MEDIEVAL COMMUNICATION ROUTES THROUGH LONGFORD
AND ROSCOMMON AND THEIR ASSOCIATED SETTLEMENTS
By LINDA DORAN*
Received 10 September 2003. Read 16 March 2004. Published 30 September 2004.x
This paper explores the direction and context of medieval communication channels
in the territory covered by the modern counties of Longford and Roscommon.
The network consisted of roadways—both local and interregional—and
water-based arteries. The landscape of the area dictated how people moved across
the terrain. Large tracts of bog generated a need for trackways to provide access
to good land trapped in the peat. The extensive water system centred on the
Shannon facilitated travel to otherwise isolated places. The numerous islands contain
the remains of secular and religious settlements. The roads identified as
belonging to the regional network are plotted on a map of the area. This mapping
shows that the main factors shaping the road network were the location of the
ritual centre at Cruachain and the siting of religious establishments. Two major
roads—the Slighe Assail and the Slighe Mho´r—linked an otherwise isolated area to
the east-coast ports and to English and continental markets. The relationship of
the roads in particular to medieval settlement patterns is examined.
Roadways are an ever-present but largely invisible feature of the history of medieval
Ireland. Then as now, an adequate communications network was a key ingredient
in social progress, yet we encounter roads in history, as we do today, mainly
through the events known to have taken place on or near them. Roads are mentioned
in different contexts in the medieval records—as the routes of war parties
and cattle raids; in land grants and boundary descriptions; and, on one occasion,
in a dispute sparked when a landowner attempted to incorporate part of the highway
into his own land.1 They are also depicted as sources of danger. In the official
records of the Anglo-Norman administration, control of roadways is vital to the
safety of local communities and the conduct of the king’s business. Official sources
discuss in detail the need to ‘reconnoiter the passes used by the Irish of the
mountains’, and the men of Arst in Co. Kildare were ordered to take a ‘spade
and barrow for two days’ and to cut the roads and entries to the settlement in
order to prevent attacks.2 The exchequer compensated people not only for protecting
the roads and passes, but also for attending to the king’s business in dif-
1ALC, vol. 1, 87y9; Ann. Conn., 33y5; Cal. justic. rolls Ire., 100, 172y3; Civil Survey, vol. 10,
2Irish exchequer payments, 302y3; Stat. Ire., 12y22 Edw. IV, 765y7.
58 Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy
ficult conditions caused by the poor state of the roads.3 The condition of the
highway was also an acceptable excuse for the failure to obey a writ.4 On the other
side of the frontier, the Gaelic Irish annals viewed roadways more neutrally. Death
notices cite the building of toghers and causeways as praiseworthy acts of the
deceased.5 Knowledge of the routeways and passes was seen as an important survival
and strategic skill.6 Furthermore, in a terrain such as this, where good agricultural
land was at a premium and where large tracts of water and bog dominated
the landscape, usable access routes were a fundamental necessity.
Very little evidence remains regarding the extent, condition or location of
roads in medieval Ireland. The annals record that ToirrdelbachO´ Conchobair was
in the field in Ormond for six months between August 1126 and February 1127
but make no reference to the roads travelled.7 Almost no academic research has
been carried out on the subject. The article published by O´ Lochlainn in 1940
on roadways still stands alone as an overview of the island as a whole.8 I have used
the routes isolated by him as the basis for the map that accompanies this text (Fig.
1). It is particularly unfortunate that communication routes are not always listed
in archaeological inventories: they are essentially instruments of settlement and
should be viewed as an element of the settlement pattern.9 Few excavations have
been directed specifically towards the consideration of communication lines. An
obvious and exceptional example is the examination of toghers carried out by the
Irish Archaeological Wetland Unit.10 Since routeways were linked to human habitations,
most have come to light as a result of the archaeological investigation of
an adjacent site, most commonly a rescue excavation or an excavation preceding
Longford–Roscommon is perhaps a more appropriate geographical area in
which to study medieval communication routes than appears to be the case at first
glance. Although it is remote from the coastal ports and major population centres,
it is crossed by two major routes; it also has a substantial network of minor roads
and toghers. In addition, the region is served by an extensive waterway system
based on a number of navigable rivers, most notably the Shannon, along with its
tributaries and lakes (Fig. 1).
3Irish exchequer payments, 474, 302y3; James Graves (ed.), A roll of the proceedings of the king’s
council in Ireland, for a portion of the sixteenth year of the reign of Richard the Second, A.D. 1392y93
(London, 1877), 187.
4Graves, Roll of the proceedings of the king’s council in Ireland, 189y90.
5Ann. Conn., 493.
6Ann. Conn., 35.
7F.J. Byrne, ‘The trembling sod: Ireland in 1169’, in T.W. Moody et al. (eds), A new histor y of
Ireland. Vol. 2: Medieval Ireland, 1169–1534 (Oxford, 1987), 1–42: 11.
8Colm O´ Lochlainn, ‘Roadways in ancient Ireland’, in John Ryan (ed.), Fe´il-sgrı´bhinn Eo´in
Mhic Ne´ill: essays and studies presented to Professor Eo´in Mhic Ne´ill on the occasion of his seventieth birthday
(Dublin, 1940), 465–74.
