Friday, May 18th
Herself needs to get to Rathfarnham. It’s raining, it’s miserable, the bus is a hike away and we’re running late. It’s half five in the evening. I decide to drive. Deansgrange to Rathfarnham should take, at most, twenty minutes, but no sooner do we leave the house than we get stuck in traffic. Eventually we manage to get onto the dual-carriageway, but I take a wrong turn and end up in the back-arse of Stillorgan, dense with traffic. I indicate to change lanes at a set of traffic lights and motherfucker in a C-Class Merc blows the horn at me. I swear blind at him and give him the finger. The city does this to people. I’m lost in a maze of familiar names, each greyer than the last- Sandyford, Dundrum… I should have taken the M50.
As soon as I get a clear stretch, I drive like a maniac. I manage to induce understeer on a roundabout. We get there late, but I leave her off and head for home at a much calmer pace… Or so I would have had I not found the motorway packed solid due to a car on fire and gone back through Dundrum where I get snarled up in a mile-long traffic jam moving much slower than walking pace. I have heartburn, the beginnings of a headache and I’m dying for a piss. It’s my first time driving in rush-hour traffic in Dublin and I hope it’ll be my last. Now I know why everyone in this town does drugs. Around Sandyford, I seriously contemplate suicide- I’d be home quicker. How can people live like this?
Saturday, May 19th
We’re heading to Meath. I pick her up in Rathfarnham and only get a little lost on the way. I’m deeply unimpressed by the fact it costs three quid to pass through the M50. Bring back the fucking toll bridge. I decide I’m not paying the toll on the M3 and so take a route along back roads, ending up in Trim. It’s not where I want to be, but it’s vivid green after a night of rain, the cow parsley is in bloom and it’s not the city which makes me very happy to be here. Lines of Phil Larkin spring to mind.
The Hill of Tara isn’t just a disappointment- it’s an abomination. Tara was the seat of the former kings of Ireland, a place of pagans and mysticism- a deeply important place in Ireland’s ancient history. According to the annals of old, the High Kings were inaugurated there and in order to receive their kingship, drank ale and symbolically married the goddess Medb. Yet even before that, Tara was important- on top of the hill sits the Mound of the Hostages, a small Neolithic passage tomb whose passage lines up with the sunrise on the Celtic festivals of Samhain and Imbolc, around November 8th and February 1st respectively. Around 1900, Tara was excavated (and damaged) by a group called the British Israelists who were trying to find the Holy Grail.
A story goes that in 433 AD, St. Patrick lit an Easter fire on the nearby Hill of Slane to defy the pagan High King Lóegaire mac Néill who had decreed that while a ceremonial fire burned on Tara, no fires were allowed to burn anywhere else in his kingdom. Patrick lit a massive fire on the Hill of Slane which drew the wrath and ire of Lóegaire. The ancient texts have Patrick and Lóegaire at odds with one another for the rest of their lives, some versions having Lóegaire converting to Christianity on his deathbed, others having him cursed. Nevertheless, the story marks Tara out as a place very much belonging to an ancient and druidic but remarkably civilized culture (ancient Irish law makes considerably more sense than modern law), predating by thousands of years, the fad of Christianity. Why, then, is there not only a fucking church, but a statue of that smug cunt St. Patrick there? Why celebrate Ireland’s descent into the post-tribal dark ages?
The cemetery has chestnut trees and hyacinths and it’s pretty all the same and I store it away in my mind for future reference as a film location. We stroll up the hill and it’s cold and windswept for May. It should feel different. It should feel like more than just a field, but it doesn’t. The tourists somewhat ruin the illusion of something mystical. The statue of St. Patrick conjures up images of mass in the ‘70s and Novenas in Knock- in other words, the exact antithesis to what Tara should stand for. It’s typically Catholic- first they rape our children, then they rape our landscape. Should have expected it really.
The Mound of the Hostages is all fenced off for excavation and mostly covered with a tarpaulin, which rather negates the point of anyone visiting to experience history firsthand. Tara has been so badly mismanaged, it’s hard to even know where to start, although I’d get rid of that fucking statue before I did anything. The nearby village is cheap and tacky too, seemingly fed only by the tourist trade at Tara. The visitor’s centre needs to be moved elsewhere. Moving it a half mile down the hill wouldn’t hurt, out of sight and mind for those pilgrims on the hill. Managing a historical site like Tara isn’t hard to do well- they’ve done it brilliantly at our next stop, Newgrange.
