Spring Break, Part 2: The Emerald Isle
This past week was arguably the single most exciting week of the year to be in Dublin. The heart of that excitement, as you might guess, is the one and only holiday named for the one and only patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day. March 17th had on my radar long before my arrival abroad, and I had high expectations for not only the holiday, but for the whole week surrounding it. I foresaw this time as the perfect opportunity to engage with Irish heritage and culture at its celebratory peak. Now, I had heard from a few different sources that the St. Paddy’s celebrations held in America and beyond aren’t exactly true to the Irish tradition, and that many of the people flooding the Dublin street for this weekend would be seeking the “tourist-y” side of the holiday. Accordingly, while I can’t admit that I entirely avoided the tourism aspect of Ireland’s most famous celebration, I did my best to fill my St. Patrick’s week with as many authentically Irish experiences as I could.
My first such activity was a day trip to two ancient Irish archeological sites: the Hill of Tara and Newgrange.
For much of history, the Hill of Tara was considered the spiritual and cultural center of Ireland. Being one of the highest peaks in the country, Irish kings chose the top of Tara as their royal seat, built a slew of monuments and structures to commemorate various Irish rituals, and fought battles to both protect and extend Irish influence. There is even an old legend that St. Patrick himself was once summoned to Tara, and that he used the prominence of the place to spread the Christian word to the Irish people. Today, while Tara’s legacy has mostly fallen into the history books and a majority of its landmarks have sunk into the landscape, the place is still regarded as one of the foremost of the Republic’s heritage sites. Visitors can walk the rolling hill, interact with the select few monuments that still stand, and take a look at the looming statue of St. Patrick that overlooks it all.
Newgrange is a circular, hilltop tomb in the rural Boyne Valley. While it carries less cultural significance than Tara (in fact, they aren’t quite sure what it was used for), what is most notable about Newgrange is its ancientness. Experts say that the 80m-diameter structure is approximately 5,000 years old. That puts its construction before that of Stonehenge, before that of the pyramids of Giza, and before, well, just about everything else. This startling age is what makes understanding Newgrange’s purpose so elusive, and it has muddled archeologists for centuries. However, one thing is certain: the orientation of Newgrange was intentional. That is made obvious by the fact that, every year, on the winter solstice (December 21st), the rising sun perfectly slots down the entryway of Newgrange, illuminating the dome-shaped chamber within. This astronomical alignment adds to the alluring mystique of the ancient place. Unfortunately, for preservation reasons, photography is not allowed within the tomb (though I did get to enter with my tour), so if you’re interested in seeing it you’ll have to visit for yourself. Fortunately, doing so is simple. I booked through a smart and lovely tour guide by the name of Mary Gibbons. Her website is www.newgrangetours.com, and while it’s a bit archaic (she does her bookings by hand), I can’t suggest her highly enough.
After my day of ancient exploration, I spent the better part of my week in and around downtown Dublin, where there was plenty of modern-day fun to be had. For the entire week, the area of the city known as Temple Bar was an absolute zoo. Admittedly, Temple Bar is the ultimate tourist trap in Dublin. Drinks are shockingly overpriced and most of the people around are visiting from out of town. Most of the locals that I talked to about it made it clear that Temple Bar is a no-go zone for most Irish people (especially during Paddy’s weekend). However, simply for the sake of human spectacle, Temple Bar around St. Patrick’s Day weekend is a must-see, and the whole area plays host to some infectiously high spirits.
Another place I visited for this past week was the massive Irish national stadium, Croke Park. Croke is the home to all of the country’s top-level events within the sports of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), most notable of which are hurling and Gaelic football. Both sports are immensely popular here in Ireland, and have been since the GAA was founded in the late 1800’s to foster their popularity. For my visit to the park, I was lucky enough to get two games for the price of one, with the two hallmark Irish sports on display back-to-back. Over the course of about four hours, I sat in a mixture of awe and confusion as the games played out before me. Though they have the same field size and scoring system, hurling and football are pretty distinct. Hurling came first. It is played with a small ball that gets whacked around by the players’ wooden sticks at absurd velocities and distances. According to many people, this makes it the single fastest grass-based game in the world. Football, on the other hand, is a little slower but also a little more accessible. A vague mixture between soccer, rugby, volleyball, and mayhem, Gaelic football is the single most played team sport in Ireland. And, though the 80,000+ seat stadium was far from full during my visit, the atmosphere inside Croke Park for the contests was incredible. As far as Irish experiences go, I’d say it was absolutely worth the visit.
Finally, on St. Patrick’s Day itself, Dublin was home to a slew of festivities, central to which is a parade through the city streets. Spectators of all shapes and sizes donned their green, white, and orange and took to the parade route, cheering on the various marching bands, floats, and carriages that passed them by. Now, I’ll admit that parades aren’t normally my thing, but I can’t deny that the air of celebration that surrounded Dublin during and after the Patrick’s parade was unlike any I had seen before. All day long, people were crowding the streets, the pubs, the shops, and (most importantly) the public restrooms in joyous celebration of Ireland’s favorite Saint. It would have been hard not to enjoy myself.
All in all, my St. Patrick’s day/week experience was a memorable one. While my curiosity prompted me to dip into the tourist-oriented side of the holiday at times, I made an effort to seek out certain invariably Irish places and events. And, as far as the second week of my Spring Break goes, I can’t really have asked for much more. I feel incredibly lucky to have spent this time in my new home of Dublin. After this, though, it’s back to the books. My final month of classes kicks off this Monday. While I may be out of touch with this blog in order to focus on my slew of upcoming assignments, I will keep you all updated as more of my adventures unfold. Stay with me.