9There is, however, a growing tendency to include communication routes in such surveys:
see C.R. Wickham-Jones, The landscape of Scotland (Stroud, 2001); Kieran Jordan and Tom
O’Connor, ‘Archaeological sites of interest surrounding the Turoe Stone’, Journal of the Galway
Archaeological and Historical Society 60 (2003), 110–16: 112–14.
10Transactions of the Irish Archaeological Wetland Unit (Dublin, 1993–).
11For example, a portion of the ‘Red Earl’s Road’ was uncovered as a result of the need to
excavate close to Ballinafad Castle, Co. Sligo, before the construction of a field study centre:
Martin Timoney, ‘Gortalough, Ballinafad’, Excavations 1997 (1998), 155; Excavations 1999 (2000),
DORAN—Medieval Communication Routes 59
FIG. 1—Longford and Roscommon: landscape and communications.
The modern counties of Longford and Roscommon are part of the central lowlands
of Ireland. The main rock—carboniferous limestone—is almost entirely concealed
by a deep covering of recent glacial deposits and peat bogs. This glacial
drift is deposited as long gravel ridges, or eskers, which provide routeways through
60 Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy
the lowland bogs and Shannon callows. The Slighe Mho´r, also known as the Eiscir
Riada, makes use of these gravel ridges (see Fig. 1). In the north and east of the
region, the drift is moulded into steep-sided hillocks known as drumlins; lakes and
bog patches tend to form in the hollows between them, particularly in north
Roscommon. In Longford these drumlins lie along a north-west to south-east axis
in the western portion of the county, appearing as islands of dry land in the areas
of bog. They are important in the settlement of the region, providing patches of
relatively good land throughout the bog. The large number of toghers that run
across these peatlands are concentrated in the drumlins.
Longford and Roscommon recall in their townland names and other place
names the existence of wooded areas no longer extant.12 Roscommon had 6%
woodland cover at the time of the Civil Survey of 1654–6, second only to that
recorded for Clare at 7%. It would appear that the area around Lough Ree was
historically a good locus for semi-natural native woodland. Today, however, only a
few isolated remnants remain, most notably St John’s Wood, Rindown Wood (both
on the Rindown peninsula) and Hare Island (in the southern part of Lough
Ree).13 The inclusion of these woods in the Civil Survey suggests a continuity of
woodland cover since that time. The extent of woodland in County Longford does
not seem to have been as great as that in County Roscommon. A survey of 1618
gives the total acreage of profitable timber for the county as 8,400 acres.14 Wooded
areas were, of course, barriers to travel; in fact the common prefix to road names
was slighe, meaning a highway cut or cleared through woodland.
Both counties are covered by extensive areas of raised, or midland, bog, a
feature that largely determined how the landscape was traversed. The largest continuous
expanse is in Longford, where approximately 20% of the county is covered
by raised and fen bogland. The bog landscape of today differs considerably from
that which existed even a century ago. Although the large-scale drainage and
development schemes that began at the end of the nineteenth century had a
significant effect on the landscape, it was not until the establishment of Bord na
Mo´na in the 1950s that a widespread transformation occurred. Indeed, the extent
of peat cover is not likely to have changed greatly between the twelfth and the
eighteenth centuries. Bord na Mo´na has harvested the bog on an enormous scale:
in County Longford, for example, the total area of operation is 12,000 hectares,
with a similar area in County Roscommon in development. This has had a devastating
effect on the archaeological remains preserved by the bog. The rate of
destruction for sites recorded by the Irish Archaeological Wetland Unit in County
Longford runs at 70%, indicating the fragile nature of this evidence and the
importance of survey.15 Harvesting of the bog had a negative effect on the sites
considered for this study because most medieval routeways would have been closer
to the surface. As well as an important resource, the bog was a barrier, particularly
12In County Roscommon, for example, ‘derry’, meaning an oak wood, is recalled in
Derrycashel and Derrygirraun. Farnbeg indicates alders, whereas Funshinagh denotes ash. In
County Longford tree species are recalled in the following place-name elements: Farnagh (alder),
Cullentragh (holly), Daroge (oak) and Derryaroge (oak grove). The place name Derryaroge
probably recalls the wood from which an adjacent togher was made.
13The Heritage Council, Rindown, Co. Roscommon: a management plan (Kilkenny, 1998), 44.
14J.H. Andrews, Plantation acres (Omagh, 1985), 76 n. 12.
15The Irish Archaeological Wetland Unit was established in 1990 by the Office of Public
Works in conjunction with University College, Dublin.
DORAN—Medieval Communication Routes 61
PL. I—Elfleet tower house overlooking Lough Ree.
to communications. The annals refer to the role of bogs in slowing the progress
of escaping raiding parties.16 The existence of bogs embayed in areas of fertile
ground—making passage from one point to another impossible except by long
detours and, in some cases, cutting off the fertile ground completely—led to the
construction of toghers.17
The most distinctive natural feature within the area is the River Shannon (Fig.
1), which was also the most important communication channel in the region during
the medieval period. In an era when water travel was often safer and more
expedient than moving by road, such an artery was a valuable resource. With large
tracts of bog constituting a barrier to passage, settlement was more directly related
to water than was the case in places with easier access by land. A journey by water,
however, was not always easy or safe. Many rivers could be treacherous, particularly
when in flood.18 Water transport would certainly have been the preferred method
for the movement of goods, especially heavy items such as stone, timber or wine.19
With its tributaries, the Shannon is the main drainage channel of the central
lowlands. The area contains numerous lakes, the largest of which is Lough Ree
(Pl. I). A number of lakes are also found on the major tributaries of the Shannon.
