Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Loughcrew & a rose bouquet

Less known, harder to reach, more intimate than Newgrange, Loughcrew needs as of yet no replica mound, no twinned museum, no solstice lottery. On Meath's highest hill, Carnbane East invited us, with a practical and symbolic key, into its narrowed womb-chamber.

Of course, as on Tara's softer declivity a few hours before, the rain lashed us mightily. Our host, who took a few of us from Maynooth's Alternative Spiritualities conference that weekend concluded, later wrote me of Terry Pratchett's musing that the forces always conspire against those who strive to enter pagan places. Whether out of defence, or out of challenge heightening reward, who knows? Ritual retreats: by us long denigrated, demolished, or transformed utterly.

About 280 meters above the plains of fertile Meath and overlooking Cavan's lakes, 17 counties are said to be seen, besting Tara's 16. However, at both sites, an All Saint's Day storm raged. The Hiberno-Norman family the Plunketts owned this demesne once. Riding into the valley below, I watched mists rise as if to shroud newer venerated sites, such as Oldcastle's parish church where St Oliver Plunkett was born (whose head I'd seen enshrined in a later sacred edifice in Drogheda a few days before), sufficiently to allow older spirits to emerge on the determined wind to surround us. We'd studied that weekend at Maynooth the entry of New Age and "new religious movements" into Ireland recently, and now we found ourselves alone this Sunday afternoon which soon turned grey, blustery, and battering.

By Californian standards, at least. Wearing glasses and a waterproofed thin jacket with a scarf wrapped around my neck to keep out the drops and the chill, I ascended the gradual slope. I chatted with an Australian medievalist as she recommended a book "Modern Paganism in World Contexts," for I wondered how the Old Beliefs revived or revised were faring abroad. In our own small ranks, at least one youthful practitioner from Tipperary had already at Tara's Lia Fáil quietly carried out his own private ceremony, and he'd be the last one left, chanting nearly inaudibly, within the summit named "Carnbane" ("White Cairn") we were off to visit, holding the key to fabled Cairn T.

I've cited in my Tara entry Anthony Murphy & Richard Moore's argument, discovered in full only after my return from Ireland, about the ancient patterns set up on the heights of the Boyne river valley to match the Bóthar Bó Finne, the road of the illuminated Cow, that worshipped Bóann, the cow-goddess. The triple hills that comprise Slaibh na Caillaighe (or Caillí), the "Mountain of the Witch or Hag"-- now revamped by New Agers into "wise woman healer" as my own research presentation into "Celtic Buddhism" had noted at Maynooth-- mythically arose when the woman dropped her stones there. Out of her "divine womb, translated into the language of dress," as Michael Dames in "Mythic Ireland" parenthetically puts her magical feat, the "Witch's Hops" of three spaced hills arose, so folk belief had it.

Dames argues for a midsummer solstice fire-kindled alignment for Loughcrew with Uisneach, the "tree" centrally located as island hub, with Cairn T as a "hag-shaped tomb" penetrated by the sun-god. Murphy & Moore, building on Martin Brennan's theories, sketch an even more elaborate schema. Murphy, photographing the backstone (pictured above) brightened as its patterns inscribed tracked the sun's passage entering on the autumnal equinox, happened to look tilted up on his back within the cairn's uttermost chamber, backward towards the door. It's a tight fit as we could attest, waiting so three or so of our party could squeeze under the limbo-low lintel into the inner recesses.

Murphy witnessed what probably few before him would have noticed, their eyes naturally face front. The door aligned with the Hill of Slane, another Boyne site, one where Patrick a few days after his Easter triumph had lit in 432 the paschal fire to roust the pagans. This cairn, these Drogheda-based researchers surmised, revealed a equinoctial orientation within the horizon, even 32 miles away to Millmount which had guided me to my host's home in Drogheda. Murphy and Moore's knowledge of their local Louth lore, additionally, revealed Millmount as the missing link. Unfortunately, just as at Tara misguided British Israelite-misled excavators had damaged sites a century ago, so at Millmount the Martello Tower's bulk, erected after 1798's rising-- above what's rumored as Amergin's tomb, this Stone Age mound-- amidst fears of French coastal invasions, long after the Sons of Mil, continued to impose the modern fear over the ancient ground, as the motorway below Tara shows.

Lots of ifs, lots of qualifiers. Still, scholarship the past thirty-odd years has moved towards a recognition of the Boyne Valley as a massive astronomically aligned configuration of womb-tombs and holy sites. Amergin ca. that legendary 1694 BCE uttered: "Who but I knows the place where the sun sets? Who but I knows the ages of the moon? What land is better than this island of the setting sun?" Seeing the Sons of Mil were said to have left Spain for Eirinn, high praise indeed.

