Normally I prefer to get the ferry to Ireland, but as it’s winter I decide to get the plane. It’s a hassle, and sadly Aer Lingus is no longer much classier than Ryanair – but as we come in to land, the sun is setting and shafts of rose gold light stream down between the clouds and the mountains – oh, Ireland, how could I have left you for so long?
It’s a mad holiday. The books I brought to read don’t even get opened. My feet barely touch the ground, as I bounce around from one relative to another – but I manage to make some time for myself.
One of the reasons I wanted to get home in 2016 was because of the centenary of the Easter Rising. Only in Ireland could the seizure of a post office by a handful of poets eventually lead to the liberation of a nation…
When I was here for summer holidays as a child, we would walk past the General Post Office nearly everyday. It’s where we’d buy stamps to send holiday postcards. And my mother would point out the bullet holes in the facade, and tell us about the Easter Rising in 1916.
This year they’ve opened an exhibition centre, so I go down and check it out. It’s quite dark, almost oppressive – but then, it’s not about a happy period of history. There are displays detailing life for the Irish under British rule, and previous attempts to gain a greater say in governing their country, and a timeline of events of the rising itself. There’s also a film presentation, which is very good. Parts of it are shot from an overhead perspective, moving around a map of Dublin, so you can see how events are happening in relation to each other – possibly not for the queasy! It’s very interesting, but I’m left feeling a weird combination of patriotic and sad which I still can’t quite describe. And to watch the film knowing these events were unfolding immediately above you is very odd.
It’s strange to look out onto O’Connell Street, when you’ve just seen pictures of it immediately after the Rising, when the British practically razed Sackville Street (as it was then called) to the ground, over the course of six days, until the rebels surrendered. It was British overreaction that achieved what the rebels were aiming for. Initially the average Irish citizen was not interested in rebelling. But once the British had executed the leaders, then arrested over 3,000 people they thought were involved, support for the rebels spread.
As I head out of the foyer of the General Post Office, the feeling of drama is somewhat undercut by the cuddly Christmas displays – a nativity scene and cute animals, in front of the statue of the dying hero Cu Chulainn.
Serious stuff. To lighten the mood, time for a quick visit to the Irish Whiskey Museum, near Trinity College.
I’ve not been in before, and I’m impressed with what they’ve done with the space. The tour goes up through several floors – one room is designed like a monastery, one like a traditional cottage, one like a nineteenth century bar. Each has films of characters from that time, telling the story of Irish whiskey, from its beginnings, to being displaced by Scotch whisky and the closure of most Irish distilleries, to the current revival – educational and fun. The top floor is for tasting, and it’s worth the price of admission just to see the grimace on the face of the girl next to me who’s just had her first taste of whiskey. Possibly she should have stuck to the cafe, which does a very tasty Irish coffee.
(Those who are already connoisseurs of Irish whiskey may prefer the Celtic Whiskey Shop on Dawson Street.)
That’s all the booze for this trip. I just have a quiet New Year’s Eve celebration with family, go back to my hotel at 2am, then daren’t go to sleep for fear of not waking up in time to get out at 6am. I like to spend New Year’s Day somewhere old (just to put things into perspective) so this year I’ve booked onto a trip to see Newgrange. I’ve tried in the past to get on to this tour, and it’s always been full, but I thought that most people wouldn’t want to get up at the crack of dawn on New Year’s Day – and I’m right.
I manage to stay awake, and make it to the coach on time. Dublin is very quiet as we drive around the city, collecting bleary-eyed tourists.
Our guide, Mary Gibbons, is really knowledgeable. The coach has people from around the world, and she manages to mention facts tying Ireland to their country for nearly all of them. As we travel through the Boyne Valley, Mary tells us about the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, when the English king James II (a Catholic) was defeated by his son-in-law, the Dutch prince William of Orange (a Protestant). Bad news for Irish Catholics! The battle had such lasting consequences, I can’t help thinking that the river Boyne itself looks quite small…
First stop is Newgrange – the most impressive of the many prehistoric sites in Brú na Bóinne. Newgrange is a Neolithic passage tomb. It’s older than Stonehenge, older than the pyramids of Giza. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site, and in order to conserve it only a certain number of people can go in each day. The visitor centre is some distance away from the site. From there it’s a 300-metre walk to where minibuses drive you up to the tomb itself.
It’s quite a site to see. The outside was reconstructed according to what historians believe it originally looked like – a high wall of white quartz blocks, studding with big grey river pebbles, at the front of a grass mound, with monoliths and carved stones around the outside. Photography is not allowed inside the mound, so I content myself with monoliths.
There’s only room for about a dozen people inside the tomb itself – and it’s a tight squeeze. Luckily I had a feeling it might be, so I left my coat and bag on the coach. But this is not a place for the claustrophobic, the tall or the stocky. The entrance is low, the passageway narrow – and then narrower – and then even narrower. Just as I’m having to slide sideways between rocks, wondering if this is a really bad idea, the passageway opens up into a space with three alcoves.
It is amazing. Built like a dry-stone wall, with no mortar or cement to hold the stones together, this has lasted for 5000 years. No-one’s entirely sure what it was for. The only thing they are sure about is that the tomb was designed so that on the winter solstice, for just a few minutes, the rising sun shines directly into the central chamber. Very few people get to see this (places are allocated by lottery), but our guide turns off the light, so we are standing in this ancient space in total darkness, until the light comes on to simulate sunrise.
The strangest thing is just how much the various carvings on the stones look like stuff I’ve been doodling all my life. Looking up at the corbelled vault, it feels very familiar. I could stay here all day, even in the dark.
But there are other things to do today, so it’s back to the coach, and on to the Hill of Tara.
Near the entrance to Tara is an old bookshop, called (appropriately enough) the Old Book Shop. The shop is run by local author Michael Slavin, who gives us a slide show about the history of Tara. It’s my favourite kind of book shop, the sort with books piled high on top of each other, where you might find anything. I pick up a book that claims Shakespeare was Irish – yes! Now we have all the best English writers!
It’s surprisingly warm for New Year’s Day, so I leave my coat on the coach and just wear a shawl. From the amount of families who’ve been tempted out here by the sunshine today, this place must be teeming with people in summer.
Another Neolithic site, Tara is a collection of earthworks and forts, which remained in use until the 12th century. Tradition has it as the place where the high kings of Ireland were crowned. Tradition also has it that you can see half the counties of Ireland from here, and on fine clear day like this, I’m inclined to believe it. You really can see for miles in every direction.
This is the closest I’ll get to mountains on this trip, so I make the most of clambering up the grassy slopes, trying to avoid the slightly squelchy ditches. Although most of the history here is buried under grass, and there’s very little to see, there is still an interesting atmosphere. By the time I’ve walked the outline of the two linked enclosures that form a figure eight, I’m almost in a meditative state. A breeze lifts up my shawl, so my shadow looks as though I have wings – oh, Ireland, I’ve missed you.