Sadly (you will recognize a pattern here), cameras are not allowed, so you’ll have to believe me when I tell you it was breathtaking. Not beautifully painted or carved, just simple stones, untouched for millennia. The chamber is about 6 metres high with three small smaller recesses – one on each side and one ahead. Each of the recesses has a large stone basin.
When the tomb was built, the corridor and central chamber were constructed first, then the mound was built up around it using layers of turf, boulder clay and stone. Apart from a handful of stones along the length of the corridor, the passage and chamber were still intact when excavations unearthed them. In 5200 years, the roof of the chamber had never leaked.
The treat of the tour is when the guide turns the lights off. The tomb is aligned to the rising sun on the winter solstice (making it the world’s oldest solar observatory). For 17 minutes, just after dawn, on five mornings of the year (weather permitting), the chamber is lit by the sun, and using a fairly unimpressive light bulb, the effect is reproduced for the visitor all year round. There is, actually, a lottery for a place on one of the five days (clear sky not guaranteed). It’s a free draw – all you have to do is put your name and address in a box. Last year there were 28,000 applicants for 50 places.
The whole Bru na Boinne experience is a pleasure. We went on a Sunday afternoon – not the quietest time - but we didn’t feel rushed or crushed. If only the UK government would do something similar with Stonehenge – the current set-up is a joke. At Stonehenge, you have to walk under a road (the underpass also counts as the information centre) and can’t get any closer than about 30’ to the stones. And it costs you £6.50. For about eight quid, at Bru na Boinne you get up close and personal with two monuments, guided tours and a well laid out exhibition detailing the history of the area. And if you’ve got an OPW card, it’s all free.
Just a stone’s throw away lies Dowth. At least it would, if the road works hadn’t directed us the other way around the globe. Once we got there, we could see clearly what Newgrange and Knowth looked like before conservation and restoration happened - a grassy lump.
I was keen to see the field where the Battle of the Boyne took place. Fought on July 1st, 1690, it saw the defeat of the Catholic James II by the protestant William of Orange and was one of the most important events on Irish soil, securing British Protestant rule over Ireland for the following 231 years. The actual site is now in the grounds of some fancy house or other, but it was closed by the time we got there. There was, however, a handy “brown sign” pointing to the “Battle of the Boyne viewing point.” In the hope of seeing some sort of re-enactment, or at least a bird’s eye view of the field, we headed off in the direction the sign indicated, only to find ourselves on a lonely road over the hill in the next valley. Pesky brown signs. We never found the battlefield.
Further up the valley is the Hill of Tara – the almost mythical heart of ancient Ireland.
Tara was the political and spiritual centre of Celtic Ireland and the seat of the High Kings until the 11th century. The site is open (though there is an “interpretive centre” nearby) and although the remains are no more than a few lumps in the ground, it is clear to see why the old kings chose to build their throne room here – you can see forever.
Ireland – day 26
Time is moving on and so must we. It was a shortish drive back across country today. The campsite on the shore of Lough Ree can be best described as “basic,” but it’s amazing what you can do in the right light.
We would have headed out that afternoon to check out some local highlights, but the toilet broke (nice) and it took a while to get to the bottom of the problem. As it were.
Ireland – day 27
It took the morning for us to realize that UK representative for Dometic (the toilet manufacturer) wasn’t going to be able to get the right part to us, so Anthony at Airstream Europe took the matter in hand and arranged to send a replacement. Nice one.
That afternoon, we headed out into the wind and rain to look at some old wood. The Corlea Trackway was unearthed in 1984 during a routine peat harvesting operation by Bord na Mona, Ireland’s peat processing company. The great thing about peat bogs is that they are wet. All the time. You’re going to tell me that you knew that, but the important thing about being wet all the time is that the water soon runs out of oxygen, meaning the natural decay process is arrested. The perfectly preserved “Bog Bodies” (and the Bog Butter!) in the National Museum, Dublin, are a great example. The Corlea Trackway was an unusual find because of its size and sturdiness. Most bog trackways tended to be simple wooden planks laid down on the bog, or perhaps made of willow hurdles (woven “fences”) laid flat. Corlea Trackway was made of split oak planks up to 4m long. The whole track ran for about a kilometre, meaning hundreds of trees had to be felled and split (there were no saws), a long and laborious task. The builders were clearly skilled and well organized to manage such a large undertaking – all the trees were felled in the same year.
