Ireland

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Long before Patrick came to Slane, the hill was a very important site to the pre-Christian Irish.

Newgrange and Knowth as seen from atop the Hill of Slane.

Knowth and Newgrange as seen from atop the Hill of Slane.

The first high king of Ireland is said to have been a fir bolg named Sláine. The Fir Bolg were one of the warrior races who inhabited Ireland before the Celtic tribes conquered the country. Sláine is said to have cleared the land at Bru na Boinne for the construction of the great tumuli of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. When he died, he was buried in a great mound on the top of a hill overlooking the Boyne valley, which was named Slane in his honor. As a consequence of his abilities and good deeds, a well on the hill was said to have the power to restore the dead and heal the wounded. 

The Fir Bolg were later dispossessed by the Tuatha Da Dannan, the god-like ancestors of the Irish Celts, but in these days many quasi-supernatural races are said to have fought over Ireland, and the Tuatha de Dannan then had to contend with the Formorians for possession of the island. During the second battle of Maige Tuired, the Formorians filled in the magic well on the Hill of Slane with stones in order to stop Dian Cecht, the Tuatha’s god of physicians, bringing their warriors back to life. Inside the churchyard you can still see what local tradition says is a holy well stuffed with stones. The same well? Well, that depends on how much credit you want to give to ancient legends.

The burial mound of Sláine is believed to be the “motte” you can see in a wooded area behind the church. The mound is fenced off from the rest of the site as it’s on private land, but new archaeological work has begun in the last few years, expanding what we know about the site. The mound is called the “motte” because in 1170, after the Normans came and quickly conquered the country, the local Norman lord built a bailey (a wooden “castle”) on top of the mound/motte. The countryside was littered with motte and baileys at this time, each probably housing a knight and his family and retainers, who administered the immediate vicinity on behalf of his lord. This motte overlooked another on top of the Knowth mound, and on a fine day would have been visible from a number of other mottes from as far east as Drogheda, and at least as far west as Navan. Both can be seen if you visit those towns, the one at Millmount in Drogheda (which I wrote about recently) now has a fine Martello Tower on top, although the one in Navan is overgrown.

Modern archaeological techniques have revealed the motte stands within a rath or ditch and bank, which was constructed on top of a much earlier ring barrow, a burial tomb possibly dating from the early iron age. An Earth Resistance Survey of the mound itself has revealed a stone layer on top which could have been a foundation for a fortified dwelling, and areas of low resistance inside the mound that point to it being a man-made structure, and raise the possibility of the remains a chamber or passage inside.

Even though visitors can’t explore the motte freely at the moment, the peaceful grassy surroundings of the hilltop churchyard and Friary make for an enjoyable stroll (if you have the weather) and there are plenty of carved stones, picturesque windows and broken but-climbable flights of stairs.

 

Notes
This is my second post about the Hill of Slane. Read the first part, “Exploring the Hill of Slane…
If you are interested in the Hill of Slane, you should also visit The Hill of Tara

 

One of the questions visitors always have about traveling in Ireland is, will their electronic gadgets work? Well, it depends on the device.

Do you have the right plug?

The 3-pin-plug, used in Ireland and the UK.

The 3-pin-plug, used in Ireland and the UK.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)

First of all, there’s the question of the plug. Ireland uses a plug with three rectangular prongs. Make sure you bring an adapter kit with you to make your plug’s configuration fit into Irish sockets. If you can’t plug it in, your gadget is just excess baggage. Plug adapters are easy to find in travel stores and online.

The second issue is the power required by the device itself. Irish electric current runs at 230V, twice as powerful as US current (120V), Canadian current (120V), Japanese current (100V), and a few others. If you simply use an plug adapter, your small electronic device will burn out. My first experience of this was after bringing a tiny portable hair dryer from the US to Ireland one year. When switched on, it ran like a jet engine trying to push a fully laden plane down the runway for takeoff, then it died, parts of the cheap plastic casing having actually melted. In essence, US electronic gadgets can work too well under the influence of that potent Irish juice, and like a college student on spring break, they will crash just as hard. After that, we left the cheap electrical gadgets at home. (Most Irish hotels will have hairdryers in the room as standard.)

