Best places to visit in Ireland

The Yellow Steeple as seen from King John’s Castle Trim, Co. Meath. This pic has nothing to do with the post below, but it’s a lovely summer scene and that’s better than the dull day currently outside my window.

I’ve been attempting some translation from Irish to English and vice-versa over the past year. The main reason is when writing a novel that takes place partly within a community of native Irish speakers, you need to convey both the flavor of the language and use the actual words in a way that allows non-Irish speakers to understand them. The second reason is that most of my research is now centered on academic texts about Irish history and mythology, texts which frequently use untranslated words and phrases in Gaelic that most non-academics like me are unfamiliar with. I get sent to the dictionary most days, but your average Irish-English dictionary doesn’t always include academic phrases, or if they do it’s a very workmanlike and modern translation. So, I’ve been going off on digressions where I break down an unfamiliar word and work out the meaning of the original parts. The resultant translation is usually more poetic than the more succinct modern dictionary.

Irish History Expert, Irish TravelTake dinnshenchas, the name of a collection of the origin stories of Irish places. I haven’t yet come across a book where familiarity with the word is not assumed — although Dooley and Roe do offer a descriptive approximation in the introduction to their translation of Acallam na Senorach/Tales of the Elders of Ireland. Look up dinnshenchas in the dictionary and you’ll find it rendered as “dinnseanchas” and simply translated as “topography” and would be forgiven for thinking it was a dry technical term.

However, when you break the word down into its parts, you find a much more interesting word:

Dinn —  the preposition “of”, but also seems to be derived from de, which means breath, or “to breathe”

Shen (or sean) — sean means old. As far as I can make out, either the “h” is silent when combined in “sh,” so shen would be pronounced much like sean, or shen is simply an older spelling.

seanchas — dictionary definition: “lore or tradition”

I wonder if chas is related to sceal, a story? I believe, cas is similar to chas phonetically, and cas means a twist or turn. As legends and lore are basically the twists and turns of events, I wonder if an older translation might be something like “turns of old events.” The opening lines of the Odyssey come to mind: “Sing to me , Muse, of the man of twists and turns…”  This feels apt, as many of the places are named for heroes who died there; those heroes might be said to have experienced a twist or turn in their own stories which lead to their deaths, and earned them the dubious notoriety of giving their name to the place they died.

The unifying feature about the dinnshenchas tales is that frequently the price of immortality was death. It seems half the places in Ulster are named after warriors Cù Chulainn defeated. But, I suppose ‘twas ever so: no politician would agree to name anything after a political rival, but once they’re safely dead they fall over themselves to praise them.

So the literal translation of dinnseanchas would seem to be something like “of old lore” or, more poetically, “the breath of old lore.” Yes, the dinnshenchas tales contain the lore of place-names, in other words topography, so the modern use of the word is correct. However, I prefer the suggestive aspects of the poetic translation.

*The above is offered with the caveat that I’m not a fluent Irish speaker, and my school-boy Irish is many years behind me.  This is probably why I enjoy attempting my own translations: those of us who are not fluent may perceive similarities of pronunciation where a native speaker knows there is none, and may end up with a slightly more idiosyncratic and colorful translation because of it. Perhaps some poetry can be gained in translation, and not lost.

First, I have to say that Leap Year is a crime against geography and my 5th-grader has a better grasp of map reading than whoever wrote the improbable screenplay. Despite all that, Leap Year is a strangely charming romantic comedy, and has become a favorite over the years.

The Rock of Dunamase, which provides part of the location for "Ballycarbery Castle" in the film Leap Year.

The Rock of Dunamase, which provides part of the location for “Ballycarbery Castle” in the film Leap Year.

Amy Adams and Matthew Goode play the cliched mis-matched personalities falling in love through adversity, and mostly get away with it because the scenery is breath-taking — the music’s pretty good, too. Read the rest of this entry »

I stumbled across this old article from National Geographic that touches on the theory that Ireland may have been the model for Plato’s tale of Atlantis. Makes one wonder what the original source material Plato was working from contained. We lost so much ancient history when the Library of Alexandria burned. It’s an interesting idea, but not compelling. Would love to see a documentary where these ideas are teased out comparing the text to the archaeological remains.

