The Roads of Ireland

With the new points system now being used to try to make our roads safer and slow down the speed merchants I began to think of what the roads (if they could be called that) were like in the olden time, and were there any rules concerning them.

Strange to say we discovered that Ireland had roads long before Christianity came to our shores. There was a pattern of tracks laid down in most kingdoms which connected them with each other, or with some place of importance such as well, look-out post, or place of religious importance. Such tracks were made through forests or across open ground and often zigzagged in the most amazing ways when they had to go around a rock or skirt water.

It was a little later, in the time of the Brehon Laws, which were written down in the 7th century, that we find the names of, and how wide these roads were. The largest of these roads was the slighe or main road. This road must be wide enough to allow a king’s and a bishop’s chariot to pass each other without touching. The open road, or remut, leading to the castle or fort of the chief or king was unfenced but had to be guarded so that no unwanted person could travel it unnoticed . The bother was wide enough to allow two cows to walk along it side by side. The boreen, derived from the Irish botharin, just meant what it is, a little road.

The set was a track wide enough for a horse or cow to walk along. It is possibly from the conversion of some of this type of road that we have the twisting narrow roads in some parts of the country. Another name for the road connecting the farm or homestead with the main road was the tuagroa, while the road connecting two such roads was the lamhrota or link road.

Five main roads branched our from Tara and each had a name. The Slighe Cualann went south-eastwards, crossing the Liffey near Dublin. It then ran close to the coast by Booterstown, Blackrock and down into what is now Co. Wicklow. The Slighe Ascili ran westwards to Loch Owel in Westmeath dividing the kingdom of Meath into two parts, north and south. Slighe Midluachra ran to the north Antrim coast, Slighe Mor went southwards to Clonard and on the Galway, the Slighe Dala led to Kilkenny.

We all remember the time the County Councils put the repair of the roads up for tender,and the local people applied for the work. I well remember seeing men filling potholes by taking sod out of the ditch and turning it upside down in the pothole. There were very few tarred roads in the area. The method of applying for the contract was to attend the Council meeting at which roads were ‘given out’. (I remember a farmer who had been at such a meeting, and when he came home his wife asked him which road he had got, and back came the reply, “ All I got was the road home love”.) Strange to say this system applied long before County Council’s were ever heard of.

The Brehon Laws tell us about the maintenance of ancient Irish Roads and about the fines and compensation to be paid by anyone who damaged them. The Laws also refer to the times the roads were cleaned, that was ‘at a time of horse racing, a time of winter and a time of war.’ When the Normans came to Ireland they made Dublin the centre of Ireland’s road network. Now this did not happen for some time and then they selected a Grand Jury to look after the maintenance of the roads.

Later still, in 1912, an Act was passed putting the roads under the care of the local constable’s and churchwardens. This was probably the forerunner of the County Councils. Surveyors were appointed at Easter to supervise the work being done on the roads. These men could call on landowners to supply horses and carts for six days without payment and workers had to give six days free labour.

In the time of Charles the First, a levy was placed for the upkeep of roads and bridges, but there was no great improvement until the introduction of the Turnpike Road Law in 1729. Gates were erected on certain roads and a shilling was charged for each coach, and a penny for every cart. (Is the wheel beginning to turn full circle).

It was in 1784, when a separate mail-coach system was established, that a new set of road standards were issued, 52 feet as the width for main roads, 32 feet for second class roads and 20 feet for narrow roads.

During the famine years thousands of men were employed in relief schemes on Irelands roads. Records show that in the month of October in 1846, 114,000 men worked on the roads in Ireland, and by March of the following year 1847 (Black ‘47) the number employed was 734,000.

Now, once again, a levy is being put on the users of the road. In 1847 it was to try to save lives by giving people a chance to earn money to buy food, in 2002 it is to try to save lives by slowing down the speed at which we travel. It is a strange turn of faith that we are still trying to save lives on the road by reducing speed, 155 years from the time when the road was in such a condition that it was scarcely fit to walk on.

Courtesy of the Carlow Nationalist