Ireland
August 2001
 
The last week of August, 2001, I went to Ireland. At last. Ireland was amazing, sometimes for reasons I expected, but often, for reasons I never imagined.

First, I took the train to Frankfurt. There were three women in the seats across the aisle from me, and they were passing around a flask, which turned out to be only water. But I had this fun image of Erica, Mary, Reb and me, in our 70s, taking tours of Europe and getting tipsy on trains as we traveled... The Frankfurt train arrives right at the airport (I wish this was done in the U.S. -- it would make life oh so much easier). At the gate for my flight, I was surrounded by Japanese tourists. They were thrilled that the German gate guard greeted each of them with "KONEECHEEWAH!!!" It was cute. I flew Aer Lingus, which sounds like a sexual act. It certainly rhymes with one. Not the greatest airline in the world. I'm getting so picky about airlines -- I think it's a combination of flying so much and seeing such a profound drop in service over the last five years. The flight was short, and the Dublin airport was a mess -- construction everywhere, and it's very run down. But everyone was soooo nice. There were lots of signs everywhere begging people to please throw away any dairy or meat products they were bringing into the country (because of foot and mouth disease). I bet I walked over two dozen disinfectant pads while I was in Ireland. I'm surprised I got the flu a week after I got home -- I thought I was thoroughly sanitized for my protection.

I got some money changed, then went to the tourist office to buy a tourist book and a map of Dublin. I decided to go with the pocket size Mini Rough Guide for Dublin (no longer produced; latest was The Rough Guide to Dublin 3). What a totally right choice that turned out to be. I headed over to the rental car booths, and then to my car. I was mentally prepared to drive on the left side of the road, and I was mentally prepared to drive on the right side of the car, but I was NOT expecting a stick shift! I breathed deeply, kept telling myself I could do it, then off I went, stick in my left hand. The biggest problem with driving on the left is remembering to do so when turning on to a new road. The second biggest problem is judging space on the left side of the car. The third biggest problem was not grinding the geers.

After getting lost for two and a half hours in Dublin, I finally made it to the North Strand and Kirsty's house. The North Strand reminds me so much of Queens -- it was a startling similarity. It's very near the center of town, so I could walk to the tourist stuff quite easily. I quite liked the neighborhood -- I felt like I stayed in the "real" Dublin. The neighborhood pub was awesome, exactly what you would picture. Lordy, I have never seen so many pubs per block in my life than I saw in Dublin.

The next day, I was up at 8 and out by 9, ready to do downtown Dublin. I walked downtown and had a lovely Irish breakfast at a little café -- sliced ham, two kinds of sausage, beans, an egg, toast and blood pudding, plus lots and lots of tea. Mmmmmm... Then I was off to be a tourist. First, I walked around Customs House. I didn't find it all that interesting, but I loved the statues outside of it. One is of a famous Irish trade unionism, proclaiming "The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland. The cause of Ireland is the cause of labour." The other is a moving statue of a group of figures to commemorate the Great Famine. I didn't take pictures of them, because I thought for sure I would find postcards of such. I didn't.

I decided to take the "Rough Guide's" advice and take a tour bus around the city. I could get off at any point and another bus would come by every 15 minutes. I found the take off point after getting lost a few times, got a good seat up top of the bus in the open air, and off we went. I decided to jump off first at Trinity College, to see the Book of Kells. I took the short outside tour first, lead by a history graduate student, which was fascinating, and then into the Book of Kells exhibit. The cue was not long at all, and everyone was properly respectful (no loud people or children running around). The exhibit is wonderful, with lots of wonderful details about the book, created around 800 A.D., and similar books that have been found, how they were created, what life was like for the clerics who designed them, and so forth. Then you come to the actual book, which is in wonderful condition, on a table under a glass case. A page is turned in the book every day or so. Also on exhibit that day was the Book of Durrow, from 675 A.D. I'm sure there is a ton of info on the Web about all this, so I won't repeat a history lesson here.

