“Do you see that over there, up on the wall next to the driver?” I ask my friend as we slide into our seats on the bus. A line of IES students file their way in behind us. I point to a wooden design the driver must have put up on the wall. “Remember when we were talking about Saint Brigid in Celtic Myth? That’s called Saint Brigid’s cross.”
“Well would you look at that,” She smiled. “There’s just little bits of folklore everywhere!” We talked about the issue further as the rest of our class fills the tour bus. Soon it’s filled with the animated buzz of restless students about to embark on an adventure. And, since most of the trip is taken up by the IES Writer’s Program, there’s also the sound of digging books out from bags and flipping to the right page.
Saint Brigid is a rather curious figure, both in Irish history and mythology. Alongside Patrick and Columba, Brigid of Kildare is a patron saint of Ireland, and is one of the most well-known Christian figures in the country. Tomorrow, February 1st, is coincidentally her feast day. It’s written that she established several churches and monasteries, including the Church of the Oak in Kildare. What’s curious to note is that this church was built above a shrine to a Celtic Goddess who also shares the name of Brigid. Brigid is a goddess of (among many things) fire, poetry, and metalwork. She is associated with the nature festival of Imbolc, which also happens to fall on February 1st. “Imbolc” roughly translates to “Milking,” and is a holiday to celebrate the lactating of cows and sheep.
Brigid is a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann, a race of gods who ruled Ireland before modern humans. Now (if you believe the legends, of course) they live as an underground fairy race. Bridges between our world and theirs were built in the form of passage tombs, also called fairy mounds, which are spread across Ireland. Our Celtic Myths and Legends of Early Ireland class is boarding this bus to travel to Brú na Bóinne, a region in County Meath around the Boyne River that contains the most well-known of the passage tombs; Newgrange (cue celtic music sounding in the distance).
Once our professor climbs on the coach bus- a short, elegant woman, who goes by “Mich,” has a curious accent amalgamated from Irish and New York, and always wears fashionable black layers (and who we’ve already decided is a sort of trickster fairy spirit), we begin on our way. Our bus meanders the small streets of Dublin, eventually leaving the city behind and starting out towards central Ireland. For the first part of our journey, the fields and houses alongside the highways reminded me of rural Indiana and Michigan. Long bus rides have a universal power of putting me to sleep, so I was content to sit back and stare out the window as rural Ireland slowly took over the landscape.
Depending on who you ask, you’ll get various explanations for “the Brigid conflation.” Many believe they were separate entities, who just happened to have the same name. Some people believe they are versions of the same person, that Saint Brigid is just a Christianized pagan goddess. Others believe Saint Brigid actually predates the goddess, as the saint is first mentioned in the 5th Century. It’s difficult to tell for certain, even for serious academics. Early Christians didn’t just bring their religion to Ireland in 432 AD; they also brought written language. Monks were the first to record the histories and legends of the native people. They would write down stories, but then change them to their fancy. With the flick of a quill pagan heroes became baptized and powerful gods turned to saints. Saint Brigid and the goddess Brigid’s stories and identities are wound tightly around each other, like the reeds used to form their distinctive cruciform symbol.
Soon, the views outside the bus begin to resemble the Midwest less and less. The land begins to roll, hunching to large hills and then stretching to small valleys like the back of a verdant cat. Plant life creeps into every recess, filling out the land with deep green foliage. We turn off the main road, and find ourselves in thin, curving streets winding around moss-embellished stone walls and thickets of old dense trees. Houses become sparse, until all we were passing are old cottages solitary in farmland. We begin to spot horses, cows, donkeys, and of course the all-famous sheep. In Celtic mythology, black and white animals are considered to be “of the otherworld.” They would be revered and cherished by families, and at the right time appointed by the seasons be ritually slaughtered as an offering to the gods. My friends and I have quickly gotten into a habit of declaring that every black-and-white animal we come across is a spirit of the fairies. It stands to reason we saw many spirit cows today. This ride was one of the many instances where I once again realized for the umpteenth time that I was in fact in Ireland. Wow.
Our first view of Newgrange presented itself when we broke through a wall of trees, and the entirety of the Boyne valley spread out around us. Miles of hills, patchworked with grass and farmlands bordered with thin lines of shrubbery. The Boyne flowed pure and blue through the middle, and just past the river atop the tallest hill in the valley was a broad mound, with a wall of white stone around the perimeter. The sprawling valley made the massive burial mound look miniscule in comparison. I found myself open-mouthed, staring at the holy grail of archeological sites.
“Zach! Look!” My friend directed my attention out the other direction. “Lambs!”
We couldn’t reach Newgrange from the visitor’s center; we would have to take another bus on another ten-minute drive to reach the actual site. Even though it was late January, it was nearly sixty degrees (Fahrenheit) and the sun shone bright and warm. All around us, the birds talked, and in their calls were innocent hopes for summer.