Recharging laptops, tablets and phones

What you need is a transformer/convertor which steps the current down to the level your devices were built to work with. The good news is, most phones, digital cameras, and computers have this transformer built into their charging cord. As long as the transformer you’re using is rated for input in the 100V-240V range, your device should work just fine with Irish electricity — provided you have the physical plug adapter to enable you to plug it in — it just might run a little hot to the touch. Check your device before you travel to make sure it’s suitable.

Shavers

One exception is electric shavers. Most Irish bathrooms have special 2-prong plug sockets for these, which operate on 120V (i.e. the transformer is built-in). Look for the message “Shavers Only” or 120V printed by the socket (some may have a switch built-in to manually switch between voltages).

In terms of compatibility, your computers and phones should work just fine. Wi-fi is wi-fi, and if you have the correct passwords or buy a service plan from a local provider, you should be able to connect just fine.

So, for electronic gadgets like hairdryers, use a plug adapter and a transformer. For things like tablets and laptops, you should just need the plug adapter, as the transformer is built in.

Phones

Make sure you talk with your phone provider before you arrive to understand what charges you may incur if you enable the phone for use in Ireland. You may need a special SIM card to connect. For smart phones, data roaming rates can be very expensive, so it might be more cost-effective to purchase a temporary phone from a provider upon arrival. In the past we’ve signed one of our iPhones up for a basic plan in Ireland just so people could reach us, but use a local cell phone or payphone (yes, they still exist) for calls within Ireland.

So, for phones the golden rule is if in doubt, talk to your cell provider before you go.

 

 

Belinda McKeon’s debut novel Solace won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and was the Irish Book of the Year for 2011. I first read it in Ireland during a visit home — where it was displayed prominently alongside the big names in supermarket book displays, a reflection of its popularity — and loved it. On rereading, Solace proved even better, richer and more nuanced.

Solace by Belinda McKeon (Irish cover -- Picador)

Solace by Belinda McKeon
(Irish cover — Picador)

At its core, like all great fiction, Solace is a family story, a tale of disfunction and inter-generational misunderstanding.  Mark Casey is a graduate student in literature at Trinity College in Dublin; approaching thirty, he teaches dull undergrads and has grown bored by his dissertation subject. He needs a kick in the pants, and his father is all too willing to give him one.

Mark’s father, Tom Casey, is a small farmer from Co. Longford; a practical man, he struggles to accept Mark’s seemingly never-ending student life. Constantly badgering his son to come down to the farm to help him with the “real work” of running the place. Mark’s mother, Maura, runs interference between them and keeps the peace. It’s a family dynamic that will be familiar to anybody who ever left their hometown or resisted joining a family business.

In the novel, Mark’s life is jolted from his comfortable rut by Joanne, a trainee solicitor he meets in a dingy pub. Before they have time to fall in love properly, she is pregnant, and they’re setting up home together and learning how to raise a baby. Joanne has her own issues with parental pressure and expectation, but it’s the story of Mark and his father, that dominates this novel — although their passive-aggressive arguments, quintessentially Irish, may seem alien to readers from other backgrounds. Solace is a book about home, and the inevitable struggle to escape it and to define yourself in your own terms; but, McKeon knows that the struggle is at best illusory, and eventually we have to reconcile ourselves with that home. The fight is not so much to escape it, but to come to terms with it.

