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Eastern Ireland: Myth and Melancholy

The Sweeping Melancholy of Eastern Ireland

by Amanda Castleman

Diarmaid Rankin shows us castles and churches, tombs and monasteries and long-forgotten forts. As an aside, the 40-year-old chronicles his own ruins. "That was my father's iron yard," he points to a rusted and derelict wall midriver. "Here was my aunt's cottage. Her helper was a bit simple, but Mae just instinctively knew when someone wanted something. No need for words."

Vines tug at the mortar chunks. The scene is forlorn: surely a home abandoned centuries - not years - ago? But the women lived right here in the Mourne Mountains, not three decades past.

Graves and the bell tower at the ruins of Mellifont Abbey

Such sweeping melancholy is typical of Ireland's eastern coast. Something's in the jagged North Sea spray, the granite-chunked crags and the heather that creeps in on little cat feet. And that something erodes and erases and exiles. Bones bleach into fable. Whiskey washes away fact. Then ivy muffles it all into mythology.

St Bronach's bell is the sound of this silence. A faint "Gong-gong; goooooo" tolled whenever storms swamped the harbor. Townsfolk decided that the local virgin saint was summoning them to aid shipwrecks. But no, a bronze bell - hidden during the Reformation - swayed in a tree, which slowly encased its shape. Cocooned in the branches, it slipped from history's stream, forgotten. Only the greatest gusts could produce a soft chime: misinterpreted as a sacred whispered warning.

One hundred years ago, a storm finally shattered the trunk - the bell was found, the legend lost. A church has sheltered it since; a rubber-headed mallet pokes past its brass security bars. "Go on, hit it," Rankin insists. "Everyone should hear history for themselves."

Like the landscape, the bell is sweet and strange. Wildness lingers in the overtones. But that's the way of this country, converted to Christianity by Saint Patrick in the fifth century, but still somehow pagan at its core.

The philosopher Henri Bergson once described humor as "something mechanical encrusted upon the living." Ireland is the somber inverse: something living encrusted upon the mechanical. Human conceits are mellowed by moss, undermined by roots, pushed to foreign shores by potato blight. Small wonder the Irish are such bold warriors and drinkers and Blarney-touched storytellers. Endeavor is their only weapon against erosion.

Nevertheless, this proud people erected monuments that survived both wind and water, not to mention Viking raids and, more recently, strife between the IRA and British. Newgrange is one such site: older than Stonehenge, the passage tomb is a wide, low pancake on the Meath plain. Milky quartz glitters on the exterior, beside slabs inscribed with inscrutable swirls.

A weed whacker hums and hacks atop the 5,200-year-old mound. Each year, dawn ignites the grave's inner chamber for five days around the winter solstice. Maybe the sun swept away the souls. Or maybe it was just a flashy bit of Neolithic engineering. Nobody will ever know.

Lost for centuries, stones wrenched away as paving, Newgrange slid under the sod. In 1699, laborers quarried more boulders from the cairn and discovered this sublime structure. Some legends claim it was a continuous font of fruits, roasted pigs and caskets of ale. Except who would misplace such a thing for millennia?

Perhaps the same people whose descendants crashed a school bus into the Market Cross of Kells. This heritage town is, of course, most famous for its illuminated manuscript (nabbed by Trinity College and now displayed in Dublin). But five high crosses mark its ancient roads - several still in use - and accidents happen.

Louise Gargan, manager of Kells Heritage Center, sighs as she pats a copy of the ninth-century scripture. "We have a two-ton replica inside and the actual one outside. Erosion is a recent problem."

Neolithic passage tomb
Weed whacker hum atop Newgrange, a Neolithic passage tomb

The star-crossed monument has suffered much abuse. Oliver Cromwell's soldiers practiced marksmanship on it. Fallen, it moldered on the ground, until pundit Jonathan Swift modestly proposed its resurrection. The English hung Irish rebels on its arms in 1798. Later, its perch became the corner of two heavily traveled highways: hence the 1996 crash, which toppled it again. Conservationists shifted it to the Heritage Center grounds, but outcry kept the sculpture outside.

