Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Diary of a World Traveler

Dublin Day 10: "I remember her! I touched her!"

Though it was a misty day in Dublin, it provided the perfect backdrop to our trip to the historic monastic complex at Glendalough in the nearby Wicklow Mountains. We got to see the some of the remaining structures, an absolutely amazing graveyard, and the two lakes that give Glendalough—“valley of two lakes”—it’s name. It certainly lived up to my expectations. I had a great time today!

The coach set off at 9AM like usual, bound for the Wicklow Mountains. These are the famed hills from Braveheart, as well as where Guinness is said to get the fresh water for its beer. As we drove up through the winding roads and small towns, I could see why this landscape was used for such a romantic film—especially today, when the whole road was filled with rain and fog. I could tell we would have a good backdrop to visit the monastery.

As we pulled up to the visitor’s center after the hour and a half drive, everyone felt a little bit queasy from the mountain roads. But we muscled through and went into the center to learn a little bit about the background of the site. There was a lovely little museum set up with a great diorama, which helped to illustrate how the complex would have been laid out in its height. Because, as the museum said, Glendalough was not a monastery as we would think of the word today. It was more of a self-sustained community focused on religious worship and founded by a religious man. There were gardens, many livestock pens, a cathedral, a round tower, a graveyard, many smaller buildings on the outskirts, as well as smaller inner buildings for things like cooking, individual worship, or housing. Many ancient kings of Tara were known to visit, so they would have stayed in the elaborate guesthouse inside the community. 

Next, we watched a short film on the monastery and got a quick introduction by a tour guide. The movie had some interesting biases in it, which our professors commented on later when we left. Part of the problem was that the film was narrated by a stuck up British voice, which seemed out of place at an ancient Irish monastic site.

And secondly, it made it seem like Christianity somehow saved the entirety of pagan Ireland from the “dark” things they worshipped before. Though St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland and many people revere him for bringing Christianity, he did not succeed in converting people like the film made it seem. He wasn’t really saving them from anything, either. He simply asked the pagans if they wanted to accept Jesus Christ and the Christian god and they said, “Sure, we’ll put him on the alter with all of our other gods!” The conversion might have been peaceful, but that is because no one really became a true Christian until later generations. The beginning was just a fusion of two religions—a syncretic form at its best. The film, in my opinion at least, did a very poor job of explaining that delicate relationship.

The introduction by our tour guide provided a lot more useful information about the site itself. Glendalough means “valley of two lakes”. Appropriately, there are two lakes: the Upper and the Lower. The monastic community was formed in the 6th century by a man named St. Kevin. Kevin was a particularly fascinating character in history because he grew up a descendent of a king. Despite his bloodline, he decided to go found the community at Glendalough and secure a small following of monks there with him. From there, he inspired more and more followers to join him and also to establish similar monasteries all over Ireland, the UK, and even the continent.

The site itself has many unique and rare features. The double arch gateway would have once been more ornate, but denotes the site as a monastery. All similar monasteries around the country would have had that gated archway originally, though this one is the only remaining example. Just inside the gate sits a large stone with a cross carved into it. Apparently people would come from all over to enter the monastery and touch the stone, because that would absolve all sins.

There is also a fully intact round tower amidst the many graves in the churchyard—this is one of only a few in Ireland that are still completely standing. The cathedral is actually not too impressive anymore, since the roof is gone and not much of the interior remains. However, the complete structure of St. Kevin’s church makes up for that. The small church with a round spire and two rooms remains standing, nestled just below the rest of the complex in its own little nook.

We also learned a more appropriate analysis of the syncretic religion appearing in Ireland in these medieval times. Our guide said that the popular Celtic cross—a cross with a circle surrounding it—was actually a combination of the two religions’ symbols. The cross of Christianity was combined with the pagan circle, which symbolized the sacred deities of the sun and the moon. The vast collection of Celtic crosses scattered across the graveyard shows that this was probably a great way to synthesize the two religions and achieve the “peaceful” rise of Christianity that scholars are so quick to assume.

Walking through the complex was absolutely worth the long bus ride. The mist framed the buildings and the mountains just peaked out from behind the rain clouds to add an ominous look to the place. As I walked through the massive graveyard, I could feel the thin veil between the present and the past—I know it sounds crazy, and I think the weather was egging me on. But I seriously felt that we were not alone in that space. All of the history and the people buried in that land were still around to protect it.

With that eerie feeling, I happily walked through the rest of the yard to find the remains the cathedral, a smaller ruined building almost lost amongst that graves, the tower, and St. Kevin’s church. We came to the first river, where the path to the lakes started. We decided to take the upper road, called the Green Road. And it certainly was green! So many trees have begun to bloom in full force now, as well as the moss and green grass that have been here the whole time. We even spotted several huge slugs wandering around on the ground, out to enjoy the damp weather.

After about a ten minute walk, we arrived at the Lower Lake. This is a smaller, less picturesque lake, but impressively beautiful nonetheless. Smaller mountains frame it and a couple houses sit on its banks. We stopped for some pictures before continuing on to the Upper Lake. 

As soon as we got to the lake, we knew it would be a special place. The whole area surrounding it was flat, filled with green, and dotted with trees and flowering plants. The huge mountains went straight up from the water, gathering mist at the tops. The water was as still as glass and speckled with stones before becoming a complete mirror to what stood above it. If we focused, we could see a waterfall sloping down at the joint of the mountains in the very back of the lake. Like everything else at Glendalough, it was almost surreally stunning.

We stayed there for as long as we could, just taking in the peaceful company of the peaks and the lake. Looking out into the landscape calmed my wound nerves enough to make the long walk back to the bus a pleasant one. I took in everything I could, because I knew that this trip in Ireland would be coming soon to an end. Seeing incredible natural places like this remind me that my time here is running out. I grabbed a few more pictures of the monastic site quickly before leaving the thin veil of the past behind. How I would have liked to spend hours looking around that graveyard, imaging a life for each of the names on those gravestones. Sadly, however, the city called us back in a timely manner, and we all boarded the bus to make the journey back.

The bus took a different return route, this time past part of Dublin Bay and the Port of Dublin. I appreciated this because I have not yet had time to walk over and see the ocean here. Though the port is not necessarily the most picturesque, especially on a foggy day like today, it was nice to see all of the boats lined up in the blue-gray water. We then drove back along the Grand Canal past the 3 arena (the main sports facility in Dublin), the Convention Center, and the beautiful Customs House. Though it was a long ride home, I think the whole day was such a great introduction to the land outside the city. I wish I could have stayed longer exploring the mountains in the misty weather.

The day was pretty mundane from then on—the standard Week 10 homework party, and catching up on photos and reading. We needed to get some rest both after Norway and in preparation for our visit to the zoo tomorrow. We get to go learn about Asian elephants at the Dublin Zoo and maybe—maybe—get to interact with them a little bit. I am not aiming too high, but it would be really amazing to see the training or feeding behind the scenes in addition to an educational lecture. I can’t wait to also have my first visit to the zoo!

photo credit Katie Walker

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