Link: Atlantis “Evidence” Found in Spain and Ireland

I’ve been intermittently pursuing a minor historical mystery since visiting the Narrow Water Castle in Warrenpoint, Co. Down last summer. Across the river (as you can see from the photo at the top) a rather cool-looking round tower was peeking out of the woods, shadowed by a mini-tower on the muddy river bank (far left of the photo). The Narrow Water Castle is a pretty awesome place: they have a murder hole, a garderobe (medieval toilet — guaranteed to fascinate the elementary school set), and a gorgeous setting where the Newry river enters Carlingford Lough and then forms the Irish Sea, so I didn’t really think about much the round tower except as backdrop. Later I thought I should find out some more about that tower.

There’s a good website for tower spotters, roundtowers.org, that lists all the round towers in Ireland — at least the surviving ones — but I couldn’t find a tower listed in that part of Co. Louth. No problem, there are other resources, but again nothing listed this tower. I checked Google Earth, just to make sure I wasn’t mis-remembering the location. I Googled “round tower” with the name of every townland in the area, but found nothing except a couple of photos of “a round tower near Omeath” (the nearest village) on Flickr. So I appeared to have a round tower that nobody, except a few photographers, seemed to care about.

Finally, the “mini round tower” down by the river gave me a clue. Who builds a miniature round tower at the edge of a river in the shadow of a real one? Why build such a thing? Well, presumably as a marker for shipping, right? Then I found a different view of the mini tower and saw a solar panel hanging off the front. Then it clicked into place: this is a pair of lighthouses built to look like ancient round towers — one 16 feet tall and one 49 feet.

As we’re living in the internet age, there’s a lighthouse spotters database (actually a couple of them) where I learned these are the two “Newry River Range” Lighthouses, solar-powered channel markers built in the shape of round towers. It turns out there was a trend for building lighthouses to look like round towers in the late 19th century. Who knew? So there you have it: When is a round tower not a round tower? When it’s a lighthouse.

An awesome song to celebrate Saint Bridget’s Day. “Imbolc (Candlemas)” by Lisa Thiel.
Especially love the lyrics:

“Blessed Bridget, queen of the fire
Help us to manifest our desire
May we bring forth all thats good and fine
May we give birth to our dreams in time”
Highly suitable for the patron saint of learning and poetry.

 

Notes

Learn more about Imbolc: the rekindling of the solar hearth…

Newgrange, Knowth, Dowth, Bru na Boinne

Peter Jackson could have filmed the Hobbiton scenes around Dowth. It’s that beautiful.

Dowth is one of the three tombs in the Brú na Bóinne world heritage site, situated on a slope rising from the river Boyne near Slane, Co. Meath. In contrast to the other sites at Brú na Bóinne, Dowth is not restored and beautified, but this is a plus as some feel Newgrange and Knowth are a little too well-manicured (and it seems fitting, given that Dowth is derived from Dubhbadh, meaning darkness). Also, access to the Dowth site is free and not controlled via the visitor center. After a morning spent being shepherded around the other two sites, everyone will revel in the freedom to explore Dowth and the ruined churchyard beside it on their terms.

Dowth was once a large mound like Newgrange (possibly of of a taller, conical shape, if old illustrations are to be credited) but amateur archaeologists (although treasure seekers would probably be a better description) damaged the mound severely in the 19th century, and at another point it was used as an easy source of stone for building projects. Miraculously, despite these desecrations, two passages remain intact, although both are tight, cramped and safely locked to keep the public out. (Although you can see some of the carvings inside one of them in this documentary.)

Visiting Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth

Newgrange as seen from the top of the Dowth mound.

The mound is just off the road; a simple road sign points the way through an old iron gate. Like much of Ireland, parking is on the grass verge along the edge of the road. As you walk along the path towards the mound, the side of the mound that has been dug away is clearly visible. The rim of the mound remains in a horseshoe shape, and the views of the Boyne valley and Newgrange from the top are excellent. Children love to scramble up the mound — but beware of the thick clumps of waist-high weeds growing in the center; these are stinging nettles!

