It happens every summer in northern climes — dreaded orange construction signs crop up on highways and main streets, multiplying overnight. My favorites are the ones that graciously tell you how long your torment will last – Construction next 15 miles. They even give you helpful updates on your frustration levels – Construction next 12 miles.
But we should be glad we have roads and the infrastructure to maintain them. Ancient Ireland’s waterways, along with the sea, often served as her roads, linking river and coastal settlements. Nonetheless, there are five great roads mentioned in Old Irish literature. These connected the outlying provinces with Tara, the greatest of the cultural and administrative centers, home of the so-called High King. According to Ellis, “The Slige Asail ran north-westerly; the Slige Mudluachra went northwards from Tara in one direction and southwards in the other. The Slige Cualan ran south-east through Dublin across the Liffey by the hurdle bridge which still gives the Irish name to Dublin – Baile Atha Cliath, Town of the Hurdle Ford. The Slige Dála ran south-west from Tara to join the Eiscir Riada, a natural ridge running across the whole country from Dublin to Galway. Significantly, the name means ‘Sandhill of Chariot Driving.’” (1999, p. 134).
The word slige (pronounced SLEE-ah) comes from the verb meaning “to hew.” These highways, built wide enough to allow for the passing of two chariots not only required the construction of earthworks to provide a smooth ride but also wooden causeways to span bogs. In 1985, excavation began of the Corlea bog near the village of Kenagh in County Longford. There a wooden causeway was uncovered well-preserved by the bog’s anaerobic environment. Dendrochronology and radio-carbon analysis pinpointed its age to 148 BC. “Oak and birch were the principal woods used in the construction together with alder, elm, hazel, and a few yew trees. Birch formed the substructure, supporting the weight of the upper timbers. Oak planks were put on the birch runners. The roadway was consistently 3-4 metres wide and the oak planks were often carefully adzed to ensure a smooth, flat surface.” (Ellis, 1999, p. 132-133).
Of course, there were smaller roads than these, most probably no more than wagon tracks. “The Brehon Laws state that the king or chief of the territory through which the road ran was responsible for its upkeep. If a traveller was injured on the road, compensation had to be paid. If the traveller himself did damage to the road, he had to pay damages to the king or chief. All roads had to have three major renovations, during the winter, at the time of the fairs or horse racing, and during a time of war.” (Ellis, 1999, p. 134.) The winter renovation was presumably undertaken after the flooding rains and snow-melt of February.
One has to wonder what the compensation was for damage caused by potholes and if it were any easier to collect than it is today. One thing was for certain – traffic backups and detours resulting from road construction were a non-issue!
Ellis, P.B. (1999). The ancient world of the Celts. New York: Barnes & Noble Books.