Saturday, June 29, 2013

Ireland, Day 2: Glasnevin, Newgrange, and Knowth

I was up bright and early and able to walk after 10 miles of trekking the previous day. I got to the airport a bit early to meet the group, only to be told by the CIE driver waiting there that the flight with most of our group was delayed until 9 AM. So, I settled into the airport cafe until Niamh came over to get myself and Jackie, another member of our group who had come in at 7 AM. We had breakfast at the hotel, and finally were on our way a little after 10:00.

Our first stop was Glasnevin Cemetery. I was told there would be breakfast at the cemetery, which was puzzling, until I realized that it was at the cafe in the Visitor's Centre. Some of us went on a tour, others that had just flown in had breakfast, to save time. There are a lot of famous people connected with Irish political history buried here, as well as the family of literary figures like James Joyce. The delayed flight left us short on time, so our tour guide gave us a quick rundown of a few important graves. The first grave we stopped at was that of Michael Collins, who is the one responsible for signing the treaty with England that allowed for partition of the 6 Northern counties, while freeing the rest of Ireland from British rule. His grave is the only one adorned with flowers, and people leave all kinds of things. A young boy had left a poem, and apparently a French woman comes regularly to leave flowers with notes. Flowers are not placed on graves as a rule in Irish cemeteries, or at least not in Glasnevin. But Collins is an exception.

She then pointed out the grave of Kitty Kiernan, who was Collins's fiancee. He was assassinated in August, and they were supposed to be married in September. She eventually married someone else, but upon her death, asked to be buried as close to Collins as possible. We visited the grave of Eamon De Valera, who was the founder of Fianna Fáil, an anti-British union party, who was and is a rather controversial figure. The guide told us that some people fall to their knees at his grave, and others avoid it, symbolic of the cultural rift between republicans and unionists.

The last grave we visited was a huge crypt with a large tower--the grave of Daniel O'Connell, who had founded the cemetery. O'Connell was a politician around the period of An Gorta Mor (the Famine), and fought extensively for Catholic rights, being one of the first Catholics allowed to hold office. He is known as the Great Emancipator, and he has a lavish crypt, painted with Celtic-style spirals and the text of his dying words: My body to Ireland, my heart to Rome, my soul to Heaven. His words were taken literally, and his heart was removed and put into a silver box, where it resided in a Vatican seminary for years. The guide told us that it is no longer there, as it was stolen. There is a tradition that touching the coffin of O'Connell is good luck, so inside the stone crypt there are openings to touch the wooden coffin.

We had to leave Glasnevin rather quickly, but were blocked by an incoming funeral. Finally getting on our way, we headed up to Newgrange, to see the old Stone Age monuments at Knowth. Our group went up by bus, and were dropped off at the gate in the road. The mounds were huge, and surrounded by large kerbstones with megalithic designs on them. Our tour guide (named John, like everyone else on our tour so far) gave a very entertaining description of the mounds and their use from the Stone Age through early Christian times. 2/3 of the Stone Age artwork found in Europe is here at this collection of sites. We were not able to go into the prehistoric tunnels, but we did go down into the tomb, and I took a couple of shots of the passageways with the carvings on the wall. There is also a stair so that you can climb to the top of one of the mounds. It was incredibly windy at the top, and had a breathtaking view of the countryside. It alternated between being sunny and misting and raining for the entire hour that we were there, though the wind was brutally consistent. What really amazed me besides the carvings were the stones that built up the ceiling, that seem to be hanging in mid-air. It was rather high-tech for a people that pre-dated the Egyptian pyramid builders, and preceded Stonehenge by about 1,000 years. What these were really used for, no one knows. As the guide said: "These were not used for farming, they were used for ritual purposes. Which means we have no idea what they were used for."

After visiting Knowth, we headed back to the Visitor's Centre, where some people had tea. Upon returning to the hotel, we finally got our room keys. I am sharing a room with Deborah, who is a middle school teacher from Rockland County. We talked for about 2 hours before heading down for dinner and drinks. We all chose to stay in the hotel, as most people just wanted to go to sleep early. Indeed, I was really exhausted, and from the time I said goodnight to Deborah, I didn't remember anything until my phone rang at 6AM with a wrong number.

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