Thursday, 28 April 2016

Dunmoe Castle with dramatic sky

The wonderful thing about April is that it brings these glorious days that are a photographer's dream - a mix of strong sunshine and dramatic skies and towering clouds. In this case, a distant cumulonimbus cloud looms over the ruins of Dunmoe Castle in the Boyne Valley.
from Flickr

Stormy sky over Drogheda

Evening storm clouds over Drogheda. In the centre of the photo is the martello tower at Millmount, which sits on the top of a large earthen mound. The mound is said to have been raised by the Normans in the 12th century AD, but local folklore says it is the burial place of an ancient Milesian bard, Amergin, who is said to have arrived from Spain in the 17th century BC. Recent archaeological investigations of the mound have revealed the possibility that it might be a mound of earth dating into prehistory.
from Flickr

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

North Cross, St. Mary's Abbey, Duleek, Co. Meath

Detail from the North Cross at St. Mary's Abbey in Duleek, Co. Meath. According to Peter Harbison, this is the smallest sandstone High Cross in Ireland. It dates from the 10th century.
from Flickr

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Almost 1.9 million sunsets since Newgrange was built

Almost one million, nine hundred thousand sunsets. If we take the date of 3150BC for the construction of Newgrange (which is the date favoured by archaeologists), then tonight's sunset in the Boyne Valley (pictured) would be the 1,886,632nd sunset since this great monument was built in the distant New Stone Age. Also pictured, directly under the setting sun, is a satellite mound known only as Mound B.

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Photo shared from Flickr

Tractor at work in the Nanny valley, Bellewstown, Co. Meath

A tractor in a field in the Nanny valley near Bellewstown, Co. Meath, rolling the soil after ploughing. The introduction of agriculture in the New Stone Age was arguably the biggest social and technological revolution of the ancient world, and set in motion the creation of today's civilisation. Mankind emerged from the forests, and left his hunter-gatherer lifestyle behind in favour of a seasonal farming life. It can't, however, have been easy to till the soil without the aid of metal tools, and although the new agricultural lifestyle did provide windows of "down time" - in which the great stone monuments were built - it didn't immediately create a sedentary and enchanted existence. Life was still harsh. The introduction of a lot of grains into the diet may also have contributed to shorter lifespans - not longer ones. Today, we can easily see why the biggest passage-tomb monuments are in this region. The Boyne valley area is abundant in rich, fertile brown soils. The Nanny river runs from Kentstown through Duleek and on through Julianstown towards the sea at Laytown. It is the next river to the south of the Boyne.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Blocc and Bluigne standing stones at Tara

Blocc and Bluigne, the two ancient standing stones in the churchyard on the Hill of Tara. Some people say they are guardian stones. Others say that they are fertility stones. One ancient text describes the inauguration of Conaire Mór as High King of Ireland. While wearing a cloak that should normally have been too big for him, he had to steer a chariot harnessed to two unbroken horses between these magical stones. Though one could normally only slide a hand sideways between them, these druid-stones parted before the king's chariot, allowing him to pass over the Lia Fáil, which then screeched out against his axle, declaring him king. (From Ireland - An Oxford Archaeological Guide by Andy Halpin and Conor Newman)

from Flickr

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Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Boyne bridge and walkway at sunset

Another photo from last night's sunset. This is taken from the boardwalk that connects Drogheda with the nearby Battle of the Boyne heritage site at Oldbridge. This is a fantastic local amenity, used by hundreds of people to enjoy views of the Boyne Valley as they walk, jog and cycle out to Oldbridge and beyond.

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from Flickr

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Aonghus and Caer lover swans on the Boyne at sunset

Two swans on the river Boyne at sunset beneath the Boyne Valley Bridge.

from Flickr

Three of the Seven Suns at Dowth

Three of the suns on the so-called Stone of the Seven Suns, one of the giant kerb stones at the ancient Dowth passage-tomb in the Boyne Valley, Ireland.

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from Flickr

Monday, 18 April 2016

Boyne Valley Bridge with crescent moon

The Mary McAleese Boyne Valley Bridge with waxing crescent moon.

from Flickr

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Sunday, 17 April 2016

Brú na Bóinne visitor centre sign

The sign, carved into rock, at the entrance to the Brú na Bóinne visitor centre, serving Newgrange and Knowth.

from Flickr

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Sunset over the Boyne Valley, viewed from Ardmulchan

Friday's setting sun over the Boyne Valley viewed from Ardmulchan.

from Flickr

Saturday, 16 April 2016

The River Boyne at Ardmulchan

I walked one day adown the Boyne,
From Domnach-Mor to Slaine;
How rich the fields on every side,
In Cattle, wood, or grain.

The river flowed in summer pride,
And on its banks of green,
How many a noble ancient home
Seemed sent'nelling the scene.

I marked the salmon springing free,
Beneath the glittering fall;
I heard the cuckoo in the glen
Repeat her welcome call.