After the Book of Kells, you come to the Long Room. I walked into the entrance and stood there with my mouth open. I'd come to Hogwart's. There was no doubt about it -- this was the library at Harry Potter's school. It is a wonderfully antiquated two story set of bookcases, with the top rows of books on each set of shelves reachable only by tiny vintage ladders. Covering all this is a barrel-vaulted ceiling. You can't touch the books, but I did my best to read the jackets of some of them. It was an amazing sight. A movie should be shot here. Encased in glass in the Long Room is the ancient harp that is now the symbol for Guinness. Mary Wolcott needs to work here. It is her destiny.

I went to the gift shop and spent way too much money. One of the things I bought was this really interesting pendant of Sheela na Gigs (Síla na Géige). I had never seen this before, that I recall. It's a symbol that has been found in churches in old Christian churches in Ireland, but it's believed to have originated from a Celtic goddess of fertility. The pendant that I got must be based on the image that used to be at Kiltinan Church -- it was stolen in 1990. It's a primitive figure with a triangular Celtic head, a pipe-stem neck, and droopy breasts -- the left one with two nipples. The left hand is raised to her cheek. Her legs are spread and her right hand is opening her vulva.

I dug it. I'm weird. So, now that I have a picture of a vulva on my web site, am I in violation of the Internet Indecency Act?

I walked over to the National History Museum, which was interesting, but after the Book of Kells... well, it was hard to get as into it as I should have. They had a couple of stone Sheela na Gigs statues, but the explanatory plaques were gone, and there was no guides around to tell me more. There was lots about the various struggles for Irish independence from the British, which was fascinating to learn about.

Then I went to some book stores and got back on the bus. I hopped off at the Oscar Wilde statue at the park. It is so deliciously decadent. In front of it are two more statues, with some of his best quotes ("Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast") on their pedestals. The main statue is also known as the "Fag on the Crag" and the "Queer (quare) in the Square." Dubliners do this rhyming thing a lot. The Anna Livia Fountain is the "Floozy in the Jacuzzi" and the "Whore (hewer) in the Sewar." The volumptious statue of Molly Malone is the "Tart With the Cart." There's the Hags with Bags and the Crank on the Bank... well, you get the idea.

It had begun to rain, and for some reason, I was really glad. It's Ireland, it's *supposed* to rain! I got back on the bus and went to St. Patrick's cathedral. I was stunned to learn that it wasn't a Catholic Church, and by it's very modern look. Still, it's quite lovely, particularly the outside gardens. It *used* to be a Catholic Church, but they don't really mention that. And this continued to be a running theme for the rest of the trip, wherever I toured -- churches built Catholic, later stolen by Henry VIII to become Anglican, but nothing mentioned outright about such. The Mini Rough Guide filled in a lot of blanks for me about this and many other sites in Dublin. That book was as good as having a personal guide.

Since the day was waning, I decided to take the rest of the bus tour but not get off anymore. I got to go around the Guinness Brewery, which was a real treat. The bus driver noted that a special tourist wing of the brewery was opened by Bill Clinton, and several people applauded. The Irish love Bill! As for The Shrub, there were protest signs everywhere about him.

I saw so many things that I would have loved to have gone in, like the local Sinn Fenn office ("Howdy! I'm from Kentucky! Heard ya'll got some problems up here!") but the day was slipping away, and many of the things were about to close anyway. I got back to Kirsty's, then we went off to Howth (rhymes with "Both"), this really cute fishing village on the side of a hill overlooking the sea, outside of Dublin. It was lovely. We walked the dogs on these rolling grassy hills overlooking the sea, passing a light house that looked all-too-perfect out in the harbor. Wales was somewhere out there on the horizon of the water... Then we too our wind-swept selves went to dinner at this charming little place in Howth. It turned out Kirsty knew the cook -- he came out after we had finished eating. And it dawned on me what a big little town Dublin is.

I had only one glass of wine that Friday night in Howth, and we got in before midnight, but the next day, I slept until 11 a.m. I was absolutely furious with myself when I found out what time it was -- by the time I pulled myself together, half my day was gone. I had forgotten my watch, and as Kirsty had no clocks anywhere in her house (other than the Elvis clock in the bathroom, which was broken except for the constantly swinging hips). I had planned that day to go up to some ruins Kirsty had told me about up North, but her room mate said I would not want to do that, as U2 was playing a free concert in Slane -- getting stuck in traffic with 80,000 other people on a two lane road. Yuck. Maybe it was good that I overslept?

