Monday, June 29, 2015

Delightful Days in Drogheda

Drogheda riverside
We stayed in Drogheda* for a week.  Even Irish people asked why we chose to stay that long in Drogheda, because it's not a big tourist destination. That was part of the reason we stayed there. We wanted to settle into a town that was not highly touristed, though near tourist destinations.  Drogheda filled the bill, because it was near Newgrange, one of my must-sees, and it promised to have some nice walks from my web research. It was also close enough to Dublin that we could get there in about a half-hour by train, in case we got bored with the sights there.

We didn't get bored, and we were very lucky in our choice of accommodation, but there weren't as many walks in the area as we had hoped. Still, it was a good base for Newgrange, and everyone we encountered was very friendly.  More than one person must have talked to us for more than ten minutes, just from a chance encounter on the street, as soon as they heard our accents. 

We took a fascinating walking tour in Drogheda from a tour guide named Kevin.  He remarked that he was very glad we had come to the area, because "We need you to spend your lolly here." We said we were happy to do that, but we didn't have very much lolly [money]! He was working at the tourist office on an employment program because his business had declined significantly since the days when Ireland was called the Celtic Tiger for its economic power. But Ireland has still not recovered from the Great Recession, and the Celtic Tiger no longer has claws. 

This building in Drogheda has just been sitting since the economic collapase.
Kevin, our guide, was as knowledgeable as a university professor about the city, but he is a builder by profession. We can only hope that the Irish recovery continues to build and he can reclaim his old career. In the meantime, we learned a great deal from him.

Drogheda is a very old city. The Danes settled there in the 900s. Originally there were two towns on both sides of the River Boyne, but eventually they became one. The city still has remnants of its medieval walls and gates.

This remaining medieval gate tower is still in use.

Kevin told us the stories of several places in the city, including St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church, which contains the preserved head of St. Oliver Plunkett, convicted on a trumped up charge, but actually prosecuted because he founded a school that taught both Protestants and Catholics, and at the time, Catholics were not supposed to be educated.  St. Oliver was sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered, and he was beheaded, and the head was set on fire. But one of his followers rescued it.  (It actually doesn't look that bad, but I'll spare you the photo.) It is said that when people pray at his head, miracles happen. In addition to this relic, the church contains fragments said to be from the true cross.

But the part of the walking tour I liked the most was the guide's stories in the graveyard of nearby St. Peter's Church of Ireland. Although the cemetery there is part of the Protestant church, every important person in the town wanted to be buried there, Protestant or Catholic, and so they were.

Graveyard of St. Peter's Church of Ireland.

In the cemetery wall, is one of ten cadaver stones left in Ireland. It was the gravestone of Sir Edmond Golding and his wife Elizabeth Fleming. It dates from the early 1500s. If you've ever been to a funeral where the minister has urged people to find Christ or go to hell (personally, I think that's a bit off-putting at a funeral), then you will understand the significance of the cadaver stones.  They show the bodies of the deceased in an advanced state of rot, thus Elizabeth's body shows her womb eaten away (by worms?) and his figure and countenance fares not that much better. The point is to emphasize that even the bodies of the high and mighty dissolve into nothingness, and so yours will too.  It is a warning to get right with your maker, because all else is simply dust to dust.  I'm not sure I needed that reminder, but it's certainly effective.

Cadaver stone in the churchyard. Is this any way to remember mom and dad?
The other cemetery story that Kevin told sounds invented, but is apparently true.  I saw the woman's grave. Her name was Ann Hardman, and she was a wealthy woman whom her family buried in 1884. One of her servants decided it was truly a waste to have her expensive jewelry buried with her, so he decided to rob the grave.  Her ring, however, was stuck fast on her finger, so he took his knife and started to cut it off.  Suddenly, Ann sat up and shrieked--and the servant rang away, jumping onto a boat that was headed for Liverpool.  He was never seen again.  Ann somehow extricated herself from her tomb and crawled up the street to her house (now known as Hardman's Gardens).  It was said every member of the family had his or her own knock, and when Ann used her special knock on that door in the middle of the night, no one wanted to answer.  Eventually they did, astonished to find that she was not dead and not a ghost. She lived for many years after that, but today she is now interred in the same cemetery.  A great ghost story!

*I don't really know how to pronounce Drogheda, because even people who live there do not necessarily say it the same way. Padraig, our host, said, "Draw-HA-duh." A local we met at Newgrange said some thing more like "DRAW-duh." We simply said, "Draw-ha-duh" with a slightly longer accent on the first syllable and we got by.

Friday, June 26, 2015


Countryside near Newgrange

There is something about ancient tombs and artifacts that appeals to me.  I like thinking about who these humans were and what they may have thought, and I like the mysteries--the fact we will never know for sure what these cultures were like. 

Visiting Ireland, we, of course, had to go to Newgrange, the megalithic tomb near Drogheda.  Newgrange is a huge passage tomb that dates to about 3,200 B.C. [I've  corrected my dates twice, because the guides at the site and different authorities give differing dates. It's safest to simply say that Newgrange is anywhere from 500 to 1000 years older than Stonehenge and centuries older than the Pyramids of Giza.]

There are many other tombs scattered throughout the Irish countryside and in Europe, many of which have never been excavated. Often, they were built upon by successive generations.

We visited another tomb near Newgrange as well, Knowth, which is also a passage tomb, but because it is structurally unsafe, we weren't allowed to enter. 

Kevin at Knowth

Knowth is the largest passage tomb. It ncludes many satellite tombs and contains more than one-third of the megalithic art known in Europe. This stone may be an ancient calendar.

A calendar? This kerbstone at Knowth is one that lines the outside of the tomb.

