Well, today was as they promised – rain with more rain, and a chance of rain with a high of 9C. I spent my morning just resting a bit and then decided that I was going to go see Navan Fort (or Emain Macha) in Armagh. It was one of my biggies that I wanted to do, and I was going to try to squeeze it in when going to Newgrange. So glad I did it today.
I set out and threaded my way through tiny roads first to go see Beaghmore Stone Circles and Cairns (thanks to J for the N.Ireland map – so helpful!!). I came by way of Banagher Forest Nature Reserve, which looked suspiciously like it was being clear cut, but they may use “Nature Reserve” in a different way than I know it. This road brought me over the Sperrin Mountains, just on the flank of Mullaghaneany. And the clouds, they were low today. How low, you ask?
I also got to drive through the clouds on my way back this evening, as I went through Glenshane Pass in the same range.
Then I reached a point where I was just going by counting the number of intersections of small unnamed (on my map) roads I passed before I should turn to hopefully make it to the stone circles. And I made it! Yay Irish tourism authority for signing even small unmanned sites like this.
It was raining pretty steadily so I didn’t take any pictures with my dSLR, unfortunately. I was quite soaked by the time I got back to the car. But the site itself was really interesting – trying to figure out what the lines and circles may have meant to those megalithic people. Apparently it is comparable in age to Stonehenge.
The ground was quite sodden, so my feet were wet beginning now (yes, J, you told me so). I also found lots of these guys sliming along (warning – bug picture).
I hopped back in the car and sat with the heater going full blast for a bit to try to dry myself off and to clear the windows (then I realized, sadly, that cold works better for that…) I planned my route, left, then straight, then left. I forgot the additional “straight” and took a slightly longer route to Cookstown than I wanted to, but it all turned out. I stopped for gas and then a little further down the road I stopped for groceries at a Spar. Then I headed south to Armagh. I got turned around and went out the other side so I had to go back and then I was able to follow the signs to the Navan Centre. And I was there!
A period costume interpreter met me at the door and started me off with some chatter that had me smiling. He was a warrior and craftsman, and apparently a rogue (immediately asked if I was hand fasted). He suggested that, since I was a lone traveller that I could be an outcast, or a thief, and that his tribe would be wary of me. He also thought it was too bad I did not come bearing gifts, or at least salt. It was fun. He came back up in twenty minutes to take me on the Living History portion of the exhibit. Shannon, the woman guarding the gate with a spear wasn’t very impressed that I didn’t bring gifts but she let me in anyways. The man introduced himself as Doragh.
We went into a round “house” and talked for a while and they explained their life and customs to me. It was really interesting – including anyone who “lived” in the house all slept in the same bedding area. They invited me to sleep over, and I thanked them for their hospitality. Doragh suggested he’d find me a place to lie (*wink wink*).
There was also discussion of the trial marriages of a year and a day, which could then become permanent handfastings or they could be dissolved with no hard feelings. This trial was important because a couple constantly fighting wouldn’t be productive and that could endanger the clan, because they wouldn’t be doing their fair share of the work. But any children coming from any marriage (trial or otherwise) would stay with the father’s clan and the mother would go back to her own. The woman, however, was able to divorce a man if he stopped treating her well, or if he became fat (literally if the belt he wore when he got married ceased to fit) because that could be a sign that he’s become lazy, or is eating more than his portion. This doesn’t apply to women because of what childbirth does. This sort of life gives new meaning to portion control.
We spent the whole time in the house and I got to heft the house owner’s (Finn’s) sword and he explained how the design of it is such to lighten the blade without weakening it. It was well balanced too. Then they explained how hurley was used to teach their little ones (girls and boys) how to be warriors (without teams mind you). It is a bit like baseball, with a more hockey stick shaped stick and you practice hitting a ball towards a goal, which builds upper body strength and makes you able to slice at folks. And he had been mentioning that the warriors (men and women) run into battle naked. They noted that I was wearing warrior colours, with my blue (woad) scarf and coat, and that since I was travelling alone, I must be a pretty good one. Then we talked about weaving a dying wool and other fabrics and I mentioned knitting and they really suggested I join the clan because I had a useful skill and was a warrior. Heh.
