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I came across an interesting documentary about the abandonment of Inis Airc, a tiny island off the Galway coast. Right next to the much-larger Inis Bofin, Inis Airc would have have supported about 300 people at the start of the famine (the famine being the high-water mark for the Irish population as a whole). By 1960, the inhabitants numbered just 24. The key reasons the population left seem to have been the incredible hardship of island life, coupled with the difficulty of getting to or from the island. Inis Airc lacked a pier or jetty, so tiny currachs were the only way on or off. The inhabitants could be cut off for weeks during winter, with no way to get help to the sick, or bring in food or supplies. Other islands remained inhabited once newer piers and berthing facilities were put in place, but the cost of such for all the Irish islands inhabited at the turn of the century would have been enormous.
TG4 made a documentary about the abandonment of the Irish in 2007, and it can be found, in several parts, on YouTube.
The tale of Inis Airc is similar to the abandonment of many other Irish islands over the course of the twentieth century. The Blaskets off Co. Kerry are the ones I’m most familiar with, mainly due to the compulsory reading of Peig Sayers’ Irish-language memoir in school. There’s plenty of info on the Blaskets and island life from the mid-19th century on, thanks to several memoirs written in the early days of the Irish state by several islanders.
I’ve only ever been out to the Aran Islands, so perhaps I should add the Blaskets or some of the other uninhabited islands to my bucket list. Before that, it’s time to dig out that old copy of Peig, and see how my childhood Irish has stood up to the years and life in a foreign country.
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.)
Sounds like souvenir hunters chipped off some pieces of the Lia Fail recently. Reminds me of the woman said to have stolen enough rocks from the “Quiet Man” cottage to build a fireplace in her house in the US. It’s a shame as well as a crime. It seems as if we enjoy quite unprecedented access to historical sites in Ireland, and actions like this will only encourage the OPW to control access, and remove what can be removed to museums.
I’ve been intermittently pursuing a minor historical mystery since visiting the Narrow Water Castle in Warrenpoint, Co. Down last summer. Across the river (as you can see from the photo at the top) a rather cool-looking round tower was peeking out of the woods, shadowed by a mini-tower on the muddy river bank (far left of the photo). The Narrow Water Castle is a pretty awesome place: they have a murder hole, a garderobe (medieval toilet — guaranteed to fascinate the elementary school set), and a gorgeous setting where the Newry river enters Carlingford Lough and then forms the Irish Sea, so I didn’t really think about much the round tower except as backdrop. Later I thought I should find out some more about that tower.
There’s a good website for tower spotters, roundtowers.org, that lists all the round towers in Ireland — at least the surviving ones — but I couldn’t find a tower listed in that part of Co. Louth. No problem, there are other resources, but again nothing listed this tower. I checked Google Earth, just to make sure I wasn’t mis-remembering the location. I Googled “round tower” with the name of every townland in the area, but found nothing except a couple of photos of “a round tower near Omeath” (the nearest village) on Flickr. So I appeared to have a round tower that nobody, except a few photographers, seemed to care about.
Finally, the “mini round tower” down by the river gave me a clue. Who builds a miniature round tower at the edge of a river in the shadow of a real one? Why build such a thing? Well, presumably as a marker for shipping, right? Then I found a different view of the mini tower and saw a solar panel hanging off the front. Then it clicked into place: this is a pair of lighthouses built to look like ancient round towers — one 16 feet tall and one 49 feet.
As we’re living in the internet age, there’s a lighthouse spotters database (actually a couple of them) where I learned these are the two “Newry River Range” Lighthouses, solar-powered channel markers built in the shape of round towers. It turns out there was a trend for building lighthouses to look like round towers in the late 19th century. Who knew? So there you have it: When is a round tower not a round tower? When it’s a lighthouse.
Dowth is one of the three necropolises in the Brú na Bóinne world heritage site, situated on a slope rising from the river Boyne near Slane, Co. Meath. In contrast to the other sites at Brú na Bóinne, Dowth is not restored and beautified, but this is a plus as some feel Newgrange and Knowth are a little too well-manicured. Also, access to the Dowth site is free and not controlled via the visitor center. After a morning spent being shepherded around the other two sites, everyone will revel in the freedom to explore Dowth and the ruined churchyard beside it on their terms.
Dowth was once a large mound like Newgrange (possibly of of a taller, conical shape, if old illustrations are to be credited) but amateur archaeologists (although treasure seekers would probably be a better description) damaged the mound severely in the 19th century, and at another point it was used as an easy source of stone for building projects. Miraculously, despite these desecrations, two passages remain intact, although both are tight, cramped and safely locked to keep the public out. (Although you can see some of the carvings inside one of them in this documentary.)
The mound is just off the road; a simple road sign points the way through an old iron gate. Like much of Ireland, parking is on the grass verge along the edge of the road. As you walk along the path towards the mound, the side of the mound that has been dug away is clearly visible. The rim of the mound remains in a horseshoe shape, and the views of the Boyne valley and Newgrange from the top are excellent. Children love to scramble up the mound — but beware of the thick clumps of waist-high weeds growing in the center; these are stinging nettles!
