Hooking in Strange Places: Proleek Dolmen… in the dark

The athletics track beside my high school didn’t look like a mecca of natural life. Yet when I knelt down one dewy morning and inspected a small square of dull green grass up close, I discovered it was like an insect city, or at least a big town. Six-legged creatures bustled here and there, a whole civilisation hidden at our feet. Climbing the rugby posts and sitting on the crossbar showed me that a mundane place can look new if you observe it from a different angle.

The self-conscious ‘look at me’ aspect of my actions washed away over time, and left me with a precious memory. I have done something few others have done. I have seen something few others have seen. And I didn’t go to France, Antarctica or the wilderness of North America to accomplish this. I didn’t even leave the school grounds. I just looked at the same old place in a new way.

The big adventures are to be pursued, embraced where they’re possible. It’s a pity, though, if the small ones are neglected in the process.

A visit to the Proleek Dolmen isn’t in itself much to write home about. This is not because the dolmen is uninteresting. The capstone, estimated to weigh between thirty and forty tonnes, rests on the pointed tips of three stones each over two metres tall. Yet in the end, it comes down to parking at a hotel, walking through a golf course, then looking at some stones before going for a cup of tea. Even sitting underneath the capstone and crafting a granny square would hardly make for interesting reading. I felt in my heart this should be my next target, though, and needed to somehow make the experience new.

With the thought half in my mind to climb on top, I went for a two hour spin on my bicycle on the first Sunday of 2011. Back home I showered, changed, packed a ball of beige wool and set off. There was little chance I’d be able to make the granny square then, as darkness gathered thick on the ground already when I left. I thought of the trip as a scouting expedition, packing the wool just in case the light was better than I thought. I could check the place out and see what new angle might be possible.

While my anxiety in no way matched what I felt when I approached St Patrick’s Cathedral, apprehension still had a cold hand on my shoulder as I parked my car. The path to the Dolmen ran behind the hotel. It passed the floor-to-ceiling windows of a large entertainment room, where a uniformed man checked the place settings on tables covered with crisp white cloth. Usually, bright light inside makes those skulking in relative darkness harder to spot, but this night the exuberant beams spilled over the steps down to the uneven cement path I walked along. I was making my bold way to the abandoned golf course in a floodlight.

My heart eyed the spot in my throat it had by now claimed as its second home. The best thing to do, I reasoned, was to walk purposefully, unhurried but determined. Anxious glances around and a nervous scurry would more likely draw attention.

The path veered left, between two old, rambling, stone-built sheds. Like grandparents at a wedding, they belonged, but were from an earlier era, out of touch with the modern extension to the former family home which now provided rooms for guests to stay in. And like the old folks have their own little sphere inside the festivities, reminiscing about weddings past and what the groom had looked like when he was still wearing nappies, these old buildings held a creaking conversation with the breeze. The bright electric light didn’t reach all the way here, as if it knew it didn’t belong. I was almost ready to relax, though I still waited for a call and hurried steps: “Excuse me, where are you going?” It didn’t come.

A bridge crossed over a small stream that meandered from where I’d parked my car. It didn’t look like a bridge, the path remained flat with crumbling cement surface unchanged. The stone walls on either side gave you a clue, along with the song of water gurgling below. As if pouring into a giant barrel, the sound echoed from down there to my ears. What old mechanism was hidden in those depths? Darkness grinned back at me when I looked over the wall. I’d have to come back during the day to have another look.

Black letters on a white sign said ‘Proleek Dolmen’, an arrow below them showing the way. I was glad to be able to read the sign, though in fairness, a few beams of light from the hotel no doubt still helped. The path narrowed as it headed through the golf course.

There’s something exciting about walking on an uneven surface in darkness. Even on this overcast night when somehow the white-grey clouds brought a strange illumination to the surface of the world, small details were hidden. A subtle rise, perhaps a dip. You put your foot out in confidence, only to be jarred by meeting the surface a moment sooner or later than you’d anticipated. Not a big deal, you understand, but enough to keep your heart beating a little faster than normal.

Another white sign came up. Would I be able to read it? If I could, chances were I’d be able to crochet. The black letters remained obscure. I came closer, closer, then the blurred lines sprang into sense: ‘Watch out for golf balls’. I dutifully watched out for golf balls as I tramped on through the dark.

A section of the path was lined with tall hedges on either side, probably to protect visitors to the Dolmen from flying golf balls. Between them it was really dark, the light that filtered through the clouds blocked out by the protective hedges. I was still able to see enough to go on, but I slowed down and focused. Then I was through, back into the company of silent trees and rolling lawn.

When I was a little girl, my parents had quite a large back garden. Lawn spread out down to the very back, where a huge willow tree shaded us as we climbed her branches on scorching summer days. That same tree turned into a menacing witch at night, with thick black hair waiting to entangle you. I was petrified of that part of the garden after dark. I ventured there on a dare when the willow tree was still a moaning witch when dark descended: I raced down, touched the back wall, then hared home into the safety of the light. Only when I got older did I start enjoying the willow tree’s brooding company after dark.

I remembered the willow tree as I passed other trees now, with rounder heads, and I wished I knew enough about nature to tell their names.

And there it was. The sight of the gallery grave beside the dolmen seemed sudden, unexpected. Grey stones almost glowed with the reflection of light against them. They’re about half as tall as I am, arranged in two lines that are almost parallel. One end is capped with another, flat stone. I know enough about rocks to realise each of these must be very, very heavy. What on earth moved the ancient people who’d lived here to manage the feat of putting these things together? And talk about durability. You want a builder you can rely on, get a time machine and fetch one of these guys.

