The monster’s breast: journeying through Dublin

Peter Sirr on the old routes of Dublin

One by one they dissolve. Calatrava’s Samuel Beckett is tugged back to Rotterdam; off go the O’Casey, the Talbot Memorial, the Loopline, Butt Bridge, O’Connell Bridge, The Ha’penny Bridge, the Millennium Bridge, Grattan Bridge, O’Donovan Rossa Bridge, Fr Mathew Bridge, the first of them all, great bridge, bridge of the Osmen, Dublin bridge; then Mellows Bridge, the slippery James Joyce Bridge, not to be crossed on a wet day, also by Calatrava, through whose steel wings you can see the house of ‘The Dead’, 15 Usher’s Island; the blue bridge that came from St Helen’s Foundry in Lancashire, Frank Sherwin Bridge, Heuston Bridge and so on down past Chapelizod to Lucan Bridge. The quay walls have melted away, the reclaimed land to the east has emptied itself back, and the river, the Ruirthech, ro-ritheach, the strong-running, flexes its muscles and rushes eastward to the nearer sea. And now that the bridges are gone, there is the serious problem of getting across.

For a long time I can’t get past hurdle. Áth Cliath, the ford of hurdles. I understand that the hurdles involve woven rods of willow or hazel, but they seem too flimsy, too haphazard, too much exactly the kind of unlikely artifact you expect the past to concoct to test your credulity. But isn’t there also something beautiful about the sheer provisionality of this passage? The hurdles were laid flat on the river bed, weighed down with stones, and provided a route across for people, beasts, maybe even chariots, when the tide was low. It must have required constant repair and rebuilding, must have been constantly on the brink of disappearance. A virtual bridge, an almost invisible pathway.
It didn’t always work:

770.The overthrow of the Uí Téig by the Ciannacht at Áth Cliath. There was a great slaughter of the Laigin. A number of the Ciannacht were drowned in the full tide as they returned.
(Annals of the Four Masters)

Or, if you prefer:

765. The battle of Áth Cliath, by the Cianachta Breagh, against Ui Tegh; and there was great slaughter made of the Leinstermen, and numbers of the Cianachta were drowned in the full tide on their returning.
(The Annals of Inisfallen)

Two annals, only five years in the difference – a good chance it happened, or at least that something happened. What, though, of the unrecorded who misjudged the tides or were caught by a sudden flood?


Many roads converge on this point. Mythical roads, routes from the Iron Age: Slí Chualann, from Tara to Wicklow, Slí Mhidluachra from Ulster, and on the southern side of the ford Slí Mhór from the west, Slí Dhála from Munster. N0-one has identified the exact location of the ford. Some think it was where the first bridge was erected, but how did people get across while that was being constructed? Others think it would have been a little west of the bridge. As he pores over his Ordnance Survey map Hermann Geissel sees four ancient roads converge on the point where the crossing might have been: Stoneybatter, Upper Church Street, Bolton Street and Parnell Street. He is particularly excited when he walks the area and realises that the four roads seem, once the present street system is set aside, to be converging on Bow Street, which becomes Lincoln Lane as it reaches the river, not more than an alley running along the side of St Paul’s Church on Arran Quay. As I read his account I’m peering at the Google map of Dublin on the computer.[1]

I decide to have a look. I walk up Blackpitts, New Row South, Francis Street, across Thomas Street and down St. Augustine Street to the river. I line myself up with St Paul’s of Smithfield and peer across. As the contemporary traffic roars behind me I imagine the centuries of traffic shuffling across the hurdles: men, women, children, cattle, horses, armies. Where I am standing now, leaning against the quay wall, would have been part of the river; to my left would be Usher’s Island, properly islanded again. I take several photographs of the lane that might have led to the ford and of Fr Mathew Bridge. Then I walk up to the James Joyce Bridge and observe the river from there. Eventually I make my way back home. Later, I realise that almost every street I walk on daily formed part of the ancient routes. Francis Street and New Street were part of Slí Chualann. Cork Street, Ardee Street and the Coombe continued the route from Munster, Slí Dhála. And when I descended St Augustine Street and looked up Lincoln Lane towards Bow Street I was following the line of Slí Mhidhluachra.

In his Dublin, An Urban History Niall McCullough superimposes these routes on a map of the city. They were, he says ‘of incalculable importance in the city structure and remain important streets to the present day – gritty urban places hard to imagine as tracks across open landscape.’ He feels strongly that they are ‘the real skeleton of the city structure and they meet, not on the hill or at the Liffey but at the crossing of the Poddle at Cross Poddle, roughly the junction of present day Patrick Street, Kevin Street, the Coombe and Clanbrassil Street.’

