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Slieve League and Carrowmore

On Tuesday Oct. 2 we bopped around Donegal for part of the day, using an internet cafe, seeing Donegal castle (which we drove around three times because we couldn’t find it behind the trees and the wall, and then couldn’t find the parking), and doing a wee bit of shopping.

I tried to call a woman near Carrick on Shannon. I’d been given her name by a friend but the one thing we never mastered were the phones. It was a phone booth on the street. I tried punching the number. I tried putting money in. I tried various buttons on the phone and only got the long distance operator who I couldn’t hear anyways for all of the traffic. So we never did see Bee, but then we didn’t pass through her area. Of course in retrospect, it was probably only a half hour from where we did drive.

Slieve League was past Killybegs, a small fishing town west of Donegal. We drove out and it was a meandering drive along or near part of the coast. This is tweed country; lots of sheeps and a few tweed shops that we stopped in, partially for directions. So we drove and drove and weren’t sure if we there so we asked a man, dressed in that classic Irish farmer attire of cap, tweed jacket, baggy pants and wellies In Ireland the standard greetings is “How are you doing?” This man was walking along the small village road. I believe there might have been a total of 20 cottages at most and it was at the end of nowhere. I don’t know if that was Killybegs or not. I think not but I don’t know what that village was called.

He said we were on the right road for Slieve League and as it turned out it was only about five minutes past that village, and dead ended there. We were high on cliffs and below was a long reddish sand beach. It was a long hike down the stairs and would have been a long sweat up. We didn’t go down as it was getting late in the day. We could see a couple of people sunbathing down there.

As we drove back we found the sign to the Bunglass Cliffs.  Since the guy at the tweed shop had mentioned them we decided to go check them out. I’m sure if my sister realized what we were getting into she would have run screaming.

We drove through a village as tiny as the one at Slieve League, passing dogs, goats and chickens all running about the road. We rounded a corner where the family working in their yard kind of stared at us like we were mad. Then began the ascent. I’ve lived in BC and Alberta all my life. We have mountains, the Rockies, and some mountain roads are treacherous switchbacks. This was something else.

At first it wasn’t too bad but then it wound higher and higher. And then we were on a hairpin where you looked across to the other side of the hairpin (about 75 feet away) with nothing but cliffs down the curve. My sister, who is terrified of heights, said not a word, breathing heavily and grasping the car door handle so tight I thought she’d take it off. I could hear it squeaking but didn’t dare look. And she was on the outside edge.

It was in fact fairly treacherous. I was only going about 5km and if we’d met someone coming the other direction, I’m not sure what we would have done as the road wasn’t big enough for two. Then there were the spot where suddenly we were looking straight at the sky. The car was at more than a 45 degree angle facing up. I had to take it on faith that there was road on the other side and crept over the edge. We didn’t stay up there very long. My sister was a bit too nervous and once you saw the view in a few moments (and the sheep) there wasn’t much else to do. However, the Bunglass Cliffs are the highest cliffs in all of Europe so my sister had a right to be nervous with the height. And I have to say my heart was beating a little fast on the way up. It was easier going down and a pretty good view.

Names like slieve, killy, kil, bally, carrow, bun all mean something specifically in Gaelic, such as hill or bay or mound or… I have no idea what Killybegs meant or Slieve League but there are a few place names that have the similar beginning.

Ireland 2007–Slieve League & Carrowmore

We then started beetling south to outside of Sligo. We wanted to do the Carrowmore passage tombs and thought we would go that far for the night and have a head start in the morning. Regretfully I saw nothing of Galway. We made an error this night by being far too late in travelling. It was dark by the time we ended up in the vicinity and I think we were near Lough Arrow (lough means lake) because there was coast on one side. But it was so dark we couldn’t see a B&B anywhere and finally found a small pub/tavern with rooms upstairs. It was dirty and cold (no heat), the shower didn’t work in my sister’s room and the rooms were so small we had to lift our suitcases over the bed. We did find a little restaurant farther in (if we’d known we could have checked that area for rooms) that had fairly good food. Many places did a combo course of appetizer and/or dessert plus a main course, so for 25 euros it was okay. The food was decent too but never that cheap in Ireland.

