In the Heart of Queen Maeve’s Cairn

“Take the turn up towards Knocknarea. Five hundred meters on the left there will be a small well and across the road, a hidden gate. That is the entrance to the glen,” explained Valli, as we unloaded her red VW van at the Strand Hill market.

Her booth, crafts by Four Sprung Ducks, sat among a dozen others in a small warehouse. We scattered the table with surf-themed art. Slabs of slate laser-etched with VW busses, “surfer crossing” logos, and quotes of the famous Irish poet, W.B. Weats. Necklaces, coasters, bracelets. And lastly, hung on an old surfboard, the painted clocks which are geared to track the tides in such places of the world where tides are regular. I learned from Valli and Gerri, a surfer, that in California these clocks will not work as there is a false tide, essentially two lows and two highs instead of one.

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Once the market was set, I fetched Owie from the van and walked the Strand Hill beach, past surf lessons on foamy shore break, past low tide algae ribbons, around the point and along the abandoned edge of the sandy bay. The flat-topped Knocknarea lurked in the foreground, rising into misty clouds. Losing ourselves in the spongy grass of the dunes, we circled back to the van, where I left the dog, and donned my rain pants and “Wellies” (Wellingtons are rubber boots) for the guaranteed swampy conditions in the glen. Then I set off on the bike.

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I hugged the edge (the left edge) of the narrow rural road, sharing with minivans and motorcycles hoping for a weekend ray of sun at the beach. Left up a hill marked for Queen Meave’s cairn and I began to climb, pumping my sea legs harder than I had in months. It felt nice, that anaerobic burn, felt alive. But I was happy when the vegetation peeled apart to reveal a low, crumbling stone basin. I stopped to peer inside the ancient well, and then hoisted the bike into the bushes and chained it to a tree. I crossed the small lane and ducked through a wall of shrub into the hidden entrance.

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Two forgotten stone walls stood eaten by vines, and a twisted metal gate sagged down the mountain side on broken hinges. To the left of the path, a curtain of moss dripped from exposed tree roots in the steep hillside and to the right a cliff dropped away. I sloshed through several inches of standing water and descended into the heart of the mountain.

I’d forgotten which trail fork Valli told me to take. Truthfully, I had stopped listening a little. More of a visual/kinetic learner, I can’t absorb too much verbal instruction at once, so I’ve learned to filter out what seems important to memorize and what I can generalize. This part of the directions hadn’t sounded crucial, so instead I had made a mental note to just use common sense.

I turned right towards where the light seemed to open, and crouch through the limbs of a fallen tree. A sudden brightness made me blink, sunlight finding it’s long way through the Irish drizzle into this crack in the earth. My eyes adjusted as I burst from the brush, stumbling into a vast glen.

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Here the earth had split perfectly open, fifty meters of flat soft floor, and vertical rock walls equally as tall. This type of rock fragmented square, appearing as blocks laid by some ancient giant hand. Long lines of ivy dove down the cliffs from the forest above, and straight down the center of the glen, a line of five tall, mature trees marched. There was magic here. The rain reached in as mist, filtered and refined by the leaves above, like being underground. Light danced down green and gold.

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I walked on, past a fire-pit, a rope swing, and an eight foot circle of stone laid on the valley floor. Parties, ceremonies. Pagan perhaps? I could only hope. I traveled on, to the end of the wide valley, where the block stone walls came in close again. The mud sucked at my boots, trying to pull them off, to pull me down into it’s rich world. I wandered through mist and thin trees reaching towards the sun, wondering why they ever started in such a dim place. But then nature will give anything a go.

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The walls opened again, just slightly, to a boulder garden. A spring trickled from the wall, a dripping mossy fountain, staining the stone rust orange. So perfect and straight that I had to walk up and touch the stone, to convince myself it was not man laid.

Local knowledge, this place. Another benefit of traveling with Workaway, and staying with a local. Here the famous Knoknarea splits and reveals her heart. At the top, at the end of the road, there is surely a parking lot, and Queen Meave’s cairn, hundreds of stones carried and piled for hundreds of years to ensure that the terrifying tyrant could never rise again. I walk through this split in the mountain and wonder with eerie superstition if she might have escaped after all, down and out through this glen.

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I did not ride up to visit her grave. It was getting late and I wanted food before the market closed. I cruised back down the steep hill and a light rain pelted my rain coat and muddy Wellies. This was my second bike ride since landing in Ireland two weeks before. Certainly the better of the two, with a more comfortable bike and a more intriguing destination, but I was relieved to cross “bike-tour Ireland” off my list of possible travel plans.

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It was not so much the narrow, harrowing roads, as most of Ireland was turning out to be quite rural. Not even the fact that I’d have to get used to riding on the left, and looking right before crossing. Or the fact that the brake cables are set opposite, with the potential to send me flying over my handlebars in a reactive stop. All that I could get used to, but I was in no way prepared for all this damn rain!

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