Vigilantius, from the Irishman.

from Flickr
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Friday, 15 April 2016

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Monday, 4 April 2016

The Great Silver Yoke of the Boyne turns south at Townleyhall, overlooked by this wonderful viewing point

I wonder how many people throughout history might have viewed the mighty sweeping bend of the Boyne as she turns southwards at Oldbridge/Townleyhall from this great vantage point.  There is a pathway that leads up through the Townleyhall woods and suddenly you are on this precipitous edge, looking down over the dramatic curving Boyne. Its westward path is suddenly forced to the south, and then around to the southeast, as it heads for its magnificent sweep around the Brug na Bóinne monuments. Until the introduction of salmon weirs on the Boyne, the river was tidal at this point and further south. Here is a passage about the Boyne from the Metrical Dindshenchas:
From the bounds of goodly Meath
till she reaches the sea's green floor
she is called the Great Silver Yoke
and the White Marrow of Fedlimid.
Read more from the Dindshenchas here.

Not too far from this point are mounds which might have been part of the Brú na Bóinne complex. The area shown in the photo is highlighted in the top right corner of the Mythical Ireland Boyne Valley interactive map below:

Knowth - Cnó-guba, the nut lamentation - a stunning and heartbreaking insight by Helen McKay

This is a beautiful and yet heartbreaking insight into a possible meaning of the "nut lamentation" which is one of the stories from the Dindshenchas about how the great passage-tomb of Knowth got its name. It was contributed to the Irish-Stones group by Helen McKay.

In the time the Bru was built, the sun rose in Taurus at the spring equinox.  While we're not sure of how the Celts viewed the star stories, this important part of the sky is consistently a bull.  And the word for the bull's crescent horns to this day is 'benn' (as in Finbennach, the white horned bull).  The whole Brú complex sits on what is called a benn-chor, a curve of the river in the crescent shape, hence all the monasteries that end up as Banchory etc.  The bull is ever a symbol of male fertility - and the moon, so the central notion of the male bull-moon mating with the female sun at the spring equinox is a great picture.

The entrance to Knowth's western passage. In one version of its place name myth,
Knowth is named from Cnó-guba, the nut lamentation. See below.
But it gets better, because when you have a big central myth like this, lots of other things and ideas are going to get attached to the story. One thing that gets attached is the three cranes, that pop up all through Irish mythology and continental carvings - of Esus. I'm sure most people here will have seen this picture too, the great Donnotaurus (the Brown Bull of Ulster) and his local bull, sitting in the paddock with stunning white egrets perched on his back. But it's these cranes that are so fascinating, and without writing a book here, everywhere you go, in Ireland, in western civilisation, cranes/egrets are portrayed both as birds that have human souls, and the birds that brings souls into the world to be (re-)born. Most people here will have either received a stork baby card, or sent one at some point in their life. Sometimes a story is so deep in our genes, so intimately connected to our world view, that it can't be shaken off.  The most famous of the three cranes of the great bull is Aife, who is cursed to become a crane, and then her skin is used as a bag to hold things for Manannan (notice how many moon gods have names that start with man- or mid-). In the children of Lir story, Aife is again cursed to become a "demon of the air" after turning her sister's children into swans.  And what is directly above Taurus where these cranes would sit, but Algol, the demon star, which is a variable star that brightens and dims, just as the crane bag shows its treasures with the ebb and flow of the tide.

Too much really to tell in one small email.  But, if we think of the cranes and their role in bringing children into life - at the spring equinox at Knowth, then we have something stunning to consider.  And no I don't understand this, but it's a powerful story. Because if you look at the burials in the small mounds surrounding Knowth, and now at the breakdown of the cremation bones within Knowth's chambers, something extraordinary comes up - that there are lots of child cremations. Lots. Children only rarely get cremated, probably they die all too often, and aren't of high enough status to warrant a major ritual. There are children's bones in other tumuli, but only relatively rarely are they cremated. There is another 'urn' field in Ireland where each urn held a child and an adult - as if, said the archaeologist, the child was being given an adult to help them through to the otherworld.  But here at Knowth we appear to have children probably being cremated then brought to Knowth for some special reason that only Knowth itself now remembers.

Ceremonial basin in Knowth's eastern chamber. © Dept. of Environment,
Heritage and Local Government.
But there is a strange story about Knowth, just as we have the other stories, and it's all about loss (bearing in mind that we also have the western passage for death rituals?) Midir (note moon mid- element; who also owns the cranes) carries off a girl that Angus loves and part of the story is this:

This was the food of his band – bright feast –
blood-red nuts of the wood:
he casts the food from him on the ground;
he makes lamentation around the hillock.
Though it be called the Hill of Bua of combats,
this is the equal-valid counter-tale:
we have found that hence
from that 'nut-wailing' Cnogba is named.

