UK

The Ancient Tombs of Newgrange and Knowth, Ireland – Europe Travels July 2022

Irish Countryside south of Dublin

Towards the end of our Dublin visit, somewhat recovered from Covid, we took a day trip to the countryside to visit the ancient burial tombs of Knowth and Newgrange, and the Hill of Tara. I first read about Newgrange in a historical fiction novel called “Ireland” by Frank Delaney. It is a 5,200 year old passage tomb built in the Neolithic era by stone age farmers. It sounded very interesting to see, so I booked a day tour when we were still back home. Besides Newgrange, other goodies were sprinkled into the day: the Hill of Tara, and more tombs in a place called Knowth. I was so glad we were at least able to keep this tour scheduled. Coincidentally, we met a woman in the breakfast room at our hotel who was booked on our same tour, because she had read the same book I had!

Once on the bus, our tour guide kept up a constant patter of historical information as we rode, all of which was extremely interesting and most of which I’ve already forgotten. I was so happy just to see the countryside after having been in cities for my entire time in Ireland, and enjoyed gazing out the window as I listened. Our first stop was the Hill of Tara.

The bus let us out, and it was a bit of a hike over to the hill. I was giddy with delight about being out of the city and getting some fresh air. I loved seeing little Saint Patrick’s church and graveyard on our hike. It looked like something out of an Austen or Bronte classic to me. I know…I was in Ireland, not England, but still.

The people in the group had gotten ahead of me as I photographed the church. The higher hill that some of them have already reached in this picture is the Hill of Tara.

This area has been inhabited for at least 6,000 years. The earliest peoples built the passage tombs, and the hills here are also burial sites. In the Iron Age, they were still using them. In that era, Tara became the seat of the high kings of Ireland. According to legend, there was a standing stone here called Lia Fáil, Stone of Destiny. It would cry out if touched by a true king, and the stone below is believed to be the one. It has seemed to have lost its magical powers in the modern era.

Later in history, St. Patrick converted pagans to Chrisitanity here. The stone also marks the spot where United Irishmen were attacked and defeated in their camp by British troops in 1798. Four hundred rebels lost their lives that day.

Continuing on in the bus, we learned from our guide that in this area, the Boyne River forms a large protective bend. The ancient peoples lived their lives here in this fertile valley, where food and water were plentiful.

The Battle of the Boyne also happened here in July of 1690. It was a decisive battle between England and Ireland and was the last time two kings were both present on the battlefield: William of Orange and James II. Because of this battle, the ascendency of Anglican Protestantism in Ireland was assured.

For the Knowth and Newgrange tombs, we boarded an ancient school bus and guides were waiting for us at each site. We nabbed a front seat. I entertained myself watching the driver negotiate the narrow road on the left hand side with a right hand steering wheel, and was very glad we had chosen not to rent a car.

Finally we arrived at Knowth, with its many various burial mounds. These are passage tombs, meaning that it is possible to enter the mounds, but the public cannot do so. Knowing nothing about Knowth before this day, I was surprised to see there were so many in various sizes.

At Knowth, this large mound is surrounded by 17 smaller ones. There are two passages inside and it is bordered by 127 kerbstones. In the next picture, I’ve included a picture of our guide to give some perspective on the size of these mounds, and you can see the kerbstones more closely. The stones are covered with megalithic art, and this is a third of all megalithic art known in Europe – all together, 200 stones. The meaning of the shapes on the stones is unknown.

I thought it was interesting that some of the art was done on the backs of stones and was hidden. There are a lot of theories about this. It’s possible that they intended it to stay hidden. Another theory is that they recycled stones and simply used the other side. Makes sense to me!

Later civilizations, not knowing what was underneath the ground, simply built dwelling places and villages on top of the mounds. This picture that I saw in their small museum illustrates this from left to right. Eventually, the smaller mounds were mostly buried.

These ruins in front of the mounds were the foundation of someone’s home in a later era.

This photo gives an aerial view of the mounds:

Finally, our last stop: Newgrange. The ancients had put the white stones all around the burial mounds to prevent erosion. At Knowth, these white stones were left on the ground. At Newgrange, they were put back as they had originally been. This passage tomb is huge.