Newgrange is a real treat after the debacle at Tara. It has a visitor’s centre, which is small, perfectly informative and most importantly, a mile and a half away from the site. The museum has some cool models including a recreation of a “phallic stone” found at the tomb at Knowth. The stone, though not exactly penis shaped looks more like something that’d be found in a higher-end sex shop, albeit in a more polished state. It has all sorts of designs on it, including a ribbed texture up along the shaft, perhaps designed for a lady’s pleasure or the more libertine of Neolithic men.
We cross the River Boyne on a narrow suspension bridge and get on a minibus that takes us up to the tomb. In school, I studied Newgrange in great depth and drew it in art-history classes. Nothing could have prepared me for the scale of it in reality. Newgrange is enormous. The mound is fronted by a white quartz wall which, according to Michael O’Kelly, the archaeologist that excavated the site, is how Newgrange would have looked originally. I have my doubts. Though the quartz pebbles were found on the site, O’Kelly’s wall looks far too modern and a little out of place.
So what is Newgrange? Newgrange is a Neolithic mound built around 3200 BC making it older that Stonehenge and the Pyramids. It is 250ft in diameter and 40ft high with a passage going 60ft inside the structure to an inner chamber. The place is decorated with all manner of Neolithic artwork carved into the rocks and for 5000 years, the inner chamber has remained bone dry thanks to an impressive corbelled roof. Nobody knows the exact purpose of Newgrange, but human remains have been found in the inner chamber and on the Winter Solstice every year, the sun shines through a box above the main door, casting a beam of sunlight down the passage that illuminates the inner chamber for a few minutes. Perhaps Newgrange was a burial tomb. Perhaps it was some kind of calendar or temple of appease the gods. Perhaps it was all three. Nevertheless, it was a magnificent undertaking, the giant stones having been moved from dozens of miles away in an age without power when the country was still heavily forested, presumably by boat and some kind of rope and pulley system.
Until 1699, Newgrange was just a large mound in a field until a local landowner ordered his men to dig up the hill to quarry some stone. The men started digging and immediately discovered the entrance to the tomb. Over the next hundred and fifty years or so, Newgrange became a minor tourist attraction until it was taken over by the state in 1882. Minor archaeological work took place, but it wasn’t until 1962 when Michael O’Kelly led a major excavation of the site did we learn much, much more about the structure.
Newgrange is part of a much larger complex known as Brú na Boinne (a World Heritage Site) and in addition to Newgrange, there are hundreds of ancient structures in the area, including Dowth and Knowth, two other richly decorated passage tombs.
We walk around the mound and are taken inside by the tour guide, the passage narrow and cold. The inner chamber is like a cavern, illuminated by electric light. The guide explains more the mechanics of the place- about the corbelled roof and the Winter Solstice. I look around and see Victorian graffiti carved into the rocks, some of it remarkably accomplished in terms of penmanship. Stone basins in which human remains were found still sit where they were. The guide turns out the lights and it’s pitch dark. Not a photon to be seen. It’s blacker than black. She fades up the lights to give the impression of what it looks like on the Solstice when the sun shines in and hits the back of the chamber, though in reality, she says, it’s far brighter and warmer- it looks golden. She tells us we can enter a lottery to get into the passage on the Solstice to witness the sunrise and only fifty people are chosen every year, so we jump at the chance when we get back to the visitor’s centre and take one last look at the stone dildo before leaving.
Newgrange is a perfect illustration of how to manage a historical site. Entrance is ludicrously cheap for something so special and for such an experience as getting to go inside one of the marvels of the ancient world. For once, the Office of Public Works has done something absolutely right and I hope nothing changes, because as tourist attractions go, Newgrange is pretty damn special.
But it’s more than just a tourist attraction. There’s something profound about visiting Newgrange- something that Tara is lacking. Maybe it’s the carvings in the rocks- the work of artists 5000 years ago. I’m quite certain nothing I do will ever last that long. My words will fade from memory, the paper on which they’re written will disintegrate. My images on celluloid will turn to dust, computers of the future won’t be able to read Microsoft Works files. In 5000 years, what will remain of any of us, let alone our work?
As I drive home, I think about how six months ago, I’d never have been able to come here. I didn’t have a car. I’d never have been able to get out to the middle of nowhere to see a place like this. It really is freedom, the ability to hit the open road and go discover places. The thing about Newgrange is that it was built by people who lived so close to the land so as to be a part of it. The people here on this little island today still have that blood in their veins, and as such, are we not part of the land too? To drive to Newgrange is to discover that and in discovering that we discover a little bit about who we are. A drive to Newgrange isn’t just a trip to the country – it’s a trip to the heart of what makes us, us.