As you walk around the site in a counter clockwise direction, you come upon two low stone-lined entrances, of a size better suited to sheep than humans. (In fact, you’ll probably share the site with sheep, as Dowth, although owned and managed as a heritage site by the state, allows the local farmers’ sheep to graze around the mound — a not uncommon arrangement given the vast number of ancient ruins in Ireland.) These are the entrances to the smaller of the two burial chambers. It’s rather unusual to find two separate entrances to a single chamber; perhaps this reflects a change in burial ritual during the building of all three monuments or perhaps one afforded entrance for people, and the other allowed the passage of the sun for some ritual reason?  Unlike Newgrange and Knowth, which were built to allow people to walk more-or-less standing up, this passage is tiny, designed for crawling only. The chamber is a short distance from the entrance, and you should have enough light to see inside fairly well. Be sure to take a few pictures holding your digital camera , the flash will show detail you miss otherwise. This is one of those times you’ll be grateful you have a flashlight in your pocket.

Like Newgrange, the South chamber is aligned with the winter solstice. However, a recently planted row of trees on the neighboring property are gradually impeding the sun, and will likely eventually block it altogether. At the back of the south chamber is a convex stone which is reputed to reflect the sunlight back against some carvings on the other side of the chamber. As the chamber is locked year-round, I have sadly been unable verify this phenomenon. It should be noted that the roof of this chamber had caved in — a legacy of the quarrying, maybe — and was rebuilt with concrete at some point in the past, so it’s not known how much later interventions has altered the precise layout of the chamber.

The curious aspect about this chamber is that the setting sun illuminates it not just on the winter solstice, but from sometime in November through February. This suggests the sun alignment had some other purpose than simply celebrating the return of the sun at the solstice.

When you’re done looking into these entrances, look over your shoulder and you’ll see a concrete “bunker” at the edge of the field, covered by a thick wire cage. This is the entrance to the second and third passages — one of which is believed to be a souterrain, an underground storage space or place of refuge, rather than a burial chamber. The construction of this souterrain is dated some 2000 years after the construction of the mound and the other chambers.  Only archaeologists get to enter, but most dads and teenage sons like to check out the cage and think about how they could get in “if they really wanted to.”

Continuing to walk around the mound clockwise and you’ll see several large kerbstones peaking out of the lush growth at the base. It appears that Dowth originally had both a ring of kerbstones and was covered in white quartz rocks like Newgrange — now mostly removed for local building projects. On the south side, you come upon a beautiful tree growing out of the slope of the mound. In summer, this looks like something out of the Lord of the Rings, and you half expect to come across a Hobbit hole just past the tree. Instead, you come across one of the most intriguing pieces of neolithic art in Europe, The Stone of the Seven Suns.

Click through to see The Stone of Seven the Suns up close…

Although most of Dowth’s kerbstones are overgrown or buried, Kerbstone #51, known as The Stone of the Seven Suns, has had the vegetation stripped away to reveal what appears to be celestial notations depicting the sun, the moon, and stars. Whether this is some sort of solar calendar, a record of eclipses and celestial movement, or some kind of teaching tool, we simply do not know. One of the seven “sun wheels” appears to show a lunar eclipse in some detail. Significantly, this kerbstone is carved on both sides, suggesting the key to its purpose could have lain more in the act of its creation than in a means of recording or transmitting information. Then again, perhaps the kerbstones where simply an abstract means to beautify the site and please the gods or spirits of the ancestors, or maybe the images on the back were simply a design that went wrong — the chisel slipped and the stone was turned to save the effort of quarrying another? An indentation in the mound has been cut behind the kerbstone to allow people to see these mysterious carvings in full. (There is speculation that this indentation may conceal the entrance to another chamber.) Encourage your children to try to guess at the meaning of the various symbols; their guesses will be as good as anyone else’s.

Across the field at this point, you will see the ruins of Dowth Church, destroyed during the 1641 uprising. A short walk across the fields brings you to the present day Netterville House and the ruins of the church.

The history of Dowth is a fascinating blend of the historically important and the farcically eccentric. The tomb sits on what was once part of the estate of the Nettervilles, an old Anglo-Norman family. When the Insurrection of 1641 began, the then lord, Viscount Nicholas Netterville, allegedly first offered his services to the Crown, but when he (as a Catholic) was not greeted with open arms, he threw his lot in with the rebels. He lost his estates for his trouble, and saw the Dowth church and castle reduced to ruins, but ironically had his possessions restored a decade later when Oliver Cromwell came to power and recent enemies of the crown were recast as heroes.

