Monday, April 23, 2018

Ireland day 3: the ancients

One of the reasons I wanted to travel in Ireland was to see evidence of old people. Really old people.  Day 3, May 4, 2017, would be all about megalithic. We would spend the day in Counties Donegal and Sligo, in the northwest part of Ireland.

Our breakfast at the Mount Royd Country Home in Carrigans near Derry set us up for disappointment later in the trip because this morning's feast was superb.  There was fresh scrambled egg with smoked salmon, toasts, homemade sweet bread, yogurt and fresh fruit, fresh orange juice – the works!  All served to us in the lovely dining room by the lovely couple.  Recommend!

A Full Irish Breakfast!

The farm animals enjoyed the pasture behind the house. 
photo credit Drew
 Our host encouraged us to go check out a nearby ring fort that wasn't even on my radar. I was hesitant, because I had a lot on the agenda today, but it was close and we needed to walk off that big breakfast.
The roads are so narrow! Following Jim and Shelly's car to the ring fort high on the hill dead ahead.

The ring fort looked huge even from far away.

We were headed to Grianan of Aileach, which is a hillfort built in the sixth or seventh century. It is thought that the hillfort may have been less for defense than as symbol of royal power.   It is thought to be the seat of the Kingdom of Ailech.  This site probably was the king's principal dwelling and it's high, multilevel walls and the location on a high hill commanding great views show the status of the inhabitants.
I can see why the King of Ailech wanted to build his home hillfort here.
Great views from the top of the wall.

The fort has three terraces connected by narrow steps. There would have been buildings inside.

Down the hill a little ways is a spring dedicated to St. Patrick. 
I'm so glad our host suggested we go see this amazing site. Looking down over the impossibly green farms checker-boarding the countryside, with easy access inlets from the North Atlantic, I can see why a 9th century king would chose this spot to prevail over his subjects.

But back to the program. We had more old sites to see. Unfortunately, I was not able to get us back on track very quickly. Less than a mile from the hillfort, we stopped at The Old Church Visitor Center. 

This church was not on the agenda either

There was some weird figurines in costume and I think they do some shows that are supposed to highlight the history and culture of the area.  Shelly liked it but I wanted to get going. We had shopping to do.
Next stop Donegal Craft Village.  I had read it was an artisan craft village.  We did certainly find artisans there, but it wasn't quite what I expected.  The shops were individual stores in a very nice, square-shaped strip mall of sorts. Each artist had a store to sell his or her wares.  I think most of the shops were also studios. But maybe becuase it was a weekday, the place wasn't very busy.  We looked around and I bought some woven goods from this weaver.

She made my hat and some gifts.
To get to the real old sites, we had some driving to do.  Road food needed.

Almost every gas station we stopped at amazing pastries. Heavenly.

Throwing this pic in for my family, who are candyholics. I love Aero bars. We don't have them in the U.S. but I had them growing up when we would visit Canada.

This was my favorite mountain in all of Ireland. It's called Benbulbin.  It just looked cool to me. A nice landmark.


One of the two megalithic places I really wanted to see was Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery.  This is one of the oldest and largest sites in Ireland. There were probably 60 tombs and monuments thought to be used from 3700 to 3000 year ago.

Tomb 51 at Carrowmore, the large center tomb around which many of the other sites seem to be oriented.

Tomb 51 is a large Passage Tomb.  There would have been a roof over the top of the center passage. 

The passage leads to a space inside where the dolmen is. This is where the people would have been buried after cremation.

One of the boulder circles with a dolmen in the center.  Knocknarea hill in the background. The little nub on top of Knocknarea is a huge cairn 33 feet high and 150 feet wide called Medb's Cairn that might be 3000 years old. The cairn has not been excavated but is probably one of the largest passage tombs in Ireland. 
Carrowmore was a pretty amazing site. Just the number of stone circles, dolmens, and tombs was astounding and I wonder how and why ancient people made these structures.


So Carrowmore was cool, but Carrowkeel was rumored by our Irish friends to be the coolest. The site is huge, but undeveloped. As such, there were no signs pointing the way.   I had not wanted to research this site because i didn't want to spoil the experience, but I should have at least figured out where to go. My lack of research got me into big trouble.

