Just one, small bit of what I love about Ireland so far is the amount of history steeped into all of its glorious, rolling hillsides. From the cobblestone streets of Dublin to the Hill of Tara, people have been occupying this island for thousands of years. They created monumental buildings as a testament to their power, family heritage, and piety. They erected massive tributes to their fallen ancestors in tombs that have survived the test of time, untouched partly by the legends that surround them and partly out of sheer luck. We got the chance to visit two of these places a few days ago, and I’ll be meeting them again shortly on a field trip this upcoming Saturday.
Our first stop was Newgrange, a Neolithic passage tomb that was built before Stonehenge! It’s incredible to think about the planning, man power, and skill needed to create such an impressive structure – in an age before smartphones, fancy architecture tools, and cranes that can take you sky high. Often, I think we tend to associate the people of the past with simplicity, and Newgrange shows just how misguided that tendency is. Our ancestors were the ones who truly survived so that they could pave the way for the luxuries that we have in the present.
As part of our tour, we were taken into the elusive inner chamber, where you had to hold your purses and cameras in front of you because the passageway was so narrow. Nothing can prepare you for the feeling you get as you travel back in time, seeing a procession that was only meant to be celebrated once a year – during the winter solstice. We ducked our heads, squeezed through sideways and made it to the very center of the structure, surrounded by four cut-outs possibly used during an ancient ceremony celebrating the rejuvenation of the ancestors through the light from the rising sun. The passage worked by blocking light to the inside through a larger outer door, and then every year on the morning of December 21st, the sun’s rays would filter ever so slightly through a small box above the doorway and illuminate the chamber through an intense beam of light. Our tour guide, through modern means of course, shut off all the lights within the chamber and gave us a simulation of what the solstice would have looked like to those who, 5000 years ago, built this incredible mound. Newgrange, along with the Hill of Tara, where the High Kings of Ireland were crowned, are two of the most famous, and the most spectacular, features I’ve seen throughout all of my travels.
The next day, we thought we’d tackle a couple of the National Museums, as well as the oldest pub in Ireland. Both the Archaeology and Natural History museums are well worth a visit – the archaeology museum not only boasts a considerable collection of artifacts from ancient Egypt, but a wealth of knowledge and visuals on Irish History from the Paleolithic all the way through Viking and Celtic control. As for the Natural History museum, it’s a can’t miss collection of just about every single animal, bug, bird, fossil, gemstone, crustacean…well, you get the idea. Name any creature on the planet, and I’ll bet this museum has it somewhere – pinned, stuffed, or immortalized forever in a coffin of clear resin. It’s laid out just like an old movie, housed in a mid-19th century building built specifically to fit the Royal Dublin Society’s growing number of specimens. A couple hours well spent, I’d say.
Afterwards, a visit to Ireland’s oldest pub – The Brazen Head – to end the day. Established in 1198, this pub has been serving customers ever since, and the crowd definitely proves that. A tourist spot? Absolutely. However, we did spy a few Dublin natives with a table full of freshly pulled Guinness, as well as a smattering of both visitors and locals. This lead me to believe that The Brazen Head’s popularity with people of all types is what’s kept it in business since the Vikings!