One century later, the sixth Viscount, John Netterville, built a gazebo on top of the Dowth mound from which he “attended” mass in the nearby church by telescope! In the 19th century, misguided amateur archeologists used dynamite to blow a hole in the mound searching for a fabled inner chamber they thought might contain the lost Ark of the Covenant. It’s not recorded whether these would-be Indiana Joneses found anything they could recognize after their destructive excavation. The heavily damaged site was then used as a quarry for stone for many years, until the mound was overgrown and forgotten.

Oddly, while Newgrange and Knowth have been extensively excavated and restored, little appears to have been done to Dowth other than rebuilding the roof of the south chamber and securing the entrances to the chambers and souterrain. But the contrast between the decay and damage of the ages on one side, and the glorious (if controversial) restorations on the other gives an indication of the magnitude of both the achievements of the restorers and the artistic skill, engineering know-how and organization of the original builders.

As you wander around the overgrown acreage of Dowth, you can draw on the insight gained at the Brú na Bóinne visitor center, inside Newgrange, and around Knowth, to fill in the blanks, to allow the mind’s eye to show you Dowth as it might once have appeared, and ponder what life at this bend of the river Boyne might have been like 5000 years ago.

Co. Meath tourism, Visiting Ireland, Ireland with children

Knowth (L) and Newgrange (R) seen from the Friary on top of the Hill of Slane. Could an overgrown mound behind the church be the grave of the man who legend says cleared the site for these famous tombs? (Click through for a better resolution view.)

You can wander around the church and friary/college on top of the Hill of Slane all morning without noticing the mound known as “the motte” because it’s in a wooded area behind the church. I know I (who grew up in Co. Meath) didn’t even know it was there until I read about it somewhere or other. There now seems to be a very interesting project to investigate this mound under way. Archaeologists have been scanning the motte and its surroundings (an earth resistance survey) to discover what it’s made of (a cairn of rocks brought from elsewhere, a built structure, or a mound of local clay?) and detect any subsoil evidence of the remains of buildings on top. The resultant 3D mapping gives a great view of the physical features of the hill and suggests future locations to explore.

Going by the annals, it seems likely that there was an ancient grave of some importance on the hill: reputed to be the Fir Bolg king Sláine, from whom the hill gets its name. (Yes, that’s the same Sláine on whose legends the classic 2000AD comic was inspired. I daresay a generation of British and Irish megalithomaniacs had their imaginations kick-started by that story.)  The type of grave this may have been (cairn, passage tomb, dolmen, etc.) we don’t know. Likewise, whether  that grave site was later exploited to build a Norman motte and bailey-type fortified position or whether the church was originally built on the tomb site is unknown. It seems the use of the motte as a fortified position dates from around 1170AD, but the mound now known as the motte could be much older.  Sláine was reputed to have cleared the site for Newgrange, which would place him circa 3200BC.  However, the preliminary earth resistance survey results from this project are intriguing, suggesting that the mound is man-made and revealing a second earthwork (possibly a ring barrow dating from 2500BC–although all dates seem approximate at this stage in the project) partially overbuilt by a rath surrounding the motte. Given the history of adaptive re-use of sites with strategic or symbolic significance by successive cultures in Ireland, there certainly seems to be a strong case for further investigation.

Fieldwork has been ongoing since 2010, so this is a project to bookmark and watch for future discoveries.

Links:

2010 Research « The Hill of Slane Archaeological Project.

My fellow megalithomaniacs should check out this documentary from RTÉ Television. The first part looks at the evolution of megalithic tombs from “simple” dolmens (if manhandling a 12 ton rock could ever be called simple) through huge cairns, to passage tombs with elaborate carvings and solar alignments.

The second deals with the development of Christian churches and monasteries, from the beehive huts of Skellig Michael through to the high crosses of Durrow and Monasterboice.