Solace also captures an interesting point in Irish life: it takes place as the economic boom was at its peak, and ends just as everyone was waking up to the bust. The main characters in Solace, students and small farmers, were not reaping the benefits of the Celtic Tiger, nor do they initially notice the bust making much difference to their lives. But they display a reticence about the stability of the good times that perhaps many felt during those years, but did not articulate. In the pub one night Tom Casey reflects that nobody wants to reminisce about the old days: “There were things nobody thanked you for reminding them of. There were years that had slipped so far into the past that it was better not to mention them…. they acted now as though they had been happy in a way that they would never be happy again.” This in the middle of an unprecedented economic boom! In passing, McKeon seems to sketch a pub full of people who should be on top of the world, but who harbor this unmentioned dread. The old refrain of things being better in the old days feels completely out of place among the triumphalism of land exchanging hands for millions, houses going up like they were made of Lego, and everyone spending like there was no tomorrow. But it remained in people’s mind, unsaid perhaps, but present.

Mark’s mother Maura reflects that other parents have the same experience of their children not visiting enough, only those children’s distance was ostensibly because of their high-pressure jobs, their new financial success, rather than because they were working fitfully on a dissertation and avoiding their father. She sees the trappings of these children’s material success, fancy suits, big cars, foreign holidays, but wonders uneasily if “she should want those things for Mark, whether she should feel disappointed in him for not having them”? Again, the rural perspective in Solace reflects a distrust (but perhaps it’s only the typical Irish melancholy) of the flashy new world, coupled with the outsider’s feeling of powerlessness — who were they to articulate their doubts in the face of the official narrative of prosperity?

Towards the end of the novel, Tom Casey is prevailed upon to make a very unsound investment, and you realize that McKeon has been slowly sowing the seeds of a financial enmity throughout the book. Tom has been a small farmer all his life, instinctively distrustful of financial institutions and big talk. Now — like Jude in Julian Gough’s recent novella “Crash” — the steady Celtic Tiger drum beat of investment and prosperity has slipped under his skin, and he makes a poor decision. It’s a decision that forces Mark to grow up once more, a decision that makes him realize his father is aging, and the push-pull of the parent-child relationship has shifted, perhaps irrevocably.

McKeon is excellent at writing Irish men, particularly older men. Both Mark and Tom are alive and fairly leap off the page — even though Mark can be a frustratingly passive character, rent with indecision and content to bumble along in his laddish ways. To be fair, Mark is a very representative example of the twenty-something Irish male singleton, and the passivity is not so much a lack of imagination on the author’s part, but an accurate reflection of her source material. Children in Ireland are taught early on that it’s not good to stand out, not advisable to go first, or risk failure. Mark is a typical clever plodder, trusting to slow work and fulfillment of basic expectations to take him inoffensively to where he hopes to end up. Tom is wise in practical ways, reflective if not expressive, and can be wryly humorous, but his outlook is curtailed by the limits of his experience.

Solace is a book that haunts the reader in its assured power. It demonstrates the raw emotions and fierce clashes that are played out under the surface when families gather, and captures the way that youth is an essential process of fleeing from then returning to a family with clarity, nuance, and understanding. I have a feeling that Solace is a book I will delve into again and again over the years.

–Rich

 

Notes

Buy Solace in the UK from The Book Depository… (free shipping worldwide)

Buy Solace in the US

Support the Irish economy by buying Solace from Kennys.ie… (free shipping worldwide)

 

 

Like most of Hollywood’s Irish romantic comedies, 1997’s “The Matchmaker“, starring Janeane Garofalo, David O’Hara and Milo O’Shea, is a love-it-or-hate-it affair. The usual broad Irish stereotypes are on display as Marcy, a young American political aide (Garofalo) unexpectedly lands in the middle of a matchmaking festival. The film, however, has a lot of charm and humor, and the filmmakers’ obvious enjoyment of all things Irish saves the day.

matchmaker posterSo, where should you go if you want to capture the authentic “Matchmaker” experience? Read the rest of this entry »

Metal detecting has a checkered history in Ireland. Recent government guidelines highlight its all-but-illegal status.

no detectingMillions of people visit Ireland every year, and some of them may pack a metal detector, thinking of enjoying a little stroll and hoping to find some trinkets from the past. Those people should think again, because as revised guidelines from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht make clear, metal detecting is all-but-illegal in Ireland. While it is not illegal to own a metal detector, the guidelines make clear that unless you have a permit from the Department, or are working under the supervision of an archaeologist who has the appropriate permit, it is illegal to use a metal detector to search for historical artifacts (a very broad legal definition that includes most conceivable metal objects that might be under the ground including relatively recent metal trash). Read the rest of this entry »


