Storytelling and folklore, Guinness and whiskey. It seems these features blend well together in Ireland, for the most part creating a rich and fascinating culture.
It’s interesting to see how history and fiction blend together. James and I spent most of a long weekend in early February in Dublin, but we took two memorable daytrips from there as well. The first was to Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom and at one time in heated conflict with the Irish Republic. We crossed the rope bridge Carrick-a-Rede as the wind tossed it and us along, climbed parts of the volcanic rock structure Giant’s Causeway, stopped to see Dunluce Castle which Belfast-born author C.S. Lewis used as inspiration for the Narnian castle Cair Paravel, and visited the architecturally mixed city of Belfast. Giant’s Causeway is so named because, according to many colorful variations of legend, the Irish giant Finn MacCool built it during a conflict with a Scottish giant.
Our second tour further emphasized how hard it is to understand just how ancient the remains of Ireland’s history are. Here we explored Ireland’s Celtic history and literally stepped into the ancient past.
Our guide was one of the 10% of the Irish who consider themselves fluent in Irish Gaelic. In fact, English is his second language, although like the majority of Irish people, he is also fluent in English. Irish Gaelic is taught in schools and, as English and Irish are both official languages, all signs in Ireland are written in both languages. (In Northern Ireland, a noticeable difference is that only English is used.)
On this trip we visited two Celtic burial grounds: the Hill of Tara and Loughcrew. There are few burial mounds remaining today, as the stones from the mounds have been used over the course of history for other buildings. Incredibly, we were able to enter a 5,000 year old tomb in Loughcrew. Celtic writing carved in the walls and passage ceilings, coins and dried up figs placed between the stones could still be seen inside.
Back in the present, modern-day Dublin is exactly what you would expect it to be like. Home of many famous writers – James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett, Bram Stoker, etc. – the city is still full of friendly, loquacious people who take any question as the opportunity to tell a story. And, of course, Dublin has no shortage of cozy pubs.
The highlight of Dublin this time for me though wasn’t the haunted history tours, the literary pub crawl, the Guinness storehouse, or the Jameson Distillery tour. It was the Book of the Kells and the Old Library at Trinity College. Like something out of a medieval mystery story, the Book of Kells is a biblical text handwritten and illustrated in an island monastery, stolen and lost or hidden away during its history. It eventually came to land in Trinity College where different sample pages of it and a few other medieval texts are on display daily.
The Old Library above the Book of Kells exhibit is the quintessential library: full of high rounded windows to light its dark wood interior, narrow wooden ladders to reach musty hardcover books in every section, a spindly spiral staircase leading up to the upper level, and quiet rustling. Crowds of tourists browsing open copies of historic books in display cases in near silence. We even came across a folktale of the Lorelei, a mythical character for which a rock on the Rhein near Sankt Goar, Germany was named. Once more example of folklore and history, past and present colliding harmoniously.