Sunday, May 20th
I’m leaving Dublin for a while and going back down home. Herself has to go to Walkinstown so, around four, we set off, hitting the motorway in all its grey and megalithic glory. We’re there soon enough and I drop her off and point the car home.
I’m faced with a choice- take the motorway home or go down the back roads? I decide that it’s too nice a day to be stuck in a sweaty car on a motorway, so I get off the M50 and onto the N81.
I head out of Tallaght on straight and boring dual-carriageway, not getting any luck at the traffic lights. I out-accelerate a Fiat Panda off the lights, but he puts up a good fight. His car is nearly ten years newer than mine, but I guess I’m just more bored than him. At the next set of lights, I get outrun by a sociopath in an Audi, because, let’s face it, since their mass-exodus from BMW, all sociopaths now drive Audis.
Soon, the road narrows, the traffic lights disappear and the road starts to get twisty. I lean on the throttle a little heavier. The great thing about the N81 is that, because it’s a “national route”, one can, quite legally, drive at wholly inappropriate speeds. I’m climbing up towards the mountains, kissing the apexes of tight, fast corners, the road ahead, empty. I pass Blessington and I drive out past the lakes, the Wicklow Mountains just across the way with the Palladian mansion, Russborough House, the site of a whole bunch of art robberies since the ‘70s, on the right.
I stop at Poulaphouca to look at the hydroelectric dam. There’s a pretty decent view from the road and at this time of year, it’s surrounded by trees and it looks almost pretty in its 1940s concrete ugliness. I stroll down to the bridge, built in the 19th Century which crosses the once famous Poulaphouca Waterfall which, was, once upon a time, a glorious thing, Ireland’s most famous waterfall until it was reduced to a mere trickle by the dam. The bridge is largely obscured by trees, but a glance over the parapet and a walk down by the side of the gorge gives an idea of how bloody massive it is. From the riverbed to the top of the arch is 150ft which, when viewed from lower down is almost frightening. When the reservoir behind the dam gets too full, the electricity company opens the floodgates on the dam and the surge of water reanimates the waterfall, at least for a while.
I keep driving south. I’m past Poulaphouca and going through glacial valleys on a smooth, empty road, the River Slaney to my right, barely a stream, crossed by quaint little stone bridges. I’m used to seeing the Slaney much closer to the sea I think of how curious it is that the wide, muddy monster is, up here in the mountains, a sprightly little brook and how it picks up such power along the way.
Mile after mile on tarmac, winding like a black ribbon around hills and past cottages, I think of how much better this is than the motorway and how even my little shitbox becomes a pleasure to drive. I’m in Baltinglass and I take a wrong turn and end up in a market square and I’m half glad of it because I realise that Baltinglass is a timewarp of a place. Very few things in that square have changed since the ‘60s at least. It’s another location I’ll use in my great Irish epic.
I’m past Baltinglass and leaving Wicklow, going into County Carlow. The roads get tighter, but they’re still smooth and I keep my speed up. I go through Rathvilly, crossing the narrow bridge, passing the old corn mill.
The roads beyond Rathvilly change. They get even tighter and narrower, and, even though this is still a national route, I slow down a little bit, the road weaving through estate land, cow parsley abundant. Somehow, the drive gets even better. I love the feel of the wheel in my hand on the tight, right-angled corners, the sensation of dropping down the gears on the way in, and accelerating out. The handling in the Fiat is terrible, but today, on this road, in the sunshine, radio off, just me, it and the road, it didn’t feel half bad.
The N81, which runs from the gates of Trinity College in Dublin and runs down through west Wicklow into Carlow, ends just after the town of Tullow. For me, it’s only a short hop home from there along some decidedly narrower, rougher laneways. On the drive home, I absolutely fell in love with a road. The N81 is my nomination for the best driving road in Ireland for a whole lot of reasons- it’s fast, it’s got a great set of corners and straights, it’s tight, but just wide enough for it to be nice and safe and the scenery is to die for- grey cities, purple mountains, blue lakes, green fields, yellow fields, stone bridges- it’s a haze of vivid colours and sensations and sights. In the right car, that road is driving perfection. So don’t go clogging it up on me.