Julian Gough’s Crash: How I Lost a Hundred Billion and Found True Love is a satirical novella about a serious subject, the EU/IMF bailout of post-financial-crash Ireland. After five years of austerity and hand-wringing, most people’s eyes glaze over at the mention of banks or bailouts. But, Gough does something very subtle and effective in his ebook-original novella, he provides a better lesson in austerity economics than most journalists and professors have been able to come up with since 2008.

Julian Gough's CRASH! Julian Gough is a poet, dramatist, novelist, and once upon a time was the lead singer for cult Irish rock group Toasted Heretic. His short stories have won the BBC short story award and irritated the biggest multinational corporation in the world. He’s already poked fun at the financial sector in his play “The Great Goat Bubble,” but clearly he hasn’t ceased to find the world of politics and high finance ridiculous. While everyone else has been wailing and gnashing their teeth over austerity, he’s been writing a satirical novella. Perhaps he’s been insulated slightly from the fatalism of the “we have no option but austerity” so-called debate about the financial crisis in Ireland by virtue of living in Berlin? But enough background info, it’s time to meet Jude…

Gough’s regular everyman, Jude (a slightly different character than the Jude in his novels Jude: Level 1 and Jude in London), has the distinction of being the last person in the country of Squanderland to purchase property. He preferred to avoid the credit economy because he “didn’t understand how everyone could get richer by increasing their debt.” He finally succumbs to an insistent bank official because he admired the man’s tenacity (this banker, of course, ends up in the government). Naturally, this last undeveloped piece of real estate is staggeringly expensive. It’s also a wooden henhouse, with no roof. (“‘Ah, now,’” said Jude. “‘There are a number of planks still in place, and not all of them are rotten.’”) For this bottom rung on the property ladder, Jude finds himself the most indebted man in the world. Thankfully, Jude has a sunny disposition, and doesn’t let this prey on his peace-of-mind. From his point of view, things are not too bad. His chickens are laying, so he has food, and water (i.e. rain) is plentiful. Compared to his previous life living rough in a bog, things are looking up.

Barnes & Noble

The collected wisdom of Helen Dunkel, the Chancellor of Frugalia, the rational nation of compulsive savers, and Bertrand Plastique, the President of the European Bank of Common Sense and Stability, aided by the banker who sold Jude his henhouse, arrive in Squanderland intent on mobilizing “the financial firepower of Europe to put a roof on this henhouse, and stabilize its debt,” so that “the markets will be reassured.” There follows a ludicrous scheme to build a roof over Squanderland and harvest its water to pay its debt, leaving environmental and social ruin, rampant emigration, and a string of bankrupt business in Frugalia. This provides a good chuckle until you reflect on it and see just how closely the satirical roof scheme mirrors the broad strokes of the actual European bailout and austerity policies currently the Band-Aid of choice for Europe.

As usual, Jude meets whatever life throws his way with plain common sense, and a positive attitude, which only serves to throw the bad ideas the so-called educated elite offer as a panacea into starker contrast. No matter how bad the idea is, the markets must be reassured.

Crash is a timely and witty reminder that as usual the Emperor has no clothes on, and the courtiers have been smoking something harmful to their intellect. Jonathan Swift would surely pause for a moment in his ceaseless spinning and feel a moment of pride that Irish satire is alive and well, even if, like its money, it does reside in Germany now…

–Rich

 

Notes

Crash is available as an eBook for the Kindle…

Rumor has it that physical copies can be printed by the excellent Harvard Book Store on their fancy book-making robot machine thingy. But, I couldn’t find corroboration of that fact online, and can’t remember where I heard that piece of info.

