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<
r />
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

like ours.

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.