Sunday, April 17, 2016

Ireland: January in Dublin

Nefelibata (n.): "cloud-walker"; one who lives in the clouds of their own imagination, not obeying the laws or conventions of society. (Portuguese)

Dublin is, in my less-than-humble opinion, a truly excellent city. It meets several of my requirements for excellence, including but not limited to:

  1. A river or sea port
  2. A slightly quirky but mostly efficient public transport system
  3. A historic university campus
  4. A slightly-labyrinthine-but-very-inviting covered market
  5. Multiple Thai restaurants (preferably that deliver)
  6. An improbable yet easy-to-navigate city plan, and
  7. At least one enormous bookstore with an extensive Crime and Thrillers section

Also it didn't hurt that Dublin and Boston are very similar-looking cities.

One of my first site visits was outside of Dublin, however, when I went on a day trip to Newgrange. If you've never heard of it, please please Google it because I won't be able to do it justice in my little blog and it's a veeeery cool place. To start with, it's older than the Stonehenge and the pyramids at Giza (think about it. That's five thousand years, people.) Not much is known about what it was used for, or how it was built, but we have learned a lot by studying the materials it is made from, and it's home to some of the best surviving megalithic art in the world. The most fascinating feature of Newgrange is its connection to the winter solstice; the entrance to the interior of the mound is perfectly aligned with the sun and the surrounding terrain that the first rays of sunlight of the solstice pierce directly into the heart of the chamber within, completely illuminating it.

The re-discovery of Newgrange was made in 1699, when local landowners decided to dig for stones on the site. Until its appropriation by the state in 1890, Newgrange was a site of local curiosity and unrecorded popular tourism. Names are carved into the sacred stones going back hundreds of years, scratched into the walls right alongside prehistoric stone art. Since there are no records of the tomb from the seventeenth century discovery, we have no way of knowing how it may have looked when it was abandoned, and no way of finding out what may have been lost.

Newgrange is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and access is restricted to controlled, guided tours through a nearby information center. Guards protect the grounds during the night, and tours are restricted to small groups. When asked about why security is so tight, our guide responded, "Preservation is only possible with knowledge." She explained that because no rules were made for the site for almost two centuries, much of what we could have learned about Newgrange has been lost and its complete preservation was impossible. Now, with the regulations and security, Newgrange can be maintained at its current state and protected from further damage.

This is all making my developing grudge against tourism seems rather petulant. Essentially, the tourism industry is what makes conserving Newgrange possible; entry fees provide for its upkeep, and selective viewing keeps the site intact.

Back in Dublin town I had lots of places to visit, including the National Museum of Ireland. The Museum has several branches, but I focused my efforts on the Archaeology and Decorative Arts museums. There I had the chance to meet with the conservators in their laboratory and view some of their ongoing treatments as I picked their brains. Some of the most impressive conservation work is being done on book shrines that have been discovered in peat bogs, the great environmental conservator. Book shrines are a type of reliquary, an ornately decorated case that houses pieces of sacred text, such as a gospel, saint's letters, or even a fragment of holy text, and the text inside is revered in the same way a bodily relic might be. They are most often made of metal (or at least the surviving ones are) and decorated with jewels, intricate metalwork, and fine enamels. Their time in the peat bogs has reduced many of them to shadows of their former glory, and conservators are working to stabilize and study these treasures.

With funding being what it is, almost no restoration is done at the NMI beyond that which is done for the sake of stabilization. As many relics and book shrines are missing their "sacred bits" (i.e. they were looted and the relic was discarded, or the more-easily-decomposed pages were lost to time), they have lost any sacred connotations they might have had and are consigned to life as archaeological objects. Sometimes, however, the Museum's sacred objects are lent out for special church services, or for reconsecration. The Museum maintains strong relationships with the historical homes of the objects they safeguard, and provides protection that often would be otherwise be impossible for the original institutions to provide.

My next stop in Dublin was the Chester Beatty Library, which is right next to Dublin Castle (well worth a visit if you're in the area!) and is a total geek-fest if you're a fan of the written word. Which I am. To give you the short version, a man named Chester Beatty loved books. He spent his life collecting the best examples of the written word from around the world, and the fruits of his life's work are now housed in the Library. Its collection is displayed in two permanent exhibitions: "Arts of the Book" and "Sacred Traditions." Guess where I went first.

The upper floor is dedicated to seven world religions (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Sikhism, and Jainism) and the manifestations of the sacred within the written word. All of these religions have examples of where a book is more than a book, and the written word is just as sacred as any relic. Needless to say I spent several long afternoons there, soaking it all up.

Perhaps the most profound experience I had in Ireland, however, was my trip to the airport. My cab driver, Robert, was a lovely man and keen to learn about why I, an American, was flying to India after living in Ireland. We chatted on the way to the terminal, all about my travels, and he seemed very concerned. "Do your parents know where you are? Did you get all your shots? What do you do when you get sick? Make sure you take your malaria pills." I tried to appease him, saying that this was my eighth month on the road and that I could handle being on my own; he believed me, but barely. We arrived at the airport and as I unloaded my bags he reached into his pocket, taking out a small lacquered pendant of the Virgin Mary. He placed her in my hand and said softly, "Take her with you. I know your parents must be worried with you traveling alone. She'll look after you" and then returned to his cab and drove away. I stood there dumbfounded and crying for a few moments before I remembered myself and shuffled off to check in.

It occurred to me as I stood in line for security that my Madonna is exactly what this project is about. She's not bedecked with jewels or sitting behind bullet-proof glass--who knows where she even comes from--but she is one of my most precious possessions, and her presence makes me feel safe. I bought a silver chain in the airport and I now wear her around my neck, and I'll continue to cherish her. She's important because of the value and spiritual power belief gives her--she doesn't need impressive provenance or the power to move mountains to make her worth taking care of. Rather, she's the manifestation of goodwill and kindness, and a man's faith that an image, no matter how small, can have life-changing impact.

I know I'm a bit behind on these reflections, and I hope to have more up very soon. I'm writing from Indonesia, and I owe you at least one very long post about the two months I just spent in south India. It's absurd to think that I have less than three months left of this project, and even more bewildering to think that I'll soon be back in the U.S. So, here's to the final quarter!