The River Boyle, the principal tributary in the upper reaches of the Shannon,
16Ann. Conn., 237.
17Barry Raftery, ‘A wooden trackway of Iron Age date in Ireland’, Antiquity 60 (1986), 50–3.
18An amusing reminder of the perils of a river voyage is found in Theo Dorgan’s foreword
to T.F. O’Sullivan, Goodly Barrow (Dublin, 2001), 5–7.
19Timothy O’Neill, Merchants and mariners (Dublin, 1987), 55–6; Christopher Norton, ‘The
export of decorated floor tiles from Normandy’, in Jenny Stratford (ed.), Medieval art, architecture
and archaeology at Rouen (London, 1993), 81–97: 81.
62 Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy
PL. II—Carraig Mac Diarmata, Co. Roscommon.
flows out of Lough Gara and through Lough Key, a shallow lake with many substantial
wooded islands. Some of these islands have important archaeological
remains: the monastery of Trinity Island, for example, and the remains of the Mac
Diarmata stronghold at Carraig Mac Diarmata (Pl. II). Cranno´gs are found in the
lakes of both counties under discussion. Evidence, both archaeological and documentary,
for the use of cranno´gs during the later medieval period is plentiful.
Certain sites, such as Ardakillin and Kilglass in County Roscommon, are mentioned
repeatedly in the medieval annals. Ruaidhri O´ Conchobair’s house at his
longphort of Ardakillin Lough, for instance, is cited a number of times by the
annalists, who record a variety of events across a broad chronological span.20 Excavations
at Lough Kinale, Co. Longford, produced not only the fragment of a
decorated book-shrine, but also a distinctive lozenge-shaped stickpin, probably
from the twelfth century. In addition, the palisade gave a radiocarbon date of the
first half of the twelfth century.21
Island monasteries such as Trinity Island are a significant feature of settlement
in these two counties. They would have played an influential role in the development
of a communications network. The interrelation between these religious
houses and the surrounding social and physical landscape is a vital and underresearched
topic.22 The island monasteries of Lough Ree in the south and Lough
20Ann. Conn., 189, 538, 565; ALC, vol. 1, 79; Aidan O’Sullivan, The archaeology of lake settlement
in Ireland (Dublin, 1998), 152–6.
21E.P. Kelly and Nessa O’Connor, ‘Lough Kinale, Tonymore North’, Excavations 1987 (1988),
22For a discussion on the subject, see O’Sullivan, Archaeology of lake settlement, 147–9, 161–3.
DORAN—Medieval Communication Routes 63
Key in the north must have dominated these waterways in medieval times. Many
were important economic and pilgrimage centres; placed on sailing routeways,
they had ready access to the large area around the lakes. Long-distance shipping
moving up and down the country by means of the rivers and lakes possibly used
these monasteries and their related shoreline houses as hospitals, markets and
sources of food. Church settlements at river crossings could also have served as
hostels for pilgrims moving along the waterways. The monastery at Athleague in
County Roscommon, for example, overlooked an important ford on the River
Suck. The market settlement founded in 1231 at Rockingham on the shore of
Lough Key was no doubt also related to water traffic on the lake. The importance
of water transport and travel in this area is illustrated by the arduous efforts made
by the crown to control Lough Ree—exorbitant amounts were spent to ensure
that the royal castle and settlement, sited on the lake at Rindown, could be supplied
Broad callows extend on either side of the River Suck in County Roscommon
and on either side of the River Shannon around Lanesborough and south of
Athlone. These are flat fields or marshland in the floodplain of the river. They
are inundated in the winter and slowly dry out as the river subsides in the summer.
Because the callows receive several silt-carrying floods in the year, the soil is particularly
rich and is an important element in the agriculture of the region. Excavations
revealed a small sand-and-gravel road leading from the callows towards the
old burial ground at Clonmacnoise.24 On the whole, the Shannon callows are
relatively narrow, at most points no more than 800m wide; however, those at Cloonburren
are more than 1.6km across. These callows have made a broad river more
difficult to ford or bridge.25
Fording places and bridges
The Sites and Monuments Record for County Roscommon notes 83 fords and 63
stepping stones; for County Longford the same survey records 25 fords. O’Keeffe
and Simington suggest that stepping stones are frequently found at old surviving
fords.26 Joyce observes that in English transliterations of Irish place names, the
most commonly used word elements associated with fords are ‘at’, ‘ah’, ‘ash’ and
‘a’ (all derived from the Irish a´ th).27 Sometimes these are combined with word
elements such as ‘bally’ (baile, ‘township’) or ‘bel’ (be´al, ‘mouth’) to denote the
settlement that grew up around the ford, as happened at Be´al A´ tha Liag (Lanesborough).
These elements can occur as a prefix or as part of the name, as in
Aghabehy, Tullaghmore and Bella in County Roscommon. This form of place
name commonly describes a feature that defines a barony boundary, for example
Belacloghan, Co. Longford.28 Sometimes these names are qualified by an adjective
23Sheelagh Harbison, ‘Rindown castle: a royal fortress in Co. Roscommon’, Journal of the
Galway Archaeological and Historical Society 47 (1995), 138–48: 144.
