BOOK REVIEW Ancient Ireland: An Explorer’s Guide

Since autumn is an excellent time to visit Ireland – the summer crowds have gone, airfare and accommodations are cheaper – I thought I’d start a series of book reviews and share some of my favorite Irish travel books.  Whether you’re seriously planning a trip or just an armchair traveler, you may find these works useful in your planning or research.

Meagher, Robert E. and Neave, Elizabeth P. (2004).  Ancient Ireland:  an explorer’s guide.  Northampton, MA:  Interlink Books.  156656526X. $22.00

Ancient Ireland: An Explorer’s Guide is exactly that.  It’s for the adventurer, so be sure to pack your hiking boots and rain gear.  While it covers well-known public sites, many are exposed to the elements and will take you a short ways off the beaten path.  Not too far into the guide is advice dealing with cows while on foot.  It goes like this:  “First there’s the bull.  Find out if there is one in the field you plan to walk in.  Ask a local person if they happen to know.”  The guide even helpfully points out how to tell a bull from a cow.  “If there is a bull in the field…absolutely and without question, do not go into that field!”  On the docile cows, the guide warns, “Running creates a follow-the-leader atmosphere, and some cows like to run along behind.  So walking is best.”

I became a bovine leader once, and it totally freaked me out!  While I was staying at a Franciscan College, the only way to get to the beach was to walk through a couple fields, which we did every evening.  We teenagers were all suburbanites and had never seen cows up close and personal.  Maybe the cows were bored.  Maybe they thought we were going to feed them.  Maybe they were just curious, but it never failed – they always followed us, ambling slowly toward us until one would pick up the pace and we’d bolt with a scream.  Sure wish I had this guide then!

You’ll find other practical advice here, including some wisdom on driving in Ireland (did you know “Ireland ranks second in Europe for highway carnage”?  Having driven with a native down impossibly narrow, blind, and winding country roads at death-defying speeds, I can attest this fact.)  Language can also present some challenges in reading signage and maps.  For example, Dún Aengus is the same as Dún Aonghasa, depending on the modernization of the spelling (I could provide a couple more spelling alternatives for the name of this fort, but I don’t want to confuse you even more).  Getting used spelling conventions (note the plural here) take a great deal of patience and persistence.  There’s no standardization in many places, so you’ll need to keep your mind flexible and open to recognizing patterns.  Rest assured, in about ten years (that’s how long it took me), you’ll have a working understand of Gaelic phonetics!

After the “practical” section, the book opens with a marvelous introduction to ancient Ireland – prehistoric and historic – working its way from the Stone Age through the Celtic Iron Age to early Christian Ireland and ending with the Viking invasions.  Principal archaeological remains such as passage tombs, portal tombs, stone circles, ringforts, crannógs, and ogam stones, are explained.  A list of Irish words commonly found in place names – such as (cow), cloch (stone), cluain (meadow), baile (town) – a who’s who of ancient Ireland, a sample prehistoric menu, a timeline, and a list of web resources are round out the volume.  Full-color photos and maps abound, although you’ll need more detailed maps to find your way, and you’ll need to rent a car (there’s advice on that, too) – public transport doesn’t reach many of these sites.

Not sure where to start?  There are three helpful and fascinating itineraries, each focused on a different time period, with suggested side sites to visit.  And, parents, fear not!  Each itinerary features sidebars listing kid-friendly sites.  For example, after visiting the Grianan of Aileach, you might want to take the rugrats to Bundoran (Ireland’s Coney Island) or to the Westport House and Children’s Animal and Bird Park.  Each itinerary also offers bed and board suggestions.  Of course, since this guide is now almost seven years old, you’ll want to double-check all the travel information.  Ireland’s tourist economy is hurting like our own and places may have gone out of business, and of course, prices have changed.

Even if you’re not planning on traveling, I highly recommend adding this volume to your bookshelves.  It’s available for purchase from Amazon.com.  There doesn’t seem to be a newer edition.

One last piece of advice:  August is the worst time to visit!  All of Europe takes vacation then, so not only are accommodations packed, but some banks and businesses may be closed or have shortened hours.  Also, the weather is more likely to be rainy in some places.

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