As I trudged up the hillside, around puddles and over mud, I met finally my host about whom my entry on Downpatrick will tell more. We'd corresponded on line after an amazing configuration of my own. Over the years, entries on this blog on Horslips, John Moriarty (I'd quoted an article of this host, a journalist-poet-novelist whom I'll keep anonymous as he works in Belfast; old reticence dies hard for me), Francis Stuart, and finally the band The Fall. Quite an unlikely pattern, speaking of cosmological formations on the Net if not Bó Finne. Yet, it brought us together, and straightaway, recognizing each other from the photos-- and who else would approach a band of academic misfits on a stormy Sunday in the back of beyond?-- we struck up conversation.

I asked him if that was Drogheda far off. He said no, but I wondered, when later studying Murphy & Moore, if that Boyne Valley set-up pulled me at least in the right direction. I saw wind-generating towers, so much for Bronze Age cairns, on the hills far away. We could see a bit of the Irish Sea; supposedly Ballysadare Bay the other side below Sligo town can be discerned, but you'd need the sharp eye of Amergin to make that out even under a clear sky. After we had entered Cairn T, we noted how similar the floral drawings carved within seemed to the untutored gaze like a hippie child's fingerpainted flower, or a Native American's rock art pictograph. We tried, with flashlights, to shine some light on a dark chamber.

Cary Meehan in her fine "Traveller's Guide to Sacred Ireland" notes 27 inscribed stones within. I felt intruding on a venerable place, which oddly reminded me of the fake Injun Joe's cave on Tom Sawyer's Island at Disneyland, an attraction I'd long liked as it had no time limit. Unlike the Frontierland site, this Neolithic one, perhaps as old as 3000-3500 BCE, makes it older than the pyramids of Giza, or Newgrange itself, let alone Stonehenge.

A candle burned in an outer chamber. As the young neo-pagan stuck his head, faintly chanting, into the farthest recess where Murphy had looked away from, the rest of us tried to poke and peer a bit, feeling awfully enormous in this small space. When I exited with my new friend, the rain pummelled us.

I spider-crawled up the cairn. Usually I would not, as I sense I'm scaling a tomb. But certainly whatever remains were within had long since entered their own reunion with the elements that thrashed about us. A miracle this solid stone mound had survived the course of civilization, millennia before what motorways and traffic-- which to be fair brought us to and from such sites today in relative comfort-- sought to speed us past.

On top of Cairn T, on Carnbane East, what's called "the Hag's Chair" surmounted the small hillock. It opened down on the chamber, to allow rain in and smoke out, I suppose, with a welcome bit of sun. The stone lap atop Cairn T cradled, flooded by a small accumulation of rainwater, a fresh bouquet of roses left by an earlier pilgrim.

The force of the gusts up there intensified. I felt full impact of the wind as it roared in from the Atlantic side, eastwards slashing the island at Meath's tallest summit. I turned away to the west, gazing across at the more brushy, less raw, third hill, Patrickstown, tellingly named for he who drove out druidry. Over 30 chambered cairns sit here on the witch's triple hops, where most tombs have never been opened.

Down the hill, we walked, not able to talk much due to being wrapped up in our jackets and hoods. It made me again appreciate, for all my grousing, the technology of the present, and I kept imagining how soaked I'd've been as an ancient devotee. Intruders had long been imposing themselves upon these airy, isolated redoubts. Meehan notes that the Iron Age-- which banished the old ways as the Celts advanced with weapons, male-oriented pantheons, and an upending of the maternal alignments-- often made these hills, legendarily the haunts of fairy women, the Sí, the last bastions of the goddess, if now warped into hags rather than "wise healers." Mebdh reduced to Queen Mab; the Wife of Bath's tale of a loathly lady's entreaty.

A later tradition-- if one around three thousand years ago said to have been instituted is newer this tells how long this site has been commemorated-- claims that Ollamh Fódhla, poet-king and law-giver, who started the triennial féis at Tara, was buried at Cairn T. Underneath where I stood, above the path I now climbed down, the sun, another brighter day, would pass again along a diagonal route over the backstone. Images of a rayed star, spirals tripled and swirling like a nebula, reminded me of the simplest art we fingerpaint as children, and of the most complex, via Hubble Space Telescope transmitting to us today. We love to look up at the sky, and in it, as Flannery O'Connor wrote, we try to figure out our central mystery-- no less or more clear after all our inventions and measurements than it was to nameless ancestors on my mysterious isle-- to puzzle out "the position of our human life."

Photo at the equinox of the backstone, Cairn T.

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