How The Irish Travelled On Land And Water
That the country was well provided with roads we know from our ancient
literature, and 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.
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.
Rivers were usually crossed by bridges, which were made either of planks
or of strong wickerwork supported by piles. Where there were no bridges
people had to wade or drive across broad shallow fords: or to use a
ferryboat if the stream was deep; or as a last resource to swim across.
The higher classes had chariots drawn by horses: usually one horse or a
pair: but sometimes there were four. The chariot was commonly open: but
some were covered over by an awning or hood of bright-coloured cloth,
luxuriously fitted up, and ornamented with gold, silver, and feathers. The
body of the chariot was made of wickerwork supported by an outer frame of
strong wooden bars: and it was frequently ornamented with tin. The wheels
were about four feet high, spoked, and shod round with iron. But no matter
how carefully and beautifully it was constructed the Irish chariot, like
those of the Greeks, Romans, and other ancient nations, was a springless
jolting machine and made a great deal of noise. Two persons commonly rode
in a chariot, the master and the charioteer. The general run of people
used cars drawn by oxen.
Horses were put to the same uses as at present:--riding, drawing chariots,
racing; and more rarely ploughing, drawing carts, and as pack-animals. A
bridle with a single rein was used in horse-riding. The rein was attached
to a nose-band not at the side but at the top, and came to the hand of the
rider over the animal's forehead, passing right between the eyes and ears,
and being held in its place by a loop or ring in the face-band which ran
across the horse's forehead. This single rein was used to restrain merely:
it could not be used to guide. No spurs were used: the rider urged on and
guided the horse with a rod having a hooked goad at the end. The ancient
Irish--like the Britons, Gauls, and Romans--used no saddles: but there was
usually a thick cloth between rider and horse. Chariot-drivers sat too far
from the horse to make use of a horse-rod; so they used a two-rein bridle
Those who kept horses for riding were very fond of ornamenting their
bridles and trappings with gold, silver, and enamel: so that the bridle
alone was often worth from five or six cows up to eighteen or twenty.
The Irish used several kinds of boats, of which the commonest was the
curragh, made of wickerwork woven round a frame of strong wattles, and
covered with hides which were stitched together with thongs. Boats of this
kind are still used round the coasts, but tarred canvas is employed
instead of skins, as being cheaper. Those used on rivers and lakes and on
short coast voyages, were small and light and covered with a single skin.
But those intended for rough seas and long voyages were made large and
strong, with solid wooden decks and seats, and a mast, spars, and sails,
so that they could be propelled by oars or sails, or both together. These
were covered with two, or with three, hides, one outside another, and the
hides were tanned so as to make them thick and hard, much the same as our
thick leather. Some of these were large enough to hold fifty or sixty
people. It should be remarked that wicker-boats were also used very
generally in Britain, and occasionally on the coasts of some parts of the
The Irish had also ordinary wooden ships with sails and oars, and with
sleeping-berths, like our small sailing vessels, and these they often used
in very long voyages, either for trade or invasion. But for foreign
expeditions their favourite vessel was the strong well-made curragh; and
how suitable and safe these curraghs were is indicated by the fact that on
one occasion Julius Caesar ordered a number of them to be made for use in
some special expedition. Gildas, a British writer, tells us that whole
armies of the Irish were often seen landing on the British shores from
curraghs; and an ancient Irish writer says that during a certain military
expedition the sea between Ireland and Scotland looked as if covered with
a continuous bridge of curraghs.
The people of Ireland carried on considerable trade with England,
Scotland, and the Continent. So constant was their communication with the
Continent, that, as we are told by a great Roman writer, foreign merchants
were, in those early days, better acquainted with the harbours of Ireland
than with those of Britain.
The various articles mentioned in our records as brought from foreign
lands to Ireland were imported to supplement the home produce; in which
there was nothing more remarkable than our present importation of
thousands of articles from foreign countries, all or most of which are
also produced at home. The articles anciently imported were paid for in
home commodities--skins and furs of various animals, wool and woollens,
oatmeal, fish, salted hogs, etc.