I decided instead to head south, to Wicklow, and to drive along the coast as much as possible. Mostly because I liked the name "Wicklow." The weather was clear and sunny, and it was a lovely drive south, though at times, scary -- those tiny, tiny winding roads made me quite nervous. What was sad was the long, gorgeous stretches of lovely seaside and farms interrupted periodically by an ugly subdivision or McMansions that looked transported from the U.S. My heart would sink every time I saw them. I was also uncomfortable with all the private resorts and clubs and golf courses everywhere. I could have been anywhere in the U.S., not Ireland. I found out later that Tom Cruise and Mel Gibson are two of the many, many stars that own estates in the area. They did NOT come see me at any point. Snobs.

I was listening to a public radio station that Kirsty has a show on once a week (an alt.country show, followed by her Dad's rockabilly show). The station was playing Frank Sinatra. I don't like Frank Sinatra and, yet, there I was, digging it as I went 'round the sharp curves and tiny streets along the East coast of Ireland. I stopped in Bray for a lunch in a pub -- fried scallops, chips (French fries), the best coal slaw I have ever had in my life, and mineral water. I was in a dark, dark Irish pub, with a brilliant sunny and hot day outside. I observed a middle aged couple next to the window, and I decided that they were married, but not to each other, that they were on the verge of starting an affair that very afternoon. They weren't touching, but they faced each other, and leaned in meaningfully and intensely as they talked. Confidences and insecurities were being shared... my husband, he just doesn't listen to me like you do...

I went back outside and took some photos of various things along the water. Then I headed back South. I got lost a lot -- road markings in Ireland are few and far between, and there is never a sign to show you that you are on the right road, only tiny signs at intersections. But, what the heck, I was on vacation, I don't really mind getting lost as long as I see something cool as a result (like a monastery on the cliffs -- that was cool). Then, on a country road, I saw a dog about to get hit by a car. And I think I closed my eyes, because the next thing I knew, I'd hit something on the left side of the road and the whole car jolted baaad. I just knew I had totalled the side or the front of the car. I was shocked to find just a really mangled flat tire. These people came out and fixed it for me, then kind of ran away back into their farm. It was strange... the dog, by the way, wasn't hit and ran away as well.

I continued on and ended up in Wicklow. It's a real Irish fishing village, not just something for tourists. It was interesting, and I got a couple of good pictures, like one of some kids learning to snorkel in the sea below the cliffs where I perched for about an hour writing postcards. I wanted to go to the ruins of an Irish monastery up in the Wicklow mountains that I'd seen postcards of in the tourist office and that was highlighted in my mini Rough Guide, but since it was almost six, I figured everything would be closing, so I headed back to Dublin. The sun sets in Ireland even later than in Germany, but things still close at the regular time. I took the highway this time, and saw some really lovely green valleys filled with sheep and horses... and more American style subdivisions and McMansions. Argh. At one point, I sat at a traffic light, and looked at the stores and strip malls on the four corners, and thought, hell, I could be anywhere in the U.S. right now. Yuck.

I got back to Kirsty's and we decided to go to the movies. I wanted to see "Shrek", but it wasn't playing anywhere nearby at a good time. So we went to see "Planet of the Apes." Awful. Decent eye candy, but I figured out how "this" had happened in the first three minutes of the film, and the script was uber stupid, and the "surprise" ending felt sooo tacked on and, upon further reflection, made no sense at all. The original blows it away -- god bless you Rod Serling! But it was great to see a movie in English! And the preview for "Lord of the Rings" was stunning. When the screen went blank and all you hear is a whispered "Precccccccccccccious," Kirsty and I squealed. We went to the neighborhood pub afterwards (ofcourse). It has a maritime theme and lots of interesting characters.

Sunday morning, Kirsty and I headed for Kilkenny. She produces a roots rock music festival there in the Spring every year that features a lot of great alt.country folks -- the Derailers, Dale Watson, Ryan Adams, many others. Next year is the fifth year, and I'm begging her to go for Robbie Fulks. If she gets him, I am so there. I will personally drive him around. Heck, he can stay with me! This was her first trip there just as a tourist.

