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Fear of the North

In early August of 1989, we left Milan, Italy, where were living at that time, and flew to Dublin for a three-week vacation. Several Italians we knew had difficulty believing that we wanted to go there: they were under the impression that the entire country was at arms, and that we would be in constant danger of explosions and gunfire. Those who were better informed cautioned us to avoid the northern part of the country, and in fact before we left there were news reports of explosions in England and Ireland, and of a little boy accidentally shot by a British soldier.

In Dublin we heard more specific horrors:

We also met a woman who lives in a small border town in the country, and she said that it was not safe to go out at night. "They'd give you a pretty good kicking, man or woman," she said. And that during the day "there are people that'll just spit on the ground in front of you. Everybody knows everybody else, and they know just where you stand," although it was obvious that she did not want to take any sort of stand. She lives in a situation in which it's impossible to be neutral - you may be neutral in your own heart and mind, but this is not recognized by others. Her daughters had begun to ask what the slogans on the walls meant, and this disturbed her, too.

But we had an invitation to Portrush, which is on the northern shore of Ireland, and our hostess assured us that we didn't need to worry at all. What were we to think? At last we decided that Portrush itself might be safe, and that the highways were probably safe, and that we could do the whole trip in the daylight, and not stop for anything.

Of course, it wasn't just for the sake of accepting an invitation that we decided to go: One of the things I principally wanted to see was the Giant's Causeway, and the Causeway is very close to Portrush. Also, everyone insisted that we go to county Donegal - our hosts in Portrush, especially. Donegal is the northernmost part of the Irish republic. It is so far north that it stands to the west of Northern Ireland. Portrush would be an easy starting point for a trip to Donegal.

We rented a car in Dublin, and headed north. Our first goal was Newgrange.

The Oldest Building in the World?

Most westerners would suppose that the pyramids of Egypt are the oldest buildings in the world. But much do we honestly know about ancient history? Despite the researches that began with Napoleon Bonaparte and continue to the present day, much of Egyptian history remains uncovered and unarticulated. The fact is, no one knows when the Egyptian pyramids were built.

And so it may well be that the oldest building in the world is just an hour's drive north of Dublin, at Newgrange, in the bend of the Boyne River.

Like Stonehenge, it has an astronomical orientation. Newgrange is a huge circular mound of stone with a bright white granite face. There is one entrance, and an irregular hall runs from the entrance to the center. Each year for a few moments on the three shortest days of the year, the sun is low enough in the sky to send a pencil-beam of light through an opening cut above the entrance. This beam slowly extends down the hall until it hits the center. At that moment, the entire central chamber and its three rooms are illuminated. Then, the light fades, the pencil-beam shrinks away, and the center is left in total darkness.

That darkness remains until the same time next year.

However, you can experience this effect without having to wait, because the keepers of the monument have devised a means of simulating it.

No one knows the purpose of this lighting effect. In fact, no one knows the purpose of the building at all. The guides told us that Newgrange was a ceremonial tomb, and that the ashes of the dead were placed in the central rooms. But this is just a theory.

The fact is that no one knows who built the structure or why. The culture that produced it was prehistoric. There is a veil between them and us, and this veil has yet to be penetrated. Oscar Wilde's father, William Wilde, wrote a book detailing his theory about Newgrange's purpose. Because his theory is based only on observation and speculation, it is laughed at nowadays, even though modern science with all its facts and gadgets has not come up with an explanation any more satisfying.

So the vistor arrives at something pristine and unexplained. The monument is a puzzle, full of peculiar details, and the more details you learn, the more puzzled you become.

We came and saw and went away again, but those with a much stronger curiosity could spend a lot of time in the Boyne valley, because there are a number of other similar monuments, although none as well preserved. In fact, Ireland is filled with stone-age relics, dolmens, structures, carvings, etc. We were told that a second "Newgrange" has been discovered recently in Sligo, which is on the opposite side of the country, but we didn't try to see it.

Just Drive Like Hell

We took off again pretty quickly, because we didn't want to be caught on the roads in Northern Ireland in the dark.

It's only 160 miles from Dublin to Portrush, so you might think that three hours would be plenty of time for the trip. But it isn't. You have to figure that the number of drivers who never rise above second gear add time to your trip. You have to remember that you cannot always pass on a two-lane road. And certainly you cannot drive at maximum speed, even in a rental car, on a road whose macadam dates back to Adam.

By the time we reached the last town before the border, we were already a bit frazzled. We talked about bypassing the North. I suggested stopping somewhere on the way if the sun threatened to set before we arrived, but Mywatt (My wife at that time) flatly refused. The plan, as we (psychologically) took a deep breath and got back in the car, was just to drive like hell until we hit Portrush.

"And if anyone stops us," Mywatt said, "I think we should say that we agree with their policies."

At the border crossing, the heavy, gray, stone barricades and the towers were a shock. The soldiers in camoflage suits with big, ugly guns were not a calming sight, either, but it was hard to miss the fact that most of the soldiers were boys. I mean that none of their baby-faces had yet needed a shave.

But still, a gun is a gun. The adrenaline started pumping. We kept our hands in sight.

Belfast did not look particularly alluring as we passed. Rows and rows of identical buildings, and everything gray...

But one absurd element kept nagging at me, as if to say, don't worry, nothing's wrong. All along the highway, at the very margin of the road, sheep were lounging, watching the traffic, chewing the cud, doing what sheep do. What kind of ludicrous scene were we in, me with my hair standing on end, driving by miles of placid eyes set in white wool? While my nerves were dancing like high-voltage wires, their big jaws were slowly working on the cud. It wasn't as if someone could ambush us - the road was clearly visible ahead and behind, and flanked by rough pasture land, cliffs, and sea.

But when you're afraid you don't think.

So we drove and drove and drove, like a pair of maniacs. But even if we were in a wild emotional state, we were in a beautiful place. We began to realize one of Ireland's stupendous features, which is the variety of its landscapes. I guess I expected Ireland to look pretty much the same all over, but it isn't that way at all. You don't have to drive very far to see a dramatically different scene.

At last we had to take a break, and at that point we came upon a spot called Ballygally, and it looked safe enough for a stop. We parked in the middle of a hotel parking lot, no other cars around. The lot was big and flat, and ended with an abrupt drop to the sea. Not an easy spot to sneak up on. We went inside, and took a seat near the window, just to be sure nobody stuck a bomb on the thing. But the place was tranquil! We were the ones who were buzzing. Here is a town set on the sea, with wild, rocky cliffs behind it, a thick bank of fog as dense as white wool pressed against the cliff, and the waves crashing below. No other sound than wind and waves.

But still we hadn't caught on.

We got back in the car and drove. The sun went down, but we weren't too far away. And then we saw - people out walking! At night! Alone, in groups of two or three, children, old people, girls and boys. And you could see they were relaxed. So we said to each other, well, it must be all right. And by the time we reached Portrush, and parked our car on a street overlooking the Atlantic, we had no fear of being blown to bits. In fact, the whole time we were in the North, I didn't even hear a car backfire.

We took our things inside, and went for a walk on the beach in the dark. It must have been a new moon, because I could barely see the ground. It made the beach seem to stretch out to infinity, and we walked and walked and walked until finally I wanted to turn back.

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