September 3, 2008

Learning to read the signs

We were headed for Carrowmore and expecting the worst – at least in terms of finding the place - but much to our surprise we found it with ease...and wondered – were the signs getting more specific or were we simply learning to read them.

At the site there is a small visitor’s center, where were met by Simon, a guide who invited us to take a tour of the site. Our group of about 20 or so people headed off up the hill to the remains of the first cairn where Simon launched into such an enthusiastic and knowledgeable discussion of the site that it generated a whole list of questions I couldn’t help but ask. He talked about the age of the site – some of the cairns date back to 4000BC - and told us about the smattering of artifacts that had been found in and around the place: cremated human bone fragments – only partial remains - and rock crystal. It reminded me of what I’d recently learned about the Vikings and asked him if there was any notion of how the residual remains might have been used. He said that DNA tests had shown that some remains (from the same individual) had been shown to be distributed amongst a number of sites, leading archæologists to believe that any number of sites may have been related to one another as locations for specific, perhaps seasonal rituals. I was also curious about the rock crystal and he said that it’s only conjecture, but researchers believe that it’s sparking (when struck together it sparks like flint) property, as well as its appearance may have represented some notion of re-kindling or rebirth. Simon’s depth of knowledge suggested that his interest was deeper than that of the average guide and we were to find out later that he, along with some of the other staff, are Landscape Archæology postgrad students –whose field is the study of the connection between the landscape and the sacred sites that sit within it, as well as the ways sacred sites relate one to the other. There were so many questions I would liked to have asked, but was aware that the others of our group may not be interested in my questions, so tried to keep them to a minimum. Jim told me later that he’d felt the same way, but we both agreed that meeting Simon had been a real stroke of good fortune. We were starting to understand how Ireland works it’s magic. If you stay with your instincts, you end up finding the people and places you’re meant to find...and just in the way you’re meant to find them.
After the tour, Jim and I spent another couple of hours wandering around the site, revisiting the stone rings, cairns and dolmen. At one point we found ourselves in the middle of a herd of cows and Jim excitedly took a photo of Queeen Maeve's Brown Bull ( you had to be there and you had to have heard the legend). We went to find Simon again because we had more questions. He had mentioned that the site has undergone a number of alterations over the last few centuries (raided by artifact hunters, emptied by early anthropologists, and/or dismantled by local farmers looking for building stone) but that some images of how the site may have originally looked remain in the form of landscape paintings. I wanted to see those images and asked him for the artists’ names. I told him a bit about the work I’m doing and he gave me an extended reading list – of various approaches to the study and interpretation of Carrowmore and related sites. He also mentioned an upcoming event – titled “An Evening with the Ancestors” – where a number of people from various disciplines (historians, archæolgists, artists, etc) will gather at the site after hours to reenact their interpretations of how the site may have been used. I was excited, then crushed. The event was scheduled for August 31st – I will be long gone from Ireland - already in the US for the Adams family reunion!

Fully satisfied none-the-less, we finally left Carrowmore for Maeve’s Mound - which our guide said was an easy 30 minute stroll up a hill. Maeve’s Mound is a massive cairn that is (aptly) described as hovering over the Sligo landscape like a flying saucer. The site is ancient, but has figured in local mythology such that it has been in continual use for thousands of years. Though most cairns have been excavated to discover what they contain, it’s believed that Maeve’s Mound contains the remains of the warrior queen herself, and that local reverence for her legend and memory has protected her cairn from a similar fate. To this day, no one knows what’s inside. Jim said that tradition has it that pilgrims to the site are meant to carry a stone up the hillside with them to place on her mound. We looked around for good rocks. The path climbed steadily for the first ½ k or so, but then steepened over a rocky grade. I looked down and an odd-shaped rock grabbed my attention and when I picked it up, it fit my hand perfectly – there were even grooves to fit my fingers and thumb. A bit further on, I found another – rectangular rock that also grabbed my attention – so I picked it up, too. The steep trail continued to climb and I was becoming seriously winded. I had to stop for breath several times and Jim, very patiently, stood by and waited for me...Finally, I told him to go on and I’d make it to the top in my own time...better for him, better for me: he could get to the top at his own pace and so could I (at a considerably slower one). He went ahead and I climbed a bit, then rested ( a lot), climbed a bit more, then rested - all the while wondering what I was meant to do with the rocks: I’d picked them up for Maeve but they felt more like they were meant for my ancestors.

The day, scenery and experience was glorious and several people were climbing their way to the top. One middle-aged woman was having a similar experience as mine, but her family wasn’t nearly as patient and fore-bearing as Jim. I said to her, “why don’t you and I go up together?” She sat down to rest beside me and her family went ahead. We were about to go on and I realised that somewhere down below, I had left my stones. She said, “Here, take one of mine – they’ve come all the way up from the bottom”. She gave me a stone and we continued to the top.
I placed my stone on the mound and then Jim & I walked around the paths that circle the mound and surrounding hillsides. While walking down a path that overlooked the Atlantic, I wondered if George Tanner had come to this place and looked out over the sea, wondering about America. If he came from Kiltrustan, Strokestown he might well have, because information we learned at the Famine Museum was that immigrants from Roscommon were sent 1st to Sligo where they boarded ships for Liverpool and then sailed on to Grosse Isle (Canada). If George Tanner walked this same path, what had he thought...was he sorry to leave? Happy to go? Scared? Relieved? Angry? Hopeful?
Walking back down the hill, I told Jim about accidentally leaving my rocks behind in my struggle to get to the top. I decided to look for them (mind you, this was on a rock-strewn hillside) on the way down and told Jim that if I was meant to find them, I would. At one point Jim thought he’d found them, but they weren’t my rocks. I was feeling kind of philosophical about the whole thing – resigned and kind of Que Serra Serra about it all (imagine Doris Day’s voice, here) – when I looked up and there they were I was absolutely jubilant. My rocks...for Georgie Tanner

1 comment:

Katie and Emir said...

Can you get an aerial photo of Maeve's Mound from google earth? call it a hunch...