The drive was lovely, except for the occasional ugly suburban housing. We got to Kilkenny in the afternoon. Kilkenny ("Cil Chainnigh," in Gaelic) is an Irish village that is just as pretty as you could ever imagine. It reminded me of Linz (south of Bonn), but even more beautiful: the small colorful shops and winding streets, with a little river running through town, and a castle! Gorgeous. I was so happy to be there. We stayed at a bed and breakfast in the "Irish" section of town. It was on Dean Street, and it was run by an eccentric woman with a dry wit and pink hair. I thought she was hysterical. She never cracked a smile, but she was so full of blarney (bullshit) and we adored her. I could never write the things she said and make them sound half as funny as she was -- next time we're out drinking, remind me, and I'll imitate her for you. The B & B is in a house right next to the street. The rooms are tiny tiny tiny. The sheets and towels are all very worn and nothing matches. We did have a private bathroom, with a toilet and shower. There was a sink actually *in* the room (no room in the bathroom). I loved this place.

We parked the car and took the official Kilkenny bus tour, which was too brief and not nearly detailed enough, but it did provide an overview about the city's history I wouldn't have gotten otherwise. Like that the city had an apartheid of its own, as did much of all of Ireland: the Irish were restricted on where and how they could live, they couldn't own land in a lot of places, laws prohibited the ruling English from marrying locals or practicing Irish customs, and the entire city was segregated. The city was sacked by Oliver Cromwell (what an awful man!), who desecrated all of its churches (he was particularly fond of turning them into horse stables). We sat upstairs on the bus, and Kirsty learned one of my travel tips, which I may have mentioned before: when touring a city, look up at the second floors, and sometimes even higher. You will see mythical creatures carved in stone, old clocks, lovely small balconies, statues, signs for businesses long gone, and who knows what else. Being on the upper floor of the open-air bus, all these things were right at eye level.

I really love how the Irish put all of their street signs, monument descriptions and brochures in English and Gaelic. It's a wonderful idea that reminds you at all times of the origins of this land. I hope more Irish people are learning and using Gaelic. I think they do the same thing in Hawaii regarding street signs and such. Wouldn't it be cool if they did this in the U.S., with original Indian languages?

After the bus tour, I went into shopping high gear. Then we took the Kilkenny Castle tour. It was quite interesting, and the space itself was impressive, but I question restoring all of the rooms to their state in the 1800s. Why not restore some of them to look as they might have from some different eras -- like when the castle was first built? The tour was also woefully low on Irish history. Kirsty was quite put out. Imagine a tour of a Southern plantation that never mentions slaves nor how slaves lived, nor mentions the unlanded whites of the surrounding area and how they lived. Oh, wait, that *is* how a lot of plantation tours are... My favorite part of the tour was the library -- I have this thing about Victorian-era or earlier English libraries. I also liked the gallery, which was this very, very long room with green walls and a vaulted ceiling. At the end of the room, they showed where part of that Minnie Driver/Chris O'Donnell movie was filmed.

What was hilarious were these two women on the tour. My god, they were so obviously strippers -- surgically-altered boobs, tank tops, thick bleached hair, tanned, too much makeup... if they hadn't so obviously been women, I would have thought they were drag queens. They were either strippers or porn stars -- maybe there was a porn movie shooting on location? They were from the U.S. -- I heard them talking. They looked soooo out of place. On seeing them and realizing what they were, I also realized that I had not seen one adult book store nor titty bar in Ireland. Not one. It was only later that I finally did see an adult book store, and when I pointed it out to Kirsty, she got upset in a there-goes-the-neighborhood kind of way.

We left the castle and headed for food. Kirsty took me down one of her favorite "hidden" streets, a tiny arched alleyway carved out between buildings. It lead to a small pedestrian-only street and a few restaurants and pubs. Kirsty kept saying, "Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I could live here. No prob." Agreed. We booked a table, then headed to the oldest pub in Kilkenny for a glass of wine while waiting for our table to be ready. The pub is older than the U.S. Geesh. It's right at the bridge over the river, next to the castle. The floor slants down from the street at about 20 degrees, almost all of the furnishings inside are original -- the tables, the bar, the spice boxes behind the bar with gold engraved lettering... it was so damn cool. The bartender looked 14. We watched a guy try to pick up an American girl over a pint. We agreed that she was just being polite and wasn't really interested. Then we went to dinner, where we ate waaaaaaay too much, and moved on to a pub called John Cleere's -- which I will forever call "John Cleeses'). Kirsty told me all these great stories about the Kilkenny Roots Rock festivals of the past, what bands played where all over town... the thought of all of my favorite Austin bands playing here just made me crazy. I have to come to the next one! Particularly if she gets Robbie Fulks to play...

