Saturday, April 30, 2016

Diary of a World Traveler

Sligo ➝ Navan: "He was too old for a confirmation and too young for a funeral..."

Our last morning in Sligo went without a hitch, and then we were off to Navan. The weather was not with us, so we only went to one of the historic cites on our planned list. But either way, the drive was pleasant and the place we did stop—Boyle Abbey—looked great even in the steady rainfall.

After about an hour driving from Sligo, we came to a little city called Boyle with a big, medieval abbey complex just outside town. This abbey was the daughter house of the first settlement of French Cistercian monks in Ireland. The Cistercians were introduced in the 12th century to help reform the old Irish church that was falling into disorder. A local chieftain gave the land to the monks in 1148, but the building was not finished until 1218. This can be seen in the different architectural styles present in various parts of the church; for example, the columns closer to the nave are arched in the Romanesque style, whereas the ones build later are set to a pointed arch in the later Gothic style. Even though they are only thirty feet apart, these differing styles indicate the vast time span it took to complete this church.

Around 2008, a team of archeologists and engineers came to the abbey to help reset the bowing outer wall of nave. Because the fort was invaded and used as a barracks later in time, the inside of the church does not have the original support structures to keep it upright. To fix this, archeologists dug out each column from the ground and then excavated the surrounding area. When everything was safely removed, a team of engineers came in to disassemble and then reassemble all of the columns with added support to the bottom. Most of the stones are original, but some had to be added. Our tour guide (another Joe, which makes him Joe the Fifth) also noted that some of the numbers written to catalogue the stones are still visible. They also added a set of wooden buttresses covered in glass to both support the wall from bowing any further and to give an idea of what the transepts would have looked like when it was covered. Pretty cool blending of styles there, too!

The rain continued to pour, but we still had to learn about the final piece of the abbey: the artistic stone masonry adorning the columns. The church was built first with very little ornamentation so that the monks would not be distracted during prayer. The chapel was not even built with windows, originally—those had to be added in later when stained glass became available and popular. Because of this, the front half of the church has very little artistic stonework. But as time went on, stonemasons began adding little stone accents to the columns to depict stories or legends. These were sometimes hard to see in the rain, because looking up would usually result in raindrops falling in my eyes. But the detail work of some of these carvings was fascinating. Our tour guide was adamant that these stories were only conjecture as to why the carvings were really made, but each seemed to have some sort of symbolic representation for church themes.

After the tour of the outside ended, we went up to the little museum room. There, the OPW has created a model of what the abbey would have looked like in its prime. I love miniatures of any kind, so I might have gotten carried away with the photos. But it is really cool to see everything as it would have been, complete with wooden roofs and all of the kitchen and dormitory rooms still intact and covered. Plus, they also included all of the satellite buildings where some of the local farmers would have done their work alongside the monks. In addition to being educational, it was very well done!

From Boyle, we continued on the interesting town of Athlone for lunch. Athlone is the largest city in the midland region and rests on the other side of the River Shannon. It is home to a beautiful cathedral, a castle, and Sean’s, Ireland’s oldest pub. We saw the cathedral and castle first. Sadly, we could not go inside the church because there was a wedding happening. But the outside was good enough for me—statues on each side, gorgeous turquoise copper domes, and imposing columns made from white stone. When we climbed up the castle tower walls, we got a perfect view of the river and the entire cathedral. Standing in front of it from the ground is daunting, but it looks even better from up high and far away!

For lunch, we tried a bunch of small cafes, but each was quite full. We landed on Leftbank Bistro. It looked fairly expensive, but it looked nice and turned out to serve great food. Some of my friends got a pulled pork flatbread with cucumber hummus and pickles, and I got a large bowl of potato soup with delicious soda bread. Everything was stellar and it came out in five minutes flat once we told her we had to be back to the bus by 1PM. Just as we were about to leave, a man came in wearing a purple waistcoat and a tri-point hat and rang his town crier bell, announcing the upcoming drama festival. It was not a spectacular performance, but it was an interesting cultural event to witness. I won’t be forgetting Athlone any time soon thanks to that.

Back on the bus, we continued our drive to Navan. This town grew a lot in the 90s when Dublin properties became too expensive. Because of its close proximity to Dublin, many people moved up here and commuted back to the city. Because of this, there are many cute shops, larger chain stores, an entire mall complex, a movie theater, and quite a few pubs in the city center alone. Our hotel, called the Newgrange, is right across the street from a beautiful church and a park, as well as being only five minutes away from shopping and the movie theater. The view is lovely and the city feels like a cute little town from back home. It’s lovely so far, and I can’t wait to see a little more of it before we have to leave on Sunday.

As for tomorrow, we are headed back up to Northern Ireland to Giant’s Causeway (one of the seven wonders of the world that looks across to Scotland) and then to see a premier showing of Captain America Civil War. It is going to be an amazing day! I’ll be tired by the end of the six-hour commute, but I think it is worth every second.

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