Echoing the Ancients in the Cradle of Samhain

The morning of October 31st started off grey and rainy and got stormier as the afternoon approached. I pressed my nose up against the window and watched as the clouds grew thicker and rain spilled down in sheets. It was the worst kind of weather, the kind that thwarts carefully hatched plans. This year I had decided to give the usual Hallowe’en fare of trick-or-treating and costume parties a miss in favour of something a little different. Ireland’s County Meath, sometimes referred to as the Royal County because it was once the seat of High Kings, is home to a wealth of historic sites. Popular destinations include the Hill of Tara and Newgrange but there are plenty of lesser-known treasures too, such as the Loughcrew Cairns.

The place that was calling my name on All Hallows’ Eve was the ancient site of Tlachtga, known today as the Hill of Ward, just outside the town of Athboy. This barely-explored archaeological site is held by many to be the birthplace of Samhain and the origin of today’s Hallowe’en. In the swirling mists of ancient Ireland, this was believed to be a ‘thin place'; a spot where the veil between this world and the next grows thin, particularly around the time of Samhain. The monument itself consists of a circular central plateau surrounded by a beautiful series of concentric circular hills and ditches.

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Aerial image of Tlachtga c/o Bing Maps. I’m not that tall and don’t have a helicopter.

The complexity of the site suggests it was a place of great prestige in olden times. Whilst Bronze and Iron Age activities remain shrouded in mystery, historical records show Tlachtga endured in importance. The last High King of Ireland held a synod here in 1167, attended by thousands. In 1172 the King of Bréifne, Tigernán Ua Ruairc, travelled to Tlachtga to negotiate disputed territory with Norman Lord Hugh de Lacy, but found himself rudely separated from his head in a gruesome assassination. Over the years, however, Tlachtga’s significance faded and it was mostly forgotten about, until in recent times, local resident Joe Conlon decided to raise awareness with an annual Samhain Fire Festival.

My windshield wipers were working overtime on the road north, but I was still holding out hope for a break in the downpour. Somewhere between Trim Castle and Athboy, without me even noticing, the rain abated. I made a quick pit stop at the Darnley Lodge Hotel on Athboy’s main street; they were serving up toffee apples for the kids and great big cups of pumpkin soup for the grown ups.

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Warmed by the soup and thrilled by the sudden absence of precipitation, I set off for the Fair Green where folk were beginning to assemble, armed with flashlights, lanterns and flaming torches.

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In the flickering light the crowd listened to tales of early Samhain, how it was a time to remember those who had passed and be thankful for the good things that had befallen them in the past year. Samhain was the Celtic New Year; they believed everything began in the dark and emerged into the light, just like a seed starts growing underground and reaches towards the daylight.

There was also a report from the first formal archaeological dig at Tlachtga which took place this summer and has already made significant finds, including evidence that the existing monument, which likely dates back to the Iron Age, may have been built upon an even older monument from neolithic times.

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Local storyteller Gemma McGowan got the crowd warmed up, teaching a song to be used later in the procession; a song in honour of the goddess/druidess Tlachtga who lent her name to the hill.

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The procession from the Fair Green to Tlachtga was about a mile along a narrow country road with no street lights, but the way was lit by fire pits and Swedish fire torches that guttered and danced in the breeze. Residents gathered at the gateways of their houses to watch the procession and hand out chocolate and biscuits. Along the way, three seers waited in the chill of night to offer festival-goers blessings for the New Year.

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A simple wooden stile guarded the entrance to this once-eminent site. Its plainness was perfectly lovely.

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The grassy slope, closely shorn by grazing sheep, rose gently away from the stile, then bobbed up and down in waves over the hills and ditches to the centre where crowds gathered in a circle and the pageant began, with pipers and bodhráns…

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masqued performers telling the story of Tlachtga…

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singing and ceremony to honour the memory of Tlachtga…

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Annette Peard closing the ceremony with the Dismissal of the Quarters

and remembrances of loved ones who had passed.

