Thursday, February 21, 2013


Around a year or so ago, I took a day off work in order to visit the Neolithic site at Newgrange.
But because Newgrange was there and wasn't going to go away I decided to go for a coffee instead. I'd like to emphasise here that I've never neglected the importance of having time to go for coffee. After all, the 'coffee morning' is a significant instrument of gossip, one of Ireland's most important forms of social control. But Newgrange, well I'd been there before, a number of years earlier and I just felt incredibly drawn by the place.
Newgrange is what they call a 'passage grave', and it being over 5,000 years old, one can only speculate that it might have had some sort of religious significance. Maybe that's one of the things that draws me to it - the fact that we can only wonder what the whole thing is about. How did people who only lived for about 30 years manage to gather stones from distant places and erect this massive building, aligning it with the rising sun so that the sunrise can flood the chamber at solstice? When they simulated the solstice light from within the chamber that last time I'd been there, I remember feeling overwhelmed. So I wanted to go again. And now that I don't live there and it's far away and almost inaccessible, I did go. Last Saturday.

There was an old bokety van that left from outside the tourist office and charged 17 euro return. Not bad for a post celtic tiger trip, and the bus itself made me feel like Ireland in the good aul bad aul 80's: semi unprofessional, friendly, possibly illegal and somebody other than the driver is making a few bob out of it.
As soon as I boarded the excuse for a bus, I hear 'hello, are you also travelling alone?' It's one of those annoying solo tourists who like to latch on to people.
'Well, em, no, not travelling as such, just taking a day out to go on a spiritual journey.'
'Yeah, I've been here before and I find it an incredibly spiritual place.'
I politely hear that she's from Holland, staying in the city centre and that she loves Ireland. I politely tell her that she looks Irish with her red hair - because gingers who visit Ireland tend to feel special.
And then I move to the back of the bus, excusing myself with a book. Some young Americans get on and a moody couple with a lunch box (I'm guessing Germans).
I've been here a few times before so I'm not surprised to hear that there will be a two hour wait until we can do the next tour. I visit the tourist centre and the gift shop, pay some humungous price for some mini slice of quiche and as big as the place is, I keep on seeing the ginger Dutch lady who I have decided I am not going to be nice to, as I am on a spiritual journey and not a tourist hosting mission.
It's about 3 or 4km to the actual site, so instead of waiting on the shuffle bus I decide to kill time and walk over. The smell of Spring trying to push it's way through the hard winter soil and lush landscape along the river Boyne is precious. As I approach the site, I begin to fill with wonder, awe, something that I can only explain as soul, I feel some sort of connection to the mystery of the past, to the things our ancestors knew and did that seem to have gotten lost along the way.
How did stone age women have babies without epidurals? Whatever they did, the population grew, so it was something that worked.
Walking across the lush fields to the site
When the rest of the tour arrive in two shuttle buses, the guide gives us as much info as there is to give, and half of the tour go inside whilst the other half walk around outside. I'm in the half that do the walkabout before going into the chamber. It's one of those sunny February days and a ray of light cuts across the low wintery sky.
The sun - I realise that the sun is still as significant now as it was then - we just don't seem to notice that anymore. And I wonder about the soul. 5,000 years ago, when life was so visceral and short and survival based, what did those people know about eternity that got them building this passage grave. I feel overwhelmed.
But then something happens. I walk behind a big stone in my spiritual state, and yes, there she is - Dutch ginger lady, throwing up, and believe me, not in a ladylike throwing up way, but more in how I might have imagined our neanderthal ancestors to have done.

Light across the wintery sky. Newgrange on the left
I'm mad. She's been ruining my spiritual retreat since I boarded the bokety bus. So I walk off in the other direction and get about 100 yards away before my conscience sends me back. I go over and put my hand on her shoulder.
'Are you ok?'
'Oh, yes, thank you, just feeling a bit sick, but better now.'
I give her a paper hanky, then change my mind and give her the whole pack. She looks pale.
'Are you sure you're ok?' I ask again.
'Yes, thanks, I think it's just the stress of travelling alone and then the bus journey.'
There's a story there I tell myself, but I'm not going to ask to hear it, not when I'm on my damn soul searching one day retreat with half of it already in the back of a  15 year old red Ford Transit Van.
As we get our turn to go into the chamber she turns around and drops the whopper -
'So where is the spiritual part of all this, is it inside the chamber?'
'Oh, it's probably just me that finds it spiritual' I reply, offering her a Nurofen Plus the way you might hand someone a chewing gum.
And that's when I begin to like her. I realise that the soul and the spirit are endlessly personal and unique, and that only by finding that out like this, can I understand that other people must also find their spirituality in the strangest of places, and that here, in this light chamber, it might be only me who feels a sense of eternity, of peace, of mystery and of soul.
We head back to Dublin, and all I know is that I feel spiritually recharged. I feel kind again and have a newborn energy to cope with the worldly things around me.
Somehow, being in that chamber makes me feel that some part of me will never die. I'm polite as I disembark the bus.
'Goodbye now, enjoy your holiday in Ireland.'
'Goodbye, you should visit Holland sometime, you would love the Windmills.'
'Possibly' I reply, and when I don't mutter fuck off under my breath, I realise that
I am truly on a spiritual high.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Thing About Ireland

