Sunday, November 15, 2009

Tara & a traveller's tale

Only 300 feet elevated, but Tara's eminence does appear, once you're on it, to expand. 16 counties from this navel, this fifth province, supposedly can be seen, but not when I stood there. An Atlantic storm had washed over Meath, neither mountain nor bog. Gales scoured tourists off the hill, but left a few (neo-)pagans.

And/or those who had studied them that weekend before this excursion. Among them, recalling (if not a Facebook one done today that defined me for my "God can neither be proven nor disproven" assertion as bonafide "atheist/agnostic") my recent quiz scoring me a hundred percent as "neo-pagan" and a "Mahayana Buddhist," I heard on the way over Tara's background. An ancient coronation site-- likely far older than the Celts who spread its fame. We were told of its past rumored glory and its present predicament-- as it borders a new motorway-- by a practicing dharma follower. He'd preceded me in our panel on Irish Buddhism panel at the NUIM conference on Alternative Spiritualities he'd organized at Maynooth.

Palisades and piers, of course, by millennia of rain as we encountered had long blown away, but ceremonial ramparts and ditches remained. The Mound of the Hostages upon which I first scampered upon chilly arrival was perhaps raised over a passage-tomb in 2500 or as long ago as 3200 BCE, when the Boyne monuments, Tara, Newgrange, nine km. away from there at Millmount (a new one to me, but I'd seen it-- still thinking it only a Martello Tower and not bard Amergin's supposed tomb after the Milesian landing in Eirinn ca. 1694 BCE in lore-- as a landmark to guide myself by when disembarking from Drogheda's bus station, and over its summit I'd see my last sunrise over Ireland two days later as I waited at that same terminus), Loughcrew, Slane: these too were orientation lines down to the Irish Sea, aligned by Stone and Bronze Age peoples about which we know nearly nothing but their stones and spiral scratches.

These guided my ancestors along the maternal path of the stars called not the Milky Way but Bóthar na Bó Finne, "the road of the illuminated cow" along the Boyne river valley down to Drogheda and the Irish sea, so Anthony Murphy and Richard Moore argue in a book I'd consulted before my trip about the derivation of "Tara," their "Island of the Setting Sun: In Search of Ireland's Ancient Astronomers." If I had looked further into Murphy & Moore, as they summarize at Murphy's "", my perambulation around what I figured just another Norman-Cromwellian-Imperial tower of subjugation overlooking Drogheda might have been more cautious, or more inspired. Still, as it was that last morning, I noticed the conjunction of road sign for Newgrange with the day-star's ascension over Millmount, and I basked my pale face in its welcome glow.

Back to where I'd wound up after Drogheda and Maynooth, Tara, as our host told us on the bus, while it had succumbed despite long protest to the M3 motorway thanks to a greedy landowner connected with the government's right of way through the valley, still remained at least somewhat vindicated. Soon, closer than my home is to the world's first freeway, visitors to the hill will be able to hear (as I do here) the hum of traffic piercing the calm. The motorway waits 2.2 km. away, ready to ease congestion of Meath as it suburbanizes, as does Drogheda along its own new highway, and the pressures of a wealth undreamed of by Tara's assemblies of three thousand, with three hundred cooks to sustain them, in fabled if still mysterious days of yore.

The challenge lies for those who must dig and discern. The British Israelites damaged the site a century ago in their foolish insistence that Tara equated with Téa who came with eponymous Scotia from Scythia via Pharaoh's Egypt of the Exodus. The motorway did its own destruction, as it had with the infamous Wood Quay demolishment when that Viking-era site on the Liffey had to go the way of the valley below Tara to satisfy earlier scions favored by a nation's leaders more engaged with money than dúchas, heritage being less a value and more a marketing scheme. "Save Tara" failed against Celtic Tigers. Still, the salvage archeologists hired by the same Republic did their best for their masters in their doomed project. (I recall Brian Friel's 1975 play "Volunteers" about the Wood Quay destruction, and the digs done on Liffey''s shore, in his drama, by prisoners there.)

A few of us from the Alternative Spiritualities conference-- all students (at least) of neo-paganism more than Catholic pilgrims, befitting our weekend's exploration of New Age and 'new religious movements' in the changing Ireland that led to Wood Quay and Tara Valley's erasure and also their mourning by such as us a saving remnant of keeners-- heard from the organizer a telling tale. A few Buddhists on reverting to an earlier practice than the indigenously implanted Catholicism, a few years ago, had defied Patrick's decree. They buried on Tara a snakeskin. They proclaimed the return of the repressed, the triumph of what 1500 years had failed ultimately to banish from the Emerald Isle of now saints pursuing shamanism, healing arts, and druidry, and scholars such as we studied them.

Our teller's daughter, four-year-old Alannah, was as I told her aptly named for one of the Irish words for beauty. She and her minder walked about the blustery hill. Nobody else I could make out was on it. It did seem to stretch out much farther than you'd expect, once you scaled its gentle slope, barely noticeable. A couple of Travellers, New Age more likely than native, offered a Scottish scholar, an expert on cults, a homemade oatmeal and chocolate biscuit after she talked with them. They stood at a tent over a fire.

