IRELAND'S TRAVEL NETWORK HISTORY

February 11, 2017


After Ireland's first settlers crossed the narrow waters separating it from Scotland, they found a thickly forested country, hard and dangerous to penetrate except along the coastline and the banks of the rivers.
The most convenient means of travel was by boat, and the sturdy, versatile currach came into use for coastal waters and for sea crossings at a very early date. Made from a framework of laths covered with hides (later replaced by tarred canvas), the currach was an unremarkable-looking craft with a distinctive uprising prow, but it was capable of transporting large loads and weathering strongly adverse conditions. A vessel built on similar principles was said to have carried the 6th-century St Brendan on his Atlantic voyage, and in 1976 Tim Severin made the ocean crossing in a replica of Brendan's craft.
Although the Celts settled all over Ireland, conditions in the country are hinted at in the legend of the renegade who undertook to guide Queen Maeve's Connaught army on its march against his native Ulster. Suffering qualms of conscience, he led the Connaught men up and down the country, approaching but never entering Ulster; and Maeve, though eventually suspicious, was geographically ill-informed enough to accept assurances that they were on the right road! For centuries, Celtic roads can have been little more than dirt tracks, on which a stranger had to keep a sharp look-out for an ambush. However, matters improved slightly with the coming of Christianity and the growth of monastic settlements with guest-houses in which travellers could find shelter and protection.
Throughout the medieval period, riding on horseback was the preferred mode of travel for those who could afford it; possessions and merchandise went by packhorse. The lack of any effective central authority, and the general insecurity, prevented any significant advances until the Elizabethan conquest of Ireland. Then, despite the savage wars and punitive land transfers of the 17th century, conditions improved greatly, with better roads encouraging the use of carriages, stage-coaches and post-chaises. As in Britain, improved communications promoted the more sociable and urbane society of the 18th century. A canal system, mail-coaches and the development of increasingly high-speed stage-coaches also paralled the British experience; but many small places remained isolated until an Italian immigrant, Carlo Bianconi, set up his headquarters at Clonmel and built up a full-scale coaching network that made the modest but indispensable 'Bians' one of Ireland's most familiar sights.
Although the main railway routes out of Dublin were constructed in the early 1850s, it was a long time before remote areas, especially in the West, felt their influence. Suburban lines, omnibuses and trams quickened life in the city and enabled communities to live outside the centre. The motor car remained a luxury until well into the 20th century, making only a marginal impact on most people's lives, in fact it was the railway excursion and the bicycle that finally ended rural isolation for all but the islanders living off the west coast in Atlantic waters. All that has changed in recent times, and nowadays even the Aran Islands, once the very symbol of an older, untouched way of life can be reached by means of regular air service and are visited by travellers from all over the world.
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