“Class!” Mich called, on our walk to our second bus. “We’re about to cross the Boyne River! Remember what we talked about in class.” We single-filed over the bridge passing over it, a swirling gray mirror with banks of vibrant green. In class, we’d talked about the goddesses of the land, one of which was named Boann (“the bright cow”). She’s the mother of Aengus Óg, the Irish equivalent of Cupid who is said to inhabit Newgrange. Boann bore Aengus Óg via the classic affair-with-a-god, and her husband in anger had prohibited her from visiting his own private spring, in Boyne valley.
Boann didn’t like this. She visited the spring anyway and caused it to fountain upwards and flood the valley, thus creating the Boyne river. Boann was caught up in the flood, and it physically tore her apart. According to legend, when one looks down the Boyne River, they can see the remnants of Boann; an arm here, an eye there, etc.; where the river meets the sea, there’s a small formation called Rockabill island, and this is said to be her unfortunate dog.
We did not see any mutilated body parts as we crossed the river; maybe we’d need an aerial view.
We were dropped off at the base of Newgrange’s hill. The weather had been perfect most of the morning, but as we neared the mound it altered. Gray clouds clustered in, smothering the sky, and wind began whipping up hair and chilling skin. We passed by The Great Circle, a ring of standing stones surrounding the mound. A large black crow, perched on one of the fallen stones, gazed unflinchingly at our group as we passed. Seeing the bird stare straight at me sent a fatalistic shiver through my body.
A trinity of death goddesses, collectively referred to as the Morrígan, takes the form of the iconic Battle Crow and chooses who shall live and who shall die. I’m reminded that we are heading toward our own deaths, in a sense. Brú na Bóinne can be translated to “mansion of the bright cow,” but the word brú can also mean “womb.” These mounds, where fairy folk cross between our world and theirs, are burial chambers. The cremated remains of the Neolithic people would be lain to rest here, in a sense returning to the darkness before birth. The travel from entrance to the inner chamber was said to signify the passing from one world to the next. The death of your old self and the birth of a new one.
We meet our tour guide Lisa, whose voice managed to carry over the sudden wind. She informs us that the main chamber is laid out in cruciform shape, even though this structure long predates Christianity (personally this is a fascinating concept, and I’m reminded of “The Brigid situation,” and how the cross was likely a nature symbol related to Brigid the goddess before it it became associated with Jesus Christ). The cross might possibly belong to the long list of icons adapted from early religions. Lisa explains how Newgrange was lost for several hundred years, until 1699 when a farmer transporting rocks found the beautiful entrance stone. The Neolithic art that decorates Newgrange is what primarily has gained it its status as a World Heritage Site. Newgrange is where we first see the triple spiral design referred to as a triskelion, which has become symbolic of Ireland and Celtic identity.
“Art isn’t just for art’s sake,” Lisa says. “What they did here, they did for a reason. Stone and wood tools, that’s all they had. Newgrange was built over generations; that shows just how much these people believed in life after death.”
Our class lines up to enter the tomb, Lisa reminding us to take off our backpacks as the tunnel is rather cramped. One by one we enter. I watch as my classmates disappear into the black tunnel. At last it’s my turn. As I step over the entrance stone, a line from a poem comes to mind;
Step into the otherworld,
Into the womb
Where centuries pass like a day
I stare into the low labyrinthian tunnel, my breath already caught in my chest. Sunlight disappears and I am left in a small corridor of darkness. I feel my way through, hands searching the startlingly cold, smooth boulders, rolled into place in 3200 BC. Roughly five hundred years before the pyramids at Giza were constructed. A thousand years before Stonehenge. My fingers explore the ancient architecture spreading and curving before me, leading me in an aimless direction to a time before measurement.
The temperature drops, and the tang of wet stone envelopes me. My feet scrape slowly across a thin gravel path. Small bulbs let out yellow, artificial light, angling out weakly through the passage. I shuffle along, the form of the walkway making me crouch down and squeeze through narrow crevices. The path bends slightly, the large round facet of a boulder occasionally bulging into the walkway. Letting my mind wander, I imagine early people congregating here for worship, watching as the Winter Solstice sun aligns perfectly with the rooftop window, letting in a blade of light shine in the middle of the burial chamber. And suddenly I feel small, in more than just a physical sense. So many hands have touched these same stones, have stumbled their way through following a small, flickering light.
I’m retracing the steps of history.
I hunch down, in an almost fetal-like position, and I find this oddly eloquent; just as a newborn feels the need to curl into a ball as it leaves the womb, so should I feel that same need as I re-enter it. And just as it’s started, it’s finished, and I stand, limbs extended, in the burial chamber.
Class meets at the gift shop afterwards before getting back on the bus that will return us to Dublin. Wandering through, I hold a bronze necklace in my hand, feeling the grooves where it resemble reeds wound into Brigid’s cross. I find it’s a fitting symbol, of this experience and also of Ireland’s mystical storybook. I bring it to the counter and pay 19.95€.