November 30, 2008

County Wicklow: Hill of Tara

A short drive away from the Hill of Slane and the site of Saint Patrick's famous paschal fire is the Hill of Tara. Most of the monuments and ruins at Tara are so worn down that one can only "see" them if at the site themselves or if in the air.

Rocket Man and I have yet to grow wings, so we had to wait until we arrived via tour bus to see anything. While we had been unable to see any of Tara from Slane, we were able to see Saint Patrick's tower, church and monastery from Tara:

There are many ruins, mostly very worn down, at Tara. One of them is a hill fort, which looks like a circular shaped moat around a raised bit of land. Inside of one of these large circles are smaller ones, known as ring forts.

The most popular and widely photographed ring forts are the two which are connected. One is the King's Seat and one is known as Cormac's House. Cormac is perhaps the most well known high king, which is why the ring fort is known as his.

I think that the two ring forts connected like that look very much like the drawings we saw in Fourknocks passage tomb. We were told that they represented the sun and earth and their relationship to one another, but they sure do look a lot like the two forts at Tara.

Granted, the passage tomb is way older than the ring forts, so perhaps they modeled the forts after the carving in the tombs.

Located in the center of the King's Seat fort is the Lia Fáil, also knows as the Stone of Destiny.

Dah dah daaahhh...

The legend goes that when the next high king of all kings touched the stone, it would let out a roar of approval so great that it shook the ground. Thus all would know a new king had been found and so named.

We tested it is obviously showing its age because we got nada.

Also on the premises is a passage tomb known as the Mound of Hostages. This tomb is closed to the public. It is the oldest ruin on the hill. It gets its name from the fact that many of the high kings would take hostages while ruler of the lands. One took a hostage from each of the provinces of Ireland. I suppose this was to aid everyone in their allegiance to the king.

The old church on the Hill serves as a visitor center where those who wish to may watch a short video. The graveyard there has a few stones from long ago that many believe to be statues of important gods. Another legend has it that somewhere on Tara are two stones that stand close together. Those who wished to be the new high king had to drive their chariot towards the stones; he who was accepted as king would find that the stones would part in order for him to pass through. Those who were not "chosen" met with a much less appealing fate.

Thus concludes our time in Ireland. We had a very good experience overall. We would both like to visit the country again in order to see some of the other areas; all we've ever heard is that the country is so beautiful. We agree based on what we have seen and we'd love to explore some more.

Hope you've enjoyed the tour!

November 29, 2008

Six Months

Señorita Clementina,

Today you are six months old. This photo? I put it first to show that you are tired.


In need of a snooze.

I would like to make a suggestion. No need to accept it; I am just throwing it out there.

Sleep. All night long. Just once.

Don't look at me like that. I am not crazy. In fact, there are many babies out there who manage to sleep all night long pretty much every night.

Holy smokes; I know!

Oh, stop it. I know what you are trying to say: "Bull!"

It is not. I am telling the absolute truth, miss thing. Oh, how much happier you and I would be if you slept all night.

Mostly me, but also you, so just get with the program already!

Okay, I'll leave you to contemplate that one.

As should be pretty obvious at this point, you don't sleep through the night and haven't ever since we visited Virginia for your Geat Ganny's birthday. Woe is me.

On the plus side, this has been the month of making faces. My, oh my have they been varied and entertaining. They are due in large part to the fact that your teeth are a movin'. You just shove everything you can into your mouth and even chew on your tongue and lips. Whatever works, I say.

Towards the beginning of the month, your Dad and I fed you some cereal just to see how you would take it.

You were less than impressed.

The cereal itself is so thinned out that you could have been taking it from a bottle, so I am fairly certain that the faces were more about the spoon in your mouth than anything else.

Seriously guys? What is that thing, and why are you shoving it into my mouth? Also, why exactly am I naked? Are we supposed to remove our clothing to eat?

That could be a problem in a year or so. I can see it now...we'll be out at a restaurant and you'll be flinging your clothing all over the place. Excellent.

This month you have been very content on your belly for long periods of time. Recently you've been figuring out how to scoot yourself around a bit. The fact that you insist on having both hands in your mouth while you scoot has impeded your movement, but you don't let it get to you.

You are also changing in the looks department. You began life looking exactly like your Daddy did when he was born. Then you changed and looked very similar to my baby photos. Now, you are changing again. I enjoy these changes because we all get to discuss who we think you resemble most.