As you walk around the site in a counter clockwise direction, you come upon two low stone-lined entrances, of a size better suited to sheep than humans. (In fact, you’ll probably share the site with sheep, as Dowth, although owned and managed as a heritage site by the state, allows the local farmers’ sheep to graze around the mound — a not uncommon arrangement given the vast number of ancient ruins in Ireland.) These are the entrances to the smaller of the two burial chambers. It’s rather unusual to find two separate entrances to a single chamber; perhaps this reflects a change in burial ritual during the building of all three monuments or perhaps one afforded entrance for people, and the other allowed the passage of the sun for some ritual reason? Unlike Newgrange and Knowth, which were built to allow people to walk more-or-less standing up, this passage is tiny, designed for crawling only. The chamber is a short distance from the entrance, and you should have enough light to see inside fairly well. Be sure to take a few pictures holding your digital camera , the flash will show detail you miss otherwise. This is one of those times you’ll be grateful you have a flashlight in your pocket.
Like Newgrange, the South chamber is aligned with the winter solstice. However, a recently planted row of trees on the neighboring property are gradually impeding the sun, and will likely eventually block it altogether. At the back of the south chamber is a convex stone which is reputed to reflect the sunlight back against some carvings on the other side of the chamber. As the chamber is locked year-round, I have sadly been unable verify this phenomenon. It should be noted that the roof of this chamber had caved in — a legacy of the quarrying, maybe — and was rebuilt with concrete at some point in the past, so it’s not known how much later interventions has altered the precise layout of the chamber.
The curious aspect about this chamber is that the setting sun illuminates it not just on the winter solstice, but from sometime in November through February. This suggests the sun alignment had some other purpose than simply celebrating the return of the sun at the solstice.
When you’re done looking into these entrances, look over your shoulder and you’ll see a concrete “bunker” at the edge of the field, covered by a thick wire cage. This is the entrance to the second and third passages — one of which is believed to be a souterrain, an underground storage space or place of refuge, rather than a burial chamber. The construction of this souterrain is dated some 2000 years after the construction of the mound and the other chambers. Only archaeologists get to enter, but most dads and teenage sons like to check out the cage and think about how they could get in “if they really wanted to.”
Continuing to walk around the mound clockwise and you’ll see several large kerbstones peaking out of the lush growth at the base. It appears that Dowth originally had both a ring of kerbstones and was covered in white quartz rocks like Newgrange — now mostly removed for local building projects. On the south side, you come upon a beautiful tree growing out of the slope of the mound. In summer, this looks like something out of the Lord of the Rings, and you half expect to come across a Hobbit hole just past the tree. Instead, you come across one of the most intriguing pieces of neolithic art in Europe, The Stone of the Seven Suns.
Although most of Dowth’s kerbstones are overgrown or buried, Kerbstone #51, known as The Stone of the Seven Suns, has had the vegetation stripped away to reveal what appears to be celestial notations depicting the sun, the moon, and stars. Whether this is some sort of solar calendar, a record of eclipses and celestial movement, or some kind of teaching tool, we simply do not know. One of the seven “sun wheels” appears to show a lunar eclipse in some detail. Significantly, this kerbstone is carved on both sides, suggesting the key to its purpose could have lain more in the act of its creation than in a means of recording or transmitting information. Then again, perhaps the kerbstones where simply an abstract means to beautify the site and please the gods or spirits of the ancestors, or maybe the images on the back were simply a design that went wrong — the chisel slipped and the stone was turned to save the effort of quarrying another? An indentation in the mound has been cut behind the kerbstone to allow people to see these mysterious carvings in full. (There is speculation that this indentation may conceal the entrance to another chamber.) Encourage your children to try to guess at the meaning of the various symbols; their guesses will be as good as anyone else’s.
Across the field at this point, you will see the ruins of Dowth Church, destroyed during the 1641 uprising. A short walk across the fields brings you to the present day Netterville House and the ruins of the church.
The history of Dowth is a fascinating blend of the historically important and the farcically eccentric. The tomb sits on what was once part of the estate of the Nettervilles, an old Anglo-Norman family. When the Insurrection of 1641 began, the then lord, Viscount Nicholas Netterville, allegedly first offered his services to the Crown, but when he (as a Catholic) was not greeted with open arms, he threw his lot in with the rebels. He lost his estates for his trouble, and saw the Dowth church and castle reduced to ruins, but ironically had his possessions restored a decade later when Oliver Cromwell came to power and recent enemies of the crown were recast as heroes.
One century later, the sixth Viscount, John Netterville, built a gazebo on top of the Dowth mound from which he “attended” mass in the nearby church by telescope! In the 19th century, misguided amateur archeologists used dynamite to blow a hole in the mound searching for a fabled inner chamber they thought might contain the lost Ark of the Covenant. It’s not recorded whether these would-be Indiana Joneses found anything they could recognize after their destructive excavation. The heavily damaged site was then used as a quarry for stone for many years, until the mound was overgrown and forgotten.
Oddly, while Newgrange and Knowth have been extensively excavated and restored, little appears to have been done to Dowth other than rebuilding the roof of the south chamber and securing the entrances to the chambers and souterrain. But the contrast between the decay and damage of the ages on one side, and the glorious (if controversial) restorations on the other gives an indication of the magnitude of both the achievements of the restorers and the artistic skill, engineering know-how and organization of the original builders.
As you wander around the overgrown acreage of Dowth, you can draw on the insight gained at the Brú na Bóinne visitor center, inside Newgrange, and around Knowth, to fill in the blanks, to allow the mind’s eye to show you Dowth as it might once have appeared, and ponder what life at this bend of the river Boyne might have been like 5000 years ago.
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.)
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.
(Basically, abide by the house rules wherever you’re playing.)