In the morning, Wednesday, we trotted off to Carrowmore and with the customary few wrong turns (though not many) found Carrowmore just as it was opening. It rained quite heavily while we were walking through the fields. These are small mounds or rings of rocks, and a few dolmen tombs. Not as impressive of Newgrange, still I found it interesting and the number of graves brought such a sense of time and history. We finished in under two hours, soaked to our knees, so we changed in the bathroom and then drove on. This was the wettest day we had in Ireland and we dropped Queen Maeve’s tomb from the walks as it would have been 45 minutes slogging through the rain.

Still, overcast sky and the wet gave very rich color to all of the photos.

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Hill of Tara and Trim Castle

Written on Oct. 22/07 from my trip to Ireland.
This is all still part of our very busy Saturday. After we left Newgrange we trotted up to the Hill of Tara. At one point, at a four-way intersection there were two signs at right angles, both saying Tara. Ah those funny Irish. Turns out one was for the town and one for the Hill. Hard to tell though I think we found the “brown” heritage/tourist sign at one point. Not that it pointed the right way either.

After stopping at a gas station (let me guess, said the owner, you’re lost and looking for the Hill of Tara–only about 100 people have come by) we found our way. The Hill of Tara is…well, a hill, a great big, luscious green hill, with a mound or two, with runnels around it. It’s a hill (Cormac’s House), a hill fort, a passage tomb (mound of the hostages) and numerous other things. I don’t think we saw all of it as it was a murky wet day and wet grass makes things soggy. The Stone of Destiny shown in some of the pictures was supposedly moved in 1798 to commemorate the death of 400 Irishmen who fought the British. It was the seat of the High Kings of Ireland from the 6-12th centuries and the stone was said to cry out when the true king touched it. (I wonder how they worked that miracle).

There is a little cemetery and church dating back only a couple of hundred years I believe. Or at least the stones we could see. But the age of the Hill of Tara goes back to neolithic times with other parts being of Roman and medieval times. Its significance is still great in Ireland. But there is danger of a motorway being put through this historic hill and a petition is being circulated to stop the motorway from destroying it.

We went on to Trim castle which was founded by Hugh de Lacy in the 12th century. Its more recent claim to fame is that it was used in filming Braveheart. But the ruins are quite fabulous. We hit it at the end of the day and didn’t get the tour of the inside of the castle. I believe it’s only a ruin though, no furniture. The tour would have consisted of talking about its different defenses and construction techniques as the tower has twenty sides.

There was a lovely little wedding going one with the men in coats and tails. Yeah, if I ever got married a castle would definitely be a great setting. We didn’t really stick around in Trim, the town, but drove through to an abbey, shown in the next set.

Ireland 2007–Hill of Tara & Trim Castle

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Newgrange & Knowth

Ireland 2007–Newgrange & Knowth

Here’s another excerpt from my trip to Ireland in Sept./Oct. of 2007

We left Dublin on the 28th of Sept. However, trying to navigate out of a city that’s centuries old with winding streets and missing signs was quite a challenge. The 15-minute drive from the car rental place to our guesthouse took an hour and a half.

The guesthouse gave us directions north on the M1 when in fact the map showed that we really wanted M2 to get to Newgrange. Part of the problem is that here you have a map that fills your lap of all Ireland, the same as a map of British Columbia.  A map even of BC would mean hours of driving so our sense of size and distance were skewed.

On top of that, let’s say that Dublin tourism has good maps. They list some of the more known sites. They list major roads and smaller subroutes or connector roads. However, the sites are sometimes before a town when they’re shown as being in the town, or north of a place when shown to be west of a place. Some of those connector roads don’t connect to anything but a playground while there are new routes not listed anywhere on the map. We had three maps and none were accurate.

We took N1 with my sister driving and I kept trying to navigate us back to M2. What a mistake. We did end up in a subdevelopment, a schoolyard, on the M1 and back to still being on the M1 (which can disappear and become the M1 and then R125 or something and then back to being the M1). All this plus navigating the many roundabouts any time there is a road leading in a different direction. We were told to turn at a cemetery by a local at one point and either she’d never been up that road in years or they moved the cemetery, bodies and all.