24H.A. King, ‘Clonmacnoise monastery, new graveyard’, Medieval Archaeology 42 (1998), 169.
25Stephen Heery, The Shannon floodlands: a natural histor y of the Shannon callows (Kinvara,
Galway, 1993), 18.
26Peter O’Keeffe and Tom Simington, Irish stone bridges: histor y and heritage (Dublin, 1991),
27P.W. Joyce, The origins and histor y of Irish names of place (Dublin, 1875), 24.
28Civil Survey, vol. 10, 48.
64 Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy
PL. III—Pallas Ford, Co. Longford.
giving extra information on the characteristics of the ford or the topography of
the surrounding area. One of the best examples of this is Athleague, Co. Roscommon—
A´ th Liag, meaning ‘the ford of the stones’.29 Some place names recall an
activity that took place at the ford. The small island of Sna´mh Da´ E´an (Swim Two
Birds), close to Cloonburren, probably denotes a place where livestock could be
In an era of few roads and fewer bridges, fords were vital arteries of communication.
They were an integral part of daily travel across the landscape. They were
essential, for instance, for moving animals across the countryside, and many had
been in use for generations. Control of fording places was necessary to any successful
military campaign, and some, such as Be´al A´ tha Liag and Termonbarry,
became the focus for settlements.
The annals contain a number of references to meetings and battles at fords.30
Many of the latter took place when retreating armies were caught by pursuers—
the Annals of Connacht, for example, record the killing of Tomas O´ Fearghail in
1462 at Pallas Ford, Co. Longford, by a party of Dillons in alliance with another
branch of the O´ Fearghail (Pl. III).31 The ford at Be´al A´ tha Liag, where there was
later a bridge, features in one of the first Anglo-Norman forays into Connacht. In
1177 Miles de Cogan advanced into Roscommon with a regular force of 40 knights,
200 mounted archers and 300 foot soldiers. Establishing a pattern that was to mark
almost all the Anglo-Norman military adventures in Connacht, they were aided by
29Deirdre Flanagan and Laurence Flanagan (eds), Irish place names (Dublin, 1994), 19.
30Ann. Conn., 113, 243–5, 355; ALC, vol. 1, 407.
31Ann. Conn., 511.
DORAN—Medieval Communication Routes 65
PL. IV—Correenbeg Ford, Co. Roscommon.
a disaffected member of the O´ Conchobair. Murchad, the son of Ruaidhri (who
at this time was making a royal circuit of west Connacht), acted as their guide. De
Cogan initially had some success, and he and his force advanced as far as Tuam,
the ecclesiastical capital of Connacht, where they spent three nights. On hearing
of Ruaidhri’s advance they retreated across the Shannon by the ford at A´ th Liag,
but Ruaidhri arrived before they could make good their escape. The Annals of
Tigernach record that the ‘panic at the ford was painful’.32 In 1266 the same annals
record that Mac William Burke, returning from a hosting against Ua Ma´el
Sechlainn, lost many of his men to drowning at the ford near Shannonbridge.33
In 1990 an archaeological search of the river bed at Correenbeg Ford on the
Suck in County Roscommon yielded a rich assemblage of artefacts from the Neolithic
to recent times (Pl. IV). The search also identified an enclosure, a castle
and possibly a cranno´g close to this ford.34 On the Roscommon bank of the river,
an earthwork—the remains of a defensive structure protecting the ford—was
From earliest times the gateway to and from the west lay across the Cloonburren
callows, close to the later motte. Here a pilgrim road runs east–west across
Ireland along eskers via Clonmacnoise, crossing the Shannon at the small island
32Ann. Tig., 299–300.
33Ann. Conn., 147.
34SMR RO056-02701/2; E.P. Kelly, ‘Correen Ford’, Medieval Archaeology 34 (1990), 237.
66 Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy
of Sna´mh Da´ E´ an.35 In prehistoric times this may have been the only crossing
point between Athlone and Lough Derg, and in the medieval period it was still a
major fording point.36 The Irish Underwater Archaeological Research Team discovered
the remains of a timber bridge to the north (Fig. 1).37 The Annals of
Clonmacnoise mention a bridge at the site in 1158. During the Wetland Unit survey
of the Blackwater area of County Offaly, a substantial gravel road was uncovered
in Coolumber Bog. This road still provides the foundations for a modern road
from Nure, Co. Roscommon, until it enters Cloonburren Bog from the north-west.
It runs directly towards Clonmacnoise on the opposite side of the Shannon. It
may have been an access road to the monastic site; unfortunately, its date and
location to the east of the bog are unknown. Local tradition records a funeral
route that passed through Nure from the early monastic site and St Brigid’s holy
well at Drum to Clonmacnoise.38 FollowingO´ Lochlainn, this road may have linked
up with the Slighe Mho´r to the north of Cloonburren. Investigations of the bridge
by the Irish Underwater Archaeological Research Team suggest an early ninthcentury
date. It is therefore the earliest known bridge in Ireland and also the
largest free-standing wooden structure in early medieval Ireland. It was constructed
of at least fifty oak posts, each up to 15m long, driven to depths of 3–4m into
the soft silts of the river bed. This was a significant achievement and probably
required pile-driving of the posts from rafts into the river bed. Remarkably, it
seems likely that the level of the present river bed is fairly close to that of the
early medieval period. No evidence has been found for repairs to this bridge or
for the construction of a second one at this place. Given that the lifespan of
exposed timbers is generally fifty years, it is likely that the bridge went out of use
some time in the mid-ninth century.39
Although this bridge was short-lived, it is important for a number of reasons.