You are definitely looking different than the beginning of the month:

In addition to shoving your hands in your mouth and chewing on clothing, cloth diapers, lips, tongue, and whatever you can grab, the feet are still high on the list of things to put in your mouth. You are able to grab them and shove them in there as easily as you breathe, and you are quite adept at getting just the first two toes in so that you can suck on them.

The weather finally cooled off enough this month that we needed to put a hat on you. We both promptly died from the cuteness.

We soon recovered and were able to take you walking and out and about. Oh, how you love to be out and about. You are so very happy if you get a field trip and you absolutely expect your evening walk.

There you go with the faces again. I know, we put your hokie hat on ya and we want to take a picture. You're just starting to figure out the photo thing. I guess I've shoved the camera in your face often enough now that you're starting to understand what is expected of you:

Then again, it lights up and beeps, and we all know you enjoy those things, so perhaps you're just demonstrating your pleasure.

I am thinking it may be the latter.


Well, aside from the fact that you are only six months old, and are therefore technically still zero, there's this:

I am pretty sure you're not just saying who's number one.

How 'bout this. I'll try not to take too many photos and pester you with the camera if you try to sleep through the night.

What's that?


I agree: we're pretty much both gonna fail on that front.

Oh well. This too shall pass...



November 28, 2008

County Wicklow: St. Patrick's Flame

We headed out after our lunch to the Hill of Slane, made famous by Saint Patrick. The hill affords all visitors a fabulous view; one can see the passage tombs at Knowth and Newgrange as well as the nearby Hill of Tara.

Each year, the pagan kings of Tara met to celebrate the Festival of Easter (spring equinox). They lit a large fire as part of their celebration; the law was that no other fire was to be lit within a certain (visible) distance upon penalty of death.

The story goes that Saint Patrick lit a fire in defiance of the pagan celebrations. The high king of Tara could see his fire and sent sentries to take Patrick into custody.

At this point, the stories differ. Some say that Patrick was simply able to talk his way out of being killed or imprisoned. Others state that the high king challenged Patrick to a contest in order to prove that his gods were more powerful than Patrick's Christian God.

In that version there were three challenges between Patrick and his bible and the king's magician and (I assume) his spell book. The first was to place their book in water; whichever survived undamaged won. Patrick was willing; the magician was not.

The second challenge was to place their books into fire; whichever survived won. Again, Patrick was willing and the magician was not.

Patrick's faith impressed the king enough that although he disagreed with Patrick's beliefs, he did allow him free reign, so to speak, within the country. This enabled Patrick to travel all over Ireland, bringing Christianity to those he met.

On the hill, where all of this supposedly occurred, there are now ruins of Saint Patrick's church, complete with bell tower, as well as those of a Franciscan Monastery.

It is said that one can still climb the bell tower to get a good look of the surrounding area, but Rocket Man and I were not so brave as to climb so high in the ruins. Our next stop was the Hill of Tara, which I will show you tomorrow.

November 26, 2008

County Wicklow: Conyngham Arms

The Celtic tour we took on our last day was indeed a fabulous one. Of course, after the shoddy treatment by that other company, these people could have just done the minimum and we would have been praising them. They didn't at all. Over the Top Tours gave us a good look at a lot of the area north of Dublin and the driver/guide was knowledgeable and personable. In all it made for a great day.

Their tour buses hold a very small number of people, which makes the day much more enjoyable. We could go just about anywhere in the small van and we never felt like we were wasting our time at a stop...this would mostly be due to the fact that we only stopped when at a sight/location or for lunch. No uselessness here, people.

Our morning consisted of a visit to the Fourknocks passage tomb, a tour of Mellifont Abbey and a stop at Monasterboice to see the round tower and high crosses. We were all ready for some lunch at this point, and it was the next stop on our tour.

We stopped in Slane Village for lunch. There is an intersection in Slane Village with four identical three-storey houses on each corner. Our guide informed us that there were four sisters who wanted to keep an eye on each other's comings and goings. I don't have a photo as we were on the bus, but an interesting story nonetheless. I suppose those sisters were a tad competitive...assuming the story is true.

Remember how I told you that when the Queen (of England) passed away, back when England ruled Ireland, people were asked to paint their doors black...but in Ireland they rebelled and painted them every other color? Well, 'tis true away from the city as well:

I thought this house (cottage?) was quaint. Yup. I said quaint. Only because it is in Ireland, I am sure. Either way, you get to see a photo of it:

The name of the restaurant at which we ate is Conyngham Arms. We had a decent meal there, and if I recall correctly, it was a typical Irish meal to boot. Rocket Man and I were a tad worried about the food, since everyone we knew who had been to Ireland went a while ago when the food was still quite boring and bland. These days, however, things have changed. Yes, potatoes are still a major part of each meal, but they were used interestingly and tasted good to us. No boring stuff where we ate, no siree.

