We bought a copy of this print by Honor Hales
depicting the seasons at Newgrange

When we looked out our window
first thing this morning, the fields across the road that stretched nearly as
far as we could see were white with frost. Since our car was completely frosted
over, too, and nobody had a window scraper, Bridie’s husband Paul offered to
move it into the sunshine for us while we ate breakfast.  A while later, when we were ready to check
out, we discovered that we could not pay for our room by credit card, so Paul
offered to show Michael how to get to the nearest ATM. It was out of service,
so as they drove on to the next one, almost eight kilometers away, Paul shared
a bit of the Lynches’ story. Paul had grown up in a farmhouse near those fields
across the road. His father had managed the estate for the landowner, but Paul
took a different path and became a carpenter. Bridie had been a legal secretary,
but due to age restrictions she had been forced to retire before she was ready
to quit working. To keep her busy, they decided to open a B&B. Paul built
the house (including the kitchen cabinets and all the handsome wood furnishings
we had admired in our room) and they welcomed their first guests last year. But
Bridie and Paul soon discovered that running a B&B keeps one very busy—too busy, as it turns out. Because they want more time for
themselves, and more time at their vacation home in Portugal, they have decided
to sell Burtonstown House. Too bad, because the Lynches are the most gracious
hosts we have had on the entire trip. (If you’re interested in buying a
beautifully built Irish guesthouse, we can put you in touch with them. To see photos, click here.)

Prehistoric Burial Mound at Newgrange

Entrance to the Passage Tomb at Newgrange

Today’s sightseeing program took
us several kilometers farther into County Meath, and several millennia farther
into the past. Newgrange is the center of a region filled with the remnants of
an ancient community, notably some huge mounds containing passage tombs that
date from 3200 B.C.—older even than Stonehenge and the pyramids of Egypt. At a
visitor center designed to mimic the elegant simplicity of the mounds
themselves, we learned about the daily lives of the people who had populated
the area, saw a full-size replica of the burial chamber we would be visiting, and
pondered why subsistence farmers and fishermen would devote so much of their
short life spans to constructing such monuments.

River Boyne
Entrance Stone with Prehistoric Carvings

At our assigned tour time, we left
the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Center and crossed a tastefully engineered footbridge
over the River Boyne. On the other side, we boarded a shuttle that took us farther
into the rolling hills and dropped us off at the Newgrange mound. Its simple
but striking exterior was reconstructed from what are believed to be the
original stones during the 1970s, after years of archaeological excavation and
study. The burial chamber inside can accommodate only a dozen people at a time,
so we walked around outside while we waited for our turn.

Note the subtle color gradations in Newgrange’s stone wall

The mound at Newgrange is notable
not only for its tomb and Neolithic carvings, but also because it was constructed
so that on the day of the winter solstice, the first rays of the rising sun
will shine directly into its main passage. (Every year, tens of thousands enter
their names into the Newgrange lottery, hoping to win one of only a hundred
coveted spots to witness the event.) Even though we visited closer to the
spring equinox and thus missed the mystical winter celebration, it was still incredibly
awe-inspiring to look up at the stone dome over our heads and realize that it
had been built more than five thousand years ago. 

Stone work continues around the back of the Newgrange mound

Researchers have determined
that many of the heavy building blocks came from the beach at Clogherhead,
twenty kilometers away. What planning and determination must have been required
for prehistoric people to complete such a structure without metal tools—let alone
no backhoes, jackhammers, and cranes! What faith motivated their desire and
dedication? No one really knows.

Ancient people decorated the stones around the mound

A smaller burial chamber nearby
Ruins of other Neolithic structures at Newgrange

The other large burial mounds at nearby
Knowth and Dowth were not open so we returned to the visitor center, where we watched
a short film about Newgrange and the solar calendar, and then had lunch at the café
(excellent parsnip soup and a five-salad sampler plate). From there, we headed
toward another historically significant point in County Meath: the Hill of

Hill of Tara

Like the fictional O’Hara family
that named its beloved Georgia plantation after this site, the civilization that
built the now-ruined monuments atop the Hill of Tara also is gone with the wind.
This is the spot where the most powerful men in Ireland once convened to settle
disputes every three years during the Middle Ages—the era we call “Dark” only because
written history shines but feeble light on it. In today’s brilliant sunshine, however,
it was easy for us to imagine a host of nobles in glinting armor, their colorful
banners snapping in the wind, gathering here to crown a High King.

A sign identified this mound of grass as Cormac’s House—
obviously not as well preserved as his digs at Cashel and Blarney
The Lia Fáil (Stone of Destiny) where the High Kings of Ireland were crowned.
According to legend, the stone would cry aloud to identify the rightful ruler

evidence shows that before this period, Tara had been a sacred burial place;
after Christianity became the dominant force in Ireland, the Hill again took on
a spiritual air with the addition of a church dedicated to St. Patrick. Fun
fact: in the 1800s, a group of Jewish zealots became convinced that the Ark of
the Covenant was buried at Tara and further ruined the Hill’s ancient
structures while trying to locate it. No matter what its political and religious history has been, the current serenity of the place certainly inspires reverence.

