Sunday, March 14, 2010

February 2010

Newgrange, County Meath
In mid-February we took a road trip County Meath in the east part of Ireland, not too far from Dublin, and home to Newgrange, the jewel in Ireland's archeological crown. This is an aerial view of the megalithic mound - the small dots near the recessed entrance to the mound are people waiting to go inside, so that gives you an idea of the size of the mound.

Newgrange was built about 5,000 years ago, which makes it older than the Pyramids. The Boyne Valley in County Meath is filled with hundreds of these mounds - most of them are much smaller, but there are two others that are as large as Newgrange. The smaller ones are burial mounds, and the three huge ones were used for important rituals and religious ceremonies.

Looking up at the quartz facade on the sunny side of the mound. The mound was excavated by archeologists and the exterior rebuilt in the 1960's.

This is a picture of Newgrange mound taken in 1901, before it was excavated and restored. The entrance to the interior passageway is visible as a black rectangle at the base of the mound.

This is the entrance to the chamber before it was excavated, with the spiral-carved kerbstone at the entrance. You can also see some of the small quartz blocks were laying all around the base of the mound in an even distribution, leading archeologists to believe they had been used to face the front of the mound. When they restored the mound this way it was a bit controversial, but it does look really cool when the sun is shining and the quartz reflects the sunlight.

This is how the kerbstone and entrance look today. When they started excavating the mound in the 60's, they found a second entrance on top of the first one. Despite being centuries old, the stones lining the entrances and the passage to the interior of the mound were almost completely intact. The top entrance puzzled the leading archeologist on the site, Professor Michael O'Kelly, until he heard from one of the locals that it had something to do with the sun. Prof. O'Kelly could see that it wasn't positioned right for the summer solstice, so he waited until the winter solstice to test his theory.

Professor Kelly arrived at Newgrange before dawn on a clear winter solstice morning, and this is what he observed.The rising sun to the east shone into the stone-lined entrance above the passageway, and due to the angle of the sun and the angle of the passageway floor, the sunlight crept along the floor all the way to the chamber at the interior of the mound, where the sunlight rested in a bowl carved from a large stone. That's when Professor Kelly knew he was correct - Newgrange is one of the world's most sophisticated solar clocks.

In the interior of the mound, the passage widens to a circular chamber with more spiral carvings. (There's no photography allowed inside the mound, so I got these two photos and the aerial view from Google Images.)

There is a very good guided tour inside the mound where they turn off the lights and simulate winter solstice sunrise with a gradually increasing spotlight. But I really hope to see the real thing sometime:every year there's a lottery to choose the 50 lucky winners and their guest who get to witness this amazing spectacle (if it's not cloudy, that is) on the five mornings around winter solstice when the light show happens. I've put my name in the lottery for winter solstice, December 2010 - fingers crossed!

From across the valley - Newgrange and three black crows.

For more information about Professor Kelly and a first-hand account of the first winter solstice sunrise he witnessed in Newgrange, click here.

Hill of Tara
The Hill of Tara, about 20 miles from Newgrange, was once the ancient seat of power in Ireland – 142 kings are said to have been crowned and reigned there in prehistoric and historic times. In ancient Irish religion and mythology Tara was the sacred place of dwelling for the gods, and was the entrance to the otherworld. Saint Patrick is said to have come to Tara to confront the ancient religion of the pagans at its most powerful site.

The Hill of Tara is actually a collection of antiquities. There is an ancient burial mound from around 3,000 BC, like the one at Newgrange but much smaller. There are also earthworks and ditches built between 200 BC and 700 AD that create the double spiral pattern you can see in the aerial photo above.

When you're walking around Tara you can't actually make out this pattern. Of course the ridges and ditches making up the two spirals would have been much bigger before hundreds of years of rain and erosion. Recently archeologists found evidence of an enormous oval ring of oak posts around the perimeter of the Hill of Tara, approximately 200 yards across at the widest part. They are calling it 'Oakhenge' and speculate that it was a giant temple. In the 1300's a Christian church was built on the edge of the site. Since the beginning of memory the Hill of Tara has always been a sacred, royal and free place, owned by no man.

The Mound of the Hostages - blocked off with a gate so you can't go inside.

We spotted some of the Little People cavorting around on top of the mound.

Nicely carved Celtic cross in the churchyard. The Celtic cross combines the Christian symbol (a cross) with the pagan one (a circle).

Drogheda, County Louth
We stayed in the town of Drogheda, County Louth, while we explored the nearby Boyne Valley. Drogheda was a town that went to bed early and woke up late: we couldn't find any trad or any good music on Friday or Saturday night, and we were unable to find a place open for breakfast even at 9:30 am.

There were a few interesting sights in Drogheda, like this unexplained giant green gumdrop.....

....and a drive-through castle.

Bridges new and old.

And Millmount, another one of those 5,000 year old mega-mounds that then had a Martello tower built on top in 1808. These Martello tower were built all around the coast of Ireland in the early 1800's when they feared an invasion by Napolean's army. The mound itself sits on top of a big hill with a great view of the Boyne River flowing into the Irish Sea - a very strategic location.

We walked in some dunes at the mouth of the river, and met some friendly horses that wanted to eat my coat buttons.

County Down

We drove north into County Down in Northern Ireland before heading back home to the west. As we approached the border with Northern Ireland, we wondered if we would need passports to present at a border crossing. We hadn't planned on going into N. Ireland so we didn't have them with us. As we got to the border, the only indication that we had crossed was a sign saying that the speed limit had now changed to miles per hour instead of kilometres per hour. And yield signs were now more politely worded like this:
And other than those two things, and prices on signs displayed in pounds rather than euros, there was no way to tell that we had crossed into the UK.

We stopped for lunch at a roadside castle......

...and saw these pretty mist covered mountains across the bay. They are the Mountains of Mourne, made famous in a song ('where the Mountains of Mourne roll down to the sea...') and we decided to drive around the bay to walk in them.

We drove to the other side of the bay and walked in a beautiful oak forest in the foothills of the Mountains of Mourne.

Then we drove up and over the mist-covered mountains before turning our car westward back to Clare.