Perhaps the best part of our lunchtime stop was that behind the restaurant, there was a small parking area. Within that area was this road sign:

Not just slow, people. Dead slow.

After lunch we headed over to the Hill of Slane where Saint Patrick gained his fame.

Ugh. Sorry about that one, folks.

I guess I'm not completely rid of the elementary school music teacher yet...

November 25, 2008

County Wicklow: Monasterboice

Following our stop at Mellifont Abbey, we traveled a short way to Monasterboice to see what some consider the finest high cross in all of Ireland. The monastic site includes a couple of cemeteries, a few high crosses, and one of the largest round towers in the country.

I know that I have mentioned before that I love cemeteries, especially those that contain large headstones. This means that in Europe, I quite liked every one we visited. Most people find this creepy or just plain weird. I don't know exactly how to articulate what it is that I like about them. My appreciation stems somewhat from the tangible nature of the headstones coupled with the age of the place. In a cemetery, one is looking at the end of something and also at the beginning. It is where one is laid to rest and at the same time it is our history; where we come from. The older a cemetery is, the more I feel like this is the case. I find them peaceful; I find them beautiful.

The two located at Monasterboice are no exception. These are very old; they are ancient when compared to those in the United States. Needless to say, I liked them very much. I could have spent a long time there photographing headstones and the like.

There are three high crosses at Monasterboice. The North cross has been damaged by weather and war and therefore has few carvings that are legible. The most famous of the crosses, and the best preserved, is called Muirdach's cross.

High crosses were used in the same manner as murals and sculptures: to bring the bible to life for those who could not read it. These examples of Celtic art depict scenes from well known passages in the bible. All of the carvings haven't been identified with certainty, but many of them are quite obvious. The eastern face shows the fall of Adam and Eve, David and Goliath, and the three Magi bringing gifts to Christ, amongst other things. The center of the cross on the western face shows the crucifixion, with Christ depicted as was usual in medieval times: clothed and without suffering.

The high crosses are very tall; Muiredach's cross has a height of sixteen feet. The third and final cross, the West cross, is over twenty-one feet tall; this makes it the tallest in Ireland. Due to its location and the material from which it was carved, the West cross is more weathered than Muiredach's cross and therefore has fewer panels that are easily read. It is located just in front of the round tower at Monasterboice.

The round tower is one of the tallest in Ireland. It used to have four floors accessed by ladders. Additionally, that door you see in the photograph above used to sit farther above ground level. Over the years, the soil has layered around the tower, making it appear shorter. Many say that the door was up so high in order to allow the monks to take refuge inside the tower during Viking attack. Those who argue this say that a ladder would have been the only way to enter the tower and the monks would have pulled it up from the inside.

Others state that the reason the doorway was so high is to protect the integrity of the structure. Round towers were built with little to no foundation; to place the door at ground level would have surely caused the tower to fall. In fact, the area below the doorway is packed with soil and stone in order to strenghthen the structure.

Also on the premises are the ruins of two churches. They are very small and make for excellent photo opportunities. One is right beside the West cross and in front of the round tower. It is amazing to me that the churches are almost gone and yet that tower is still standing. Granted, it is missing its roof and it isn't safe to enter it, but standing it is. They fascinate me, the structures people built without any modern technology.

This stop marked the end of our very busy morning. We had been to Fourknocks, Mellifont Abbey and here. Where to for lunch? Why, Slane Village, of course!

November 24, 2008

County Wicklow: Mellifont Abbey

Our final day in Ireland was such a beautiful, though a tad rainy, day in Ireland. At least we knew to bring warm clothing to the Isles this time around. The second stop on our Celtic tour was Mellifont Abbey. We drove up and were met by this fabulous gateway:

The Abbey was the first Cistercian monastery in Ireland. It was founded by Irish and French monks but eventually the French left because of disagreements between the two. The fact that it was Cistercian made it the first "European" monastery in the country. Its establishment marked the beginning of a transformation over to the typical European way.

Visitors first see the ruins of the Abbey church, which was constructed in the typical cruciform shape. All that remains today are pillars and walls a few feet high. These give you an idea of what the church must have looked like. Within the floor of the old church are the graves of what were very important people. This is not unlike many churches Rocket Man and I visited while in Europe.