There was a time, years ago, my first stint in Germany when I was things like 20 something, that I had this madly romantic notion of Ireland. And that was back in the day when there was no internet radio that you could have blasting the farming news in the kitchen, and no Irish Times online or nothing. Germany was Germany and Ireland was Ireland. There were Deutsche Marks and Irish Punts, and the Irish 5p, which was on a par to today's 5cent, worked as a Mark, similar to a Euro in phone boxes and cigarette machines. So you didn't need WhatsApp and you could get a really cheap deal on cancer.
Flights were luxury and you got a 'free' meal and 'free' drink in the air, or as my mother used to say (upon arriving sozzled to Germany) 'I paid £500 for that half bottle of wine.' It was just that the flight came for free.
So every year or so I'd come home and go to a trad session, eat a 'full Irish' breakfast and buy a new aran sweater. Everything bad about Germany was purely because it was not Ireland, and my most used sentences were things like 'you wouldn't get that in Ireland' or 'the Germans just don't get it.'
It was because Ireland was a place that no matter what was going on, it was all about people and community and caring and interaction.
So, yeah, I went back. Lock, stock and barrel. I had originally only gone to Germany for three months, and always had the rule that I didn't want to own anything that wouldn't fit in my rucksack upon my imminent return. Of course the three months turned into fifteen years, and I returned to Dublin in 1999 with the aid of a professional removals company who required a removals truck and trailer; a camping van jam packed with the extras; three kids and a German husband ( the latter being the only thing I've gotten rid of in the meantime.)
It's life Jim, but not as we know it...
Twelve years later I realised that Ireland wasn't all that amazing once you were done with the aran sweaters and the sessuins. There was corruption that would make the Russian Mafia look like little Bo Peep, a police force to turn the Muppets into James Bond, and a public health service that couldn't hold a candle to the streets of Calcutta.  So back I went. Realising that it may not be Ireland, or Germany or Germany or Ireland, but that maybe I'm just one of these eternal grumps where 'the grass is always greener, especially in Boolavogue, or the Black Forest, depending upon where I am at the time.

So when I arrived in Dublin airport this morning, I reminded myself that I was spending the week in a dump. A nice dump on the coast, but a place where nothing works properly, and if it does it's because of some bribery or scandal or something that caused three people to get rich and 300 people to get poisoned, or end up homeless or something. Galway - a nice place for those who can survive life 200 metres below sea level. We spent the journey to Galway ridiculing the state of the roads, the god awful neo georgian monstrosities of ghost houses and the sprawls of fields that could be put to better use.
I still had the number of my old taxi driver from Galway, so I gave him a buzz and he met us off the bus. Of course in Germany - the land of pretzels and good horse meat, there would be a proper taxi rank, there would be a proper set down point.
But then the whole Oirish thing started to happen. You see, a German taxi driver wouldn't give you a bear hug to welcome you back to some gaff you used to live in, and a German taxi driver wouldn't remember all of your kids by name, and want to know how they were getting on. And would Mr Taxi, Germany, remember the last trip he picked you up on almost a year ago. But that's Ireland. Mr Taxi, Ireland, knows a few interesting details about my private life that the people who I plan to meet up with this week don't. You see, Ireland is a good country for the multi tasker, and with the demise of the church, taxi drivers have taken on the role of the priest when it comes to anonymous confessions.
Mr Taxi, Ireland, took our cases out of the boot. I had a generous tip lined up.
'Ah, nah', he said, 'get me another time, sure you'll see me again.'
And that was the moment where I got dragged into that time machine, and I was 20 something all over again and Ireland was a place, yes, that place that I had written off,  the one that was all about people and community and caring and interaction...