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There are weird and unearthly places where the known laws of physics do not seem to apply. My first memory of this was as a child, reading an Enid Blyton novel in which there is a hill on which all cars stutter to a stop. Another such phenomenon is the fabled river where water runs upslope or the road where a car will roll uphill. There appears to be one  of these oddities in most countries. (I came across a stream in Western NC many years ago that appeared to flow uphill — but strangely I’ve never been able to find it again.) Needless to say, Ireland has several of these magical spots, in fact Ireland appears to have more of these gravity-defying wonders per square mile and any other country.

One, known locally as “The Magic Road” or “Magic Hill,” is in Co. Louth, near the Long Woman’s Grave in the Cooley Mountains. The American actor-turned-TV-presenter Andrew McCarthy recently featured this stretch of road on his show (video below). The Cooley penisula is an area of long association with legends and magical folklore. Much of The Tain takes place here, there are several neolithic tombs in the area (including the highest one in all Ireland on Slieve Gullion), and one of the oldest churches in the country is nearby at Killevy. Oddly, the agencies responsible for promoting the Ring of Gullion make no mention of the “Magic Hill” in their pamphlets, but then again, hordes of tourists stopping on a back road to try and make their car roll uphill really has disaster-waiting-to-happen written all over it.

Here’s a clip of Andrew McCarthy’s take on the “Magic Hill”:

Another “Magic Hill” is said to be found down in Co. Waterford, in the Comeragh Mountains. Along the road to Mahon Falls you appear to crest a hill and travel down into a valley. Near the foot there’s a Wishing Tree/May Bush on the left. Stop next to this tree, put the car in neutral, take you foot off the brake, and it appears you’ll find the car rolling uphill all the way back to the corner. (Don’t forget to put your blinkers on to warn other motorists you’re acting strangely.)

A YouTube video of people experiencing the effect in the Comeraghs:

The folkloric explanation for these magic spots appears to be that you’ve trespassed on sacred fairy land and the Fey are pushing you away. This makes me wonder if the phenomenon was well-known before cars came on the scene, or if this is just another example of our love of yarn-spinning. Did horses get pulled back upslope by their wagons if they idled in the same spot?

The scientific explanation is much simpler: these are actually optical illusions. The roads only appear to be going downhill because of the surrounding landscape. The distant horizon is not visible at these spots, so the eye takes its cues for what is a flat surface, an up- or a downslope from the relationship between the visible landforms. These two roads appear to be going downhill, but really they’re each a gentle upslope, so when you stop your car and remove the brake, gravity takes over and pulls you gently backwards down the slope, even though to onlookers you appear to be traveling uphill.

Even so, I don’t intend to let the scientific truth deprive me of an unusual experience. Next time we’re home, both of these spots are on the travel itinerary. (If anyone has good directions to either — or to one of the other two “Magic Hills” in Ireland — please leave a note in the comments.)

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There’s an old board game in Ireland called rings. It dropped out of fashion at some point in the mid-twentieth century, but it appears to be making a slow comeback here and there. It’s simply a wooden board with 13 hooks mounted on the wall, at which you toss six rubber rings (like the small belts in old vacuum cleaners). Think darts, but a heck of a lot less dangerous if when the rings bounce back. As far as I know, there are only three pubs in my hometown that have ring boards these days, but there is a small and dedicated groups of “ringers” who frequent these pubs to play.

 
When I was a kid, pool used to be the game of choice in our local, then gradually darts became more popular, and now it’s rings. The game is simple enough that kids can easily grasp it and join in. You simply stand the requisite distance from the board (I believe 8.5 feet is “regulation” — kids are usually let throw from a couple of feet closer) and throw your rings one at a time. I’m not sure if it was the way they were involved in the game by all the adults present, or the fact that we let them stay out until after midnight that appealed to my girls the most (and they weren’t the only kids out playing rings that late). Either way, playing rings was a highlight of our last trip home.Each hook has a set value (1 through 13) with the highest value being in the center. Each ringer totals up the rings that landed on hooks and subtracts that total from the number you’re shooting for. Like darts, you begin with a number (we usually use 301 at our local) and subtract each score. The egalitarian joy of rings lies in the way everyone in the pub competes (I’m sure this varies from pub to pub, but I’m detailing the practices at our local here). Two teams are drawn up from everyone present, with every effort to apportion the more proficient equally on each side. This ensures that everyone who wants to can throw, and even the youngest can take part without much fear of performance anxiety. Each team works their way though their order one time, then it’s the other teams’ turn to throw. (This was the way we used to play “team” darts in the pub, too. I’m sure the rules and practices will vary in other pubs.)
As you get down to the wire, each team must go “out” (i.e. reduce the target number to zero) in one ring. (So, once the remaining target is 13 or fewer, you must land the ring on that number.) Then, you, and any team members who have not thrown in this final round, aim for the 1. The more 1s you get the better. The other team then finishes out their round, and they can still beat the first to finish if they throw more 1s than the other team. It keeps the game close and ensures that skill and proficiency counts for more than luck.
 
This Christmas, I made a ring board for the family. We’ve already had friends over and introduced the game to the neighborhood, and everyone enjoyed it immensely. The board I made isn’t quite “regulation” as I used regular cup hooks instead of the slightly different hooks they use in Ireland, but it’s near enough for practice. (You can theoretically land 3 rings on each on the hooks I used, I’m not sure that the hooks in Ireland are big enough for more than two.) I was thwarted in my efforts to find a ready made shield-type board in local craft stores, so I opted for a pre-made pine table top that’s bigger than strictly necessary. I also painted the numbers below the hooks, instead of above them. This was because the rings can cover the numbers on some boards I’ve seen, making it difficult for kids or the novice to total up the score. With the numbers below the hooks, the number is clearly circled by any ring that lands on the hook, making scoring quick and easy.

Anyway, the resulting board is providing fun for all and allowing us to brush up on our rings skills so we can hold our own with the pro ringers next time we’re home in Ireland.

Notes

Some history and the rules of rings…

Alternative rules of rings…

(Basically, abide by the house rules wherever you’re playing.)

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