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Sinead C Kavanagh reading remembrances

It was an intoxicating mix of good will, turf smoke, drum beats and rosy, flame-lit faces etched in deep relief. People from all corners of the world and of all ages joined in, raising their voices and echoing the ancients in celebration of their loved ones, their ancestors, the dark that precedes the light, and a long-forgotten goddess.  As the ceremonies drew to a close, warming cups of hot cider were passed around and sipped in the glint of firelight.

Tlachtga has long been associated with Samhain and fire ceremonies. A text called The History of Ireland, written by Geoffrey Keating in the 17th century, explains that all across Ireland fires were extinguished on Samhain. Druids would then gather at Tlachtga to light a massive ceremonial fire and embers from this fire were taken to the Hill of Tara to light another great fire there. Once these two fires were blazing, the rest of the fires in Ireland could be rekindled. Some believe they were to be rekindled with embers from one of the two original ceremonial fires, but that would have been logistically impossible.

The fires on Tlachtga sputtered and went out; the crowd dispersed and we made our way back along the country lane to the Fair Green. As I got into the car a tiny drop of rain hit the windshield and glittered under the streetlights. In the frosted air and pale moonlight, I imagined Tlachtga holding back the stormy weather for just the right amount of time.

I’ll leave you with a little snippet of the Samhain Fire Festival on Tlachtga.

Happy Celtic New Year.

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Travel theme: Autumn

This evening’s sunset (October 31st) marks the start of Samhain, an ancient Celtic festival that waves farewell to the harvest season and prepares for the darker half of the year – but more about that in my next post. In the meantime, before the sun goes down on autumn, here are a few of my favourite things about this season. The leaves, their blaze of colour while still on the trees; the whirl and swirl as they tumble to the ground, catching in your hair, softly brushing your cheek on their way down. Kicking through mounds of brown, almost transparent leaves along the street listening to the rustling and the brittle crunch underfoot.

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Orchards filled to bursting with apples and pears and peaches and plums, boughs creaking and bowed low under the weight of their harvest. That first luscious mouthful of the fruit you just picked fresh off the tree.

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Sweet and floury roasted chestnuts, dark and shiny conkers, happy orange pumpkin patches, pumpkin soup and pumpkin lanterns.

pumpkin-halloween

Misty mornings and dew-soaked grass, great big bowls of soup filled with exotic flavours that chase away autumn chills.

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Hedgerow foraging, berries plump with juice, purple-stained fingers and lips, jams and chutneys bubbling on the stove filling the house with sweet and spicy scents.

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I adore this time of year, but how about you? Have you fallen under autumn’s enchantment? If you would like to join in this week’s travel theme by creating your own autumnal post (everyone’s welcome!) here’s what to do:

  • Create your own post and title it Travel theme: Autumn
  • Include a link to this page in your post so others can find it too
  • Get your post in by next Thursday, as the new travel theme comes out on Friday
  • Don’t forget to subscribe to keep up to date on the latest weekly travel themes. Sign up via the email subscription link in the sidebar or RSS!

xxx Ailsa

The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. – John Muir

Autumn is a second spring, when every leaf is a flower. – Albert Camus

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Travel theme: Numbers

I saw a shop window today that had a digital display counting down to Christmas 2014 in 61 days 15 hours 29 minutes 15 seconds.  While I’m  sure the intended effect was to throw shoppers into a spending frenzy, it just made me wonder how many photos of numbers I had taken on my travels. Here are a few photos that I came up with. My favourite clock in downtown Seattle.

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Washington Irving’s gravestone in a spooky little graveyard in New York’s Sleepy Hollow.

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Travelling down Route 66 with my pal Sylvia, we couldn’t resist stopping at the midway point to get a shot of those iconic numbers. Just the sight of those two sixes next to each other makes me want to bust out on another road trip today!