Kells doesn't want its Market Cross to come in from the cold. Doreen Fitzsimmons, educational tour guide, notes: "The townspeople said 'no, we're not having it. It belongs to all of us.'

"When things happen like the tsunami or 9-11, flowers and candy appear on this cross. People still sit on the base of an evening." She gestures to its former site, where the N3 and N52 intersect. "It might even come back when the bypass is put through," she says, hope tinting her voice.

Kells' three other high crosses are exposed to the elements as well: great limestone lumps of history, drooling into the ground. Acid rain and traffic tremors strip their medieval features.

Maybe it's for the best, though. Maybe these monuments, raised in defiance against the harsh, haunting landscape, should melt back into it, much like the Native Peoples' totems in British Columbia, Canada. Maybe they should pass into myth - Rankin's silver-tongued tales - and then beyond to Mae's wordless wisdom, as the sea spray once again cleans Ireland's slate, all better to let her heroics bloom again.

IF YOU GO

Exploring
The passage grave at Newgrange, surrounded by over 90 ancient monuments and earthworks, is now a World Heritage Site (€2.75 adult; 2km west of Donore Village on the L21; 41 988 0300). Visit the sweeping earthworks, coronation site of the High Kings: the Hill of Tara (€2 adult; 15 minutes south of Navan off the N3; 46 902 5903).

Hugh de Lacy built Trim Castle - later "Braveheart's" film set - in 1173 (€3.50 adult, Trim town, 46 943 8619). Walk around the monastic enclosure at Kells, home to Saint Columba, then visit the Heritage Centre (€4 adult; the old Courthouse, Navan Road, Kells; 46 924 7840). The website www.meathtourism.ie contains information on all these sites.

Resting
In Dublin, Stephens Hall Hotel is a chic and central choice. The suites all feature meeting rooms with kitchenettes, as well as separate sleeping chambers. Wi-Fi crackles downstairs - a rarity despite the tech-boom in Ireland. (Lower Leeson Street, Dublin 2; 638 1111; www.premgroup.com). The same company offers 46 short-term leases in the city center under the business name Premier Apartments (from €80 per night for a double).

Closer to Newgrange, the Ghan House is an eighteenth-century Georgian manor, perched between the loch and mountains. Atmospheric antiques include canopy and bunk beds. Elegant and relaxed, this hotel boasts a gourmet menu and wine list, as well as a cookery school (Carlingford, County Louth; 42 937 3682; www.ghanhouse.com).

Budget travelers may prefer the Kells Hostel, which has dormitories and en-suite bedrooms, plus camping in the summertime. This facility - with both laundry and a self-catering kitchen - conveniently stands beside the Dublin bus stop (Kells, County Meath, 46 924 9995; www.kellshostel.com).

Traveling
Dublin Airport is six miles north of the city center, close to the M50 and M1 highways (www.dublin-airport.com). International carriers include Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus.com), Delta (www.delta.com), Continental (www.continental.com) and the no-frills Ryan Air (www.ryanair.com). The inexpensive Aircoach runs round the clock (€7 one-way or €12 return; www.aircoach.ie). Taxi fare costs around €15, but always request an estimate before setting off.

The best way to tour eastern Ireland is by bicycle. Irish Cycle Hire offers a superb seven-night tour which stops at Carlingford, Kells, Trim, Tara and Newgrange (€1,200 per person sharing includes a guide, five evening meals, seven nights accommodation, equipment hire and luggage transfer - a great introduction to both the sport and country. Enterprise Centre, Ardee, County Louth; 041 685 3772; www.irishcyclehire.com).

Learning
Tourism Ireland supplies a friendly welcome and glossy pamphlets galore (345 Park Avenue, 17th Floor, New York, NY 10154; 212-418-0800 or toll-free 800-223-6470; www.tourismireland.com). The best urban guidebook is "Time Out Dublin," edited by Christi Daugherty. Brian Lalor's "Blue Guide Ireland" provides more comprehensive coverage of art and history.

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