It is remarkably early—most documentary references to bridges date from the
eleventh century at the earliest. It was a considerable feat of engineering and
would have required the command of a wide range of resources.40 This was a
frontier region for all of the medieval period, and during the late eighth and early
ninth century, political tension was heightened in the midlands. The political
cooperation needed, therefore, to organise this construction project was significant.
The perceived commercial and social rewards must have been considerable.
Clonmacnoise, as well as being a major ecclesiastical centre, was the site of one
of the three chief fairs of Ireland. Fairs seem to have been held in Ireland from
about A.D. 800 onwards.41 The reason for the destruction of the bridge is
35Togher no. RO-CLN 0001 in the Blackwater survey may be the part of the routeway, see
Transactions of the Irish Archaeological Wetland Unit 4 (1995), 130. O´ Lochlainn suggested that the
name may refer to a place where horses or cattle could swim across the river without danger:
Lochlainn, ‘Roadways in ancient Ireland’, 466.
36Ann. Tig., 155.
37Fionnbarr Moore, ‘Ireland’s oldest bridge—at Clonmacnoise’, Archaeology Ireland 10 (1996),
38Edward Egan, ‘Ancient funeral route to Clonmacnoise’, Journal of the Roscommon
Archaeological and Historical Society 6 (1996), 70–1.
39Tom Condit and Gabriel Cooney (eds), The Clonmacnoise bridge: an early medieval river crossing
in County Offaly, Heritage Guide (Dublin, 2000), unpaginated w5x.
40I am grateful to Mr Bill Doran for advice on the engineering techniques involved in the
building of this bridge.
41Condit and Cooney, Clonmacnoise bridge, w5x.
DORAN—Medieval Communication Routes 67
unknown; however, it may not have been an engineering failure. Viking activity
on the Shannon may have led to the destruction of the bridge or rendered it a
liability. This location had always been a major crossing point and continued to
be so even after the bridge passed out of use.42
The trackway in Coolumber Bog is directly aligned with the western end of
the bridge and may have been built at the same period or, since it could also have
linked to a ferry, may pre-date the bridge.43 This hints at the existence of a settlement
that was linked to the crossing point at the Cloonburren side of the river.
Recent excavations within the monastic enclosure at Clonmacnoise show that
between the late eighth and the early ninth centuries the monastic settlement was
expanding, with house structures and industrial working areas spreading down
towards the riverbank.44 For a growing population associated with the monastery,
the bridge provided access to farmland across the river. It also allowed people,
livestock and goods to travel to markets and fairs held at Clonmacnoise. From the
east the bridge could have been approached dry-shod, but on the Roscommon
side the traveller faced miles of almost impenetrable raised bog served by toghers.
O’Donovan referred to the Coolumber/Cloonburren road in the Ordnance
Survey letters, mentioning the existence of a cross in the middle of the routeway
in addition to a holy well, which had dried up as a result of the digging of drainage
channels on either side of the road to reduce flooding. A cross base with an
accompanying well is marked on the Sites and Monuments Record for County
Roscommon. Crosses are frequently associated with medieval roadways.45 Tracing
the line of the road from the nearest western dryland to the bank of the river
indicates that over 2.2km of the Coolumber road would have been constructed
over the bog. As with the Bloomhill road excavated in County Offaly, the gravel
and clay used in the Cloonburren road were obtained locally from glacial deposits;
nevertheless, its construction would have required considerable effort and
The underwater surveys and excavation uncovered a range of finds on the
river bed.47 Up to eleven fragments of dug-out wooden boats were discovered. Two
were found lying beside timbers of the bridge, while others were located both
upstream and downstream.48 These boats, originally carved from whole roundwood
trunks with axe and adze, vary in form. Such craft may have been used for
ferrying passengers or transporting goods across the river; some dug-outs showed
evidence of repair. Since they were found close to the bridge timbers, they are
presumably of similar date. During a survey of Lough Gara in the 1950s, seventeen
42I am indebted to Dr Howard Clarke for discussion on the historical and economic context
of the bridge at Clonmacnoise.
43Transactions of the Irish Archaeological Wetland Unit 4 (1995), 5, 130; Heery, The Shannon
44H.A. King, ‘Excavations at Clonmacnoise’, Archaeology Ireland 6 (1992), 12–14.
45For discussion, see H.A. King, ‘Late medieval crosses in county Meath, c. 1470–1635’,
Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 84C (1984), 2y115.
46Aonghus Moloney, ‘East to west, crossing the bog at Clonmacnoise’, in H.A. King (ed.),
Clonmacnoise Studies. Vol. 1: Seminar papers 1994 (Dublin, 1998), 2–10: 9; T.C. Breen, ‘Excavations
of a roadway at Bloomhill bog, County Offaly’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 88C (1988),
47Condit and Cooney, Clonmacnoise bridge, w3x.