We trooped past after a stint in the dreadful teashop-cum-gift shop that I will not dignify with a name. My Downpatrick host noted later a fine used bookstore's nearby, and I wished I'd spent my time there rather than wandering ruefully its few square feet. One section, candle-scented and unattended off to the backside, filled with wraps and bric-a-brac you might find in a Keltick Mall ("mall"="slow" in the Irish) out of an airline shopper's catalogue in your seat pocket. The other, where I stationed myself after foregoing tea (I take it easy on the road, remembering well a time two years ago from Glencolmcille to Ballyshannon when the bus had no time to stop for me to stop in Donegal Town; under an an hour later on the weaving road I was about to burst and-- mortified-- had to dash off to the jakes, begging the driver and passengers to wait.), boasted such a selection of misguided New Age gimcrackery that it made my hometown's shop, The Bodhi Tree, look as serious as the Bodleian Library at Oxford, I hazarded.

The only semi-respectable book on Tara, Michael Slevin's illustrated guide, was what you'd expect, but that was it. All the rainbowed, crystalline, astrologically aligned auras and baubles and gee-gaws you'd desire filled the other shelves. As our guide mused, "twenty years ago, you'd never've seen this in Ireland." I looked for a tea-towel, standard of an earlier brand of kitsch, for my wife, but the single one on sale failed to move me. No State-approved map, no visitor's guide, and the audiovisual center that took over the old C of I church up the hill--talk about prime real estate-- tellingly was open only in a sunnier tourist's season.

My own Maynooth talk had loads of pseudo-scholarship cited; I have always had sympathy for misguided autodidacts like British Israelites I confess. So, I glanced in what soon turned to disdain rather than delight in what I will not name by author, titled "The Lost Magic of Christianity: the Celtic Essene Tradition." Even by New Age teashop standards, disappointing. To my dismay, the expert on cults bought it, I had a feeling not for novelty's sake, and a colleague who studied circles from an anthropological perspective sprung, despite her skepticism, for said self-published scholar's (the book jacket noted he was of Anglo-Irish gentry descent so his inevitable coming to live on an island off his family's former colony's coast was foreshadowed I suppose) companion volume full of spirals and circles galore.

Maybe I was to blame or credit for those two purchases by curious scholars. I'd told them on the bus, after that expert's query, that although Tara's naming as bodhisattva of compassion and Meath's omphalos seemed fortuitious, my own forays into many scholars, degreed and self-taught, failed to show more than happy coincidence, unless "teamhair" as "eminence" and "sTAR" and Hindu status for the goddess beloved by Aryans and Tibetans could make a very attenuated Indo-European match made in heaven. I wish I could have proven this. Surely the teashop benefits from such imagined conjectures by many who visit Tara during equinoxes, solstices, and cross-calendrical times the eight seasons of the neo-pagan commemorations.

I scanned the trinkets but was depressed by the Cadburys, Chinese-made trash, and soulless Green Man zodiacal "crafts" that lacked any "mana," any spirit, any genuine pagan spark. The clerks did a boom business, even in the damp, for where else were the few visitors an All Saint's morning going to go until-- and if-- the sky cleared?

I figured my change should go to a better cause on Tara. I've always left coins in the Guide Dogs for the Blind figurines on my British and Irish travels; I did then. I'm a soft spot for totemic appeals to charity. If beggars dressed up in animal costumes, I'd probably donate more to their pet causes.

Once outside, I did see a rainbow to the south-east. One of six I'd see that day, easily a record for me from "the land of little rain." It occured to me for the first time that such apparitions might appear always at a certain angle to the sun. But I lacked the astronomical expertise that Murphy & Moore documented among our forebears here along the Boyne. I contented myself by showing the rainbow to Alannah on the bus, where some had retreated for shelter before we faced the pagan forces who kept so many from easily enjoying Tara that morning.

I told Alannah's minder, as we tried to talk about the Irish prison system (she was studying the juvenile incarceration-rehabilitation there), about the even more dismal American equivalents. But, the weather discouraged advanced discourse. "At least it's not rainy, cold and windy," Maria commented as gusts slapped even native Irish faces silly. "It's only two out of three," I sighed. My Southern Californian nature had won out over my genetic disposition. It was brisk, even natives concurred.

We academics marched out, finally, and the wind hit me hard as we faced the hill itself among the mud and grass. Cattle grazed as they may always have among whomever scaled Tara long before teashops in the Old Age. We closed gates to keep them in or out, and we soon faced "Dumha na nGall," that hostage's mound, and other fancifully named (by antiquarians determined to make the nondescript surface remains match the scraps of Iron Age sagas) sites, such as An Forradh, the king's seat, and Rath Righ, the fortress of the kings, and Teach Chormaic, Cormac's house. I tried to scurry up that last one, but as the wind roared, I admit it was difficult. Still at its small summit, I made out even in the mist a panorama that seemed to encompass the horizons as I swooped around 360 degrees, a splendid sight, if one's imagination was kindled.

