My trip to Newgrange was one of those occurrences that I will remember for a very long time, largely because, aside from the thrill of realizing “Oh my god, this neolithic structure is older than the Pyramids and I get to see it,” I was forced to confront my lifelong case of serious claustrophobia.
While others only think they’re claustrophobic, I have been known to spontaneously and without warning exit the passenger seat of cars stuck in traffic in long, dark tunnels, running past honking vehicles, to the relative safety of visible daylight. I once tried to enter a big cave in Oregon, only to emerge, tears pouring down my face, spending less than a minute inside its inky-black bat-infested interior.
However, to get the full experience of Newgrange, an arguably necessary decision when you’ve come this far to see something this amazing, you must go deep inside the stone-age tomb. My incipient panic rose to a fever pitch when the guides cheerfully sang out in their sweet Irish lilt, “If you have claustrophobia, you might not want to go in,” a statement my mind translates to “You must not, under any circumstances, enter this death-trap; you will die a painful, horrible, death and they will only be able to identify your crushed body from the DNA in the dust of what’s left of the entirely unnecessary bridge your dentist made you pay for.”
At the risk of stating the obvious, the tomb’s tunnel was not built recently. It’s not accessible to wheelchairs, for example, not in any way. It is so narrow, the people who run Newgrange make you leave all bulky bags behind, and, from my fat-American-ass perspective, the tunnel is a test of just how fat you really are.
Because I had been anticipating seeing Newgrange for many years, though, I forced myself to enter the tomb, albeit largely against my conscious will. The nice Newgrange-worker lady who oversees people like me stood encouragingly at the tomb’s opening, clucking and reassuring, “The tunnel is only 18 meters long!” in a tone you use to calm wild animals.
I kept shoving myself through the narrow tunnel, hyperventilating, muttering loudly, my innate childishness warring with any maturity I might actually possess at the age of 54, “I don’t know how long 18 meters is!!” The nice lady’s reassurance, while kindly meant, was lost on me. I can’t convert meters to feet, certainly not without a Google search.
The interior of the tomb has a high ceiling constructed with hundreds of flat stones, laid one upon the other. The overwhelming sense, no matter how cheerfully the guides tried to deny it, is that the entire million tonne weight of the place could fall down if you touch anything. Then, because they have perfected torture in modern-day Ireland, in the final moments after the few people they can shove into the tomb’s center have squished together, trying hard not to touch or breathe on one another, the tour leaders insist you’re either in or out. This meant that my pathetic attempt to hover at the edge of the opening to the tomb had been exposed for the lame excuse it was, and I was forced to make a final decision.
I hadn’t come all that way (18 whole meters, however long that is) to chicken out at this point, so I took those two last steps, only to be told I wasn’t in far enough. I couldn’t believe it. I squished in. I hated everyone, especially the happy people oohing and ahhing. You’re not even allowed to take pictures! I was in agony in every way.
Then they turn off ALL THE LIGHTS and plunge the tomb’s interior into utter blackness (I’m not exaggerating) in an attempt to replicate what the ancients saw when the sun rose on the morning of the winter solstice, approximately December 19-21. I was muttering to myself at this point that there were, at the most, two people in this rotten tomb during those neolithic years, both of whom were most likely high on some neolithic drug, neither of whom were taller than a
n expletive deleted hobbit. Then we shoved ourselves back through the narrow tunnel and people laughed at me, for reasons I have chosen to block out. But I got some good pictures.