Just before I moved to Dublin, I got a very excited email from one of my friends and fellow barn volunteers, Deb. Turns out she was going to Paris and the airline wanted her to take a layover in Dublin. Talk about excellent timing. We made arrangements to spend a day together in Dublin.
Deb found a B&B with an equestrian center
that was 15 minutes northeast of the airport, where the suburbs start to smooth out into the countryside. We'd planned on riding at the B&B, but their equestrian center was actually a high-end jumping facility. Since neither of us jump we didn't think a lesson there would do us much good. (Although it would have been fun to a ride a fancy horse.) I found a place not too far from the B&B that offered a guided trail ride through their fields, which sounded a lot more up our alley.
The waiting and the planning finally came to end on Thursday, when I drove my little rental car up to the airport to meet Deb. I was so nervous about driving. My first experience driving over here was last year and the car was a minivan, which I found very hard to handle on the narrow roads. Like most dreaded things, the anxiety turned out to be leagues worse than the actual experience.
The car was perfect for me, a blue VW Polo
, which is a shade smaller than the VW Golf. Once I got used to shifting with my left-hand, I barely stalled it at all. The car was zippy and responsive and I zoomed through the curves on the country roads like a pro. Since I've had 6 weeks to acclimate to the traffic patterns, driving on the left was a breeze. I'd done a lot of visualization exercises to prepare for driving and it all paid off.
This was Deb's first trip to Ireland and it was only a single day, so I tried to make it a "Best of" highlight reel of cool places. Our first stop was Newgrange
, a remarkable passage tomb that's 5000 years old. (Older than the pyramids and Stonehenge.) The marvel of the construction combined with the mysteries surrounding both its use and its creation make Newgrange one of the must-see places in Ireland.
Even though she'd just stepped off the plane, Deb didn't show any signs of jet lag and was an excellent navigator. Navigating in Ireland is equal parts luck and skill. The roads aren't well-marked and the basic approach is to head in the general direction and hope that you get there. I'm sure we didn't take the most direct route to Newgrange, but we did
get there. Newgrange is near the Boyne River. It's what you'd expect Ireland to be - rolling hills, green farmland, sheep and cows.
The setup is quite clever - you park and buy your tickets at a vistor's center, then you take a bus to the tomb. Access to the site is through guided tour only although you do get a little bit of time to walk around outside the tomb before taking the bus back to the vistitor's center. When our bus dropped us off, we could see a figure on the top of the mound. As we got closer, we could see it was a guy cutting the grass with a weedwhacker. I know they have to maintain the grounds, but as Deb pointed out, it did take away a little of the romance.
What blows my mind about Newgrange is what went into building it. We're talking about the stone age, 5,000 years ago. They didn't have the wheel, let alone any of the labor saving devices we now take for granted. The tomb is a giant mound, ringed with enormous kerbstones that probably weigh at least a ton. The facade of the tomb is made out of different small boulders, ranging in size from basketballs to grapefruits. (You can see some good pictures here
Big deal, you might think, Ireland is full of rocks. Sure, it's full of rocks. But the giant kerbstones came from several miles away. The tour guide told us they estimate it would have taken a large team of people 4 days to log-roll each kerbstone to the site. The facade contains two different types of rock - which came from areas 30 to 50 km away. The speculation is that the builders used canoes to travel down the river and out to the sea to get the rocks. Imagine how long and how many trips that would have taken.
So, just gathering the basic supplies is an amazing feat unto itself. Then you have to consider the science and engineering involved. Newgrange isn't just an ancient masoleum. It had some sort of ritualistic use and was built for a particular purpose. Above the entryway into the tomb is a small window, called the roof box. When you enter the tomb, a narrow passage leads into the chamber. The passage is an upward slope, so that the floor of the chamber is actually level with the roofbox. Inside the chamber, enormous rocks with smaller rocks jammed into the cracks to act as mortar form a corbeled ceiling, giving you the impression that you're in a small temple.
On the morning of the winter solstice, sunlight enters through the roof box and into the passage way and bathes the chamber in light for a short time. The rest of the year, the chamber is pitch-dark. On the tour, they use the electric lights inside the chamber to demonstrate what it would be like. The electric light doesn't do it justice - the winter light in Ireland, although scarce, is an amazing honey color -- rich, homey and warm even though its warmth is not matched in temperature.
To recap, you have this ancient civilization that was able to gather thousands of tons of rocks and stones and then create a solid structure that's survived for 5000 years. Plus, they had enough knowledge of science and astronomy to perfectly align the tomb for sunlight on the winter solstice. The construction process would have taken decades, in a time when people lived for around 25 years, so you're talking about generations of people working the building. (Deb said "It's amazing what you can do without television.")
After Newgrange, we headed out toward Navan to go to Bachelor's Lodge for our trail ride. We again used the "go in the general direction and hope for the best" approach and got there 15 minutes before our scheduled time. After signing waivers and affadavits and acknowledging that "riding is a risk sport", Anthony showed us our horses. Deb was assigned to Jade, a brownish/chestnuty Irish draft mare. Then Anthony handed me Dell-Boy, an enormous whitish-greyish draft. (I don't know if he was an Irish draft or part Percheron or what. All I know is that he was huge.) Anthony must have seen the look on my face because he quickly assured me that even though he was big, Dell-Boy was a perfect gentleman.