Crash is published by DailyLit. Learn more about their project…

Julian Gough maintains a website at www.juliangough.com but is more likely to be found on Twitter…

I reviewed Julian Gough’s hilarious novel Jude: Level 1 yonks ago…

 

The Brú na Bóinne complex of three neolithic tombs (Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth) on a ridge in the middle of the Boyne Valley is perhaps the most-famous archaeological site in Europe, and Newgrange is its poster child.

newgrange, bru-na-boinne

A side-view of Newgrange passage tomb.
(Photo credit: atriptoIreland.com)

Built around 3200 BC, Newgrange is a huge passage tomb on top of a small hill overlooking the river. On each side stand two other huge passage tombs, and numerous smaller mounds. Excavated and controversially restored in the 1970s, both Newgrange and Knowth contained numerous cremated remains and are decorated with a marvelous array of carved boulders; the interpretation of the images on these boulders still eludes archaeologists — so visitors can play amateur archaeologist trying to make a story out of the characteristic symbols and patterns.  Read the rest of this entry »

Mary Costello’s debut book of short stories, The China Factory, is a contemplative collection of inward-looking characters that seem almost too sensitive for this world. When the stories work (which is most of the time) they are beautifully written, sensitive portrayals of individuals at the end of something: a marriage, a life, or their rope.

china factory largeA representative example is “Sleeping With a Stranger,” the tale of a man who has let his marriage drift and stagnate. He lives in a reverie of lost possibility: remembering a brief affair that charged his soul, but that he feels caused him to abandon his marriage emotionally, as the everyday can never capture the emotional highs of the unique, the once-off, the unexpected. This situation represents the knife edge many Mary Costello’s stories walk in the reader’s mind: whether or not to damn the protagonist for wallowing in self-pity and regret, or be carried along by Costello’s ability to pull us into her character’s worlds so completely that it’s only in retrospect that we begin to harbor the uncharitable thoughts that if we knew some of these people in real life we’d probably slap them and tell them to pull themselves together.  Read the rest of this entry »

Traveling around Ireland

Ruairí McKiernan
(Photo credit: www.community.ie)

There’s a fascinating project underway in Ireland at the moment. It has nothing to do with politicians, banks, or multinationals, there are no celebrities or sports stars involved, no meetings or committees were convened to plan it, nor is there going to be a shiny new product for sale at the end. One man, Ruairí McKiernan, is hitch-hiking around the country talking to people about their life, about their experiences during this recession, and of their hopes and ideas for the future, all for the basic reason that he hopes to learn something. At the end, Ruairi will be speaking at a conference about what he’s learned and what it might say about Ireland in 2013, and will share any great ideas that he’s heard on his journey.

Ruairi is interviewing people as he goes, and shares those interviews and tells the stories of his adventures on his blog daily. The picture that’s emerging is a mosaic of the high and the low, the ambitious and the simple, and there are more interesting ideas and hopeful attitudes on display than you hear around Leinster House any day of the week.

Some of the updates that I’ve found the most personally interesting so far included:

 

 

 

 

 

Despite the challenges of life on the road, Ruairí is doing a fairly good job of keeping his blog updated as he goes. It’s heart-warming to read about so many ordinary people with positive outlooks and generous personalities — makes a refreshing change from greedy bankers and self-centered politicians. The picture of modern Ireland that’s emerging from this project so far is one of people struggling to deal with massive change as best they can. Some sound like they’re barely holding on, and other are rising to the challenge through retraining or doing what they can to get by. One gentleman commented that one thing the Irish as a whole seemed to lose during the Tiger years was a sense of concern for one another, but austerity has seen that return. It’s an interesting observation, and one that suggests the best aspects of our national character may be reasserting themselves.

I’ll be following Ruairí McKiernan’s travels for the rest of July and will be very interested to hear his conclusions.

