History weekend: Newgrange, Glasnevin and Richard III

Newgrange carved entry stone

Our trip to Dublin wasn’t just being in Dublin.  We planned it so the journey was part of the enjoyment.  We were on our way to visit Newgrange – a Neolithic passage tomb site. 

Why Newgrange?  To satisfy a curiosity first inspired by my Irish mother, who talked about the way the winter solstice sun pierced the passage and chamber of the tomb.  I once watched it with her on television.  I forgot about this until my visit to the British Museum Stonehenge exhibition which mentioned Newgrange and showed some of the artefacts found there. 

In the way of things, the easy trip from home to Manchester – booked months ago, now coincided with a rail strike.  Realising this, I scrambled for a coach ticket with the only available booking dropping me in Manchester at just before midnight.   However, my travel companion met me on arrival and we walked back to our hotel.  Next morning -delight!  Our booked train to Holyhead was running to schedule – we’d feared the predicted ‘strike disruption to your service’. 

The first station stop in Wales is Shotton. As we travelled, the stations names were getting progressively more Welsh sounding even in their English translation –  Prestatyn, Ryhll, Abergele, Llandudno Junction, Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, Ty Croes, Rhosneigr.  Picnicking and chatting on the train with spectacular views of sea, estuary, hills, valleys, pastures and moorland with very little built up or urban, our journey took us through territory, some of it perhaps, still as neolithic people experienced it.   

In Holyhead we had time for a walk over the footbridge, into Market Street, and to St Cybi’s church at the top.  It has a history dating from around 554,  (and also, now marks the start of the Anglesey Coast Path ) with the Roman fort of Holyhead built on much earlier fortifications and evidence of earlier neolithic settlements.   Thus, our history weekend began.

Then 3 hours on the ferry, with mesmerising sun shimmering on water and the slightly disorienting movement of the boat.  More picnicking, chatting and being grateful we weren’t Viking sailors in open ships going off to invade and maraud.  Finally, being rocked asleep by the movement, for a short nap.

Now the experience of being a stranger.  This is a feeling common to many Irish, including my mother and several of her siblings, who emigrated from Ireland to other lands.  We got a tiny and passing glimpse of this as we navigated the trip from the ferry terminal to our Airbnb.  Does the train take coins, notes, travel cards, contactless cards?  How does the ticket machine work?  Is our destination northbound or southbound?  Which train is it? The indicator boards that herald a train, said ‘All stations to …’ and then specified only the destination, not naming the ‘all stations’.   

Next morning, we made the trip into the city centre to pick up the coach to Newgrange.  It started auspiciously seeing a rainbow as we walked to the bus-stop, where, once again, we met the mystery of travel in a foreign land.  Buses only take coins (no notes) or the Leap card.  We scurried from the bus-stop to look for an ATM and then get the notes changed to coins.  But we made the coach on time.  

The Newgrange tour takes in the Hill of Tara, the ancient capital of Ireland, Knowth and Newgrange passage tombs, the two latter are part of the UNESCO World Heritage listed site of Brú na Bóinne.   Our luck with weather held – raining in the times we were in a vehicle or in the visitor centre and sunny when out on the hills walking round the sites. 

No need to repeat that the tombs are wonders of engineering ingenuity and astronomical/mathematical knowledge.  The artefacts found on the sites show skills in metal mining and working, stone carving, and a host of other trades.  They also raise all kinds of questions, to which there are no answers, or multiple possible answers.  We heard snippets of the disagreements amongst academics, historians and archaeologists on what the finds ‘meant’, and how to interpret them in a way that may (or may not) reflect the culture and society of the originators. 

So much is guesswork.  My companion was reminded of the film The Little Mermaid in which an artefact from a sunken ship is interpreted as a hair comb and given the name Dinglehopper.  It is in fact a fork for eating food with – a fairly ordinary object – but Scuttle, in the film, prizes the dinglehopper, giving it that name, due to his lack of knowledge of the human world.

Nevertheless, we got a fantastic insight into what the current interpretation is of the passage tombs, and the neolithic stone carvings, with due caution on this being the current state of what we think we know.  (See Writing Neolithic Britain: an interpretive journey for more on the changing state of ‘knowledge’).

On the coach trip back, we saw a double rainbow.  What did this signify?  The coach stopped in front of a cinema.  On the spur of the moment we went in and watched The Lost King, about finding the body of King Richard III under a car-park in Leicester.  We got more insights into a different period of history and how it is interpreted, and the disputes between dig participants.  Philippa Langley’s account of this is well work reading.

Day two of our history weekend, saw us at Glasnevin Cemetery, tracking down some family history.  This was prompted by a friend, currently living in Dublin, who I’d hoped to meet while we were there.  The timings weren’t great so I suggested that we meet for an early-morning coffee by the Newgrange coach pick up point – Ned Kelly’s Sports Club.  He replied “Glasnevin cemetery not far from Ned Kelly’s, went there recently. They do guides with local historians. Guide was great, so much insight.”   At that, I thought I remembered that my grandparents were buried there.  I asked my brother and cousins if I’d remembered correctly – yes, indeed. 

The cemetery holds 1.5 million people, and I tried to trace the grave location just before we left, but no luck.   At the info desk I asked whether someone could help me find it.  With the scant info I could provide – name, year of death, they found the grave.  I said we had other family members there but didn’t know if they were in the same plot.  No problem, more database interrogation and the seven family members’ details all appeared, all buried in the same plot.  (‘We dig deep.’ He told us.)

We set off with a cemetery map, with X marking the spot, instructions on how to read the co-ordinates and hope in our hearts.   We found the plot – unmarked, but findable by the numbered gravestones on each side.  Just to be sure, we took the names of the people on each side and on our way back, asked for confirmation that it was, indeed, the right plot.  The response, ‘Yes, you’d make great grave locators.’

To round off day two we set off to the Museum of Archaeology to see some of the artefacts our Newgrange guide had mentioned, and to learn more about some of the Irish history.  We were amused to see that the Battle of Clontarf is now controversial .  Although taught as an historical event, it now appears that history books may have to be re-written.   

The return trip to Manchester yielded an unscheduled stop in Bangor, where we followed the timeline down the High Street (the longest High Street in Wales), but not enough time to explore the rich history of the city.    All in all a weekend of discovery, interpretation and enjoyment.

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