The fascinating thing about Newgrange is that it is built with a box to let the sun shine through on the exact day of the winter solstice, December 21. On that single day, the sun sends a beam clear through to the center of the tomb. How did they engineer this to have it work so perfectly? In Delany’s book, the design is the work of a single genius in the tribe who was able to direct all of the inhabitants to carry out the plans. Maybe so. The truth has been lost in history.

The light box is just above the entrance. We were able to go in all the way to the center but no pictures were allowed. There were were no lights inside the tomb; it was illuminated only with natural light from the box. In the center, our guide shone her flashlight through to the front to replicate the solstice experience. It was an amazing feeling to be there; even more amazing if you could be here on the solstice.

Most of the bodies in the tombs had been cremated. When Newgrange was exacavated in the ’70’s, the unburnt bones of one man were found in an elaborately carved niche. Aha. Maybe that was the remains of the “genius”!

If you are thinking it would be great to be at Newgrange on the solstice to see this effect for yourself, tickets are extremely limited (and are probably sold out for 2022, although I haven’t checked). You could go through the expense of getting here, and end up with a cloudy day. So, no sun effect for all that effort!

A kerbstone at Newgrange

Next time – Edinburgh, Scotland

UK

Down-and-Out in Ireland – Europe Travels July 2022

“The Salmon of Knowledge” Donegall Quay, Belfast

Belfast

The big sticking point for a trip to Europe for my husband, Cal, was opening ourselves up to the possibility of contracting Covid. After all, we purchased our RV and truck at the onset of the pandemic so we could travel around in more of a self contained bubble. We’ve been vaccinated twice and boosted twice, though. I was pretty confident, but even after passing the “point of no return” on bookings, he occasionally expressed his concerns.

So, I took care of all questions and doubts for him by getting Covid right off the bat in just our first few days in Belfast.

I should mention that unlike just about everyone else, we masked for most of the trip from Albuquerque to Denver to London Heathrow to Belfast. In Belfast, very few people were wearing them. We masked in bars and restaurants until food and drink arrived, and when the crowd got heavy at the Titanic museum, I masked up.

On the morning of the day we were to transfer to a hotel to join our Ireland tour group, though, I felt the first stirrings of a cold. Cal already had one so I was sure I caught it from him. We masked and met our tour group. It was very small: eight of us, including the guide. They were an interesting and diverse group of people. No one was from the United States.

In a fit of pre-trip hysteria the night before our departure for Ireland, I tossed out of my suitcase many things that I had packed in an effort to lighten the load. One of those things was a thermometer. The night after meeting the group was a very rough one for me and I’m sure I had a temperature but I can’t confirm it. Reluctantly, I confronted our guide in the morning, and she gave us Covid tests. The result: Positive for me, negative for Cal. End of tour. Jailed in the AC Mariott Belfast.

The view outside our window became very familiar: Sinclair Seaman’s Church and the Belfast Harbour Office, with rolling green hills of Northern Ireland behind

I was really too sick to care at that point, and Cal was great at being our “go-fer”. The Mariott was a business hotel, not one I’d choose to stay in normally but perfect for Covid confinement. We’re not sure exactly when he got it, but it was probably a couple of days after I did. We had the “new” BA-4 or BA-5 strain so it was more than just a couple days of sniffles. The worst part of this for us, and particularly me, was hours and hours of unresolvable coughing spells. And although we were negative again within days, it was really about two weeks before we both felt better.

Blissfully unaware of the coming storm, we greatly enjoyed our first couple of days in Belfast. Our AirBnb for those nights was in walking distance to a network of tiny streets full of bars and restaurants. There seemed to be a pub around every corner. Belfast has a lot of alleyways, and every one has at least one pub. Many of them are decorated:

We found the oldest pub, going back to 1630:

the narrowest pub:

and had fish and chips, Irish stew, and pints of Guinness in a pub. The stuff in the little green cup next to the fish is mashed peas. Most fish and chips in Belfast and Dublin were served with peas in some form.

Many pubs have pews outside for gathering. At happy hour, the alley is hopping.

There were larger-than-life murals:

A huge mural near the harbor

The words of Ireland’s great poets are everywhere – in this case, Yeats. Beautiful words, indeed.

We took a look at Belfast City Hall.

To the side of it, we found a memorial garden and statue in memory of the lives lost in the sinking of the Titanic.

Which brings me to our visit to the Titanic Museum. We walked by the city harbor on the way to the museum.

