Hurling and Wedding and Athlone

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Yesterday and today in Ireland, the inky clouds, which build at the foot of the Boyne, or the Shannon, and sweep over the land that runs clear and flat from the sea with only the smallest of hills, fall apart over the cities and villages and country roads and paddocks, and are gone as quickly as they came. If you’re in a city, it’s worth ducking into a doorstop until the rain passes, because you can almost guarantee it will be above you for five minutes. The wind comes separately, seems to blow from each direction, and then the sun follows, bouncing off all of the rock so that you have to shield your eyes. This is a country that makes you work while you’re wandering. We’re a little more exposed to the elements because we’ve hired a van, which has a mattress in the back, a gas stove, a fridge and some curtains. It’s good, but it’s easy to underestimate the value of standing room. We’re not stopping at camping sites, but just by the side of the road, or, while we’re in Athlone for Dave and Aideen’s wedding, in car parks.

From Dublin we took a forty-five minute bus to ‘the Dublin branch’ of the Spaceship company to hire our van. The Dublin branch is not in the same county as Dublin – it’s in Meath – but I guess you can understand where they’re coming from when relatively speaking, it’s closer to Dublin than Galway. When we got there we waited for the owner’s wife to pick us up from the bus stop. We were supposed to wait outside a certain church, which isn’t really on the map. Asking the Irish for directions, or any question much at all, has lead to less than completely satisfactory results for us so far. I don’t think asking questions on the street is something that’s done a lot here, or at least not by people with accents like ours. Butters asked about six people where the church was, and they either didn’t know, or shook their heads and kept walking. I asked the lollipop lady, and it turns out we were right around the corner, about twenty metres away. Most of the Irish we’ve met have been lovely, but I don’t think you can surprise them with a question straight away. And I tend to just ask questions of anyone that’s handy – for example, walking into a diner to see whether they had wifi.

There was a nineteen-year-old red haired girl, dressed in a faux American candy-striped dress and a paper hat. As I opened the door she zoned in on me with her intense, drilling stare that they seem to have, just the face and no eye contact for a moment, then followed by the eyes as if to say, ‘I was just doing something, and you’re interrupting.’

‘Two,’ she said to us, without making it a question.

‘Hi there. Just wondering – do you have wifi?’ She stared for a second, as if with no understanding, her features quickly retreating in toward tiny, pursed lips, like a turtle drawing into its shell, but more aggressive – like a soldier taking a backwards leaning step in preparation for taking a swing.

‘Ah, wifi. Do you have… wireless internet?’ I asked, trying to sound less twangy Aussie and more consonant and staccato.

Her eyebrows joined the rest of her face down south. ‘No.’ she said, with a definite full stop. And then, after composing herself, ‘Sorry.’

‘That’s fine. Thanks.’

Of course that’s a caricature, and there are all kinds of people here, but the Irish we’ve met seem to want you to know what you’re about, and it’s just the initial conversation that’s the hard landing, where it would perhaps be a little softer in Australia.

So we’ve been to an Irish wedding, that of our friends Dave and Aideen. Aideen is from Athlone (At-lone), a town on the Shannon and at the heart of the lake country in this area. The river is wide, and there we parked on the first night in a car park next to the canal and under the gaze of about seventy-five apartments looking over the water. It’s a weird feeling, not knowing whether you’re being watched as you attach your gas burner to the side of the car and fry your French toast, while the wind makes the little blue flames chase each other around the circle until the game ends and it blows them all out. Crack, crack, crack – alight again. We weren’t near toilets, so we didn’t drink anything after about four in the afternoon, and popped to MacDonald’s at about ten. We figured that anyone wanting to call the police to arrest the vagrants in front of their house (it was a public car park) would have been satisfied that we left, just before sunset. And then we returned under cover of darkness. Ha!

Athlone is the point at which the English army (I think) breached the river Shannon in one of those wars. The day before, near Slane, we’d been to the battle of the Boyne site, where some other war I don’t know about occurred. They closed the shop just as we got there.

The 5,000 year old burial passage tomb at Newgrange, near Bru Na Boinne, was finished about 1000 years before Stonehenge. It was built by the newcomers to Ireland at the time – I think about 2800 BC or thereabouts, who were settling farmers rather than hunters who followed the red deer, which the Irish were at those times. It took them about 50-100 years to build Newgrange. It is a passage tomb, and they don’t know what it was and how it was used exactly, but think that it was a ceremonial burial site for the higher echelons of society, who were cremated and then placed in the tomb. It is about half a hectare in square footage. It is made of stone of differing kinds, some weighing multiple tonnes and from 50k away. It has a small passage, about 20 metres long, into the ceremonial room which is about… four metres diameter? There are two basins for laying remains. The roof was made in a dome shape, from long, large flat rocks laid over one another, gradually further and further toward the centre, until the roof stone is laid on top. The roof weighs, and supports, 200,000 tonnes. On top of the roof are further four metres of rock, and dirt, and grass on top. The roof has remained watertight for 5,000 years. The stone out the front, decorated in artistic spirals, is the most photographed stone in Europe. (I’m not sure how they get a stat like that.)

Yesterday we drove to Galway from Athlone. Andrew had heard a radio announcer say that there would be a hurling match on Sunday near Athlone, so we were going to stay, but all the fixtures said that the matches were on Saturday, and as we had a post-wedding BBQ on Saturday, we just moved on. The petrol light came on about 15 kilometres from Galway along the M6, and Andrew saw a sign for a service station, and we pulled off. We pulled off into Athenry – one of the most significant medieval towns in Ireland, apparently. We drove past some wonderfully dark and beautiful churches, but needed to go to the station. As I was waiting, I opened the window to look at some bulls in the nearby paddock – I don’t even know what breed, they were so different. On the breeze, I heard cheering in ups and downs – the sound of sport. Then whistles.

‘Do you want to go and see the sport?’ I asked as Butters got in the car.

‘Sport? Where? He asked like a kid before Christmas.

‘Somewhere in that direction.’ I pointed. He stuck his head out the window like a Welsh pointer, sniffing the air. We drove around until we saw those tall concrete walls that are the English and Irish symbol for sporting ground, there to encourage you pay the price of admission, and went in. They were five minutes in to a hurling match. My team was attacking the ball excellently – I feel that Andrew’s team just weren’t putting the heart into it they could have been. Hurling is played on a field that would be slightly on the small side for football, with tall goal posts like the middle two posts in AFL. There is a crossbar between them, just a bit taller than a man, through which you can score a goal. Anything above the crossbar is a point. There is a goalie, with a stick, and they often come up the field and someone drops back. The goalies are pretty effective – they’d have to be accurate and quick. The ball is the same size as a hockey ball, and they use a stick the length of your arm with a round ping-pong paddle sized disc at the end. You can hit the ball with it and it goes half the length of the field, you can catch it, one-handed, and you can run while tapping the ball on the stick. Or at least, that’s what it looked like. There’s a lot of body contact, and I only really saw one penalty given, for a stick around the neck. Apart from that, it’s every man for himself. It was a great match – my team won 15-10, with no goals scored. The man I the program shop knew someone in Melbourne, as everyone in Ireland seems to.

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