So, eventually with half the day gone after starting at 11 am to get the car, we made it to the Huntsman Inn somewhere around 4 pm. We stopped in because it looked cute except for the scary horse thing outside. Thatched roof and a few hundred years old, it seems it was competing as the oldest pub/tavern/restaurant with other places. We saw several of these signs and had, while in Dublin, bought a drink at the Stags Head and the Brazen Head pubs, both the oldest for something. Though there were nice staff, I had truly awful onion rings with soft doughy outer layer and soft, too fleshy wings. Blech.

Revitalized and coming to realize that though it’s a short distance through Ireland, it’s not a fast ride, we continued on. We even found Newgrange all by ourselves…but about a half hour too late to get into that day. So we drove along the road to Slain (Slane) and asked there about B&Bs. We stayed at the lovely little Roughgrange home of Irene and her husband, mere minutes from Newgrange, itself a 17th century grange (form of ranch house). We trotted off to Donore for dinner in a pub and had fairly acceptable food with a few massive potatoes.

The next morning we decided to stay a second night as we had plenty in that area to see and drove off to Newgrange. Only done by tour (not enough time as far as I was concerned) we went first to Knowth (nowth for pronunciation). This was the first of many experiences with the stones of Ireland. Knowth and Newgrange are megalithic (or neolithic depending on the info) passage tombs that date back 5-6000 years. These were Stone to Bronze Age cultures. Knowth’s chamber was bigger and there were several mounds of varying sizes.

There have been upgrades to the mounds as over the centuries they were farmed or even had small villages starting up on the top of the mounds. Excavation was needed to bring back the kerbstones which are made of a stone called greywacke (greywacky). I believe only one was missing. In most of the passage tombs there is an alignment to one of the solstices or an equinox. As well, cremated human remains were found and in some the bodies of several people. Archaeologists know these were used for ceremonial or ritual purposes in the earliest days. Knowth and Newgrange are the oldest manmade structures in the world.

The sense of age and history is immense. I could almost see the people moving amongst these revered mounds of long ago, imagine the importance of sun and rain and the turning wheel of the seasons. This was the beginning of a growing sense of stone in Ireland, as if I was being etched, like the whorls and swirls that were set in these kerbstones of long ago to endure weather and touch, and the changing of culture and times.

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The Stones of Ireland: II

Continued from the previous day’s post.

Kinbane CastleWe travelled to the Cliffs of Moher in northwestern Ireland, the tallest in Europe. Rugged and impressive, they remained formidable to drive up and to look down. The sheer audacity of Kinbane castle in Northern Ireland built down a very steep hill right on the promontory of the North Sea kept it impenetrable for years. Out near Kinvara and in the Burren were the Ailwee Caves, great underground caverns carved millennia ago by a subterranean river, fossils and minerals sparkling like the realm of Hades. Cool, pitch black except when they turned on the lights, and a den for extinct European brown bears, their might was in their endurance and solidity.

The Burren was as impressive in its way as the Giants Causeway. At some point in the ancient past a mountain or volcano erupted, spewing tons of flowing mud down mountain and hill. Eventually it solidified into grey rock but still has that look of a mud flow. Smooth in spots, rippled in others, there are dips that are treacherous to walk over but where wind and rain have blown deposits of soil over the centuries. There in those protected trenches are a myriad of plant life, some uniqe to that area.

The Burren

The Burren butts up to a rugged shoreline near Kinvara, but on the higher hills it is barren stone, short shrubs and the tiny plants that grow in their coves. Everywhere through this area are stone walls and hill forts that were stacked by hand centuries ago. In fact the stone walls are abundant throughout Ireland but rule supreme in the Burren. The stones might be stacked on their edges, resting against each other, placed flat on top of each other, or made with their widest sides facing out. Some are mortared, and they are ageless. They could have been built a week ago or a thousand years ago. They were used as natural boundaries, pens for cattle and sheep and as fortifications. I’ve been told that they now work at protecting species of flora and fauna throughout the emerald isle, working as borders where invasive species don’t encroach.

Upon the Burren with its hard, alien looking surface, unable to really support any crop, somehow people eked out a life, for centuries. And topping it was Poulnabrone Dolmen, a passage tomb made of four giant slabs of stone with a fifth resting atop them like a table. You can look through beneath the table stone, from one world perhaps to the next. It has stood for over 5,000 years, a part of every person’s life who lived upon the Burren.

