Newgrange, Ireland – May 2012
Nowhere has the green of Ireland been so conspicuous as on this hill overlooking the River Boyne Valley. The white quartz wall encircling the passage tomb of Newgrange has been the object of much controversy. It is one archeologist’s interpretation of how things must have looked. Some consider it one of the world’s worst archeological reconstructions.
Under this bright sunlight, it’s true that Newgrange seems too orderly, too white-picket-fence, to have been a place of mysterious neolithic rituals. It is older than both Stonehenge and the Pyramids. Some have suggested that it was a cult of the dead. However, evidence points to an astronomical religion. A yearly ritualistic capturing of the sun on the winter solstice. My eyes come to rest on the kerbstone in front of the entrance. I’ve seen similar petroglyphs on my travels in the Pacific islands, though on a much more modest scale. I recognize this whorl of infinity.
A young man with a head of copper hair and a twinkle in his blue eyes steps out of the entrance. He divides the tour into two groups. “I must warn you. If you are claustrophobic, you should not enter.” He takes the first group inside. A few minutes later, they reemerge, and now it’s our turn. Once again he warns us about claustrophobia. We file inside, ducking our heads to compensate for the low roof. Once inside, the guide gives a short talk about the center chamber and roof box. In the tiny chamber, his voice has a muffled quality. The faces around me hold respect, and even reverence. I think I’ll only go on tours with science nerds from now on.
The finale of the short tour is a simulation of the solstice. We are nearly at the exact opposite time of the year, but, as the light is switched off and we are thrown into darkness and silence, the imagination takes over. A dim, watery light creeps into the chamber, hesitates for a few seconds, and then ebbs away. The light is switched back on. The guide apologizes that he must shoo us out. We are not allowed to savor the spell. Only a limited number of visitors are allowed inside per day, so visits inside the chamber are strictly timed.
The two young American girls who sat across from me on the bus are sitting on the grass outside of the monument. “Do you know when we’re supposed to head back to the bus?” I ask them.
They blink in unison and shake their heads.
Feeling a little stupid, I shrug. “Okay, I guess I’ll just follow everyone else.”
They blink again and stare off as I walk away.
I had arrived early for the tour and was the first on board the bus. I was speaking to Mary, the tour guide, about my traumatic arrival in Ireland. The girls were the next to arrive. The tall, gaunt blonde boarded the bus first. Her shrill, strangled voice pierced the air. “Hi, Mary! It’s so nice to meet you!” A steady stream of pleasantries tumbled, with robotic precision, from her mouth. Her enthusiasm seemed desperate, almost hysterical. I winced and stared at her and the silent little brunette who sat next to her. In both their eyes, I saw the telltale flat, glassy-eyed look that’s typical of heavy anti-depressant use.
I know, from my own brief experience with happiness-in-a-pill, that stifled emotions do not equal bliss. However, on the darkest of days, everyone needs assurance that the sun has not slipped under the horizon, escaping the grasp forever.