Saturday, November 10, 2012

Ireland - Chapter Six


The view halfway up the hill.

We take a roundabout journey through Roscommon to find Kilteevan, a town in which some of our ancestors lived, before we find ourselves in Oldcastle. Oldcastle is west of Kells, and pretty far off the beaten tourist path. There are one or two B&B's, and no hostels nearby at all. We want to be climbing the hill in the pre-dawn. This poses a bit of a problem.

Cairn L at Loughcrew.

Let me backtrack a little. One of the goals we had, in fact the only truly fixed time we had to be at any particular place on our very free-flowing trip, was Loughcrew. Like Knowth, Loughcrew is a passage tomb whose alignment is set to the spring and autumn equinox. This means that, for three days at each of these points on the calendar, the sun illuminates the back wall of the tomb for a brief time. Unlike Knowth, you can actually enter into Loughcrew at this time.

View through the locked gate.

We climb the hill on which the main tomb rests (there are others, on two other hills, which have different alignments, and many smaller tombs) and wander around. I meet a young man who is a local and a pagan, who warms up to me after I start talking about the way different places I've visited feel, and tells me about the oldest beechwood forest left on ireland – which I couldn't spell if I tried, I'm sure. He's off to another hill and another tomb, and we decide to go get liquor and food, and watch the sun go down from the hilltop before sleeping in the car so we wouldn't miss anything.

Earlier in the day, we'd bought cheese at the Burren farm shop, made in Ailwee cave. We got crackers and fruit to supplement this, as well a small bottle of whiskey for me and a couple of cans of Guinness for my mother. We climbed the hill for a second time and took more pictures as the sun went down, occasionally seeing and greeting the people who had also come to see the passage tomb. One such person was Deirdre, who is a pagan and organizer for local pagan and environmental things.

Equinox Sunset at Loughcrew.

As we were descending the hill, which had gotten too cold without the sun, we saw her sitting on a large stone and called out hello. I asked if she'd like some whiskey, and she said she'd trade me for a song, which was the sort of thing, when standing on a magical hill on equinox eve, that you do not refuse. So we approached and she taught me a simple chant, sadly not in irish but pretty nonetheless and befitting of the time and place. It went like this:

The spirit of this land fills my heart and fires my soul
The spirit of this land is a part of us all
Oh mama, oh mama, oh mama Eire

Equinox Moonrise, Loughcrew.

Once she was sure we had it, she told us she would be sleeping in her car as well after she got back from the folk music festival, as would her friends Delacy and Tara with their children. We were in the car munching on our simple dinner when they showed up, and we helped them wrangle the kids and set up their tents in the field while the stars spun overhead. It was the first really clear night we had, and the sky was magnificent – I saw the Pleiades’s rise over the very crest of the hill from where I sat, and certainly there was music in it. Delacy was somewhat impressed that I was able to get his tent up so quickly in the dark, and didn't quite believe me when I told him how often I'd done this before.

He gave me some dark chocolate for watching the kids while he got his instrument, and let me tell you, irish children are adorably terrifying. Irish hippie children. But they were also awesome and reminded me very much of the children of my friends, which combined with the tent-setting made me feel more at home than ever.

Ground stars.

We picked the coldest night to sleep in our car. The temperature hovered at around 1 C for most of the night - which the car dashboard was happy to tell us. We had an emergency blanket, a poncho, and our packed clothes, which wasn't really enough, but we managed to steal a few hours of sleep before the pre-dawn light and sound of arriving cars woke us up. The funny thing about it was that most of the people we met climbing the hill for the third time were locals. There weren't a lot of tourists at all, and people brought drums and pipes and cameras to welcome the dawn. The sky was mostly clear, but a troubling strip of clouds hung low in the east.

Troubling low strip of clouds...

But it was beautiful. I use that word a lot, trying to talk about this country, but there was something deeply evocative in having watched the sun set and the predawn glow before the sun rise, on the same hill. The land spilled out before us, all mist and blue and violet shadows sprinkled with tiny lights that looked very much like stars. Groundstars, I thought, and had a pang for home and the people there who I sorely would like to share the time and place with.

Tara and dog.

We gathered around the mound, not quite in a line, and are told that there is an hour window where the sun will be in the chamber, that we will go in for groups of five, for only a few seconds, and come out again so that everyone will have a chance. Deirdre and Tara and Delacy are nearby, along with their children, and as the sun threatens to rise, Deirdre begins to drum. We sing the simple chant. I am in that half-awake place that isn't quite dreaming, and when the sun spills over the horizon in a golden spark, then a line, I feel the tears without really being aware of them. People begin to enter the chamber. The sun climbs alarmingly towards the strip of clouds, and we are some of the last people to enter before the sun disappears behind those clouds.

It's five of us, my mother, Deirdre, Tara, Delacy, and I, and two of the children. We climb along the passage, my fingers feeling the carvings in the stone with feather-touches and wishing I could stay and stare at the carvings all day, absorb them into my brain, etch them there as they are etched in the stone. The chamber in the back is small, and we settle around the sides so the sunbeam touches the back, almost a fragile light, thin and beautiful as the wings of a butterfly. Deirdre is drumming again, and there aren't words in the soft thumming of our voices now, so soft it's hard to hear, weaving together for the sparse time we are allowed.

When they tell us to come, to hurry, the light is leaving, I am the first to do so - unwilling to linger and steal that golden experience from another. We stand in the cold and look up to see people dancing and piping on the top of the mound, people gathered, the sun caught in the wispy clutches of the low clouds.

Tea and breakfast are calling to us, so we go, then. That was it - the last thing on our list - yet we had a day and a night to kill before our plane left the next morning. We try for Dublin, but Dublin, after roaming around the less urban areas of the country, is an absolute nightmare and we soon leave. We do pass through Trim to get there, and things are feeling oddly cyclical, or perhaps not so oddly - in any case, we decide to head instead to Drogheda, because it's easier to get to the airport from there and we want nothing more, at this point, than a pint and a very long nap.