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I had a hard time finding photos for the number theme; apparently I don’t take that many photos with numerals in them. How about you? Are you up for some number crunching? If you would like to join in this week’s travel theme (everyone’s welcome!) here’s what to do:

  • Create your own post and title it Travel theme: Numbers
  • Include a link to this page in your post so others can find it too
  • Get your post in by next Thursday, as the new travel theme comes out on Friday
  • Don’t forget to subscribe to keep up to date on the latest weekly travel themes. Sign up via the email subscription link in the sidebar or RSS!

I’m counting on you! ;)

xxx Ailsa

Nobody grows old merely by living a number of years. We grow old by deserting our ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul. – Samuel Ullman

I never worry about diets. The only carrots that interest me are the number you get in a diamond. – Mae West

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Dancing with the devil

Tucked between Templar ruins to the north and an ancient lighthouse to the south, Loftus Hall is a foreboding presence on the Hook Peninsula, even on the sunniest of afternoons.

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Originally home to the Redmond family from around 1350, it was gifted to Nicholas Loftus in the early 1650s after the Cromwellian wars. The building became known as Loftus Hall when son Henry Loftus took up residence there in 1666 but it took another hundred years for things to get really creepy.

Charles Tottenham had married Anne Loftus and had two daughters, Elizabeth and Anne. In 1768 Anne Loftus died and after a suitable period of mourning, Charles married his cousin, Jane Cliffe, in 1770. Charles, Jane and Anne Tottenham took up residence in Loftus Hall; the oldest daughter Elizabeth was married at this point.

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One violently stormy night, a young man knocked at the door of Loftus Hall looking for refuge from the storm. He was admitted and proved to be such a charming companion he endeared himself to all members of the household, especially the daughter Anne. He stayed for quite some time and they spent their evenings playing cards; Anne and the stranger partnering up against Charles and Jane; the young couple winning every game.

Anne fell for the young man, but her father and stepmother didn’t approve. Here is where the story takes two very different paths, both with the same tragic outcome. One version of the story has the young man being told to leave, and when he departed, Anne had a complete breakdown. It proved such an embarrassment to Charles and Jane that they locked her away in a room known as The Tapestry Room and there she remained until she died in 1775.

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The other story that spread throughout the local community was that one night, whilst playing cards, Anne dropped her ring on the floor and when she bent down under the table to pick it up, she noticed that the young man had cloven hooves instead of feet. She realized she was in the presence of the Devil himself and upon being discovered, he disappeared out through the roof in a thunderclap, leaving behind the smell of smoking brimstone and a great big hole in the ceiling. Some believe it was a story spread by the Tottenhams themselves to explain away Anne’s subsequent decline into insanity. Others believe it really happened.

Either way, poor Anne spent her remaining years locked away in the Tapestry Room where she allegedly sat, hunched over, staring out to sea waiting for her love to return. When she died, they had to construct a special coffin because her muscles had seized up and her bones had fused into a hideously deformed shape from her constant vigil staring out the window.

The cloven-hoofed stranger is thought to have returned time and again looking for Anne and causing all kinds of poltergeist disturbances in the house. The family brought in several Protestant clergymen to rid themselves of the problems, but to no avail. Then they turned to a Catholic priest who was living on the estate, a Father Thomas Broaders, who is believed to have successfully exorcised the evil spirit.

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But that did not put an end to the paranormal activity. Throughout the years, all kinds of visitors have reported seeing the figure of a young woman passing through the Tapestry Room. As recently as this summer, Loftus Hall was in the news when ghostly images were captured in a tourist snapshot. It would appear that the brokenhearted spirit of Anne Tottenham is still very much at large.

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Travel theme: Broken

Noooo! My trusty little car that so bravely clambered the heights of Mount Leinster made a noise today that it shouldn’t have made and stopped working. I’m hoping it’s not too broken, but while I await the verdict and steel myself to be broken-hearted and broke financially, I am consoling myself by seeking out other broken bits and pieces I’ve found on my travels. First up, appropriately, a rusted and broken up old car at an outdoor museum in Winthrop, Washington. My car looks shinier but is equally immobile at the moment. :(

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This gorgeous pergola in the heart of Seattle’s Pioneer Square has been broken more times than I can count. In fact, just after I wrote this article about it, a bunch of reckless Seahawks revellers damaged it by partying on its roof! The good news is that a whole group of more responsible Seahawks fans, not wanting to be tarred with the same brush, chipped in to have it repaired.

