Ancient Mystery Part I

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 Terry Berg submitted this piece to our site months before his untimely and tragic death.  It had been his plan to write and submit a second – maybe even a third – installment to the series.  Instead we have only this one part of the whole story, offered here in Terry’s memory.

It is one experience to read history and quite another experience to encounter history with the senses. It is one experience to read the Passion Story and quite another to eat the bread and drink the wine.

Ancient Mystery: Part I – (Bru na Boinne) the Bend of the Boyne
by Terry Berg

 

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remarkable feature of a trip to Ireland besides the obvious…the emerald of the Emerald Isle, Guinness, the full Irishnewair.jpeg Breakfast including black pudding & fried tomatoes and the wonderful people, is the preservation and management of it’s Heritage (historic) Sites. Listed in the official guide to Heritage Sites of Ireland are over 60 locations along with 11 National Cultural Institutions in Dublin and over 16 National Parks and Gardens scattered throughout the Island. Many of these sites have visitor centres with guided tours. Many of these sites echo more than the ancient history of an ancient time but resonate with the foundation of the early church as it proclaimed its presence among the people.

The two weeks I (and my friend Art) spent in Ireland in September 2002 was only enough time to visit a small number of these sites, logging 2500 kilometers and the ongoing quest for the cheapest Guinness in the country. Narrow winding “highways” without shoulders (meters from the ever ubiquitous stone wall), frequent encounters with farm machinery and a multitude of small towns and villages (whose main street connects directly to the main road) provided ongoing challenges and an endless source of interest. The legendary green of Ireland is not a myth and the country side is a patchwork of pasture land, stone walls and countless sheep. Our excursion to the Wicklow Mountains through Sally Gap to Glendalough (Glen of Two Lakes) took us through treeless expanses of heather as far as the eye could see and shepherd less sheep wandering the hills. The hostel (of which there are many and often of historic interest) we stayed at was located next to a 6th century monastery and a National Park (20,00 hectares with hiking trails, magnificent views, mountain blanket bogs and… sheep). Having left Dirty Old Dublin Town behind, the wilds of the Wicklow Mountains were a refreshing change.

 

The meandering journey that ultimately led to the title of this brief travelogue, among other places, took us to the Rock of Cashel or St. Patrick’s Rock (Co. Tipperary) , a fortress rock outcrop with origins in the pre-Christian 4th/5th century and went on to become the seat of power for the Irish kings for centuries, the earliest building on the site dating to 1101, and to Clonmacnoise (Co. Offaly) on the banks of the Shannon River. This ranks as the most important monastic site in Ireland; the church of Clonmacnoise was founded by St. Ciaran in the middle 6th century and apparently visited by St. Patrick. The oldest remains of the eleven churches (of which eight remain) within the boundary wall is dated to 1167 and the site is dotted with ever present Celtic crosses.

But the most amazing site we visited was at Brun na Boinn and the passage tombs at Knowth, Dowth and Newgrange. Each has its separate yet related history. The most significant of these megalithic burial tombs is the reconstructed site at Newgrange. This relatively unknown marvel of the ancient world presents the same kind of mystery as the Stone Henge. Imagine the flats beside the Boyne River (famous for the Battle of the Boyne), not unlike land along the Red River. Evidence dating to 5000 years ago ( predating the Egyptian pyramids) has revealed that the inhabitants, inspired by an ultimate goal but no clear impetus, constructed this burial mound of MAMMOTH proportion. Based on the excavation evidence we know that the mound itself rose 13m above the flats with a average diameter of 80 m covering 0 .5 hectares. A 24m passage ran into the mound in a southeast facing direction (the significance of this will be revealed). 97 kerb stones (average size 1.2 m by 4 m) encircle the mound; some of these stones have been carved. The entrance to the passageway was formed by 2 large vertical stones roofed over with a large lintel stone. A second lintel stone above the passage forms a roofbox. The burial chamber itself was cruciform (5 m by 6.5 m) with 3 smaller chambers (3 m high) and a central 6m vaulted roof, the apex capped with a very large lintel stone that appears suspended with no visible signs of support.

It is estimated that 200,000 tonnes of material was moved…the equivalent of 300 workers labouring for 20 years. (The site was unprotected for centuries and the walls bear witness to graffiti dating to the 1800’s.)

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Now imagine that each year at the Winter Solstice, between Dec. 19th and 23rd, the rising sun shines down through the roof box, along the passage way, completely illuminating the burial chamber for 17 minutes. Every year there is a lottery for the opportunity to experience this event. Standing in the chamber, in the very space that once held these ancient people, knowing that, attuned to the movements of the planets, they engineered the construction of a tomb of this magnitude to memorialize the lives of unknown (to us) and unknowable individuals, evoked a feeling which defies description and raised many unanswered and unanswerable questions. The stone, the empty tomb, the mystery formed in my mind an image of another death and of a living memorial. This remarkable country is imprinted with so many physical reminders of its history and spiritual life; reminders that, like the stone they are crafted from, will remain to the end of time. I think that a Guiding Force, which those ancient people recognized, was the architect of their labour, and that guiding force is the Creator of All. And yet it is in the living memorial that we, in the our present modernity, are invited, over and over again, to encounter the mystery that ultimately connects us to God: the Creator, Guiding Force, Universal Architect and Source of All that Is and ever will Be.

…to follow

Ancient Mystery: Part II – St. Brendan, Mount Brandon and the Pilgrim’s Walkbeast-copy.jpg

Ancient Mystery: Part III – Camino de Santiago: The Pilgrims Way

 

 

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