Roads, Bridges and Causeways in Ancient Ireland

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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SECTION 1. Roads, Bridges and Causeways.

Letter R
oads.—That the country was well provided with roads we know, partly from our ancient literature, and partly from the general use of chariots. They were not indeed anything like our present hard, smooth roads, but constructed according to the knowledge and needs of the period, sometimes laid with wood and stone, sometimes not, but always open and level enough for car and horse traffic. There were five main roads leading from Tara through the country in different directions: and numerous roads—all with distinct names—are mentioned in the annals. Many of the old roads are still traceable: and some are in use at the present day, but so improved to meet modern requirements as to efface all marks of antiquity.

The ancient Irish classified their roads in regard to size and use into seven kinds, which are named and partly described in an interesting passage in Cormac's Glossary, where he gives the names of the whole seven; but here it will be sufficient to give the terms in most general use. Conair and cai [kee] are used for a road of any kind. Slighe [slee] is a main high road. Bothar [boher] is now the most usual term for a road; and the diminutive bohereen or boreen, representing the sound of the Irish boithrin, is a familiar Anglo-Irish word for a little road or country lane. The word bealach [ballagh] means a pass, commonly with a road or path through it.

The five main roads leading from Tara are mentioned in our oldest authorities, as, for instance, in the story of Bruden Da Derga in the Book of the Dun Cow. They were all called slige. 1. Slige Asail [slee-assil] ran from Tara due west towards Lough Owel in Westmeath, and thence probably in a north-westerly direction. 2. Slige Midluachra [meelooghra] extended northwards towards Slane on the Boyne, through the Moyry Pass north of Dundalk, and round the base of Slieve Fuaid, near the present Newtown-Hamilton in Armagh, to the palace of Emain, and on to Dunseverick on the north coast of Antrim: portions of the present northern highway run along its site. 8. Slige Cualann ran south-east through Dublin, across the Liffey by the hurdle-bridge that gave the city the ancient name of Baile-atha-cliath (the town of the hurdle-ford: now pron. Blaa-clee): crossed the Dodder near Donnybrook: then southwards still through the old district of Cualann, which it first entered a little north of Dublin, and from which it took its name (the slige or road of Cualann), and on by Bray, keeping generally near the coast. Fifty years ago a part of this road was plainly traceable between Dublin and Bray. 4. Slige Dala, the south-western road, running from Tara towards and through Ossory in the present Co. Kilkenny. This old name is still applied to the road from Kells to Carrick-on-Suir by Windgap. 5. Slige Mór ('great highway') led south-west from Tara till it joined the Esker-Riada* near Clonard, along which it mostly continued till it reached Galway. Portions of this road along the old Esker which raised it high and dry over the bogs are still in use, being traversed by the present main highway.

Besides these five great highways, which are con-constantly referred to, the Annals and other old documents notice numerous individual roads. In the Four Masters we find thirty-seven ancient roads mentioned with the general name bealach [ballagh], nearly all with descriptive epithets, like Ballaghmoon near Carlow.

In old times the roads seem to have been very well looked after: and the regulations for making and cleaning them, and keeping them in repair, are set forth with much detail in the Brehon Laws.

Bridges.—The place chosen for the erection of a bridge was very usually where the river had already been crossed by a ford; for, besides the convenience of retaining the previously existing roads, the point most easily fordable was in general most suitable for a bridge. There is no evidence to show that the Irish built stone bridges before the Anglo-Norman invasion. Bridges were very often built of planks laid across the stream from bank to bank if it was narrow enough, or supported on rests of natural rock or on artificial piers if the river was wide: a kind of bridge occasionally used at the present day. Sometimes bridges were constructed of strong hurdles supported on piles; like that across the Liffey which gave Dublin its old name. These timber bridges of the several kinds were extremely common, and they are frequently mentioned in old authorities.

Causeways.—In early ages, before the extension of cultivation and drainage, the roads through the country were often interrupted by bogs and morasses, which were made passable by causeways. They were variously constructed: but the materials were generally branches of trees, bushes, earth, and stones, placed in layers, and trampled down till they were sufficiently firm; and they were called by the Irish name of tóchar, now usually anglicised togher. These toghers were very common all over the country; our Annals record the construction of many in early ages, and some of these are still traceable.

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*Esker-Riada, a long, natural, wavy ridge formed of gravel, running almost across the whole country from Dublin to Galway. It was much celebrated in old times, and divided Ireland into two equal parts, Leth-Conn ('Conn's half') on the north, and Leth-Mow ('Mow's half') on the south. It may be seen marked on the map, running through squares 33, 34, 35, 36. For the origin of the names Leth-Conn and Leth-Mow, see my Short History of Ireland to 1608, page 131.