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And finally, a much pleasanter kind of broken – watching dawn break over the wings of an airplane.

airplane aeroplane wing flight new york dawn travel

Are you ready to break out some of your shattered, smashed and broken photos for this week’s travel theme? If you would like to join in (everyone’s welcome!) here’s what to do:

  • Create your own post and title it Travel theme: Broken
  • Include a link to this page in your post so others can find it too
  • Get your post in by next Thursday, as the new travel theme comes out on Friday
  • Don’t forget to subscribe to keep up to date on the latest weekly travel themes. Sign up via the email subscription link in the sidebar or RSS!

xxx Ailsa

Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass. – Anton Chekhov

One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between Man and Nature shall not be broken. – Leo Tolstoy

 

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Mount Leinster and the Nine Stones

Ireland may not be home to the highest mountains, with only a select few topping the 3,000 foot mark, but what they lack in stature they make up for with their views, and the stories they inspire. The Blackstairs Mountains, like all good Irish mountains, come with a generous helping of myth and mystery. They run in a north-south line along the border between Wexford and Carlow and boast the highest peak in both counties, Mount Leinster. Truth be told, it’s not very high at all, measuring a mere 2,612 feet and despite its name, it is not even the highest peak in the province of Leinster – Lugnaquilla in the Wicklow Mountains is a good 400 feet higher. But something about the name of the Blackstairs has always intrigued me, ever since I had to learn the names of the mountain ranges in school. And so it happened that last weekend, needing to escape the indoor stuffiness of central heating and filled with a desire for crisp autumn air to blow away the cobwebs, I made my escape to the darkly alluring mountains I’d read about as a child.

The tiny town of Bunclody straddles the Wexford Carlow border and just past the string of pastel-painted shops there’s an unmarked turnoff onto a road that leads to Mount Leinster. Within minutes I was driving through windswept heath dotted with spicy yellow gorse and pretty bell heathers.

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Mount Leinster peeped out from behind trees and stone walls, dominating the view.

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Taking a left onto an even narrower road, trees and walls fell away and my little car climbed a weaving trail that wound around the curving contours of the Blackstairs.

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To my right the Barrow river valley dropped away, unfurled and spread out like a patchwork quilt of fresh greens and toasted browns.

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Wild horses roamed the slopes in surprising numbers. Up ahead of me, a group of eight adult horses shepherded a tiny foal from one side of the road to the other. They took their time, carefully navigating the man made fences surrounding the car park at Corribut Gap, kicking their heels up in glee once they had successfully found their way back onto grassy pastures.

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mount leinster, carlow, ireland, nine stones viewing point, travel, wild horses, travelogue, ireland

I followed the horses into the car park and got out to gaze up at the noble mountain I had come to see. It loomed golden brown in the autumn sun, with a neat pair of vertical lines scarring one side. Known as the Cailín Slipes or the Witch’s Slide, local legend tells of giants and witches inhabiting these hills in the distant past. One particular witch, the one who ruled Mount Leinster, had a falling out with her sisters in Wicklow and Wexford and in a fit of sibling rivalry, she grabbed a huge rock and went to throw it at them. Instead, she slipped and skidded down the mountain leaving those giant tracks behind…

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… and suffered a most undignified landing in the nearby village of Myshall. The local cemetery still bears evidence of her fall – her knee prints are embedded in stone.

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Of course, archaeologists out there will have you believe the above is just a fine example of a double bullaun stone but even so, the exact purpose of such stones remain a mystery. Variously called cursing stones or curing stones, they date back to neolithic times and carry an association with water ceremonies and the worship of the ancient deity Brigid. She ruled the Irish summertime, leaving the winter months to her sister deity Garavogue who I encountered last time on Witch Mountain. I love how these things fit together.