Here we go: Science bit. If you’re worried, just skip this paragraph… Dendrochronology is, quite simply, the science of dating wood. If you imagine looking at a cross section of a tree and examine the growth rings, you will see that the rings are not of the same thickness. Trees grow well in warm, wet, sunny years (wide ring) and grow slowly in cool, dry, cloudy years (thin rings). This pattern will be repeated in all the trees in the region, not just ones of the same species. A sequence of warm or dry or wet or cool years will produce a pattern of growth rings, which will also be reproduced in neighbouring trees. With me so far? OK. Imagine your tree again. Let’s say your tree is 100 years old and you can see three growth patterns A, B and C. A is the youngest (nearer the bark) and C is the oldest (nearest the heart). You know the tree is 100 years old because you can see 100 growth rings (one per year) and you only cut it down yesterday. Now you examine an older tree that was cut down a few years ago. It has the same growth patterns B and C as your tree, but also has an even older pattern, D. Matching up your patterns, you can tell when the old tree was cut down. This can be repeated. Using older trees and matching growth patterns for as long as you can find well preserved pieces of wood, and the scientists have been able to trace an unbroken sequence all the way back to 5289 BC. Not bad for a bit of wood. The great thing about this technique is its accuracy. Carbon dating of really old things is only accurate to within a couple of hundred years or so, but applying Dendrochronology to any preserved wood (quite a rare thing) is spot on.
OK, you can come back now. The Corlea Trackway was built in exactly 148 BC (at least that’s when all the trees were cut down) and was an important thing. It is unknown what it was built for, and it is unknown where exactly it went, but what is known is that it didn’t last long – it sank into the bog within ten years. Over 2000 years later, it was found under a metre or so of peat.
Modern peat extraction is rather like open-cast coal mining. Large machines scoop out huge swathes of peat while moving slowly along the peat field. Some goes into making compost, but the vast majority gets carried off into peat-burning power stations; about a million tonnes per year! A few days later we would visit a place where a huge and significant archaeological find had been discovered, hidden under a peat bog. This place was five thousand years old and was covered in only one and a half metres of peat (that’s 0.3 millimetres per year!). Apparently, Born na Mona has a conservation plan and sees peat as a “renewable resource.” Given the remarkable preservative qualities of peat (perfectly preserved bodies, for instance), the number and quality of archaeological finds made in peat, and the length of time needed for peat bog to grow, it seems a bit short sighted for somebody to dig it up wholesale.
Rant over. The Corlea Trackway was excavated in 1984, and 18 metres of it were carefully and lovingly removed from the site and spent a year or two being freeze-dried and preserved. Meanwhile, the visitors’ centre was built on the same spot, so that Trackway could be returned to exactly where it was found. Another 80 metres of the Trackway were re-covered with peat and around 4 hectares of bog was bought by the OPW and measures taken to conserve it. Bord na Mona had meanwhile dug up the rest of the track.
When we visited, we were the only people there. The guide gave us a private viewing of the little film about the construction, discovery and preservation of the Trackway, and then gave us a private tour of the track and the bog (including some exotic fauna he is experimenting with).
Brilliant. He was informed and enthusiastic about the Trackway, and clearly loved what he was doing, even in the rain.
As I mentioned earlier, we are OPW pass holders, but even without a pass, the whole Corlea Trackway exhibition is free. A fascinating exhibition, a well made film, and a guided tour of a 2000 year old relic for nothing.
The OPW rocks.
Ireland - Day 28
Another travel day. We moved on to Galway. Back by the sea...