You have to ask yourself, if your idea of a grave is the just-over-human-size rectangle we’re used to in the modern world, just what size the person was who was buried here? There are numerous tales of giants in Irish folklore, though in my vague recollection they’re all visitors from Scotland who throw rocks around and make islands. Which makes you wonder aobut the old Scottish. Think a wild-haired, blue-painted Mel Gibson, but three metres tall. The Scottish Tourist Board would like me to assure you that you cannot find any such creatures anywhere in Scotland any more. Unless that’s what you’re looking for, of course.

I turned from the gallery grave to my final destination, which was, if the guess of some historians is correct, also the final destination of many people in prehistoric times. Just a little more final than mine was today: they reckon the dolmen was the entrance to a tomb, that long ago there was a huge mound of earth over and behind it. Ashes of those who shuffled off their mortal coils were interred here.

My first thought upon seeing the prehistoric megalith loom in the dark was that I would most definitely not be able to climb on top. The Proleek Dolmen consists of three pillars much like the obelisks Obelix delivered, with a massive dome-shaped rock resting on top. While the bottom pillars are themselves big lumps of rock and the dome a monster, there is still a sense of delicacy, of artistry in the sight of this elegant balancing act. The pillars alone are almost twice as tall as I am. I’d somehow remembered the whole thing much smaller.

I circled the dolmen, saw the smaller stones cemented at the base on one side. Were these part of the original structure, cemented into place to preserve them, or had they been added as an aesthetically tactful way of ensuring this five thousand year old monument didn’t topple and turn into so much broken rubble?

Either way, one round stone presented the perfect seat. I parked myself on it, my back against the flattish side of a pillar. Would I be able to crochet a granny square in this poor light? I’d unwittingly picked the right colour wool, the beige showed up spooky bright when I pulled it out of my bag. I found the end, unwound a small piece, then attempted to make a sliding knot.

It worked first time. I slipped it over the hook, tightened, wound the trailing end around the fingers of my right hand with a practiced twist. Would this work? It occurred to me that making granny squares is not an activity designed to induce adrenaline injection from the body’s fight-or-flight glands. There’s always a first time, though. I took a deep breath, and started to crochet.

Six chain stitches, connect the last to the first to make a circle. Another two chains to make the first double crochet, then one, two – the first group of three was done, and I made two more chains to connect them to the next cluster.

There’s no such thing as silence near Dundalk. Oh, it’s quiet here all right, on the skirt of the Cooley mountains, but still the sigh of cars from the nearby motorway, the bypass and the main road to Carlingford reached my ears. I remembered living on a farm in the Free State in South Africa, forty kilometres from the nearest city, our closest neighbour hidden behind a ridge three kilometres away. There, when it was dark, it was can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-own-face dark, and the silence was an all-encompassing swallow of every sound but the small ones.

Last double crochet, two chains, then two more for the first double crochet in the next row followed directly by the two chains connecting the first cluster to the next. My fingers were icy cold, the tip of my right index finger especially aching. I’d cut it quite badly the month before. Not one for doing things half-heartedly, I accomplished this feat with a saw. The finger was more or less healed now, but with fresh scar tissue going down almost to the bone, the finger is now unusually sensitive and a constant source of inspiration for feelings of self-pity.

We probably have several tonnes of something or other hovering over our heads on a regular basis. Even so, when that several tonnes of something takes the shape of a rock, resting on other rocks, the matter tends to weigh on your mind. I knew the dolmen had been standing for longer than the pyramids in Egypt, but I also knew sooner or later whatever goes up must come down. It’s quite certain the dolmen wouldn’t choose to come down anytime soon, and that signs of its imminent demise would be evident long before the event. That’s not the kind of logic that goes well with a silent golf course drenched in deep twilighty darkness, distant, ghostly sounds and the feeling that the architects of this monument were just outside the limits of my perception, watching. Probably saying to each other: “What the hell is this mad woman doing on our dolmen?”

I lost a stitch, and in the dark couldn’t catch it again. Better to pull out the wayward loop, and hook the wool once more. Third round. A woman had once told me, when I was just entering my teens, that a lady should never sit on a cold surface, or she’d ‘catch cold’. She’d have heart failure if she knew the temperature of my derriere right then.

From what I’d read, I remembered the original Irish – and here I’m talking original-original, as in sometime before the year 0 – were slight in stature, and dark. If that’s true, you can certainly still see the genetic remnant of that appearance in Irish people today, in spite of fair skins and the famed red hair. You count many more dark brown heads than light ones in the streets.

I’d brought a pair of scissors, but instead of searching for them, I first tried to bite off the wool. It didn’t work, of course, so I simply gripped it tight and pulled. Snap! and the granny square was untethered, free. I pulled the loose end through the last stitch. All done.

Thus I’d managed another small adventure, stooped down, proverbially, to study the busy life in the boring bit of lawn once more. I have done something which, if anyone has ever done it before, certainly hasn’t been done many times. I’ve crocheted a granny square in the dark under the thirty-tonne dome of the proleek dolmen. It can’t possibly feel as wonderful as achieving the first ascent of some virgin mountain, or descending to watery depths heretofore unseen by human eyes. But as I skipped my way back to the lights of the hotel, I sure felt some of the elation these achievements no doubt bring.

I am a pioneer. An explorer. A ‘first ever’ armed with hook and wool.

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