The site's rich, if you harbor that kind of mindset as I indulge-- for research purposes only-- in sexual and potent allure, if subtly so after so much Christian revision. The 'Bán Fheis,' euphemistically called the "sacred marriage" said to have been granted by Medb or Maeve to nine successive suitors seeking the symbolic kingship over the isle, here was said to have been consummated. Michael Dames wonders if the cry of the standing stone when it approved a claimant might recall the orgasm-labor cry twinned of a woman transformed into a goddess, a faint gasp of Neolithic ritual.

The position of the Lia Fáil (although moved from its original site where it'd been found fallen) and the night sky, Murphy & Moore suggest, hold an alignment of release into the Bó Finne, the Milky Way, the path for the Bóinne, the cow-goddess of fertility that even in Stone Age times four millennia before Christ may have guided early settlers along this sacred route towards and from Drogheda from Millmount along Newgrange, Slane, and the next place we'd visit, Loughcrew.

Alannah's father asked a few of us outliers making our own confused pilgrimage in the whirling breezes if we'd want to see a sheila-na-gig. The C of I graveyard, that well-chosen plot, stood on an older site, naturally. Two small standing stones in it rested near a ruin that was a church wall from who knows when, the visitor's center being locked up. Near the base of one stone, the sheila-na-gig rested, if unseen to the likes of my eye. On what to me looked like a slightly raised bit of lichen, but what the expert told us was beneath one of these caricatures as if from a medieval bestiary, much debated by feminists, New Age devotees, archeologists, and folklorists still.

I can direct you to a Wikipedia entry easier than I can explain these explicit, disturbing, but still, to my warped sense of humor, amusing creations. "Figurative carvings of naked women displaying an exaggerated vulva," as the definition primly puts 'em. Made famous for many impressionable hipsters by a P.J. Harvey song, as my Drogheda host and her big fan might second. Underneath the stone, I was touched. Three tiny pink petals, trefoils smaller than periwinkles, rested, and one white. Despite the nasty weather that "soft day," they nestled in a row securely beneath and among the elements. I'd see no such floral tribute left before Patrick's supposed tombstone the next day in Downpatrick.

It helped to have so much noisy air about and so few companions. One fellow from the conference, a young, earnest autodidact from Clonmel down in Tipperary who to my earlier delight had the same name as my older son and had worn a Lakers cap like my younger would, circled and quietly recited as he dipped his walking stick into the puddles. I respected his ritual. Yet, he also jammed with his foot what looked like to me a purple child's purse into the grass in front of Lia Fáil, the stone of destiny. That puzzled me. Next to the half-buried phallic pillar in commemoration stands a hideous marker raised for Patrick. This juxtaposition alone made me want to see the eradication of papal priestcraft in this snakeskinned demesne.

The daughter danced about, chanting too. Her minder encouraged her to keep hoping as she asked the Lia Fáil: "I want to be a princess." The stone answered the royal petitioner-- a man back then in less enlightened times-- by shrieking approval for the claimant to the throne. I assured the four-year-old girl that the wind was too loud for her to make out the stone's approbation, and with that diplomatic judgement she was well pleased.

I found out on that hill a bit of my own connection to a mystery from the past. NUIM's Attracta Brownlee had researched not New Age but indigenous travellers in my ancestral maternal territory of East Mayo. I went up to her by the Mound of the Hostages and asked her about my great-grandmother's surname. I had suspected it to be a Traveller name, but I had doubted any intermarried back around 1880. Still, then as now, a few do, she told me with authority.

Like pagans, perhaps not the most popular group to ally with even in today's Ireland, but Travellers until recently stayed, or were made to stay away, rooted in what so many in today's Ireland reject at their peril, as plastics replace tin, cars turn plastic. My Irish cousins rush to pave over their past and make it to me an all-too-familiar parking lot. Coming from L.A., take my caution as a warning, will yiz? Attracta confirmed it was all but certain given the name and provenance and time that I am a direct descendent of a people still argued over today, as to when and where and why they came to wander, once, these roads. Roads less crowded if no less dangerous than today's superhighways. Romanticizing our heritage runs its own risks.

So, I left Tara's hill with my own small share of acquired wisdom. Granted with a scholar's judgment, I accepted my smidgen of folkloric Irish heritage. It rests within a family tree, far off, but I claim it as Alannah did her reign over Tara.

Photo from a good overview on "Mythical Ireland: Tara". Hard to get a sense of this site from the air or from illustrations. I've seen it all my life in books or on screens, but still, you get a liberating sense from standing on Tara, I swear. Defying I pray even the motorway's arrival, there is a magic power there. Even for cynics like me.


alanindyfed said...

I took the test and I too, it appears, am a Mahayana Buddhist!

One in the dharma....

Fionnchú said...

Alan, I was surprised, as I'd blogged earlier, how far I'd come from childhood Catholicism, which tied with Eastern Orthodoxy at an unlucky 13% in last place. Of course, I could discern on how the questions were leading me. On the FB quiz of a similar title, there's far less apparent set-up for some "what if" questions, and the results there made me more of a skeptic/naysayer.

All the best to you in the P.I.!