We would not have been surprised to learn that Aslan,
the lion king of Narnia,had been held within this “Mound of the Hostages”
while awaiting his execution by the wicked White Queen
Ravens were nesting in this tree
The Church of St. Patrick on the Hill of Tara

Late in the afternoon, we left ancient
history and our tour of the idyllic Irish countryside behind as we re-entered the
national highway around Dublin with its twenty-first century traffic. After a
couple of weeks on the road together, we have become a pretty good team: Nancy navigating
from a combination of GPS signals and the atlas (“Turn right on R-151 toward Rathfeigh,
which should be the third exit in the roundabout”) with Michael behind the
wheel, trying to keep up with her directions while avoiding oncoming traffic on
his right. So when the imperturbable voice of the GPS insisted on sending us
around Dublin even though electronic highway signs were warning of accident delays
on the ring road, we decided to find our Dublin accommodations by striking off
through the middle of the city on our own. And you know what? We did pretty
darn well—especially considering that it was rush hour, and that neither of us
had previously seen anything of Dublin beyond the bus route from the airport.

Welcome to the Pembroke

We were headed for Pembroke Road in
the southeastern quadrant of the city, a wide avenue lined with well maintained
Georgian-style townhouses and the compounds of several foreign embassies. When
we found the road, we began looking for Pembroke Townhouse, a hotel that
occupied one of those Georgian brownstones. Although the Pembroke’s website had
advertised free on-site parking, there was no garage or car park in sight, so
we pulled up on the street in front, checked in, and then got directions to the
hotel’s gated lot through an alley behind the row houses.

Pembroke Townhouse

We had reserved tickets for a
play at the Gate Theater tonight, so when we had changed our clothes and figured
out where we wanted to go for dinner, we got back in the car and drove about
seven kilometers across the River Liffey to a parking garage near Parnell
Square. On our way, we went up O’Connell Street, a broad boulevard with a landscaped
median, lots of monuments, and lots of pedestrians. The street’s most
distinctive feature is a gigantic metal spire that sleekly rises from the
middle of the median (purpose as yet unknown). Nancy said, “This looks like
Dublin’s equivalent of the Champs Elysées.”

“Look again,” Michael replied. “The
shops aren’t chic enough, and neither are the people. It’s more like Rue de la
République.” (He was right, of course.)

Skirting around Parnell Square on
foot, we found a row house on the west side with a small sign directing us down
the stairs to The Hot Stove. Happily, this very nice but unpretentious restaurant
offered a three-course pre-theater special that turned out to be one of the
best dining experiences of our trip so far. While we perused the menu, we were
treated to an amuse bouche of fennel-stuffed
pastry with mushroom coulis, then Michael chose a starter of wild garlic
risotto and Nancy the smoked salmon ravioli in a bowl of fennel soup. Even
though Nancy isn’t terribly fond of smoked salmon, the ravioli was such a nice
complement to the soup that she actually ate every square instead of tasting
one and giving the rest to Michael as planned. For the main, Michael enjoyed
the pheasant en croute with apple
stuffing, while Nancy relished her “bacon” (more like cured pork brisket than
the fatty strips we call bacon) with cabbage, colcannon (a traditional Irish
dish made with mashed potatoes, chopped kale, and scallions) and parsley sauce.
Michael’s dessert included separate dollops of chocolate and white chocolate
mousse served with a tasty granola bar (definitely not the kind that comes out
of a box); Nancy had passion fruit créme with crushed meringue and macadamia
Gate Theatre

Michael might have been happier
had the evening ended there, as the show at the Gate Theater, The Caretaker by Harold Pinter, was so . . . Pinteresque:  cerebral, multilayered, occasionally hilarious,
but more often hopelessly bleak. It was the glacial pace that really got to
him: interminable pregnant pauses bracketed by bits of terse dialogue. At the
interval, the woman seated in front of us said she hoped the tempo would pick
up in the second act. Having seen or read some other Pinter plays, we could
offer her no such assurance.

The story of The Caretaker involves two brothers, the younger a brusque man of
business, the older a sensitive savant with severe psychological problems. One
night the laconic older brother, who lives in the dumpy garret of an apartment
building owned by the younger, invites a garrulous homeless man to come in out
of the cold. When the younger brother finds the vagrant still living there weeks
later, emotional mayhem ensues. The audience is never quite sure which of the characters
has the best grasp of reality, or whether the “care” any of them takes for any
of the others is meant to be cruel or kind—or both at once. The drama ends basically
at the same place it began, leaving viewers feeling much like readers of a
typical “slice of life” story in the New
—shaking their heads and wondering what it all meant. Nancy loved it;
Michael not so much. For him, it was too depressing after the edifying, truly
awesome experiences we had had at Newgrange and the Hill of Tara.
Michael found the interval a much
more intriguing cultural experience than the play itself:  most patrons were at the bar, not drinking
alcohol, but drinking coffee from real china cups on real china saucers—no Styrofoam
or insulated cardboard cups in sight. He also had been impressed with the
unusual courtesy of the man who welcomed the audience before the play began.
Besides asking everyone to silence their cell phones and other noisemaking
devices (which some incredibly inconsiderate person still neglected to do), he explained that the adjacent parking
garage closed promptly at 11:00 and advised anyone who had left their car there
not to dawdle after the show. He also mentioned that the garage’s payment
machines did not accept credit cards or make change, so if anyone was in need
of the proper coinage, they should see a member of the theater staff during the
interval to obtain it.

The garage where we had left our
car was not the one adjacent to the theater, but a few blocks away. Walking
back there after dark, we realized that we had entered a pretty sketchy area
where the only people on the trash-strewn street looked like they were either
drunk or peddling drugs (maybe both). We had to swipe our parking ticket through
a card reader next to the door of the garage before it would unlock and let us
in, and we made sure that it closed securely behind us. Fortunately, Pembroke Townhouse is in a clean, more affluent section of town, and our room is located
off a quiet hallway at the back of the well-secured building. Once inside, we could leave our worries behind.