Past the Abbey ruins is the cloister, full of fabulously green grass. We are in Ireland, people. Located in the center of one end of the cloister is the lavabo, the hexagonal building where the monks went to wash up before meals. Beyond that are some of the buildings the monks utilized in their daily lives.

To the left of the lavabo is the very old chapter house, which was under restoration when we were there. This meant that it was under protective covering which made photos rather difficult. Inside, there were fine examples of floor tiles not unlike those found in Saint Patrick's Cathedral and Christchurch Cathedral. These are original to the monastery.

The pathways that surround the cloister were at one time covered by an arcade. Only a very small section of the beautiful and dainty-looking (compared to everything else, anyway) arches remains. It must have been very beautiful indeed. I imagine it was quite nice to walk around the cloister.

The main sight at Mellifont Abbey is the lavabo, an hexagonal wash-room. It was constructed so that lead pipes would bring water up from the nearby river. It has only been partially restored, but one can see why it draws such interest.

These days only four of its arches remain, and boy do they make for some good photography.

Do you know what else makes for good photography? Why, cemeteries, of course! No worries, graves were not the focus of our next stop. It was high crosses and round towers.

High crosses, headstones and towers, oh my!

You know you wanna see it, so stay tuned! Same bat(ty) channel, same bat(ty) time!

See ya tomorrow!

November 23, 2008

County Wicklow: Fourknocks

Our final day in Ireland was spent touring the area north of Dublin. We booked a tour with Over the Top Tours, a very reputable company. The first stop that morning was at a neolithic passage tomb, Fourknocks. There are many explanations for the many things we would see there; I am going to tell you what our tour guide told us.

First off, the name Fourknocks comes from the Irish Fuair Cnocs, which means cold hills. It was indeed chilly there that morning. There are three tombs there, but only one is excavated and open for the public. The passage tombs are older than the pyramids in Egypt, if that helps you with the time frame. Each passage tomb is for one specific part of life, as believed in way back when. One is for before life, one is for during life, and one is for after life. If I recall correctly (as written in my trusty notebook), the before life tomb was where cremated remains were placed, the during life tomb is where people were buried originally, and the after life tomb is where items were placed for use in the next life (swords, etc.).

The excavated tomb is aligned with the winter solstice sunrise. What this means is that at the winter solstice, the sun would shine directly into the entrance and light up the inside of the tomb. Fourknocks is the largest of the passage tombs in the area, and because of this it did not have a solid stone roof like the others. Instead, there is a post hole in the center of the floor which indicates that the roof was constructed with timbers. By the time the tomb was found, the roof was gone, so there is no way to know if this is true.

There are many carvings at Fourknocks. They all have specific meanings. Again, I am recounting what our guide told us; there are others who believe differently, just as there are those who point out that there is no way to be sure of anything. See that stone towards the top left of the entrance in the photo above? Those are zigzags, which are very prevalent at Fourknocks. That stone used to sit over the entrance tunnel; I imagine it was moved for safety reasons.

Below you can see the lintel stone that sits above the main grave. The most important people were buried here; this recess (one of three) is the one that would be lit up by the sun at the winter solstice. There are four diamonds carved there, with many zigzags over and below them. We were told these represent the four seasons.

The other two recesses have lintel stones as well. The western one has this stone with smaller diamonds. We were told that these represent the months...although they either only had ten of them or part of the stone is missing since there aren't twelve diamonds there.

Also in the tomb is the rock pictured below with two spheres carved into it. Spheres were another common shape in passage tombs. According to our guide, these two happen to be at an eleven degree angle to one another, which is the relation of the sun to the earth. No, I haven't checked to see if that is in fact true. Feel free to do so yourself.

One of the more interesting stories was that of the "face" which is carved on a stone to the right of the entrance (if you are inside and facing it). I have attempted to show you a good photo of it below. The left eye (as you look at it) is open and the right eye is closed. In the center is a nose diamond and below that is the mouth, etc.

We were told that this represented "Bayrhon"; he has one good eye and one bad eye. Obviously. Apparently, if your enemy were to look into his bad eye, he or she would die. I suppose therefore that this carving is meant as a deterrent to those who would have disturbed the graves. Protect away, mister!

We were told some other interesting habits/common occurrences of the time period. As I mentioned, they have one tomb reserved for after life, so much like the Egyptians, they must have believed in reincarnation. One story is that if a woman was widowed by way of her husband dying in battle, then a young child would be given to her to keep her company. At age seven, this child would be killed. This was thought to give him a good start in his new life.


Our next stop is another religious site, but one more aligned with current known beliefs: Mellifont Abbey.