While Knowth was fascinating, we especially enjoyed Newgrange, because we not only got to enter it, squeezing through a narrow part of the passage, taking care to duck our heads, we also got to witness a recreation of what happens on the day of the winter solstice when the sun enters the passage and  gradually lights up the center. It was almost as eerie and exciting as the real thing, clustered into the tomb with 23 other people! (No photos allowed inside, unfortunately.)

View of Newgrange

Newgrange entrance

The entrance stone at Newgrange may indicate the six days that the sun enters the tomb, the three days preceding the winter solstice, the day of the solstice, and the two days after. The three spirals (showing the passage of the sun?) before the line pointing to the entrance are moving one direction, while the two swirls on the other side move in the opposite direction. The sun enters the tomb through the window above the door. 

Entrance stone at Newgrange (Line pointing to entrance is barely visible in photo.)
We thoroughly enjoyed our tour of Newgrange and Knowth and highly recommend them to other visitors.

View from the top of Knowth tomb.

Next: Drogheda and our wonderful hosts

More on Bog Bodies

In my previous post, I mentioned the bog people in the Irish National Museum. I meant to include a link that describes the bog bodies and the latest theory about them.

The bog bodies are remains of executed victims from more than 2,000 years ago, who were thrown into bogs, preserving the corpses. The most recent theory, based on jewelry and ornate grave goods found at excavation, is that they are the bodies of kings  or king contenders who were sacrificed to the gods when a new king was inaugurated. Another fact supporting the theory of royal sacrifice is that one of the bodies still has its fingernails intact, and the nails indicate that the person did not perform manual labor. The exhibit was fascinating, if a bit gruesome.

You can find more on the bog bodies here. (Warning: the photos are graphic.)

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Doing Dublin

Dublin on the River Liffey

Kevin and I arrived in Dublin a bit bleary-eyed after our long flight, which took us through Toronto with a nearly three-hour layover. We arrived at about 6 a.m. But our hotel kindly let us leave our bags in their storage closet, while we went out for the treat we had been dreaming about—a cappuccino followed by a full Irish breakfast.

For those of you who have never had a full Irish breakfast, like its counterpart a full English breakfast, is a heart attack on a plate: Irish bacon, sausages, black pudding and white pudding (also types of sausages, the former made with blood), eggs, hash browns, beans, grilled tomato, and cold toast with jam (cold because the toast is put in a rack that quickly cools it—a practice I've never understood in all my years of eating English breakfasts, but then American toast often comes warm but soggy with butter.) However cholesterol and carbs be damned! What a wonderful welcome to Dublin!

Carbs were all but forgotten later in the day too!

Dublin moves fast, once the morning gets going.  People walk fast and talk fast, and to us it seems very much a young person’s city. Of course, we visited Trinity College and viewed the must-see Book of Kells, the lavishly illustrated book of the four gospels, produced by monks around 800 A.D.  (Some cynics call it “the page of Kells,” since only one illustrated page and one page of script is exhibited each day.) We were duly impressed with the still-vibrant colors and the beautiful calligraphy, and we were surprised to learn that four different scribes, each with his own distinctive style, produced the manuscript, which is written on vellum.

Among other sights, we visited the superb National Museum of Ireland (Archeology) with its marvelous historical treasures and even fairly well-preserved bog people. Those ancient corpses are a bit disconcerting, so I will do everyone a favor and not include Kevin’s photos of their rather gruesome forms. (Ask him if you want to see them!)

Kevin enjoyed our visit to the National Gallery, which contains many fine paintings, but he was thrilled with our visit to the Hugh Lane Gallery, which, in addition to a trove of contemporary art, features the reconstructed studio of artist Francis Bacon, brought lock, stock, and barrel (or paint, trash, and canvas) from London, where he last lived. The Irish-born Francis Bacon may not be my cup of tea, but Kevin admires his work.

Francis Bacon's studio, reconstructed down to the paint daubs on the walls

Dublin’s position on the River Liffey and its emerald heart, St. Stephens Green, make it a pretty place to stroll. You can also follow a trail of plaques around the city that retrace the route of James Joyce’s character, Leopold Bloom, in Ulysses, but we were more interested in simply savoring the flavor of the city. (Sadly, I lost many of my photos of the city, or I would have included a few shots of the green.)
If Dublin is a young person’s town in the daytime, it is more so in the evening on the streets of Temple Bar, Dublin’s cultural quarter with its lively nightlife. Our first night there, a Friday, the crowds were already gathering at 7 p.m., and the strains of Irish folk songs fill the air. We stood in the street listening to the fiddles and melodious voices raised in song, the bars already packed with people drinking Guinness and ales, and we couldn’t resist tapping our toes. No doubt the revelry intensified as the night wore on, but still feeling the effects of jet lag, we retreated early to our hotel.

Crowds start gathering early

Ready for a night of fun
Coming next: Newgrange and Drogheda

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Introducing Passages

Finding a name for this blog wasn’t easy.  Kevin suggested I call it, “On the Road: Notes from the Beat-up Generation,” but somehow that didn’t seem right. I toyed with several other names before deciding on “Passages,” because I sense this adventure—traveling for perhaps as long as 18 months or more—is certain to involve not only physical passages, such as border crossings, but also passages of a more mental, emotional, or spiritual nature. We invite you to come along with us as we explore these boundaries.

One caveat:  Although we have stated our desire is to travel for several months, we are viewing that as an option, not a goal.  A lot can happen.  If we get ill, or run out of money (!), or just decide we’re tired of traveling this way, we will come home.  But for the first time in our lives, we have a freedom we’ve never known before.  And so, we’re off.  First stop: Ireland.

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."

(Frequently incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain, this quote is cited by author H. Jackson Brown as written in a letter from his mother.)