Thursday, April 21, 2016

Diary of a World Traveler

Sligo Day 3: "Give me your best Little Mermaid."

Wow. I am so thankful we have had three great days in Sligo so far. We had class this morning in Sligo City Hall, then got on a coach for Carrowmore, Knocknarea, and Strandhill Beach. The sun came out and shined some welcomed warmth on us all—perfect weather for an amazing day of exploring!

Class was held in Sligo City Hall this morning, in the fancy chamber where the city council meets. I could not believe they would lend this space to us, but they seemed very happy to have us there. The man who showed us the room told us all about the events that would be taking place in Sligo this weekend as a part of the commemorative 1916-2016 Rising celebration, which happen to be here while we are. How cool! We can go see a military parade and even a free concert if we want to. The day was sunny and warm and our classes went smoothly. After a quick break for lunch, it was time to board our bus for the outdoor portion of the day.

Our first stop was Carrowmore Neolithic Cemetery, where some of the first people who came to Ireland settled about 5,800 years ago—the oldest tomb is dated to approximately 3700BCE. That is nuts. Carrowmore has 30 separate tombs surviving today, which is the largest number of clustered tombs in all of Ireland. We learned from our lovely tour guide Jean that there is a tomb on every mountain tip surrounding Carrowmore. From the pictures, you can see how many peaks there are. It seems unlikely. But sure enough, at each highest point, there is a tomb that somehow lines up with the rest of the monuments on the ground. The tombs are filled mostly with the ritually cremated bones of past human inhabitants as well as some of their of impressive possessions: jewelry, carved deer antlers, etc.

After looking at the smaller tombs and learning about the local mythology and history of the place, we continued on to the main tomb. All of the smaller tombs face toward this cairn, so archeologists assume this was a place of great authority and constant contact. The cairn had to be rebuilt by a team of Swedish archeologists some years ago, but the dolmen on the inside is still completely original. Jean told us an amazing story about the nasty witch of winter who rode from her home in the saddle of the mountains over the land of Carrowmore, dropping the stones to make the monuments. This witch was in direct comparison to the powerful Queen Medb (Maeve), who is also a goddess of sovereignty. The two women were seen as representations of the land in winter (the grumpy witch) and summer (beautiful Medb).

But the most exciting part about this dolmen is what they learned in 2008. On a clear morning when the sun rises through the saddle in the mountains directly facing the tomb, the streak of light will cross directly through the dolmen stones onto the back wall of the structure. Then, a v of light crosses with a v of shadow as the sun comes up further. All of that is exciting in itself. But wait! This all happened on Halloween—the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (Sow-ain). Samhain is the beginning of the Celtic calendar and also the beginning of winter. The streaks of light and shadow cross to represent the changing of seasons, the changing of Medb to the witch. That is too cool to be a coincidence. It was awesome to hear that knowledge and let it soak in. Ancient cultures’ engagement in mythology will never cease to amaze me. And it is even greater to know that these sites are still there, and that they still work the same way. We can see that history right in front of us. It is palpable and electric.

I crossed the street to see a couple more examples of stone circles and portal tombs before boarding the bus again, this time bound for Knocknarea. We just learned all about Queen Medb, and now we would go visit her tomb atop the mountain. Local legend has it that she is standing straight upright in her cairn, in full battle armor, pointing at Ulster and ready to defend against them. Apparently Medb stole the king of Ulster’s finest bull, and the two regions are forever in combat over getting the prized cow back. I could not wait to get up there and experience this fascinating piece of religious history. Sadly, however, I had to climb a steep mountain to get there. No rest for the curious academic, I suppose.

The walk was not long, but was pretty steep. The views from the top are truly stunning, however. I was so glad to see almost 360° views of Sligo county—from Carrowmore, to our hotel and Sligo town, all the way to our next destination of Strandhill and the Atlantic Ocean. I said hello to Medb in her tomb and then made a circle around the edges. The sun had come out full force by now after a brief retreat into the clouds, so I could see anything and everything I could ever hope to. The afternoon light settled slowly onto the mountaintop when we all started to head down to the bus. We stopped along the way to pet and befriend some young bulls—obviously descendants of the infamous bull that made Medb famous. It was an honor to meet them.

Our last stop of the day was Strandhill town and beach. The weather was absolutely amazing for hanging out on the rocky shores. We popped into a local ice cream shop called Mammy Johnston’s, which served delicious scoops, crepes, cakes, and pastries. Everything looked to die for. I decided eventually on a cup of Hazelnut Biscuit and Award Winning Honeycomb, which were both delicious. We sat on the ledge, eating our ice cream and watching the waves come in.

I have never really been to a rocky beach before, so it was great to hear the waves pull the rocks back out with an amazing sound. It was a rough sound, but also mesmerizingly enchanting. I watched the surfers out on the waves and decided that I would go back and try that tomorrow. When we finished our ice cream, we climbed the rocks down to the shoreline and played in the water as it came in. We might have gotten a little damp, but we didn’t care. The salt air was doing us all good. It was a great way to end our school week.

The bus left Strandhill at 5:30 so we could be back for dinner at 6:30. We ate, then just relaxed in the room for the rest of the night. Our bus leaves at noon for surfing tomorrow, so we have to be up and ready to go by then. I absolutely cannot wait to go back to the beach and try my hand at surfing again. I won’t have a sail this time, so hopefully I can do a little better. It is going to be so fun!

photo credit Diana Cleveland & Katie Walker

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