Those witchy traces are not the only mystery in this area. The viewing area is known as the Nine Stones Viewing Point and if you look closely, a little bit up from the car park on the valley side of the road, you will see nine stones lined up along the edge of the road. Nobody knows why they are there. Some tell of nine shepherds who got lost on the mountain and were never seen again, others speak of commemorating heroes of a rebellion in the distant past. Whatever the origin, this spot offers an amazing view over eight counties and on a clear day it is said you can see right across the sea to Wales.

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If you’re feeling energetic you can hike to the top of Mount Leinster, it’ll take you about an hour and will get your heart pumping. Or, if you’re wanting something a little mellower, just wander the slopes, watch the horses canter, fly a kite, or take photos of the bell heather.

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Here’s some footage of the breathtaking views from the viewing area.

xxx Ailsa

Posted in Europe, Ireland, Photography, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

Travel theme: Interior

After marvelling at the interior artwork of ancient tombs I went looking for other fascinating interiors I’ve explored on my travels. Hidden behind an unprepossessing exterior in the heart of Washington DC, I found an extraordinary monastery, built to resemble the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, containing catacombs and crypts and exact replicas of holy sites from all over the world. Here is part of the interior in all its neo-Byzantine glory.

old byzantium monastery catacombs washington dc franciscan

When you visit Seattle’s Central Library you are treated to Tony Oursler’s terrific Braincast video installation on your way up the escalator….

seattle public library, architecture, travel, photography, ailsa prideaux-mooney. Rem Koolhaas, Tony Oursler, video installation, art

…but if you take the right twists and turns along the library’s walkways you may just find yourself inside the installation looking out.

seattle public library, architecture, travel, photography, ailsa prideaux-mooney. Rem Koolhaas, Tony Oursler, art installation, video installation

An ultra modern interior to a tunnel at New Haven train station is in perfect contrast to nearby Yale University which was custom built to look ancient.

yale university tunnel

Are you ready to let me into your own interpretation of this week’s theme? If you would like to join in (everyone’s welcome!) here’s what to do:

  • Create your own post and title it Travel theme: Interior
  • Include a link to this page in your post so others can find it too
  • Get your post in by next Thursday, as the new travel theme comes out on Friday
  • Don’t forget to subscribe to keep up to date on the latest weekly travel themes. Sign up via the email subscription link in the sidebar or RSS!

xxx Ailsa

There is one spectacle grander than the sea, that is the sky; there is one spectacle that is grander than the sky, that is the interior of the soul. – Victor Hugo

Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over. – Ernest Hemingway

Posted in Photography, Travel, Weekly Travel Themes | Tagged , , , , , , , | 98 Comments

Death most ancient on Witch Mountain

Northwest of Dublin in the county of Meath there is a strange and mystical string of hills known collectively as Sliabh na Cailli, which translates as Hills of the Witch but more commonly referred to these days as Loughcrew. The three main peaks are Carnbane West, Carnbane East (aka Witch Mountain) and Patrickstown and legend calls them The Witch’s Footsteps, for they were created by a witch and giantess who carried boulders in her apron and created these stone-capped peaks by dropping the rocks she carried. In various versions of the legend she either leaps by her own power or jumps on horseback from peak to peak, but all versions end in tragedy when she stumbles and falls to her death at the final peak of Patrickstown.

This poor, doomed witch goes by many names. She appears in legends across Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man in various incarnations as Mother Earth, the Bringer of Storms, the Moon Goddess and the Goddess of Winter. Her mountains in the northwest of Meath are home to some of Ireland’s most ancient monuments and Stone Age art so it was in this direction I pointed my car one stormy Sunday morning. Loathe as I am to travel by toll roads, I took the scenic route, starting along the M4 west from Dublin instead of the more direct M3, and zigzagged my way northwest along Meath’s back roads. It was plain sailing as far as the castle town of Trim but after that the road quality dropped off and I got to experience the authentic Irish driving ritual of dodging potholes, blind corners and tractor traffic jams through Athboy and on towards Oldcastle. Just shy of Oldcastle I turned up a lane the width of my car and as steep as a cliff face. At the top a small car park with an information sign told me I had reached my destination so I parked and started along a small footpath in search of antiquity.

