The Washerwoman’s Genes

September 12, 2006

From Knowth to Brooklyn, Now to Then

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 5:34 pm

The mounds of the Boyne Valley—Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth— were mistaken for a long time in the Christian era as the palaces of kings, and only recognized in modern times as tombs. But earlier, the distinction was less important; archeological research indicates the valley was the site of villages before the tombs were carved, and then again later, after they were disused.

“The dead have long seemed both distant and dangerous to the living, but it was not always so,” write the authors of my guidebook.* “Many ancient cultures have conceived the living and dead as if they were merely different generations, all sharing the same world, appropriately sub-divided, vertically or horizontally, into distinct and proximate zones. The mounds, then, at certain times in their history, were much like a Brooklyn townhouse, with one generation living above and another living below.”

Yet again, the Brooklyn townhouse seems an archetypal dwelling of disparate, even disturbing forces, a place of familial rest teeming with echoes of the past. The townhouse, itself a paradox of physical proximity and compartmentalization, represents both mundanity and connectedness arching to the spiritual.

I am constantly amazed that the literal place my forebears dwelled has become a metaphor of cosmic nexus.

Not literally a tomb of course, not like Newgrange or Knowth in that way, the townhouse raises up ghosts out of the census; the emanations waft through, not the corridors of shabby wallpaper but the concentration of the living. To think, any one of the current occupants of 324 Seventeenth Street could be sleeping where life passed into death, or, conversely, where a soul came into being, decades, or a century, ago.

*Meagher, Robert Emmet, and Elizabeth Parker Neave, Ancient Ireland: An Explorer’s Guide. Northampton MA: Interlink, 2004. 83.




Top: Woodhenge, (reconstruction); Above: Knowth curbstones and white Wicklow granite; Right: Knowth mounds

* * * * *

The drama of a visit to Newgrange is well depicted in Meagher and Neave: “The thirty-some steps you will take to its core could be among the most revealing of your life. Consider that you will be traveling at a rate of 150 years per step. Consider too that the builders of these tombs, regardless of personal status, chose to live out their lives in terribly modest dwellings, none of which has survived and, like the human body, none of which was meant to outlive its occupant. Then consider that . . . Newgrange [has] survived for 5.000 years . . . It is well worth trying to imagine—and imagine is all we can do—what the builders of Newgrange were thinking as they labored on a house that would endure as long as the sun but would only know its light and warmth for minutes out of every year” (84).

Today void of their contents, isolated and pastoral and manicured for display, the mounds are still about death—about some solution to or conception of the end of life, about a meaning lost to the ages but permanent to time, until mountains themselves are turned under by cataclysmic forces in a new geology.


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