48I would like to thank Dr Aidan O’Sullivan for discussing dug-out boats found at the
Clonmacnoise bridge with me.
68 Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy
comparable vessels were recovered at different spots around the lake. Within living
memory, bodies of the dead have been ferried across the Shannon at this point
for burial in Clonmacnoise.49
The first reference to the construction of a barrier or causeway in this region,
as distinct from mentions of already existing structures, is in the Annals of Ulster
for 1001: one was built at Athlone and another at Be´al A´ tha Liag.50 The form of
construction of these bridges is unclear, but they were almost certainly made of
timber. To facilitate their incursions into Meath, Toirrdelbach O´ Conchobair and
his son Ruaidhri built a series of wooden bridges at Athlone and A´ th Liag beginning
in 1120; a number were in turn destroyed by the Ua Ma´el Sechlainn.51 Toirrdelbach
also constructed bridges at Shannonbridge and at Donloe on the Suck.52
In 1129 Toirrdelbach built a castle at Athlone, probably to protect the bridge.53
The first stone bridge at Athlone was that built by the justiciar of Ireland, Bishop
John de Gray, in 1208–9 or 1210.54 This was destroyed by A´ ed O´ Conchobair in
1271 or 1272.55
Fording points and bridges have traditionally facilitated the evolution of settlements;
numerous examples of the phenomenon can be found in Ireland and
elsewhere. Athlone—with a bridge and fortress, of whatever form—is a good example;
Lanesborough is probably another.56 The Anglo-Normans on their arrival built
their castles and mottes at or near crossing places or fords. The control of crossing
places, particularly on navigable rivers, was a strategic goal in the domination of
an area. Cloonburren, near which the Slighe Mho´r route ran east–west across the
Shannon callows, has the remains of the finest motte in County Roscommon,
although references to this structure are from Gaelic Irish sources. Bridges also
have links with religious settlements, whether, as at Abbeyshrule and Cloonowen,
the settlements were sited at river crossings and might have needed a temporary
framework to span the river, or whether, as at Boyle, the bridge was an integral
part of the settlement that evolved at the site.
In the written sources, such as the Civil Survey, toghers and roads are cited not
as features of interest or importance in themselves but as identifiable landmarks
in the landscape described.57 As well as being necessary for everyday commerce
and living, roads and trackways were strategically important. The documents contain
repeated references to particular routes that were clearly of military significance.
In 1201, when the hosting into Connacht led by John de Courcy and the
49I am grateful to Mr Peter Naughton of Cloonburren for this information.
50Harmon Murtagh, Athlone, Irish Historic Towns Atlas 6 (Dublin, 1994), w1x. Murtagh dates
the first bridge at Athlone to 1120. There are corresponding entries in the Annals of Clonmacnoise,
the Annals of Loch Ce´ and the Annals of the Four Masters. I am indebted to Dr Murtagh for pointing
out the Annals of Ulster reference to me and also for his discussion of the subject.
51ALC, vol. 1, 113; Ann. Clon., 191, 193, 204, 205; Misc. Ir. annals, 13.
52Ann. Tig., 41.
53ALC, vol. 1, 127.
54Ann. Clon., 223; ALC, vol. 1, 245.
55Ann. Clon., 249; ALC, vol. 1, 471.
57Civil Survey, vol. 10, 49.
DORAN—Medieval Communication Routes 69
son of Hugh de Lacy was defeated by the O´ Conchobair, the Anglo-Normans
retreated by way of Tiaquin in Co. Galway ‘at the head of the Tochar Mona Coinnedha’
and hence to Roscommon.58 This routeway was also used in 1225 by A´ ed
Conchobair as he advanced to meet the Anglo-Normans of Leinster, who were
moving into Connacht in response to his request for assistance.59 In 1255 a great
meeting took place at ‘Tochar Mona Coinnedha’, where a peace was concluded
between the O´ Conchobair and the Mac William Burkes.60 The same routeway
continued to be a meeting place of armies throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth
In his article on roadways O´ Lochlainn listed some devices that may provide
hints to the existence of roads—place and townland names, for example, that
contain either as a prefix or as a suffix elements such as to´char, ‘flagged path’, ceis,
‘wattle path’ or rod, ‘roadway’.62 Rodeen, Co. Roscommon, is an example of the
latter, and bealach, ‘gap’, is recalled in Bealragh in the same county. Topography
would also have influenced the siting of roads: bogs and flooded areas would have
been avoided, but it is common to find a roadway on eskers such as those that
pass through the boglands of Counties Longford and Roscommon. It is important
to remember that unlike, for example, Roman roads, these medieval routes were
not essentially physical entities—thin strips of land with physical boundaries; rather
they were rights of way, sometimes with legal and traditional status.63 Routes
tended to follow the line of least resistance, twisting and turning to avoid poorly
drained areas and land that was easily overlooked. Where there was a hill to climb
or a difficult area to pass through, multiple tracks would develop, the traveller
taking the easiest route. Routes may also have varied seasonally as changing weather
affected the condition of the pathway. Most of the early trackways that survive
represent stretches where the road left the cultivated land and where the evidence
has not in consequence been ploughed out or destroyed (Pls V and VI).