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The footpath led to a turnstile that opened onto a seemingly endless meadow. An uphill trail was marked by a series of posts and an OPW (Office of Public Works) sign urged visitors to stay on trail. The incline was enough to raise the heartbeat and a sweat so when I crested the hill I was excited to start exploring, but it turned out to be a false summit. Inexplicably, there was a small wooden bench surrounded by a wooden fence that suggested you had reached somewhere of note, but the only noteworthy thing I noted was the bench and the fence in the middle of a wide open field. Perhaps it was simply a place for weary visitors to rest on their way to the destination proper. I loved the unapologetic oddness of it; it felt intrinsically Irish.

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Just past the fenced bench the hill began again with vigour, renewed and even steeper. The trail markers stretched onward and upward and I steeled myself for another climb.

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Judgmental sheep mocked my slow progress. They paused their grazing mid grassy mouthful and raised their heads to enjoy the spectacle of me labouring up the steep slope. When I passed by they returned to their lunch with amused smirks on their woolly faces.

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The climb was more than worth it, for at the end of the second incline lay the true summit, topped by a spectacular megalithic cairn dating back to somewhere around 3,500 BC.

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It doesn’t matter if you’ve seen photos or footage or read about cairns like this before; nothing can quite prepare you for the moment when you first come across one of these ancient structures situated in the middle of nowhere. It stops you in your tracks, fills you with wonder and captures your imagination. You are compelled to draw nearer and long to know more of the people who built it. The main structure is circled by six smaller satellite cairns in varying stages of ruin, although all are clearly circular and contain stones covered in neolithic art carved thousands of years ago by Stone Age men and women.

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As I drew closer to the main structure the air reverberated with the sound of drum beats. Off to my left a small group of people dressed in brightly-coloured wool sweaters were sitting in the centre of one of the stone circles playing bodhráns, their heads bowed low in studied concentration. A Hollywood film composer would have been hard pressed to find a more perfect musical accompaniment for the approach to this ancient tomb. The rich thunks of the drums ricocheted off the stones and quickened my step. Around the corner a lone woman with grey hair blowing in the wind sat gazing out towards distant hills. She was a guide from the OPW who clearly loved her job. “This is my office” she said, gesturing to the cairn and the surrounding countryside. “I feel pretty lucky”. She gave me a flashlight and let me lead the way into the passage tomb, past heavily decorated stones lined up to create a narrow entrance.

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The wealth of ancient art inside the tomb was staggering and the further in I went, the more complex the inscriptions became. Inside the access tunnel I clambered over a waist-high flagstone to reach the inner chamber; a snug cruciform chamber with a corbelled roof and three side recesses, each with its own corbelled roof. The chamber to the west, facing the entrance, was perhaps the most ornate. The roof of the chamber was covered with symbols depicting what looked to me like a representation of the heavens and at the very back of the chamber was a heavily embellished stone referred to as the Equinox Stone.

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The entrance to the tomb is aligned due east and at sunrise on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes the sun’s rays stream along the narrow passageway and bathe the inner chamber in a golden glow. lighting up the Equinox Stone and tracing an arc across its face. Symbols that look like rudimentary depictions of the sun are etched across the stone and trace the exact route of the sun’s rays on the equinox.

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Back outside my guide suggested I take a moment to sit on the Witch’s Throne, a great kerbstone where the witch, sometimes known as Garavogue, was rumoured to sit and gaze out at the stars and the surrounding countryside. It is said she will grant you a single wish if you make the wish while seated upon her throne and then walk clockwise around the cairn.

