Roundabout Ireland

Posted June 12th, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Trip reports

I’m back… as the trip to Ireland was a vacation, just a few highlights and observations not unrelated to topics normally covered in the PNT. We (my companion Tom and I – joined later by some of his siblings), started in Dublin with a visit to Trinity College to see the Book of Kells, which seemed really old until we got to the megalithic tombs seen in the later part of the trip. Because of a high water table, the grounds of Trinity also have the world’s largest Oregon Maple trees.

Visited a number of old castles and monasteries – some abandoned and containing 14th century graffiti, others restored along with the “Great Gardens of Ireland” that surround them. The garden at the Birr Castle has the world’s tallest box hedges, some of the only unploughed areas of its habitat type, and what was the world’s largest telescope for about 75 years after it was built in the 1840s, aka, the Leviathan. This telescope, built by William Parsons, the Third Earl of Rosse, is set along the north to south meridian line, further marked with stones in the garden that point to a spiral of trees modeled after the whirlpool nebula M51, that he discovered in 1845 using this very same telescope. The trees were planted 150 years later in honor of this feat. The castle itself was off limits as it is now inhabited by the Seventh Earl of Rosse. Allowing visitors into the gardens and the science museum no doubt helps to pay for its upkeep.

Given that a national election was taking place, we learned a few things about parliamentary politics along the way, as we tried to figure out who the characters were that we saw on the ubiquitous campaign signs. We finally found out who “Bertie” is when it was announced that he won the most votes, but we left unsure who “Bertie’s team” will be, since he did not get enough votes to govern without forming a coalition. According to TaraWatch, negotiations are still underway, the outcome of which may have implications for whether or not there is a shot at saving the Hill of Tara, threatened by construction of the M51 highway – an issue I learned about from Afarensis blog. We visited the Hill of Tara briefly on the way back into Dublin and did not find the group that has been keeping a vigil but did speak with someone from another group, Friends of Tara, who told us about all of the alternatives available that have been proposed, including more mass transit. This should sound all too familiar to anyone who has read my posts about the ICC, or Inter-County Connector here in Maryland, on the outskirts of the capitol city of the US, which would not destroy ancient monuments that we know about, but would destroy important watershed and wetland areas as well as what remains of open space between Washington DC and Baltimore, and also preempt badly needed funding for mass transit.

I am making a purposeful digression here to observe that it is much easier to talk about global climate and other changes somewhere else or in the abstract, than the more immediate threats from the siting of new roads, mass transportation routes, and development patterns, where disagreements tend to be face-to-face. Some day, I will talk more about development controversies in “Muddy Spring”… But the point is that these issues are usually off the national radar screen and dismissed as local and parochial, although even local officials do their best to keep them off the table in election debates by saying things like, “we fully support the ICC but, after the election we will look at transportation throughout the entire region and have all the options on the table.” Yes, this is a reminder to Governor O’Malley of Maryland and his deputy, Anthony Brown, whom I am quoting from a pre-election campaign event (but not from a transcript so the quote may not be word for word). I suggest that, before any construction proceeds, that Maryland, DC and Virginia collaborate on the development of future scenarios of the regional landscape in 2050, in which the expected impacts of climate change and peak oil are a given. Then we can go back to bickering about transportation priorities and how to pay for them.

But back to Ireland… The Hill of Tara, important in Christian as well as pre-Christian traditions, contains just one of a number of stone monuments we saw that date back to between 2000 and 4000 BC, and that have been regarded as sacred and that have been protected by communities as well as private landowners for the past 5,000 years. Others we saw included the megalithic tomb of Poulnabrone in the Burren that dates back to 3,800 BC,  the cairns at Carrowkeel in the Bricklieve mountains near Sligo, and the passage tomb of Newgrange at Brú na Bóinne. The Hill of Tara just happens to be the closest one to Dublin but with the pace of economic development now taking place in Ireland as well as other well known places in the the EU, threats to the other sites may not be far behind. A common feature is that they are situated prominently on hilltops from which there are spectacular views into the distance, i.e., the kinds of places coveted by housing developers and home buyers, and are situated in relation to one another as well as to the sun, as part of the same landscape. The sites at Brú na Bóinne have been designated UNESCO World heritage sites, and the Hill of Tara was just added to the World Monuments Fund list of most endangered sites but the challenge will be to go beyond a piecemeal approach and implement an integrated landscape approach to conservation.

At one of the Heritage Centers, I picked up a copy of the latest edition of Heritage Outlook – a publication of the Irish Heritage Council that had some interesting articles on the subject, that brought my attention to the European Landscape Convention, which, of course, I intend to learn more about. It may be little more than paper for the moment, but the definition seems like a good point of departure: “Landscape is an area, as perceived by people, the character of which is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors.” I have long suspected that one of the barriers to conservation is that, in spite of all of the talk about integrated approaches, the environment is compartmentalized into land, water, mountains, wetlands, oceans, neglecting the interactions between them, which is where all the interesting stuff occurs, and where the richest habitats are to be found.

Perhaps the most interesting landscape in Ireland is the Burren which, because of the diversity of microhabitats in the rock formations, contains a unique combination of highly diverse flora derived from Arctic, Mediterranean, European mountain regions. As I learned about the geological processes that shaped this place, which includes the Cliffs of Moher, it made the megalithic tombs seem very recent. But the landscape only appears as it does because of farming and grazing practices that have been in place since those monuments were built by the first farmers, to whom the Burren looked very different. Among the major threats to the Burren now is scrub vegetation that is appearing as management practices change, and of course tourism. The picture above was taken on the Aran Island of Inishmore which is not, or is, considered part of The Burren – depending who you ask, but where geological continuities are obvious. The miniature house was like many seen built near regular houses around the Island – our tour guide on the Island, a local, said they were built for the Fairies, which may or may not be Blarney. Blarney was also among the castles we visited earlier on the trip where, of course, we kissed the stone. Now I’m reading The Book of the Burren, which is much  more legible than the Book of Kells… (and, of course, now that I am back, Al Gore’s new book, which was sold out at the Dublin airport).


Addendum to the last post – the pub that was out of Guinness turned out to be liittle more than a stones throw from the Guinness estate, which bordered on a lake that we saw the next day from an overlook in the Sally Gap in the Wicklow Mountains, also the source of Dublin’s water supply. To be fair, it was a Monday that followed a big game.

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