Following the path of modern roads can be misleading: a modern road, built
using contemporary engineering techniques, may run along the bank of a river,
whereas an older road will take the higher ground, where natural drainage is
available. Words such as caol (narrow), coradh (a weir) and eiscir (an esker) in place
names may contain clues to old roads; as do ancient places of assembly and inauguration
that were presumably served by routeways. Cruachain, Co. Roscommon,
is an excellent example of this (Fig. 1).64 Pilgrim roads, such as that to Clonmacnoise
discussed above, are a singular type of routeway formed by a particular kind
of traffic. They may, like the Clonmacnoise road, have had multiple purposes and
58ALC, vol. 1, 221.
59ALC, vol. 1, 285; Ann. Conn., 17.
60ALC, vol. 1, 407; Ann. Conn., 113.
61ALC, vol. 1, 441, 583; Ann. Conn., 139, 243.
62O´ Lochlainn, ‘Roadways in ancient Ireland’, 466.
63Paul Hindle, Medieval roads and tracks (Buckinghamshire, 2002), 6.
64The Cruachain complex is situated on the broad limestone plain known as Mag nAı´, northwest
of the village of Tulsk, Co. Roscommon (Fig. 1). It is mentioned in the early sources as one
of the chief pre-Christian cemeteries of Ireland, as a royal residence and as a place of ritual
assembly. It is the setting for the beginning of the early Irish saga the Ta´ in Bo´ Cu´ ailgne.
Traditionally, it was the inauguration site of the kings of Connacht. The modern field fences
cover the relicts of older field systems and roads around a concentration of important and
unusual earthworks. These remains cover a broad chronological span from the prehistoric
through to the medieval period.
70 Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy
PL. V—Boher an Choraine, Co. Roscommon.
PL. VI—Trackway at Toberorry, Co. Roscommon.
DORAN—Medieval Communication Routes 71
may have followed the main highway for part of their course. These pilgrim routes
provide important indications of early roadways because they were better maintained
than other tracks that followed corresponding routes.65
When the routeways isolated by O´ Lochlainn that pass through Longford and
Roscommon are plotted, it is immediately obvious that the early ritual site of
Cruachain is a focal point (Fig. 1). Of the sixteen roads taken from O´ Lochlainn’s
work, almost all move towards or radiate from this point. Many are associated with
religious sites: Mocmoyne (Assylin/Essmakirk), for example, is an early and important
foundation. Clergy from Mocmoyne had the right to attend the inauguration
of the kings of Connacht. The correlation between religious settlements and the
roads is notable, but this may be related to the sources used by O´ Lochlainn, the
majority of which are ecclesiastical.66 This region is bisected by two major routeways:
the Slighe Assail and the Slighe Mho´r. The former, which bisected eastern
Roscommon and all of Longford, was a key artery linking this area with the eastcoast
ports and with English and continental markets. The extreme south of County
Roscommon was clipped by the Slighe Mho´r going west to east via Cloonburren.
The two highways are linked by a minor road (Fig. 1, Route 9), as well as by the
In attempting to followO´ Lochlainn, I have given precedence to his map while
using the locations that he derived from the various sources as a broad guideline
(Fig. 1; see Table 1 for list of roads). Often two or three roads existed between
given points. I have followed as far as possible his outline with respect to the
topography and have used archaeological sites along the routes as markers for
possible directions. Although some of the roads, for example Route 2 from Drumsna
to Mocmoyne, cover long distances, little information about them is provided
in the text of O´ Lochlainn’s article or in his map.67 Here I have taken the profile
of the road on his map and followed the most likely route using the six-inch
Ordnance Survey maps. Where no obvious direction is indicated in his text or
map, as in the case of Route 12, I have followed the path of roads already identified.
Alternative directions exist, of course, and this road could have gone
straight from Elphin to Termonbarry rather than by way of Tulsk. The latter, however,
is an identified route, and it would appear to be the more likely alternative.68
The Slighe Assail was traditionally the main road from Meath to Connacht and
can clearly be seen to be focused on Cruachain (Fig. 1). In County Longford a
number of important Anglo-Norman settlements were established along its passage,
including the borough of Lissardowlan and, on a link road, the borough of
Granard and the Cistercian abbey of Abbeylara. Abbeylara contains one of two
Cistercian abbeys in County Longford. The abbey was founded by Richard de Tuit,
whose motte lies at Granard, shortly before his death in 1210 or 1211; it was
colonised from St Mary’s Abbey in Dublin in 1214. Initially Anglophile in culture—
in fact, the racism of the house towards the Gaelic Irish is cited in the remonstrance
of the Irish princes in 1318—by the early fifteenth century it had passed
65For discussion of the maintenance of pilgrim trails in other parts of Europe, see Jonathan
Sumption, Pilgrimage (London, 1975), 116.
66O´ Lochlainn, ‘Roadways in ancient Ireland’, 467.
67Gwynn and Hadcock give Mocmoyne as Assylin, alternatively as Eas-mac-n-Eirc. The name
in O´ Lochlainn’s text and map for this site may thus be an anglicisation of this name. Aubrey
Gwynn and R.N. Hadcock, Medieval Religious Houses: Ireland (Dublin, 1988), 30.
68O´ Lochlainn, ‘Roadways in ancient Ireland’, 469, section 8 (a).
