Monday, May 31, 2010

Day 4: The Boyne Valley

Today, after three full days in Dublin, it was off to the Boyne Valley. For those not in the know, the Boyne Valley is about an hour north of Dublin and it contains an extraordinary wealth of sites ranging from ones associated with the very first humans in Ireland right the way up to the Battle of the Boyne which took place in the late seventeenth century. Our goal was simple: see a nice sampling that included that passage tombs at Bru na Boinne (Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth), the Battle of the Boyne Center, the early medieval high crosses at Monasterboice, and Trim Castle. A big day to be sure.

The day got off to a happy enough start with a bit of fooling around on the bus. It occurred to me that I'd yet to make it onto the blog, so I made a decision to take a quick self-photo. Obviously others thought they'd get in on the act--which is strange as the students generally like to dive for cover whenever they see me with a camera.

Bru na Boinne was our first stop. We opened the visit with a tour of the museum.

The Bru na Boinne Center is very well done. Despite many visits, Claire, our guide, still finds much to be interested in.

Exhibits extend from what life was like in the valley...

To the archaeological process of unearthing the distant past.

Done at the museum, we headed to Newgrange itself—by far the most famous passage tomb in the world. It is utterly massive, an extraordinary display of neolithic engineering. Consider that the stones used come from a range of places as far as 80km away. Now imagine that you don't have wheels. Finally, consider that the stones used inside the mound weigh many, many tons each.

The white front is controversial because it is not clear that the tomb builders decorated their creation in this way. Still, it is also not clear that they didn't!

The stone at the front is richly decorated and our Newgrange guide did her best to explain the meaning of the various symbols. Problem is, nobody really knows what the symbols mean—a fact that she readily admitted at the top of her presentation.

Newgrange completed, next it was on to Knowth where we learned still more about the tombs and the tomb builders. Once again, Bru na Boinne furnished us with an excellent guide.

Knowth is home to 1/3 of the total number of inscribed stones in Europe—nevermind Ireland.

It is a real struggle to mow the place!

Passage tombs get their name from the passage that runs into them, ending at a cruciform juncture where cremated remains were kept.

Once done at Bru na Boinne it was on to the Battle of the Boyne Center and lunch.

Briefly, the Battle of the Boyne was the most significant European battle of the late seventeenth century. It decided who was in power, who was not. It also created powerful legacies within Ireland that are still celebrated in Northern Ireland by Protestant Orangemen. It is, in short, a VERY big deal.

From there it was on to Monasterboice to see two of Ireland's most famous high crosses. Carved by hand during the tenth century, these crosses depict bible stories and were used partly to teach illiterate peoples about Christianity. There is a good deal more to them, of course. They also show a fusion of Viking, Christian, and Celtic cultures... and even a bit of humor. They are also ABSOLUTELY MASSIVE.

The Muiredach Cross is probably the most famous in Ireland.

These chaps are pulling each others beards. A bit of monastic humor?

Finally, we headed for Trim Castle—my favorite Norman Castle in Ireland and the set for parts of Mel Gibson's film Braveheart.

This is a chimney.

The view from the top is impressive—a good thing if you're watching an invading army approach.

Leave it to Robin to demonstrate the use of a medieval toilet.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Southwest Dublin: Kilmainham and Guinness Storehouse

Today's organized route was less formal, just two planned stops: Kilmainham Jail and the Guinness Storehouse. (I expected students to visit sites relevant to a paper that they're writing in the afternoon.) Kilmainham was first on the list.

I admit that Kilmainham, with its terrifying serpents over the entryway, is one of my favorite sites in Dublin. Partly this has to do with the fact that my very first publication dealt with the jail, but above all it is due to the fact that the prison is absolutely fascinating. It opened in 1796 and subsequently housed virtually every major revolutionary figure in Irish history as well as thousands of ordinary men and women who stole bread or spoke out of turn. Like Glasnevin, Kilmainham is a history lesson in stone. It speaks about the Irish past, but also about the history of prisons which evolved from metering out justice on the body to endeavoring to reform the mind over the course of about fifty years at the end of the eighteenth century. Kilmainham features dungeon like cells and a brightly lit "panopticon."

Of course, the prison is most known and celebrated as a symbol of the Irish struggle for freedom from English rule. The tour of the jail closely follows the story of Irish independence and most of the stories are of revolutionary heroes. The tour ends in the prison yard where 16 leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising were shot. The locations of these shootings are marked by two black crosses.

Across the street from the prison is a sculpture called "Proclamation." It depicts the figures of the leaders of the Easter Rising with black blindfolds on, their sentence written at their feet. In the middle of the circle is a bronze reproduction of the "Proclamation of the Republic." Somebody left behind a candle. At first I found it a bit ridiculous, but as I spent time looking at it from a variety of angles, I came to really like it. Notice the bullet holes in each figure.

With Kilmainham behind us, we headed a few short blocks to the Guinness Storehouse—Ireland's most popular tourist attraction. Over the course of several floors, visitors are taught about the ingredients in Guinness (using a waterfall and large displays of hops and barley), the brewing process, Guinness advertising, and a host of other topics. The whole thing is over-the-top and a bit overblown. More challenging, it more or less makes Irishness equivalent to Guinness—something about which I would be deeply concerned were I Irish.

After making one's way through the exhibits, the Guinness Storehouse ends with a bit that is actually really quite nice—a rooftop pub with 360 degree views of Dublin. Best view in the city!

With the organized portion of the day done, the students hopped on the bus to explore Dublin for the rest of the day on their own...

As for me, I headed off to take pictures--showing one of our group the way to St. Michan's Church which is famous for a collection of mummies as well as for an organ apparently once played by Handel himself.