We hiked up a road that was supposed to get us to the site, but at the top of the hill, there were only faint paths. I went up one, and the rest of the group went down another. Separating from the group = Mistake #1. I hoofed it to the top of the hill, but in my haste to find The Site, I overlooked The Site!  Being in a hurry = Mistake #2. Like I said, there weren't really any signs, just what looked to be piles of rocks covered with scruffy grasses. 

 I looked around and didn't see the others, so I figured they must have been correct going down the other path, so I veered off to the east to see if I could see them on the next hill over. I didn't have my cell phone with me because I didn't have international plan activated so there was no way to contact them = Mistake #3. One thing led to another and I found myself almost cliffed out. I could hear some voices, and the wind was coming from the other hill, so I decided I needed to go that way instead of doubling back from where I came =Mistake #4. Once down to the bottom, I decided they were not on the other hill, but must be down in the valley, so I head that way = Mistake #5. By this time, we had been separated for about 45 minutes. I ran all the way down the valley and did find some cool old rock buildings, but definitely not the tombs of Carrowkeel. So back up I went to the place where we separated. It was here that I saw Drew with his bright yellow jacket high on the hill looking out over the landscape. As I got closer, I could hear him calling forlornly. Up I went again as fast as my blistered feet could take me until finally, we were reunited. I think if Drew had not been so relieved that I wasn't crushed inside one of the tombs or fallen off the side of the cliff, he would have been very angry. By this time, and Shelly and Jim had gone back to the car thinking that is where I would go if separated. We managed to get a call through to them to say I was safe and we would be following along soon.   Among my feelings of relief at having not been lost and left behind, stupidity for not being able to find the site, and regret that I made my loved ones worried and angry with me, was anger with myself that I screwed up my opportunity to see one of the best megalithic sites in the world.

This little stunt of mine had cost us well over an hour and we were already way behind schedule for the day, but Drew knew how much this meant to me, so he humored me for a few minutes as I frantically ran around to some of the piles and peeked inside the passageways. Definitely not with time enough to reflect on how great a piece of history this place is or imagine how the ancient ones would have worshiped and buried their dead.

The tombs were partially excavated in 1911, but have not been restored in any way. Most are a big pile of rocks with a chamber inside that is just big enough to squat walk or shimmy into.  

The site is thought to have been constructed between 5400 and 5100 years ago, which predates the Pyramids of Egypt  by 500–800 years.

One of the first archaeologist to enter on of the chambers described it this way, ""I lit three candles and stood awhile, to let my eyes accustom themselves to the dim light. There was everything, just as the last Bronze Age man had left it, three to four thousand years before. A light brownish dust covered all... There beads of stone, bone implements made from Red Deer antlers, and many fragments of much decayed pottery. On little raised recesses in the wall were flat stones, on which reposed the calcinated bones of young children."

Inside one of the tombs. There were no artifacts left to see, but the stone construction, the smallness of the space, and the fact that humans used this space thousands of years ago for ceremony was awesome to me.


Ok, so major screw up and biggest regret of the trip behind us, it was time to head for our lodging for the night.  We still had quite a drive to get to Westport and the Woodbine Cottage B&B, which turned out to be our favorite lodging of the trip. 

 The house had once been a carriage maker's shop, and it had a wonderful sitting room where we lounged after dinner with a bottle of wine.   Photo from

The house had once been a carriage maker's shop, and it had a wonderful sitting room where we lounged after dinner with a bottle of wine. Photo from
And the breakfast room was warm and sunny. Photo from
Westport was a cool town with lots of charm. As we walked to dinner, we crossed the Catholic funeral processional of a prominent member of the community. It was the largest of its kind I had ever seen.  Dinner was at a hip Euro joint with good food. Shelly and I had wanted to go into some of the pubs from which Irish music was emanating, but Jim and Drew were not in the pubbing mood, so we retired to the Woodbine Cottage for our bottle of wine.

Day 3 had been a big day, full of cool unexpected stuff, a major mishap, and above all, big adventure.