See Kilkenny's famous landmarks and places I visited.

The next morning, there was a knock at the door and the call "Breakfast is on!", which continued up and down the hall on every door. Since breakfast was at 9:30, according to the sign downstairs, I figured out what time it was (not having a watch drove me out of my mind). We went down to the tiny breakfast room for cereal, toast and tea. I totally developed a taste for Irish breakfast tea. The other people there were our age or younger -- French and Italian mostly.

We walked outside and I looked up at St. Canice Cathedral high on a hill across the street, with its adjacent round tower. I told Kirsty I'd like to have a look. She looked up, snarled, and said she'd meet me at the tourist office in an hour. She needed good coffee and fags (cigarettes). I headed up the steep walled street up to the church. According to what I read, there was an ancient Celtic church on the site prior to this one, the latter of which was begun in the mid 1200s. But the tower was built in 849 A.D. The church was much more enjoyable to me than St. Patrick's because it is truly medieval, and the tombs inside have some of the most wonderful medieval artwork I've seen -- the kind of stuff I studied at University, actually. In Gaelic, the church is called Ard-Englais Naomh Ceannaigh. It was lovely.

I decided to climb the tower next to the church. It's about five stories high, I guess. I went up these tiny but sturdy metal rungs that serve as stairs on the outside, then went through an archway into the tower. There sat this girl on a little bench underneath a ladder. I paid her my one pound 50 and headed up the ladder -- and realized that this was actually stairs. HA. I continued climbing them as a ladder because it was soooooo steep. At the top of each flight, I had to step up and to the right to reach the tiny landing, then walk around to the next flight of "steps." My heart was pounding each time I had to do that side step up. I don't like heights if I don't feel really supported and safe. And what in the heck I was to do if I met someone coming down, I had no idea, as there was no room for two people to pass. The landings were so narrow, in fact, that I had to put my fanny pack and camera across my back rather than allow them to hang to my side. Halfway up, I thought, jeesh, this is stupid. I'm terrified! How am I going to get down?! But I decided to push on, even though I was scared out of my wits and my heart was pounding. Metaphor for how I have lived my entire adult life, actually.

At last, I was near the top. But I was hugging the walls a bit too closely, and on my way up the ladder, I smashed my head into a protruding rock. Yes, it hurt. I just stood there for about two full minutes, checking every few seconds to make sure I wasn't bleeding and that I was maintaining consciousness. I had a bruise on the top of my head for the rest of my vacation. But I did press onward and upward. The last set of steps are narrow, craggy spiral stone steps carved out of the rock of the tower. I was totally glued to the side of the wall as I emerged out onto the roof. I must have looked awful, because the young chippy Australian girl already at the top asked if I was okay. The view was spectacular. All of Kilkenny County, and then some, was visible, 360 degrees around, on a perfect clear, sunny day. My favorite view was the ruins of a small abbey within the grounds of the Guinness brewery: old and modern Ireland, all at a glance.

The Aussies offered to walk beneath me when I was ready to go down, but I graciously declined, mostly because I didn't want anyone looking up at my fat ass, but also, because if I were to fall, I'd just take chippy Aussie girl with me down a flight and then crush her. I went down very slowly, using only my right foot to descend (rather than foot over foot). Going from the landings to the next set of steps was the worst part. And, sure enough, I met people coming up. We all copped a feel getting around each other on the landing -- there just wasn't any other way. When I finally got back on the ground, my knees almost gave way. I was shaking all over. But I'd done it, and I'm glad.