Belfast Harbor, with the Titanic Museum behind it

The Titanic was constructed in Belfast, and a great deal of the focus in the museum was on life in Belfast as it was during the construction of it. It utilized the labor of 3,000 workers, and hundreds more stood outside everyday hoping to be picked up for some sort of unskilled labor. In that pre-computer era, each corner of the ship had to be drawn out by hand in a building dedicated solely to providing a workspace for the architects.

This picture gives an idea of the riveters at work on the Titanic. The ship is actually another in the shipyard around the same period.

The Nomadic was Titanic’s tender. A tender is a boat that brings the passengers from the dock and out to the ship. In this picture, the Nomadic is shown behind a old floating dock. The seating area of the boat was divided between first and second class.

The first class seating area in the Nomadic. Passengers heading for the Titanic would have sat here.
A postcard: The Titanic, with passengers aboard, lifting anchor at Cork Harbor on 11 April 1912

I’ve always been interested in Titanic stories, both fiction and non-fiction. So it was exciting to me to stand on the very spot where the Titanic was built. The lines painted on the ground look like playground guides, but no, they actually indicate where various parts of the ship would have been.

There were other Belfast sights that we had planned to see before Covid hit, but last-minute lodgings were in short supply and we were ready to get going. When our quarantine was over, we made our way by train to the hotel in Dublin where our tour ended had we been able to be on it. We had already planned on staying there for some additional days.

Belfast has a gritty feel to it. It’s a port city, the largest in Northern Ireland, and was once home to several large industries. Fellow travelers that we met later in our trip had visited areas in Belfast where “the troubles” happened, and could still feel tension in the air. Dublin, in the Republic of Ireland, by contrast is a prettier (in my view) city with more of a cultural and scholarly history. Looking back on the two cities now, I think of them both as being cloudy and grey. It could’ve been the weather. Or maybe it’s just my Covid perspective.

Dublin

Once on our feet and ready to take on the city, we visited Trinity College, and viewed the Book of Kells. The book is an illuminated manuscript of the four gospels of the New Testament created by monks in 800 AD. It is written on vellum, made from calf-skin, and 150 calves gave their lives so that the book could be written. I took this picture from a postcard. In the museum, only one page is viewed at a time, and the page we saw was a picture of Jesus. This picture is a portrait of Saint John, and gives you an idea of what the other pages may look like. The artistry is breath taking.

Near the Book of Kells is the Long Room in the Old Library on Trinity College. That is an awe-inspiring library of nearly 200,000 of their oldest books, along with the busts of famous writers, scholars, and other men connected to the college.

We paid a visit to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where Jonathan Swift is buried. You may know him as the author of “Gulliver’s Travels”, but he was also Dean of the Cathedral from 1713 until his death in 1745.

We arrived too early for our Guinness tour, so we strolled around the neighborhood and happened upon an old cemetery, now a park, behind St. Catherine’s. A church has been on this spot since the 12th century, although the current one was built in 1769.

I often wish I could be a time traveler and see a place as it was three hundred years ago. On a nearby sign, I found a picture of St. Catherine’s around the time when it was built. Now that’s what I’d like to see!

The Guinness tour is a walk-through describing their brewing processes. The brewery has been at the same location since Arthur Guinness founded it in 1759, on a 9,000-year lease. The beer is an Irish dry stout, and the recipe is a closely guarded secret. I don’t like the flavor of beer all that much, but I do like Guinness.

Our tour came with a pint of Guinness for each of us. Of course, Guinness is excellent for relieving any remaining Covid congestion anyone may have. We received an excellent view of the city as we sipped on it. The finished beer on the table was from a previous patron, by the way.

By not being able to go on our tour, we missed seeing the perimeter of Ireland north and west. Of course this was so very disappointing. Ireland was never a huge bucket list item for me, though. I don’t know if I will ever be back, but who knows? We were pretty happy that once the tour ending date passed, we had no more overnight tours, and our time was our own.

This blog post may be a bit of a downer, but the rest of our European trip was awesome. This was only the first week or two in a three month adventure, and it became everything we had hoped for after this. Covid is out there! If you are going, stay masked!

An Irish breakfast: soda bread, tomato, sausage, mushrooms, beans, eggs and of course tea

Next time: a little peek at the Irish countryside