Monday, May 28, 2007

Day 03, "Ireland" seminar trip

[These are the daily posts located at Google Maps. Posting one-a-day in the aftermath.]

Another day of intense archaeological antiquity. We travel northwest out of Sligo along the coast of Mayo, a beautifully, very underpopulated landscape, through the wool-and-pottery town of Ballina, to the northernmost coast. Our specific destination is a very large archaeological site called the Ceide Fields (see also here). It is a legacy of the Neolithic period in Ireland when the island was still covered with a temperate rain forest, not unlike that of Northern California (redwood trees, etc). Primitive farmers who had migrated into Ireland used slash-and-burn techniques (cut the tree’s trunk to kill it, then burn off the detritus) to clear the land. In turn, this gradually developed a thick layer of decaying vegetable matter, which in turn decomposed and became the bog which now covers the Fields. It was a huge stone-walled settlement which argues for a high degree of social organization, and which predates the Pyramids and Stonehenge. There is an excellent interpretative center there, with dioramas, paintings, and a huge (and beautiful) trunk of “bog pine”—a pine tree buried and petrified in the bog.

[Later: a bit of a glitch in the original travel plans, but one that (as often happens in Ireland) led to an unexpectedly-better result. Noel, our driver for the past two days, rang via mobile in the morning to say that he’d been called in with an appointment for (minor elective) surgery, and so we’d be having a different driver for the balance of the days. We were sorry to bid farewell to Noel, who’d handled our 55-seater like a master, but very happy to meet Marty, with his 30-seater “midi” coach, who was wonderfully responsive and happily put in a very long day for us. One other bit of info we had to incorporate: scientists at Sligo Institute of Technology had confirmed that the cryptosporidium outbreak that had hit the Galway and Clare water systems was expected to appear in Sligo as well. So, it was bottled water for drinking and tooth-brushing, and no ice in the drinks. A small price to pay, we thought, for avoiding the discomfort of stomach problems.]

After a tour and lunch at Ceide Fields, we will proceed back north and east along the Mayo coast to Downpatrick Head, a very dramatic piece of natural topography. Located on the very edge of the coast, in a region mostly given over to sheep pasturage (sheep are very resilient and can handle more severe rainy and cold weather than cows, with less attention), it’s one of the coldest and wettest places we’ve been in Ireland.

[Later: Wonderful visit to Ceide Fields, though the weather socked us in pretty swiftly so that only a few shots of the coastline could be taken. That didn’t stop the students from shooting tons of bytes worth of photos inside the museum, and from the top of the (award-winning) pyramidal observation tower. We had a good short tour of the fields themselves, and were struck once again by the obvious sophistication and social organization the Fields suggest: cooperation, security, and sensitivity to the land were obviously familiar topics. A few brief photos off the observation platform (railed, and with a straight-vertical dropoff down the sea-cliffs that made for some gratifyingly-hair-raising photos), and then up to Downpatrick Head.]

Downpatrick Head was nearly as wet but nowhere near as cold as in previous years, but the students found it just as gratifyingly intense.]

The fields, which are shot through with crevices and “blowholes” under which the ocean surges, slope uphill to the Head, which drops off precipitously in cliffs not unlike those at Moher (though much more deserted). Dun Briste (“The Battered Hill”) is a tall column of rock with a few tufts of grass atop it, which rears up out of the ocean about 150 yards offshore of the cliff (photo). It is thought that Dun Briste was originally attached to the mainland, and that it is a core of older, harder volcanic rock, the connecting topography of which was gradually worn away. Of course the Irish have a better story for that: they claim that a group of Druids were approached by St Patrick and urged to convert. They refused, and “God punished them” by marooning them on this distant tower.

This is also the region where the last defeated remnants of the French who had invaded under General Humbert to assist in the 1798 Rebellion took refuge in the blowhole called Poll na Seantoine, but were trapped and drowned by the incoming tide.

[Later: then back down from Downpatrick, onto the bus to towel and dry off, then back through Ballina for a brief tea- and bathroom-break, and into Sligo. Marty was a champion and volunteered to stop outside the “Tesco” (good-quality 24-hour grocery store), as the students had decided they would cook-in at the very-nicely-appointed kitchens in their digs. Back to the bus (now very cold and wet, but with bagsful of cheap groceries to turn into a very cheap dinner for all) and to Yeats Village, where we all parted, to dry off, cook, and hang out together.

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