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The top of the throne is marked with a deeply etched cross; a much later addition, perhaps dating back to penal times when the rock was used for mass. The stark incisions looked quite brutal in comparison with the neolithic swirls and curlicues from inside the chamber.

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Christianity left its mark literally and figuratively on this ancient site. The patriarchal society that Christianity ushered in is also the reason the witch Garavogue was downgraded from female deity to frail old hag in post-Christian folklore. I made my wish to a once fierce and powerful sacred feminine, then circumnavigated the summit. The views are genuinely breathtaking; I defy you to find a better panorama in all of Ireland; on a clear day you can see 18 counties from here.

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Here’s a short video of my visit to Loughcrew. I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you get to visit for yourself sometime.

xxx Ailsa

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Travel theme: Bountiful

Fresh from revelling in the bounty of Ireland’s autumnal hedgerows, I decided to take a look at some other bountiful moments on my travels.

Soft swaying fronds of sugar cane fields in Guatemala promised a bumper crop and bountiful harvest.

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Tulips were bountiful in Skagit Valley

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…as were the wads of chewing gum stuck on the Gum Wall in Seattle’s Pike Place Market.

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Are you ready to get bountiful, abundant, ample, plentiful and rich? If you would like to join in this week’s travel theme with your own interpretation (everyone’s welcome!) here’s what to do:

  • Create your own post and title it Travel theme: Bountiful
  • Include a link to this page in your post so others can find it too
  • Get your post in by next Thursday, as the new travel theme comes out on Friday
  • Don’t forget to subscribe to keep up to date on the latest weekly travel themes. Sign up via the email subscription link in the sidebar or RSS!

xxx Ailsa

Every moment of your life is infinitely creative and the universe is endlessly bountiful. Just put forth a clear enough request, and everything your heart desires must come to you. – Mahatma Gandhi

Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop. – Ovid

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Hedgerow Harvest

I can’t help but be filled with glee around this time of year when the autumnal equinox arrives in the Northern Hemisphere and like magic, hedgerows everywhere dress themselves in jewel-toned berries, hips and haws. John Keats encapsulated the season in six little words, my favourite description of this time of year: Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.

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One of the ways I like to welcome in the season is to spend an afternoon bumbling along hedgerows looking for wild fruit. It’s easier in the countryside but even in the most built up areas there are places where wild things grow. I’ve been blackberrying in Seattle‘s Discovery Park and London‘s Hampstead Heath. There are year round foraging tours through many of New York’s parks which make for a fascinating way to spend an afternoon. Central Park is home to a wealth of wild greens, nuts, berries, mushrooms, even an occasional persimmon tree. In Manhattan, however, I find myself more inclined to look but not pick. I figure Gotham wildlife have a hard enough time surviving without us humans trying to pinch their food. A more exciting approach to harvesting in urban areas comes from the UK’s charity The Urban Orchard Project. Around the country they are rejuvenating neglected orchards and planting new community orchards. In urban areas, apart from planting new orchards, they identify existing fruit trees where fruit would normally go to waste and organize groups to harvest and redistribute the fruit throughout the community.

This year I’ve been watching autumn progress along the winding lanes of the Irish countryside. Hedgerows are dripping with rosehips, elderberries and blackberries, and tree branches are groaning under the weight of sour, crunchy crab apples just begging to be made into jelly.

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Yesterday I stole an hour to gather together some wild berries and apples for a hedgerow jelly, some rose hips for a batch of rose hip syrup (the sexiest way to get your daily dose of vitamin C) and a bunch of elderberries for a ye olde worlde (and super tasty) Elderberry Rob (syrup) to guard against flu.

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I also spotted a clump of blackthorn trees sporting the elusive sloe berry and made a mental note to return after the first frosts have readied the sloes for a batch of sloe gin….

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…took time out to make friends with the locals…

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… then cooked up a batch of rose hip syrup.

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Not a bad way to spend an autumn evening.

xxx Ailsa

 

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