Close encounter with the Iron Age
Surviving a night in a historic ringfort on the Irish coast From closing time on, those sleeping over are the keepers of the park
I LEARN two things during my recent night sleeping in an Irish ringfort. One is that we probably would have needed a lot more inner steel to live during the Iron Age. And the second is that you should never step back into prehistory without access to a microwave.
For decades the Irish National Heritage Park in Wexford has offered visitors re-enactments of the ways our prehistoric ancestors lived. And now visitors can sleep overnight in one of its Iron Age settlements.
They lure you in with talk of switching off and getting back to nature through sleeping in an early medieval house with stone walls and a thatched roof and learning things such as archery and bushcraft skills.
On hand to lead us back to prehistory is Damien Busher, the appropriately named tour guide, as well as general manager Maura Bell and her two daughters, Clara and Anna, who are desperately missing their iPads.
The plan is to learn some old Irish skills, cook a traditional barley stew over an open fire, tell stories, sing songs and sleep under animal hides beside smouldering embers.
‘‘People need to be able to experience history firsthand,’’ according to Bell. ‘‘From closing time on, those sleeping over are the keepers of the park.’’
Each small house has its own fire and, when I arrive in the early afternoon, seems quite cosy, with separate sleeping areas, plenty of rugs and blankets, and a kitchenette.
Apparently it got so smoky inside the houses that management fitted a small extractor fan hidden in the thatch roof to help keep the air circulated. This kind of a la carte historical re-enactment I can live with.
What I haven’t banked on is the incessant rain. Just before we are to head off into the woods to attempt a series of tasks, it starts pouring. I pull the hood of my ski jacket down low, grab the nearest umbrella and figure the only thing for it is to (Neanderthal) man up.
For anybody over the age of 30, visits to Irish museums as a child generally meant viewing axe heads and flintheads in glass cases. The closest we got to ‘‘experiencing’’ history was making replica axe heads in primary-school history class. We would then use these axes on each other during break time, deepening our understanding of prehistoric savagery.
Since then, many Irish museums have adapted, and now you can touch, feel and smell exhibits.
‘‘To develop old skills you have to put time and effort in,’’ says Busher. ‘‘The beauty of this experience, though, is that once you click back into an ancient mindset, stress
PATRICK BROWNE levels go down and you’re right back to basics.’’ With the rain belting down and no sign of being able to light a fire to get the stew going, my stress levels beg to differ. By late evening, when the park has closed and we are the only ones left on site, it is a nice feeling to close the gate of the ancient Irish ringfort and get some insight into the security and sense of community our ancestors may have felt.
‘‘I love my sofa and really miss it,’’ Clara says, as she and her sister Anna bag the top bunk in the hut. Anna misses her favourite television show, Home and Away, while Clara is pining for The Simpsons and The Big Bang Theory. ‘‘I also miss my double bed, and having to make everything from scratch feels so weird,’’ she says.
Busher, who is an expert in bushcraft, is also adept at keeping the small fire in the centre of the hut going and teaches us how to shoot an arrow. The bigger fire is a challenge. Darkness and hunger are beginning to take over and thankfully an executive decision to embrace historical revisionism is made.
Leaving the dampness and the smoky hut, we plonk ourselves down in the park’s heritage centre. After a twominute whirl in the microwave we have steaming bowls of barley stew washed down with Coca-Cola and chocolate eclairs. Returning to the hut, we wrap up with sleeping bags, animal hides, blankets, hats and scarfs and bed down for the night. It is pretty cold, but next morning there is something lovely about waking up in this replica of an ancient ringfort, throwing back the animal skins and stepping outside.
There is something even lovelier about arriving at my hotel about an hour later and reminding myself of another ancient civilisation by sliding under some crisp Egyptian cotton sheets.
From left, Damien Busher, Maura Bell, Clara Bell and the author