So 'nut-wailing' and burials are what the stories of Knowth are about, and so it is. For a long time I tried to find any native 'blood-red nut' in Ireland, without success. But, when I went to look at the way a 'nut' is used within the language, it is a metaphor for a child. There is a story here at Knowth at the equinoxes that cuts deep into grief and the way people hoped for life renewed for their lost children.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Easter Sunday and controlling time at Brug na Bóinne

I suppose it's fitting that I should come to Newgrange on Easter Sunday, as the country remembers the events of a century ago, events that gave birth to a new nation. It's fitting in many ways. It's fitting because of the rebirth that Newgrange represents - the rebirth of the sun, and of new life, and perhaps also the rebirth of the soul.

I've come here for a short time to get away from the distractions of home, and to perhaps clear the mind a little, to allow the whispers of the gods to be heard among the chill winds of this bright but showery March evening.

Sunset at Newgrange on Easter Sunday. © Anthony Murphy.
What an auspicious day, Easter Sunday. A time when we think of resurrection, of the rebirth of dreams long forgotten in the shadow of winter. Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom. Aonghus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom. Just as I write that, I can hear the spring lambs bleating here on the grassy slopes in front of Newgrange. Oh lamb, why is it that you had to be sacrificed? What is it within us that believes something good will come of something so foul? Why do we feel we have to destroy life in order that life may flourish?

Perhaps those who were executed after the Easter Rising were the sacrificial lambs who had to be slaughtered in order for new life to thrive. But I don't know why that should be. I doubt I will ever understand it. Live and let live.

The sun comes now, beneath the cumulonimbus to the west, high above Rosnaree. Knowth reopens to the public after the winter at Easter. That is highly fortuitous, given that ancient Knowth was a site seemingly designed with finding Easter in mind. Ironically, the only time Newgrange closes is at Christmas.

At Knowth, at Easter, let us put Jesus into the eastern tomb at dawn, and perhaps at dusk we will find him emerging from the western tomb, facing Slane, awaiting the lighting of the Paschal Fire. In doing so, we might be putting him on the cross again, for the eastern tomb is cruciform, and the western tomb is not. He will shed his cross in order to come out the other side. Who knows what miracles might have been wrought in the depths of Buí's hill, overlooking the mighty Boyne.

Here at Newgrange, on the solstice, we will watch as god himself is born in man, a miracle of light in the darkness.

What we should not do is to try to control time. The Dagda tried to control time at Newgrange, so that he could lie with Bóinn for the conception of the new miracle son, Aonghus Óg, the son of god. But the plan came to nought because the Milesians arrived and sent them all underground.

Bressail Bó Dibad tried to control time at Dowth, so that his ego could be raised to new heights using a new tower of Babylon. But his plan came to nought when he lay with his sister, and the tower remained unfinished.

Today, on Easter Sunday, the period known as Daylight Saving Time began. At 1am this morning, the clocks went forward by an hour. Yet again, we are trying to control time. But the bleating lambs don't notice. The blackbirds in the hedge don't notice. The Dagda himself, in silent slumber somewhere in a realm known as the sídhe, doesn't notice. Today, we've fooled ourselves into thinking that the newly risen Jesus will tarry an extra hour at the doorway of Knowth.

Now that we think we have mastered time, what will become of us? Will our Milesians come, to banish us to another realm? Will darkness fall on our rush to build that tower to reach heaven - that new tower of Babylon, the one with which we will climb to heaven and converse with god himself?

The sun strikes the milky quartz on the western limb of Newgrange's great wall. The shadows from the great circle stones are much the same as they were yesterday. The lone crow riding the wind above the great mound does not see an extra hour of daylight. The sun sets when the sun sets. He does not put a number on it.

Last light at Newgrange on Easter Sunday 2016. © Anthony Murphy.
But I will delay a while longer, here at Newgrange on Easter Sunday, in the hope that, as Lady Gregory might have wished, Aonghus Óg will come out from the Brug and let himself be seen on the earth.

There are other people now. I gather by their accents that they are foreign. Sure weren't we all foreign once? Didn't we all come to this enchanted isle from across nine waves? We all come to Newgrange as foreigners. And we all leave as if leaving home. That is the power of the Brug. You leave it feeling that you are just a speck of dust on the master's table.

We cannot control time. It is futile. We can count it, and doubtless the builders of the great monuments did just that. And in counting it, and measuring it, and putting numbers on it, can we get any sense of beginnings and origins, of endings and destinies? This is one of the key questions that preoccupied the masterful builders of the great monuments:

Where did we come from?

Tied up with that question, bound inevitably to it. is the second part:

Where are we going, and what will happen to us?

In the pages of this blog, and the Mythical Ireland website, and my books, there is my own feeble exploration of those questions, a quest of sorts, an adventure in landscape and myth and time, an effort to put into words my own flimsy and fallible understanding of why I think the monuments, and the myths, of the Boyne Valley, are tied up with that ultimate quest.