All lands have stone in one form or another. Rock is the foundation of our world from its magma core to the volcanic eruptions and tectonic shifts that show our planet is alive. From sand and pebble to rock and boulder, stones have always been there to support and shelter. The Irish reuse the stones from any old building torn down, reworking it into something new.

The strong sense of the history of the stones, from the monasteries and castles to the cemetery tombs and headstones, to the walls and hill forts, they all spoke of a true Irish intimacy with stone. There is history, life and death. There is art, utilitarian purpose and mystery. And most of all, there is community; thousand of years of life with each person using what had come before, the ruins or the dead not forgotten but integrated into continuing family rituals. Ireland truly taught me the endurance of time and of stories shown in its stone, its very foundation. stone walls

The picture at the top of my blog is taken from the top of Blarney castle. All pictures are copyrighted.

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The Stones of Ireland: I

Giants Causeway In October, 2007 I travelled to Ireland, a place I had wanted to visit for years. I’m not sure why exactly as there is no Irish in my blood and other countries have more and bigger castles. It was more the sense of rolling green hills and the land of faery, a romantic notion perhaps.

We circumnavigated Ireland in two weeks, going north, then west, then south and east, starting and ending in Dublin. There were some key sites we wanted to see but then let ourselves be guided by road signs and guide books.

This was a mostly outdoor expedition involving trips to old castles and monasteries and some cemeteries, as well as driving through the changing landscape. The history of the architecture and how it had changed over time was fascinating, small enclosures and Viking settlements built over with increasingly sophisticated fortifications or ecclesiastical buildings.

Newgrange and Knowth were amazing in that these structures were built over 5,000 years ago and are older than the pyramids of Egypt. Some of the passage tombs fell apart or were scavenged for stones for other buildings and roads. Many of these barrows have a corridor or an interior built with slabs of stone, then dirt is mounded over. Newgrange’s corbeled stone roof has never leaked in 5,000 years. The hummocked hills gave rise to the tales of the homes of the sidhe and the Tuatha de Danan.

Knowth BarrowsOther barrows were built over with time, dirt being added, and villages or cattle settling upon them. Some of their original use is a mystery but some contain bones or human ashes. Others may have been ceremonial or religious structures. Newgrange is the most impressive as it was built upon a hill and the outer wall lined with white quartz (this was rebuilt in more recent times and there is argument as to how it may actually have been placed), which would be striking in the bright sun and visible for miles around.

Giants Causeway on the north coat of Northern Ireland was a natural structure of basalt rock that had been rapidly heated and cooled millennia ago causing large octagonal pillars to form. They break apart in slabs, maintaining their structure and can be walked over like steps. Some form natural seats or chairs. There is a section called the organ because it looks like a giant pipe organ in the hill. There seems to only be that one area in Ireland that has such unique stones.

The castles and monasteries abounded as well as the very old cemetery of Monasterboice with the millennium old tower (imagine Rapunzel) that they believe was used for storage, sanctuary and to watch for marauders. Some of the carvings on pillars still showed wonderful detail; leaves, faces both animal and human, various designs. Some of the blocks of stone seemed to have been placed with a sense of tone, dark and light stones alternating, or smaller pebbles placed in the mortar between larger stones.

Over the centuries many of these castles and churches fell into ruin but they were not abandoned. Tombs and graves pepper every place. The oldest monastery floors are nothing but tomb after tomb. There is nothing to do but walk over the bones of the past. Even walls have been taken over, a person interred into the very foundation and a plaque sealing them in. The oldest readable stones go to the 1700s. Older than that, the words become too worn away, by feet and weather. There are graves dating over a thousand years in some cases, right up to months of the current date.

Some graveyards have been held by the ruling families or clans and there might be dozens of McDonnells buried in one area such as Ballycastle. Other graves are family plots and in the more modern ones, configured by a low fence, a bar, about six inches from the ground. These more modern plots have pebbled glass or stone in different combinations of color, and some flowers, real or not. Some are very individual. Headstones often denote many generations entombed in the plot, going back a century or more. At one Benedictine monastery there was a family of four cleaning and smoothing the stones of their family’s plot on a sunny day.

Continued tomorrow

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