We warmed up in the arena with a third rider before we were joined by a fourth. Anthony had us trotting a lot and I was seeing that Dell-Boy was a bit of a lazy gentleman. After spending the winter riding Sundance (a 14-ish hand mustang who's technically a pony), riding a behemouth was a novel experience.
We set off for a trail ride through their fields, which basically consisted of entering a large field and trottting around it many times before heading onto the next field. Anthony was very solicitous, making sure Deb and I were okay. One of the other riders was a student of Anthony's and was riding her own horse, which she bought recently. The other rider was a tourist and I think she had some sort of European accent. (She made a cell phone call in the middle of the ride, which I thought was kind of weird.)
So, there we were, trotting around the fields when Anthony called out to his student, "head over to the water jump." And I thought "Water jump? We're not supposed to be jumping." The water jump turned out to be more of a cross-country water obstacle than a jumping-course water jump. There was a low jump and then an enormous puddle of indeterminate depth. At the far end of the puddle was a retaining wall with well-trod paths out of the water on either side of the wall.
Anthony directed us to walk through the water, so we filed through in a line. I was last. The water was pretty deep in the middle and Dell-Boy had to work to wade through it. When we were all safely on the other side, Anthony said "OK, now let's do it again but this time, we're going to trot." Deb and I shrugged as we again filed around back to the other side of the jump and trotted through the gigantic puddle. Deb's horse wasn't keen on the trotting part but Dell-Boy just muscled through like it was nothing. I found it a little hard to keep posting as trotting through water is not like the regular, measured trot on dry ground.
We did this several more times and then Anthony had us all stop on the far side of the water jump. Then he directed his student to take the jump from this side. We watched as she trotted her horse up the retaining wall, where her horse stopped like a little kid on a diving board and peered down at the puddle. The student pushed the horse forward and she awkwardly plunged into the water and then powered through to the other side. Anthony demonstrated with his horse how to push the horse through the jump without hesitation and the student did it a few more times.
Deb looked at me and said "Are we going to have to do that?" I shrugged. The sad thing is that I probably would have done it, even though it looked scary as hell. We did not have to plummet off the wall though, Anthony told us to just trot down the embankment.
The rest of our ride consisted of more trotting in fields and watching while the student did jumps. It was interesting to watch the jumping and it made me more certain that I would like to learn how to do that, but only after I have a bit more experience riding on the flat ground first.
After the ride, we were looking forward to checking into the B&B and getting cleaned up. I had the hardest time getting us there though. First, I couldn't get out of Navan. I kept taking wrong turns and then had to turn around and go back through the center of the town. When we were safely out of Navan, we followed the signs for Slane to try to find the N2. At least I thought we were heading in the right direction. Somehow, we have no idea how, we ended back in Navan. It was like a black hole. We couldn't escape Navan.
Except, of course, that we did. Third time lucky and all of that. Once on the N2, we were able to find the B&B with no problems at all. It was on a country road off the N2, just south of Ashbourne village. We'd actually pased the B&B on our way to Newgrange, so we at least had a general idea of where it was (once we escaped the vile clutches of Navan).
After cleaning up, we set off to find dinner. I told Deb that she couldn't come to Ireland without having dinner in a pub. My main priority was to find a nice pub in a place with easy parking. I'd planned on taking us out to one of the towns on the coast north of Dublin, like Malahide or Howth. But apparently that was not to be. We got back on the N2 and I looked for an east-west road to take us to the coast, but I just coulnd't decide which one would do it. My reasoning for going to the coast is that it would be pretty, parking should be easy and the traffic wouldn't be too overwhelming.
I realized that I was enjoying driving so much, there was no reason to avoid city driving. And we were headed right into the Dublin city center anyway. So I told Deb of the new plan - a quick driving tour of culturally and personally important sites in Dublin and then dinner in my old neighborhood. I pointed out the Four Courts, the Ha'Penny Bridge, the General Post Office, O'Connell Street, Trinity College, Grafton Street, the Schoolhouse Hotel (where we had our wedding reception), the first place we lived in Dublin, the second place, and the place where I live now. We had dinner at McSorley's pub, which has a great interior and the food turned out to be pretty good too.
After dinner, my goal was to get us back to the B&B before it got dark out. I managed to accomplish this, even though an inadvertant detour took us into the airport. Whooops. It was good practice though, since Friday morning I dropped Deb at the airport without incident or detour. Deb set off for Paris and I went back into Dublin to drop off my things and then return the rental car. I had a great time driving, although on the way home, I got a little turned around because of one-way streets and ended up circling St. Stephen's Green twice.
Besides having a great time with a good friend, I learned that I actually can drive in Dublin - enjoyably and competently, in fact. Navigating is going to take some work though, if I want to escape the clutches of Navan and Stephen's Green.