Unusually for the rather staid world of RTÉ in particular and TV documentaries in general, the program-makers focused on the controversial theories, the exciting new research, and the minority reports. There are also some nice computer-generated artists’ impressions of what places like the Hill of Tara and Caherlehilla (site of what may be the oldest church in Ireland) might have looked like in their heyday, as well as bold denunciations of St. Patrick as base propaganda, and tantalizing hints that several of the high crosses may have been carved by a single artist, a Michelangelo of the midlands. 

Fascinating stuff!

The first primrose of the year has arrived earlier than usual in our garden and peeks uncertainly above the blanket of leaves that will hopefully keep it sheltered through the worst of the winter weather to come. I admire these hardy early bloomers who impetuously put on their sunday best and stride out to meet the world head on, regardless of propriety or the expectations of others.

May we all have the self-confidence of the primrose in this new year, and may all our contributions beautify the drab world in our own ways.

The game of rings is an old Irish pub game. You’ll have to hunt to find a place that plays it, but it’s a game kids will love.

Ring Toss, Rings, Irish Ring Board, Championship Ring Board

Back in the 1950s and ’60s, rings was a common game in many Irish households. It dropped out of fashion at some point, but it appears to be making a slow comeback here and there. Rings is simply a wooden board with 13 hooks mounted on the wall, at which you toss six rubber rings (like the small belts in old vacuum cleaners). Think darts, but a heck of a lot less dangerous if when the rings bounce back. As far as I know, there are only three pubs in my hometown that have ring boards these days, but there is a small and dedicated groups of “ringers” who frequent these pubs to play.

When I was a kid, pool used to be the game of choice in our local, then gradually darts became more popular, and now it’s rings. The game is simple enough that kids can easily grasp it and join in. You simply stand the requisite distance from the board (I believe 8.5 feet is “regulation” — kids are usually let throw from a couple of feet closer) and throw your rings one at a time. I’m not sure if it was the way they were involved in the game by all the adults present, or the fact that we let them stay out until after midnight that appealed to my girls the most (and they weren’t the only kids out playing rings that late). Either way, playing rings was a highlight of our last trip home. Each hook has a set value (1 through 13) with the highest value being in the center. Each ringer totals up the rings that landed on hooks and subtracts that total from the number you’re shooting for.

Like darts, you begin with a number (we usually use 301 at our local) and subtract each score. The egalitarian joy of rings lies in the way everyone in the pub competes (I’m sure this varies from pub to pub, but I’m detailing the practices at our local here). Two teams are drawn up from everyone present, with every effort to apportion the more proficient equally on each side. This ensures that everyone who wants to can throw, and even the youngest can take part without much fear of performance anxiety. Each team works their way though their order one time, then it’s the other teams’ turn to throw. (This was the way we used to play “team” darts in the pub, too. I’m sure the rules and practices will vary in other pubs.)

Irish Pub Games, Traveling in Ireland with Kids

As you get down to the wire, each team must go “out” (i.e. reduce the target number to zero) in one ring. (So, once the remaining target is 13 or fewer, you must land the ring on that number.) Then, you, and any team members who have not thrown in this final round, aim for the 1. The more 1s you get the better. The other team then finishes out their round, and they can still beat the first to finish if they throw more 1s than the other team. It keeps the game close and ensures that skill and proficiency counts for more than luck.

This Christmas, I made a ring board for the family. We’ve already had friends over and introduced the game to the neighborhood, and everyone enjoyed it immensely. The board I made isn’t quite “regulation” as I used regular cup hooks instead of the slightly different hooks they use in Ireland, but it’s near enough for practice. (You can theoretically land 3 rings on each on the hooks I used, I’m not sure that the hooks in Ireland are big enough for more than two.) I was thwarted in my efforts to find a ready made shield-type board in local craft stores, so I opted for a pre-made pine table top that’s bigger than strictly necessary. I also painted the numbers below the hooks, instead of above them. This was because the rings can cover the numbers on some boards I’ve seen, making it difficult for kids or the novice to total up the score. With the numbers below the hooks, the number is clearly circled by any ring that lands on the hook, making scoring quick and easy.

Anyway, the resulting board is providing fun for all and allowing us to brush up on our rings skills so we can hold our own with the pro ringers next time we’re home in Ireland.

 

Notes

Some history and the rules of rings…

Alternative rules of rings…

(Basically, abide by the house rules wherever you’re playing.)

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