I walked downtown to meet Kirsty, who was totally immersed in her coffee, second fag of the morning, and first Harry Potter book (she totally digs it). We went to look at watches, and we both bought one -- I bought a silver and blue one that has a design in it inspired by the Book of Kells. I adore it. The shop-keeper gave me a massive discount actually, because he liked us so much (grin), and because Kirsty is Irish (grin), I'm sure. Kirsty and I were back on the road to Dublin by early afternoon. We stopped at what we thought was a kind of historic re-creation of an Irish village, but it was just another picturesque village, who's claim to fame was winning the Bronze in Ireland's "Tidiest Town" contest. Got a nice picture of an old bridge and houseboat on the river there. We then went to visit another medieval church stolen by Henry VIII; it was surrounded by pasture land, and there were cows even in one of the churchyards.

We got back to Dublin and Kirsty headed off to meet her Mom, who had been away visiting relatives in Scotland. I decided to take myself out to dinner in downtown Dublin. I power walked all the way to Trinity College. I decided to walk over to a section of town called Temple Bar, which was recommended by the Mini Rough Guide as a great place to wine and dine. For the first and only time, the book was oh so wrong. I could have been in any upscale shopping and dining district in any major U.S. city. It was yupsville, a place to be fashionable and be seen. The only redeeming factor was that it was pedestrian only. I like pretty places, and I like upscale places, but it has to have some kind of character, some kind of pulse and personality. This had none. I had a bland dinner in an over-priced restaurant, two glasses of bland house wine, then walked back uptown. But I wasn't sorry I had gone -- not at all. I liked that I hadn't liked Temple Bar. The rest of Dublin, with its chaos and dirt and lively characters and rough edges and bullet holes in downtown monuments and chip on its shoulder suddenly became even more appealing to me.

The next day, I woke up at 7 a.m., packed everything up, wrote a long thank you note to Kirsty, left her some humble gifts for her hospitality (it's the alt.country posters all over the house that really make you feel at home), said goodbye to Jessie the dog, and left to head North to Slane. I sat in the car, double-checking my map, watching a massive truck gingerly drive down the street between parked cars, pass me every so slowly and within inches of my car, and then the driver realized the street was a dead-end, so he even more gingerly backed up all the way down the street. I was sitting there saying, Please don't hit me, please don't hit me... I couldn't find the street I wanted to use to get to the highway, and ended up taking all sorts of side roads and what not, but I saw all sorts of cool stuff, so I couldn't complain. Somehow, I ended up where I should. As I neared Slane, I decided to turn off and see Brú na Bóinne first, which I knew was some kind of center for ancient sites that Kirsty had suggested. The road was overgrown with lush vegetation. There were even a few bikers (that would be bicycles, not motorbikes, although I saw some of those too, including a couple on a Goldwing), but no cars. The Boyne River valley is STUNNING. I was in Heaven. I was so happy!

I got to the visitors center and parked -- there weren't many cars. It was only 9:30. I walked slowly and solemnly on the path, breathing in the perfect Irish morning -- cool air, a misty morning, everything green and overgrown... I felt so good. I got to the center and was all smiles. I bought both the New Grange and the Knowth tours, having no idea what I was about to see. I walked across a bridge over the River Boyne, and paused to look at the beautiful countryside. And I knew that this was it, the climax of the trip. This was why I had come. I almost started to cry. But I didn't want to freak the other tourists out when I saw them. Not yet, anyway. I continued over another foot bridge, this one across a meadow, then along a path to the Center's bus station. There was just one bus at this time of morning. The buses are small, and I was on the very first of the morning, which was not quite full -- probably 25 people. The last ticket buyer of the morning got on right after me, so the driver took off early. When New Grange mound came into view, he stopped so we could take it in, something he normally doesn't do. I was stunned. It was not what I was expecting at all. I'm not even going to attempt to describe what I saw, because I can't.

We drove around to the gate for New Grange, walked across yet another disinfectant pad, and went up the hill to approach the massive 5000+ year old monument with our guide. She was marvelous. I was enraptured by each and everything she said. We stood outside the entrance and she explained everything in detail about how the mound was constructed, how it was re-discovered after being mistaken for the top of the hill... she pointed behind us, at farmland across the Boyne, and pointed out two much smaller mounds, covered in grass, in the middle of the fields. These and many other mounds in the area have remained undisturbed for more than 5,000 years, because farmers believed they were "fairy" mounds, and to disturb them would bring bad luck. Same for someone who disturbs a "fairy ring" a ring of stones.

