Friday, May 1, 2015

Newgrange on a Soggy Irish Day

Sightseeing in Ireland
The windows of the shuttle bus are steamed up with the morning breath of tourists. There's a mildewy cloud around the guy sitting across from us. He probably left his rain jacket wadded up in his backpack. It's more than drizzling outside, not the best day for sightseeing. Despite the weather, there's excited chatter everywhere in English, Italian, Russian and German. Waiting for the last couple of passengers, we're about to visit one of the most important archeological sites in Ireland: the 5000-year-old Newgrange.

As is often the case, despite documentaries and airplane magazine articles, I know almost nothing about this place. Of course I could pick it out of a line-up. I know its name but have no idea what it means, and before driving to it this morning I couldn't have placed it on a map of Ireland--although I knew from the airplane magazine that it was somewhere in the Boyne Valley.  As it turns out, Newgrange is a mere 58 km north of Dublin (or seven pop songs and quite a lot of hilarious radio-presenter banter). If you don't want to drive there, you can book a day tour of the Boyne Valley for quite a reasonable rate. This tour looks like the right thing to do.

Steven the Goat Milker's Assistant and I don't do this tour of course. We drive. And as we're driving down country roads, past farmhouses with pretty little gardens--or that's what I'm imagining through these fogged up windows--I'm convinced that Newgrange was a sort of dwelling. Crazily, I'm imagining Vikings and hide-clad Neolithic folk with long matted dirty hair that always smells like what they've been cooking--the type permanently frozen in poses of hunting and gathering or building their rudimentary huts in museums. I know all this is wrong, but it's still what I'm imagining.

But of course I remember that I know a bit more than I thought. These mounds make an appearance in the Leprechaun stories as the places where the aos sí, ghostlike creatures of the ancient Tuatha Dé people, took to when they were conquered by the Milesians. And of course the hundreds of these mounds that still dapple the countryside of Ireland today are in fact burial mounds. But hold on: this is not actually true when it comes to Newgrange--but I'll get to this later.

Newgrange from my dry seat on the shuttle bus

For now, I'm not done griping about the soggy Irish weather yet. Rain is so inconveniently moist. There's the wetness of it--no denying the wetness--but there's also the inevitable undryness. And then some guy leaves his undry rain jacket in his backpack for three days, and we have an icky-sweet mildew smell to deal with. This is Ireland; you might as well get over it. It's always just a little damp here.

Are you claustrophobic? I'm not. I kind of like caves, closets and co. I think I could have lived in Newgrange as a mythical Leprechaun. I'm kind of short, like green, rainbows, pots of gold and very tight spaces. If you're not a Leprechaun yourself, you'll need to watch your head as you enter and exit Newgrange. There's a guide standing at the entrance nagging everyone to watch their heads (and not take pictures). I guess a few Scandinavians must have left with mild concussions.

Once inside, you'll hunch along the 19-meter passageway that leads to the cross-shaped chamber. You'll need to turn sideways a couple of times to inch through. Some of you might not even get through, to be honest. It was a squeeze for me and I have a 30-inch waist (although the problem might have been more my belly than my waist).

In the chamber itself, the floor you're standing on will be two meters higher than the entrance. The floor is actually level with the hole above the entrance where the sun shines through (weather permitting) on the winter solstice. And if you're lucky enough to be one of the 50 (plus one guest) who win the yearly lottery, you'll be able to view this spectacle with only four other mildewy lucky people. Otherwise, you'll have to make due with the demonstration using artificial light. You'll also have to be satisfied with a 10-minute stay inside the site. The rest of the tour is outside. In the rain.

A rear view of Newgrange

The controversial facade reconstructed in the 70s from original Newgrange stones

It's no wonder we assume these ancient people worshipped the sun. It's like all religions: we worship what we can't explain and what seldom answers our prayers the way we want. Fact is, we don't know exactly how this place was used or why it was abandoned thousands of years ago. My completely unscientific theory of what Newgrange was used for: a Neolithic time machine that would transport the cremated remains of some Neolithic Pope sort of celebrity into the next world. It's worth mentioning that no signs of smoke have been found on the corbeled ceiling of the monument. The cremated remains that rested in the three basins in Newgrange were burnt somewhere else, brought into the monument--possibly during the winter solstice--and then removed.

The visitor center is certainly worth a visit as well. The small museum is informative and does indeed have a model of hairy hide-clad Neolithic people--so my imagination is not completely wacky after all. Be sure to check out the cafeteria, which has an impressive menu and also a few prepackaged gluten-free items. I wasn't hungry enough to grab one, but it was good to know they were there.

I must be off,


Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Indiana Review, Night Train, Quiddity, SmokeLong Quarterly: the Best of the First Ten Years anthology, Prime Number Magazine, [PANK] blog, Necessary Fiction, Word Riot, Bootsnall Travel, Chicken Soup for the Soul and lots of other good places. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize twice.