I recently submitted a couple of “postcards” to an online publisher of fiction/poetry/essays. They asked for 600 word pieces evoking a time, a place, and/or your time in a place. Since I’ve done a lot of traveling in my day, I thought I’d send them something. This is my rejected postcard from Dublin.
Still Life with Bog Man
“You want muck, jump in the River Liffey.”
I was in Dublin to do some stories for US public radio about the city’s burgeoning tech scene. During that reporting trip, the place seemed a far cry from the delightfully cack-spackled Dublin I remembered from visits during my college days. Just that morning, I’d watched through spotless glass walls as microchips were made. Later, I toured “Silicon Docks,” a set of gleaming new office buildings that were rising at the confluence of the Grand Canal and the Liffey.
Afterward, I needed some dirt in my day, so I asked the hotel receptionist for suggestions, which led to the wisecrack about the river. Then, he got serious and snapped his fingers. “You could go see the bog fella.”
That’s how I ended up in the National Museum of Ireland staring at Old Croghan Man.
He’s named after a hill close to where they found him. To be fair, he looks pretty good for having spent more than two millennia in a bog. He’s missing the lower half of his body and his head, but his torso and arms are remarkably intact. Because of his preserved state, they know a lot about him. He was exceptionally tall for his time. He wore an armband of leather and bronze. His final meal was wheat and buttermilk.
“Old Croghan Man is a window into the sometimes strange and savage beliefs of pre-Christian Ireland.” That’s what the plaque near him says, more or less.
Very little hard work…
Old Croghan Man, the story goes, lived during a time of famine. Perhaps a chieftain or king, he may have accepted his own death willingly, as a sacrifice to the gods in order to stop his people from starving. After one last bowl of gruel, his friends, neighbors, maybe even his loyal subjects, dispatched him with extreme prejudice. There is evidence he was tortured. Multiple stab wounds mark his torso. For good measure, they decapitated him and ripped his body in half. You can almost hear their pleading voices rising to the heavens as his bits sank into the muck.
Old Croghan Man is now laid out reverentially beneath the smudge-proof glass. On one stringy bicep, that regal armband. The other arm, crooked at the elbow, juts upward. His hand rests with the palm up, his sinewy fingers opening like flower petals. The undamaged fingernails, experts say, are further proof that he did very little hard work in his life. Except for the torture and the dying, presumably.
As I stood there, a group of schoolchildren passed through. The teacher was talking up Old Croghan Man. There were facts, sure, but also a lot of the “here is a man who died for the good of his people” kind of thing. I watched as one kid grabbed a classmate and pointed to Old Croghan Man’s hand. One of the mummified digits stood just a bit taller than the rest. “He’s after giving you the finger!” said the kid. His pals giggled, and so did I. Maybe Old Croghan Man didn’t go so willingly.
I didn’t know it then, but Ireland’s relatively new-found sense of prosperity and confidence would soon be shattered by a financial crisis. Borrowed fortunes would be lost, blame would be passed around like a hot potato. And I would be back in Dublin to tell the story of gleaming office buildings sitting empty by the river, of hopes dashed and responsibilities ignobly denied. It would be a story filled with strange and savage characters, not to mention more than a few middle fingers.
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