With its original quartz stones restored and fully encircling it, New Grange glows. It glows! And as I stared at it and the lovely meadows and fields as far as the eye could see, our guide noted that UNESCO had declared the area a world heritage site. None of it can ever be developed now. So, unless the Taliban takes over and blows it up, this all will last for another 5,000 years. As it should. Hurrah for the United Nations!! We walked into the tomb, beneath a roof that has not leaked in 3500 years, beneath I don't know how many layers and tons of dirt and rock, and we stood there deep inside the main chamber as our guide continued to explain the structure, the designs, the people who built all this, and what it was like to have the sun burst in on the morning of the Winter solstice once a year. It's all older than Stonehenge, older than the pyramids of Egypt. I was in awe by everything. It is the most impressive man made structure -- or even artwork -- that I have ever seen in my life.

Then I went on the bus for the Knowth tour. The Knowth main mound is even bigger than New Grange, and about three hundred years younger. You can't go in, but you can see a lot more around the mound than you can at New Grange. There's much, much smaller mounds all around as well, almost right up against the large monument. Our guide here was equally wonderful, and I was particularly fond of her when she told some parents of some loud rug rats that they would either have to keep their kids quiet or leave the tour. BRAVA!!! After the tour, we were free to roam around. About half a dozen of us snuck under some tape and took pictures of a particularly beautiful carved rock. More than 60% of all ancient Celtic artwork that you see comes from this area. Only about 50% of the Knowth site, outside only, is open for public tour. The rest is still being escavated. They are trying to restore it all to its former glory, find all the original pieces, etc. No word on whether or not it will ever be opened completely, or when. The third site is Dowth, but it's not open to the public at all. I have a feeling that, in about five years, that will all be different. Which makes me really want to go back someday, to see even more.

I met the couple on the Gold Wing -- they are from the U.S., and had spent four months touring Eastern and Western Europe on their bike. We had a really nice chat. Ireland is a place that begs to be toured by motorcycle in the summer. Just remember to stay on the left side of the road!

I got back to the visitor's center and I didn't feel like leaving, so I did everything there one can possibly do. After I'd been there five hours, I decided they would throw me out soon, so I went to the tourist desk to ask if they could find a bed and breakfast for me. It took them four tries -- there was another U2 show in Slane the next weekend, and a lot of the crew were keeping their rooms for the whole week. Finally he found me a place. After I drove through Slane and made the turn towards the B & B and just as I hit the countryside again, the theme from "Gone With the Wind" came blaring over the radio. Given how close I was to the Hill of Tara and the lush scenes around me, it was almost too perfect. I missed my turnoff OFCOURSE and had to turn around, and for a split second drove on the wrong side of the road. But I made it to Meade's Bed and Breakfast in one piece. It's a modern house, obviously not built to be a B & B, and it really looked like any modern farm house you would find in, say, Corydon. But the outside was all rolling hills and green and not a satellite dish or subdivision in sight. At New Grange, the only sound had been sheep; here, it was birds.

Mrs. Meade was ever-so-apologetic for not having my room ready yet, but I told her that was just fine -- I just wanted to dump all my stuff and go back to Slane for a bit. I headed back and went to the Hill of Slane, which is topped by the remains of a Franciscan Monastery built in 1512, the ruins of an even older church, and a graveyard, all surrounded by a lovely meadow. It offers a tremendous view of the area. I explored the remains of the monastery first. It's an interesting stone ruin, but apparently of no particular historical importance, as you can crawl all over it. So... well, I crawled all over it, avoiding beer cans everywhere. I hate people. There's no tourist booth, no guides, no postcards, and only one plaque with the briefest of details about the area and all these ruins surrounded by open fields and farm land. I explored the graveyard that is around and, now, IN the remains of the medieval church -- all that's left of the church is a few walls, and the bell tower. The older grave stones that once made up the floor of the church are unreadable because of the white mold growing on them, as well as all the wind and rain. I wish I had had a large bit of butcher paper and a piece of charcoal, to take some rubbings and decipher them. The grounds were lovely and mostly empty -- just a few other tourists. I'm not sure why it's not a big tourist stop, particularly since it is such an obvious and startling site over Slane as you drive North, and because, from up there, you get a stunning view of the area.

