Chariots and Cars in Ancient Ireland

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XXIV....continued

2. Chariots and Cars.

Our literature affords unquestionable evidence that chariots were used in Ireland from the most remote ages, both in private life and in war. They are mentioned constantly, as quite common and familiar, in the ancient records, both legendary and historical, as well as in the Brehon Laws, where many regulations are set forth regarding them. The usual Irish word for a chariot is carbad, but there were some other terms.

In the old romances there are several descriptions of Cuculainn's chariot, as well as of those belonging to other chiefs; and in these, and many other authorities, details are given, from all which we can obtain a good general idea of the construction of the vehicle. The body (Irish cret) was made of wickerwork, supported by an outer frame of strong wooden bars; and it was frequently ornamented with tin, a practice which also prevailed among the Gauls. The ordinary one- or two-horse chariot had two shafts, which were made of hard wood. In a two-horse chariot there was a pole between the two horses. A one-horse chariot had two shafts but no pole. A two-wheeled chariot, whether with one or two horses, was in very general use. The wheels were spoked and were from three to four and a half feet high, as we see by several delineations of chariots on the high crosses (p. 486, below). They were shod all round, generally with iron. This corresponds with what we know of the ancient British chariots, of which some specimens have lately been found in burial-mounds, with iron rims on the wheels. Some chariots had four wheels; and we know that four-wheeled chariots were also in use among the Gauls. The axle was fixed immovable in the vehicle, and the wheels revolved on it, and were kept in their place by linch-pins.

There was often an awning or hood overhead, commonly of cloth, dyed in some bright colour; but in elaborate chariots, the awning was occasionally covered with the plumage of birds, as ladies sometimes roofed their greenans. Kings, queens, and chieftains of high rank rode in chariots, luxuriously fitted up and ornamented with gold, silver, and feathers. But with all this, the Irish chariot, like those of the Romans and other nations, was a rough springless machine, and made a great deal of noise. They evidently took pride in the noise: and the more distinguished the person riding in a chariot, the greater was supposed to be the creaking and rattle, as is often boastfully remarked by the old Irish writers, "a chariot under a king" being the noisiest of all. A good chariot was worth about twelve cows, representing £150 or £160 of our money. But royal chariots were worth as much as eighty or ninety cows. With rare exceptions, only two persons rode in a chariot, whether in battle or in everyday life: viz. the master (or mistress) and the driver or charioteer: a custom which prevailed also among the Gauls. The two generally sat side by side, the charioteer being on the right. The usual word to designate the principal person in the chariot, the warrior or master, or chariot-chief, was err: the charioteer or driver was called ara.

On several of the high crosses chariots are carved, as, for instance, on those of Clonmacnoise, Tuam, and Monasterboice. The chariots represented on next page, from one of the Clonmacnoise crosses, have each only one horse and one pair of wheels: but two-horse chariots were more usual, and seem to have been a common vehicle for travelling. The chariot ordinarily used in battle had two wheels and two horses; but four horses were sometimes used.

Ancient Irish Chariots

FIG. 194. Ancient Irish Chariots on base of Cross of Clonmacnoise: ninth century. (From Wood-Martin's Pagan Ireland).

Chariots were generally drawn by horses, especially those of chiefs and military men. But ordinary persons, and non-military people in general, often employed oxen: St. Patrick's chariot was drawn by two oxen. Besides the chariots hitherto mentioned, both for travelling and for fighting, there was a special war-chariot furnished with scythes and spikes, like those of the Gauls and ancient Britons, which is repeatedly mentioned in the Tales. Farmers and people in general used lough carts, commonly called carr, for work of various kinds, and drawn by oxen, but they are hardly noticed in the ancient literature. They had probably solid wheels— such as we know the people used in later times—spoked wheels being expensive.

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