It’s interesting the extent to which these Iron Age routes still resonate with a contemporary architect even as he recognises that no trace of them is reflected in the current planning. What, though, could be more significant not just to understanding but to the imaginative apprehension of the city than a sense of their primary, mythical arteries? The present day names, the widened streets with their endless stream of traffic conceal the ancient routes; cities disclose themselves obliquely, the past runs quietly down the old routes like the network of rivers under these streets on their way to the iron grilles that release them into the Liffey. But some signal, maybe, survives, some faint pulse of vanished journeys. . .

Hermann Geissel’s real interest, the subject of a television documentary and a book, is less in the ford than in one of the roads it led to: Slí Mhór, the magna via which would have run up from the river to Cornmarket and then out of the city westward along Thomas Street. The road is also known as the Eiscir Riada, after an esker or ridge that people thought of as a continuous feature made up of sand, gravel and boulders that originally bisected the country into its two rival halves, the Leith Chuinn and the Leith Mhogha, as well as providing a highway to the west. Actually the Eiscir Riada is a series of ridges with many gaps between them, and the road may not always have followed it – its continuity was more imagined than real, and the route therefore a mental construct as much as a physical passageway. The television programme and book are attempts to reconstruct its route. One of the major sources for information on the route is a paper, ‘The Ancient Roadways of Ireland’ by Colm Ó Lochlainn, published in 1940.[2] Geissel’s conclusions often diverge from Ó Lochlainn’s, but I find myself driven to the library to investigate the original paper. There is something irresistible about the history of a road, particularly if the route is ancient, obscured by the passage of time and centuries of reconfiguration and infilling, and perhaps even more irresistible if the evidence is inconclusive, or disputed, or gained by pouring over old manuscripts or dinnsenchas put together by poets or annalists with dark agendas of their own.

One of the most powerful images of a road is the Iron Age trackway excavated in Corlea, Co Longford by Professor Barry Raftery of University College Dublin.[3] The trackway was built in 148 BC and consists of oak planks laid on birch runners. It took between 200 and 300 mature oak trees to construct the trackway, which runs across the bog for about a kilometre, at a time when the bog was a much more forbidding wetland than it than it is now. It is wide enough to have allowed wheeled traffic but there are no signs of wheel ruts; like so much else from the Iron Age, its purpose remains obscure. We don’t know who crossed it or why, or why the road seems to have been abandoned at a certain point, as evidenced by the piles of timber found near the centre of the bog. We do know that the construction of the road was, in Barry Raftery’s words, ‘a gigantic undertaking comparable to the effort involved in the erection of the linear earthworks or in the building of the great royal centres.’[4] The fact that it not far from a centre of royalty and ritual like Cruachain in County Roscommon or Uisneach in County Westmeath which was dedicated to the festival of Beltaine, indicates that it might have been part of a pilgrim route. He reminds us that road building on this scale was seen as a heroic task in the early literature, and begins his account of it by quoting a passage from The Wooing of Étáin in which one of the tasks given to Midir by Eochaid, king of Tara, after he loses a game of chess is to build a trackway across an impassable bog.[5] The Corlea trackway begins and ends in the imagination, crossed by travellers shrouded in mist, surrounded by dark, dank pools of water. In the same way, the hurdle ford stretches out of history into myth, reminding us how long this patch of land has been occupied. The land has changed, the river has changed, a city has grown and spilled out over the map in all its complexity, its eternally shifting politics and struggles for ownership and control. The ford, though, is everyone’s, and no-one’s. . .

As I read Colm Ó Lochlainn’s article in the glass and concrete fortress of the Ussher Library in Trinity College, I find myself less interested in the conjectured route of the ancient roadways and their likely purpose than in the way he applies himself to his task. Early Irish literature, he reminds us, is full of movement: armies and cattle crossing large tracts of country, constantly raiding and returning, as well as accounts of saints and their retinues travelling all around the country. All this movement is accomplished with a speed and efficiency that imply even if they don’t specify a working transport infrastructure. By the time the Vikings arrive they are able to leave their boats and go on a two-day march inland and come back laden with plunder. Likewise, the Normans ‘have little difficulty in moving bodies of heavily clad mailed warriors north, south, east and west without the preliminary military work of making roadways.’[6] The roads are not mentioned in the literature; they are however mentioned in the law texts which make very specific recommendations on road building. Assuming, then, that they did exist, it should, he reckons, be possible to reconstruct their routes from the various itineraries undertaken in the literature.

