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

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Europe - BRIAN M. O’CON­NELL THE IR­ISH TIMES

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

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