 

Notes

You can follow the Hitching for Hope listening tour at http://community.ie/hitchhiking-listening-tour/ or on Facebook

 

 

 

 

 

Most of the earthworks on the Hill of Tara are thought to have been dwelling or feasting places. A long depression runs up the hill from the road towards the Mound of the Hostages. The two sides are high, presumably man-made, earthen banks. This is known as the Banqueting Hall, and for years kids were told it may originally have had wooden walls and a roof. However, this interpretation may have been due to the existence of a seating chart for an ancient King’s banquet, and is likely a good example of people naming a feature to fit in with available relics. A more-likely explanation for this long earthwork is that it may be the remains of one of the five roads that were said to lead to Tara from the five corners of Ireland. It’s easy to see how it could have been a ceremonial entryway, with the high earthen embankments on either side, complete with “windows,” gaps that may have allowed views of significant local landmarks such as the Hill of Skryne on the other side of the Boyne valley, the various tombs of former kings, and possibly a few standing stones.

Artists' Impression of The Arena on the Hill of Tara c.

Artists’ impression of The Arena on the Hill of Tara, c.1200 BCE
(Photo credit: RTE/Secrets of the Stones documentary)

“The Arena”/Ireland’s Stonehenge

Magnetic gradiometry and other non-invasive survey techniques have recently revealed the remains of a huge structure at Tara. Under the tall grass and several feet of dirt lies a deep ditch dug into the bedrock of the hill. The ditch runs in a circle around the site for about 170 meters (about the length of two football pitches!), encompassing the Mound of the Hostages (and probably the original site of the Lia Fail as well) and the present-day church grounds. This ditch seems to have been surrounded on both sides by an enormous “fence” of huge wooden posts. Circles of wooden posts are not uncommon at this time (1200BCE) — remains of one much-smaller circle have been found and partially reconstructed nearby at Newgrange — but the scale of this one is off the charts. Interestingly, the “banqueting hall” appears to terminate directly at the edge of this ditch, perhaps suggesting the hypothesis that it was a road or ceremonial entryway is more likely.

The exact purpose of this arena (or “woodhenge” as it has been dubbed) is unknown, but as it enclosed the burial chamber known as the Mound of the Hostages and then later the Christian church was built within its boundary, this would suggest it had deep spiritual significance to generations of people. It’s not known what, if anything, was placed on top of the wooden posts, but that hasn’t stopped fanciful artists depicting it as an Irish Stonehenge, with two concentric circles of wooden posts topped with horizontal wooden beams. It’s estimated that at least 500 immense (and old judging by the size of the post-holes) trees would have been required to provide the beams.

One theory holds that the remains of deceased Kings and nobles may have been left to rot inside the arena. Once the flesh was stripped from the bones by decay or birds, the bones would be separated and interred within the mound of the hostages. There is ample evidence of this practice of defleshing a body before burial from elsewhere in the country. Another interpretation is that the aspirant King needed to make a circuit of the arena as part of the spiritual journey toward kingship.

The RTE documentary "Secrets of the Stones" discusses The Arena on the Hill of Tara at length.

The RTE documentary Secrets of the Stones discusses The Arena on the Hill of Tara at length.

500 years later, around 700BC, an iron age ring fort — simply a large, thick wall of dry-stacked rocks surrounding a building or buildings — was built on the Hill of Tara. This was an advance over the old raths, which were simply a deep ditch with the earth removed and piled up in a bank behind. This represented the labor of many people working together to transport rocks from a larger area and construct the thick protective wall. By this point, the wooden posts surrounding the ceremonial ditch would have rotted away, and evidently the people of that time did not valued the structure enough to replace or maintain it, although the importance of the top of the Hill of Tara appears to have remained undiminished.

This new ring fort was every bit as large as the fenced ditch, but surrounded the top of the hill more exactly (the ditch and ring of posts was on a slight slope). It encircled the rath of the kings and also reclaimed the mound of the hostages. In light of this series of constructions on the Hill which all incorporated the mound of the hostages, it’s obvious how important the inhabitants considered their ancestors, regardless of whatever changes occurred in their mode of worship.

 

Notes

This is the final part of a series of posts about the Hill of Tara.

Part 1: A Brief History of the Hill of Tara…

Part 2: The Mound of the Hostages…

Part 3: The Lia Fail…

 

 

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