The Washerwoman’s Genes

September 12, 2006

Ancestors, Way Back

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 5:39 pm

We went to see Neolithic Ireland—not the Celtic Ireland, not the Catholic Ireland. The country itself is offering ancient Ireland to the world, an untrampled, igored, perhaps often despised pre-civilization culture that now appeals to modern minds, ready as we are to appreciate, even relish, the humanity of Bronze-age people. Finally, even Ireland is ready to set aside the prejudice that civilized means Christian: after all, for thousands of years humans on that little island made sense of the universe, sense enough to get through the day and to create a culture whose monuments are scattered in the hills and bogs.

Yet, surely the builders couldn’t have imagined that four and more thousand years into the future that people would be exploring their creations.

Our first site was an obscure one, a digression on the road from Limerick to the east coast. The guidebook said, “take the N81 south from Hollywood” and find the site “on your left after about three quarters of a mile.” We sped up and down road after unmarked road in search of the “Piper’s stones,” backtracking and lunging down sidetracks and finally had to ask at a shop. A man buying his child an ice cream offered to lead us there . . . it was really just up the road, but I don’t think we would have found it without him.

“Cross the field fence,” the book instructed, a shocking direction to an urban American wary of other people’s boundaries. Our guide pulled his SUV over, got out, and told us to shimmy through the gap in a loosely chained fence and head up a barely marked track. “You can’t miss it.” Our book indicated “the stones are on the crest of a rise about 200 yards from the road.” It was our first trek in Irish farmland, past fields of thistles and craggy shrubs and cows beyond wire fences, up a rounded hill that took us high above the surrounding terrain. And there on the summit we found the stones, Athgreany, the “Field of the Sun” Stone Circle, better known as the “Pipers Stones”: huge globular chunks of granite sited vaguely in a circle the size of a large room. You stand on the top of the local world, look around and find yourself in the sky, with the stones as your companions, giving a sense of place, maybe even shelter, to an otherwise ordinary hilltop.

Over and over, we would hear from guides and read in books that no one really knows what prehistoric peoples were thinking when they marshaled gangs of men to move rocks weighing tons up hillsides to loll at the intersection of earth and sky. We know some negatives: these places weren’t, at the time of construction, residences. Certain of them were tombs, and the stone circles may have been temples or civic gathering places. But “essential” they were not. They were the creations of a culture that had energy and time to spare, and the group synergy to build and engineer and assuage spiritual needs. But today we are baffled why such needs required moving giant megaliths into a circle on a hill.

The name Pipers Stones is folkloric, representing a fancy of later country folk that people were turned to stone for dancing on Sunday to the music of the piper, an outlier stone. The tale of explanation represents that time when it was easier to think of the stones as emanations of a fairy world than as the blood and sweat creations of humans thinking these mass activities would set their world more right.

And that is the recovery work of the 21st century—seeing the stones as a human work of meaning, even though we can’t know what that meaning was.


* * * * *

My daughter is studying art history this term, and she reported after she sat in the first day’s class that Newgrange was part of the next assignment. First, petrographs, then, the Irish mounds. She was so pleased she would be able to talk about them from first-hand knowledge.

While thronged, Newgrange and Knowth were still eminently worth visiting. The sites, as tourist spots, are well managed, and the trip to see them is long, but fascinating. When you realize they are older than the pyramids, you understand you have to see them.

And when you think, they are from this land, this island, they were built by the ancient Irish, never mind the sweeps of other peoples across the island over the centuries; those ancient builders are some part of the Irish today, and you think of the strands of Irish braided into your own heritage, and the mounds become, not theirs, the ancient peoples’, but yours.

International voices thrilled at the sights and the guides’ narratives—German, Dutch, Japanese—but you could tell the returning seeds of the diaspora had a certain proprietary awe.


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