The Hill of Slane is a natural choice for a holy site. In fact, I really wonder if there might be a mound some where around there... even under the church itself. According to the Web, below the Hill, by the Boyne River, there are ancient tombs constructed "to honor the solar deity's return to earth and the hopes of passing Kings wishing to see the next life, and the subjects who would be led by them there." In ancient Dindshenchas mythology, the Fir Bolg king Sláine was said to have been buried here. In Christian legend, Saint Patrick supposedly lit a fire here to call forth the pagan kinds to convert them. I know all this from the web, not from anything at the site itself. More info, and pictures:

There were a couple of people up at the top of the remaining square bell tower, and having learned NOTHING from the traumatic climb at the St. Cadice Tower, up I went. The steps were spiral, tiny, carved in stone, with no hand rails and, sometimes, total darkness. But up I friggin' went, heart pounding, wondering how in the heck I was going to get down, and wondering why in the heck I was doing this AGAIN. At least this time I didn't hit my head on anything. I clung to the walls or the upper stone steps, looking forward to a breather once I reached the top, and since this wasn't as high as the St. Cadice tower, I just kept telling myself it wouldn't be so bad. I got near the top, and there was all this light -- I could see right out through the tower. There was an extremely steep roof there that I didn't dare go out on. But there was still more to climb, and I kept going. And I got to the top. And the horror set in. There was no floor. There was just a thin stone ledge of about one foot width, going all around the top. Across from me stood two guys having beers and standing there like they were at a bar, even though there was a deadly drop just inches from their feet. Which means they had walked around the ledge of this tower to get over there, no big deal. "Beautiful view" they said. I was pinned up against the wall terrified out of my friggin' mind. I just turned around, looked quickly, then went right back down. I think they laughed at me. I don't care. I got down and my legs were jelly by the time I got outside.

Understand that there are NO signs or warnings about this or the St. Cadice climb. Nothing that says "use-at-your-own-risk do-not-proceed-if-you-have-a-heart-condition-or-are-pregnant please-do-not-attempt-without-safety-equipment not-for-small-children don't-even-think-about-suing-us" and other such warnings. Who in creation is making sure any of this stuff is even structurally sound to climb?!

I stood next to a old stone wall near the car, enjoying the view and watching a guy go by on a John Deere tractor. Then I headed back to "downtown" Slane for food. I had a darn tasty salmon with chips (fries) and my last Guinness of the trip. While I sat there enjoying the meal, looking outside on the beautiful day through two open side doors and wondering why pubs are kept so dark, I realized that I was listening to Lyle Lovett. And by the second song, I got seriously homesick for Austin, realizing that I wasn't going home to there at the end of this trip. It was a melancholy that lasted only about 10 minutes. Then I went back to the B & B, drank a whole pot tea, snarled at the Prince Charles picture in the parlor, flirted with the German guy touring Ireland on his motor bike who would also be staying at Meade's that evening (no, I did not have a wild affair, so don't even ask), and then crashed.

My last day in Irealnd. After another HUGE Irish breakfast, I went to Drogheda. It's a large working class harbor city (larger than Kilkenny) with a very storied history. It was not picturesque, but it was educational. I was tempted to pop into the Youth Center/Internet Community Center and dash off an email or two, but it was my last day, and I was afraid I'd get emotional. A thing I DON'T like about the Irish is that so many of them let their dogs run loose everywhere (similar to the U.S.). I saw a dog running loose in traffic in Drogheda and I wanted to take it home soooo badly.... and it was one of many I saw about to get hit... I toured a former British military garrison, heard about the Battle of Boyne and the awful Oliver Cromwell, did one last burst of shopping, and then it was time to head for the airport. There, I changed clothes, got my hair cut, and wished I had another week in Ireland...

See pictures from this adventure.

Postscript: something very special happened as a result of this trip. Something that changed my life forever. It's in the second-to-last paragraph. It lead to this.  

And in 2014, we went back to Ireland at long last!

 
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