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bill h's "Adventures in Europe"

Neolithic Ireland -- Irish Emigration to the US -- St Patrick

IRELAND | Sunday, 21 August 2016 | Views [458]

The ferry from Holyhead, Wales to Dublin, Ireland was uneventful -- only three and a half hours long with calm seas.  Arrived in Dublin around 6:00pm and headed north hoping to find some four-leaf clovers along the way for luck -- my last experience in Ireland didn't go the way I had hoped it would and in the back of my head I was concerned that returning might not be my best decision.  

Events that evening seemed to confirm that fear -- stayed at a highly rated hotel -- modern, nicely decorated, nice staff, large room -- but then it started -- couldn't get the lights to work in the room (seems they forgot to tell me that you neeed to put and leave your door key in a card reader on the wall if you wanted power -- remove the card and everything goes dark, including no power to recharge electronic devices) -- their internet wifi was outsourced and just getting signed-in was like trying to solve Rubrik's cube blindfolded -- then toss into the mix the horribly foul smell that invaded the room around midnight and stayed overnight-- I was pretty sure I was jinxed!

I decided to go to a Neolithic necropolis (Bru na Boinne) the next day -- it was only supposed to be around a forty-five minute drive -- two hours later I arrived -- seems the lack of tourist attraction signage is consistent across Western Europe.  A thousand years older than Stonehenge in England, the site is so huge that they bus you to the different sections.  Hugely popular with tourists, it apparently is a daily mob scene that requires booking tours days or weeks in advance -- admission is by guided tour only -- so of course I wandered in totally unaware of what to expect -- but that was good -- my luck had changed, I wasn't jinxed after all!  Being a single, they made room for me to visit the two most popular sites that afternoon -- others were told to come back another day.

The first and largest site is called Newgrange --  considered to be the finest Stone Age passage tomb in Ireland -- dating from around 3200BC -- six centuries before the great pyramids.  Although no one really knows what it's true purpose was or who even built it, many archeologists consider it to be a religious ceremonial site -- a place where kings of the period were sent off to the afterlife (aka the Egyptian pyramids) and where rites were held celebrating the summer and winter solstices (the interior chamber is lit up by the rising sun shinning down the passageway on those dates).  

Circular at two hundred feet in diameter and thirty five feet tall, it is quite impressive, looking like a giant wheel of cheese.  The "wheel" is composed of an estimated 2000 tons of alternating layers of dirt and white quartz field stones (25-35 pounds each and quarried from a location over forty-five miles away).  It is solid except for a narrow three foot wide passageway (that runs half way or so into the mound) lined with large stones, four to seven feet tall and standing on edge with more large stones on top to form a roof.  Chiseled into the passageway stones are geometric symbols (strangely no human or animal figures) that no one has any idea regarding what they mean.  At the base of the outside wall are massive stones (each four foot high and weighing many tons) that keep the structure from collapsing outward -- some of them also have unusual geometric carvings.  All of this was done prior to the domesticated horses, the concept of the wheel and mathematics/engineering as we know it.

Also visited another mound, Knowth -- similar to Newgrange but smaller in size and surrounded by nineteen other mounds.  It was interesting to wander around, and in, these structures and try to imagine what drove these people to spend an estimated eighty years constructing the Newgrange mound and forty to sixty years constructing the main mound at Knowth. 

The next day was spent visiting the Ulster American Folk Park in Omagh which chronicles of the emigration of the Irish people to America over the centuries.  Everyone knows about the 200,000+ who emigrated in the mid-1800's as a result of the Irish potato famine, but most people don't realize the Irish started emigrating in large numbers to the US back in the 1500's.  Due to English inheritance law which gave the elder son everything and left younger sons with no land and essentially no money, America became a place to go to with an eye on making their fortune there.  For the women (who also received nothing) and were unmarried by age fourteen, it gave them an alternative to being forced into the workhouses as well as a chance to be independent and in charge of their future.

The Park is a recreation of an Irish village in the 1700's-1800's using authentic structures from that period which have been transported and reassembled in the Park.  Docents dressed in period clothing explain what life was like at that time.  Also present is a recreation of what an American village would've looked like at that same time -- also using authentic structures that have been shipped to Ireland.  Connecting the two "villages" is a replica of what the boats they would have sailed on was like -- you go thru the boat to change villages.  

Very interesting experience and just serves to reinforce that relatively little of what we were taught in high school history classes was accurate.  One of the major things I'm learning on this journey is just how much politics has influenced and distorted what is written in American history books about Europe -- we point our fingers at other countries for doing this when we have been just as guilty -- very eye-opening and very, very disappointing!

 The nest day I made a stop at Streull Wells on my way to Belfast.  Supposedly back in the 5th century, St Patrick was told that the wells had been the site of pagan rituals and he took it upon himself to "purify" them.  He spent the night bathing/standing in the waters praying and singing naked in the freezing cold and then before the sun rose, climbed out and up onto a large flat rock on the hillside to warm up.  At some point, the wells got the reputation of curing people of serious illnesses and conditions (especially of the eyes) and peope began making a pilgrimage to the site seeking cures, forgiveness, blessings, etc... and at times there would be three to four thousand pilgrims visiting and bathing in the waters of the wells.  As the space is only maybe thirty by forty yards, it must have been a sight!

Additionally, for centuries there was no separation of the sexes and men and women stripped down and bathed together.  Much like Las Vegas's motto of "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas", it soon became common belief that people could have as much "fun" as they wanted and they would be absolved of their transgressions by bathing in the wells the next morning -- apparently people had a lot of "fun"!  It wasn't until the 1800's that a local priest tried to clean-up the site's reputation for "fun" by building separate bathhouses for men and women -- supposedly it didn't really make a lot of difference.

Over time, the site became pretty much forgotten about and today, only a small volunteer group of locals maintain the place. For most of the time I was visiting, I was alone -- it was very quiet and peaceful with the only sounds being birds chirping and bees buzzing (real birds and bees"). 

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