All in all, it was really interesting. I spent an hour out there. They hand churned fresh butter right while we were talking with a jar and a few sticks tied together. And I got to try grinding barley into meal with a fancy Roman hand grinder, not one if those old fashioned indented stone slabs with a hand rock things. *pfft*
As I left, to eventually head back to my own lands (many days travel west), they gave me a gift of a handful of barley. For luck.
Doragh walked me back to the visitors’ centre and we chatted a bit out of character. He marvelled at the fact that I was a scientist, a biologist. He said that was the amazing part of his job, he gets to meet so many different people from different walks of life. We then parted ways and I headed into the interpretive exhibit that talks about the excavations they’ve done around the site. Now Emain Macha had been populated since at least 4000 BC, and has gone through many changes. It was probably the ritual centre of Ulster for pagan religions of the time, up to around 95 BC when they built a huge, circular wooden house, filled it with a cairn of stones 3 metres deep that seem to have come from all over, set the structure on fire and then covered it with earth and turf from all over as well. One of the theories was a ritual for the 34 chieftains of Ulster, connecting their lands with the Otherworld (common association with destruction, i.e. fire, and burial, i.e. earth mound.) The structure had been separated into 34 partitions (slices of the pie, if you like). The site was abandoned basically after this.
Archaeologists in the 1960s dug the whole thing up and then reconstructed it exactly after they’d catalogued the whole thing. They’ve also found what they think are sacrificial offerings in a couple nearby lakes (one man-made in the BC timeframe, called The King’s Stables). Mostly animal bones or antlers, plus one person’s face… Just the face…
After that, I hiked up to the mound itself. The rain had stopped and it was just a light drizzle so it wasn’t bad. When I got there, there were three fellows standing next to a rabbit warren opening in the earthen bank around the mound, and one fellow had just picked up a furry body and the other fellow picked up his lumpy grain sack from the ground and walked towards him, then they took off as I walked up the hill. I didn’t say anything to them, I was there to see Emain Macha. Still playing with the barley in my pocket, I took out a bit and offered it to the mound. I walked around it (on the earthen bank after I realized it had two moats – or at least it did today). My shoes were just absolutely squishing at this point and I could feel bubbles between my toes. Then I headed back and picked up another piece of trash and dealt with it.
The last thing for me to do was to attend their audio visual show. I grabbed a tea and warmed up while we waited to see if the other folks wanted to attend as well. The people at the centre were just too kind. I was one of a few folks braving the wet today but they seemed to honestly care. I mentioned the fellows up on the mound to the one lady and she said that they weren’t supposed to be doing that and she’d let Irish Heritage know and she thanked me for mentioning it. I felt like a bit of a tattle tale but there was a sign marked “Nature Preserve” on my walk back… And I saw two rabbits – a blond and a black – bounding away from me as I walked.
So the two families left without seeing the show (apparently the little ones were quite done) so I got the theatre to myself. I don’t know if something was supposed to be on the screen but they played a story of Cuchulainn and of the Curse of Macha and the Tain (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) where Queen Mebh and the men of Connaught were defeated by Cuchulainn and King Conor (eventually). I listened and it was quite well done.
I found the road my cottage is on and all the rains today had caused flooding down the hill so it was like driving over a riverbed with all the stones and sand that had been displaced. Luckily the water had mostly subsided so the little Nissan Micra made it. And then, I cranked the radiators and set my shoes to dry.
Tomorrow is supposed to be gorgeous so it’s off to the Giant’s Causeway. I’m planning on visiting Bushmills but we’ll see how much time I have. Then bright and early Monday morning, zipping off to Newgrange and the Hill of Tara and Monasterboice. Then back to Dublin! How time flies!