The first thing he did was to list and to mark on the Ordnance Survey map all places which contained ‘any of the following words: Áth, a ford: Béal Átha, mouth of a ford, Droichead, a bridge, Bearna, a breach, gap, chasm: Bealach, a gap, passage, road, Bóthar, a cattle track: Ród, a roadway: Tóchar, a flagged path, a causeway: Ceis, a wattled path: Casán a footpath: Slighe, a high-road (possibly a way cut through woodlands).’ I stare out the window over the green of College Park, taking in the poetry of the names, the range of possibilities they offer, the efficient bureaucratisation of the human need to move around. He also looked for names indicating a river crossing (snámh), a weir (coradh), a sandbank (fersait), a rocky outcrop (scairbh). He then examined journeys in the early literature: The Life of St Patrick, Táin Bó Cuailnge etc. and worked out that ‘in the minds of the storytellers and chroniclers, from the sixth to the tenth centuries, the idea of a great road system existed quite clearly – just as, in our day, the run of the main railways in Ireland is familiar to all.’ The system is articulated in the tradition ‘that five great roadways, radiating from Tara, made a magical appearance at the time of the birth of King Conn Céadcathach (circa A.D.100).’

Whatever about their magical appearance, and the still unsolved mystery of Tara itself, ultimately he argues for the truth of the long established tradition. In the case of Slí Mhór, for instance, he establishes a route as follows: Dublin, Lucan, Celbridge, Taghadoe, Timahoe, Monasteroris, Road, Croghan, Kiltober, Durrow Abbey, Ballycumber, Togher, Ballaghurt, Clonmacnois, Ballinasloe, Aughrim, Kilconnel, Bellafa, Kiltullagh, Clarinbridge. For me part of the attractiveness of a route like this is that it can’t be verified. Despite Joyce’s famous claim we know we couldn’t actually reconstruct Dublin by consulting Ulysses – the architects and engineers would be left scratching their heads at the lack of concrete physical data. But imagine some scholar of the future poring over a map of Dublin constructed entirely from Joyce’s writings, or from a combination of his work, the plays of Seán O’Casey, the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh, the novels of Roddy Doyle. The city of the mind or imagination that would be plotted there might lack in technical data, might miss out whole other districts of the mind as well as centuries of brick and dust, but it would be place worth investigating, worth wandering around and getting lost in. . .

A dotted line crosses the river, pursued by a series of continuous lines on either side. The tide is out and the interwoven rods of willow hold firm. Conn of the Hundred Battles is in the neighbourhood, or maybe Conchobar Mac Nessa and his cranky agent-provocateur poet Aithirne Áilghesach who specialises in exercising his poet’s right to demand any tribute he chooses: an eye from Eochaid, the one-eyed king; cows, women, whatever else he can get out of the Leinstermen. The main thing is to start a row. It is at his bidding that the hurdle ford is constructed, to get his cattle and the wives and daughters of the Leinster nobles, whom he has also demanded, across to Ulster territory:

Ath Cliath, canas ro ainmniged?
 Ni ansa .i. cliatha caolaig doriginset Laigin hi flaith Misgegra
fo cosaib caorach Aitherne Ailgesaigh. . .

(Where does the name Áth Cliath come from? Leinstermen made hurdles during the reign of Misgegra under the feet of the sheep of Aithirne the Importunate. . . ) .

Sheep too, clearly – everything, as always, depends on the version. And in case that doesn’t satisfy, there’s this, from the same source, Prose Tales in the Rennes Dinshenchas. Or else, says the writer, keeping his options open:

When the men of Erin broke the limbs of the Matae, the monster that was slain on the Liacc Benn in the Brug maic ind Óc, they threw it limb by limb into the Boyne, and its shinbone (colptha) got to Inber Colptha (the estuary of the Boyne), whence Inber Colptha is said, and the hurdle of its frame (i.e. its breast) went along the sea coasting Ireland till it reached yon ford (áth); whence Áth Cliath is said.

[1] Geissel, Hermann. A road on the long ridge : in search of the ancient highway on the Esker Riada. Newbridge Co. Kildare: CRS Publications, 2006.
[2] Ó Lochlainn, Colm. ‘Roadways in Ancient Ireland’, in Ryan, John. Féil-sgríbhinn Eóin Mhic Néill : essays and studies presented to Professor Eoin MacNeill. (1940), reprinted by Four Courts Press, 1995, p.471
[3] Raftery, Barry. Pagan Celtic Ireland : the enigma of the Irish Iron Age. 1st ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1994, pp 98-111
[4] ibid. p 103
[5] ibid. p 98
[6] Colm Ó Lochlainn, p471


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