72 Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy
TABLE 1—List of roadways shown in Fig. 1.
Slighe Mho´r Dublin to Clonmacnoise to Ballinasloe; to Cruachain via route 9
Slighe Assail Dublin via Oldbridge to Edgeworthstown, Longford, Cloondara,
Termonbarry, Tulsk and Cruachain
1 Essmakirk to Ballina (Bo´thar na Sliabe)
2 Drumsna across the River Boyle to Essmakirk and Kesh
(Red Earl’s Road)
3 Elphin to Breckliff via Essmakirk
4 Frenchpark to Coolavin
5 Killarought to Tullinarock
6 Rathcroghan to Elphin, Bellanagare, Frenchpark, Killarought,
Dromod and Ballaghaderreen
7 Rathcroghan to Toomona and Tulsk
8 Rathcroghan to Tuam
9 Ballinasloe to Lough Croan, Roscommon and Boyle
10 Tuam to Roscommon
11 Roscommon to Clonmacnoise, Clonard and Seir
12 Boyle to Longford via Elphin and Tulsk
13 Abbeylara to Granard, Clonbroney, Longford and Cloondara;
Termonbarry to Rathcroghan
14 Uisnech to Ardagh and Longford
15 Nure to Clonmacnoise
16 Slighe Mho´r to east Galway
to the control of theO´ Fearghail and reflected the prevailing political and cultural
environment.69 Abbeylara is sited about 90m west of a stream and overlooks Lough
Kinale; one of the cranno´gs in this lough is close to the find-spot of a decorated
In Longford there is no record of an Anglo-Irish settlement, but the town was
the site of a later Dominican foundation and a Gaelic market settlement.70 In
addition, a number of mottes and moated sites are found in the vicinity. Although
the Slighe Assail pre-dated the arrival of Anglo-Norman colonists, it was an obvious
bolster to settlement. Because it was a major east–west channel and crossed the
Shannon, it permitted access to the east coast as well as to Athlone and the south.
It is very likely, however, that control of the roadways was as contested as control
of the Shannon. This was always a border area, and the Anglo-Norman settlements
at both Lissardowlan and Granard were short-lived. Nevertheless, when recorded
Anglo-Norman settlement is plotted against the road network, a relationship can
69Gwynn and Hadcock, Medieval religious houses: Ireland, 124.
70Linda Doran, ‘Medieval settlement in Longford and Roscommon’, unpublished PhD thesis,
University College, Dublin, 2001, map 4.1.
DORAN—Medieval Communication Routes 73
clearly be seen (Fig. 2). Lissardowlan was directly on the Slighe Assail, and Granard
was on a side road. No evidence has been found for a link road from the Slighe
Assail to Lanesborough; however, goods produced there could be transported up
the Shannon to the ford at Termonbarry and moved east along the road.
Similarly, the Anglo-Norman borough at Roscommon was at a mid-point on
Route 9 and was connected to both the Slighe Assail and the Slighe Mho´r. Although
the direction of the medieval roads connecting Ballintober to the Slighe Assail or
Route 9 is unknown, they may follow the course of the modern routes. This would
have facilitated the movement of goods and people to the markets and the ports
in the east and south. In County Roscommon, in addition to the crucial focal
point of Cruachain, the Slighe Assail passes close to a number of early Christian
establishments. This area of north Roscommon, which has pockets of good land
embayed in areas of bog, was in Gaelic hands, with no visible Anglo-Norman settlement.
Although the area contains a number of moated sites—normally an indication
of a frontier colony—they are likely to be of native construction.71
In both Longford and Roscommon, minor roads radiate from the Slighe Assail.
In Roscommon a number of these converge on important early Christian and
later ecclesiastical centres: Mocmoyne (just east of Boyle), Cloonshanville, Tibohine
and Elphin, which was the diocesan centre for east Connacht for the greater
part of the medieval period. Mocmoyne is the terminus of a number of minor
secondary roads. One of the most important foundations in the same area was
that of the Premonstratensian house of Holy Trinity in Lough Key. Whereas other
ecclesiastical sites are served by, or are close to, minor routes, some important
early sites, such as Baslick, are situated away from the recorded roads. In addition
to the Cruachain complex, a number of significant Gaelic secular settlements are
concentrated in this section of Roscommon. The island fortress of Carraig Mac
Diarmata in Lough Key, close to the Cistercian abbey of Boyle, was a primary Mac
Diarmata strongpoint. Boyle—called by Stalley ‘the most attractive and stylistically
the most intriguing of all the Irish Cistercian houses’—was a prominent centre
for pilgrimage, an industry no doubt assisted by a good road system.72 There was
also a Mac Diarmata residence on Inishterra Island in the area of these routeways.
The death of a member of the Uı´ Domhnaill family there is recorded in 1343.73
Ruaidhri O´ Conchobair’s house at his longphort of Ardakillin Lough is mentioned
a number of times by the annalists. Six cranno´gs can be identified today on this
partly dried-up lake.
In Roscommon 197 cranno´gs have been recorded by Du´ chas; of these, the vast
majority are north of the Slighe Assail. While the extant remains at Tulsk—a
fifteenth-century castle and a Dominican friary—are late, they are adjacent to
Cruachain, and the remains of an impressive raised rath are situated just southeast
of the castle. The castle was built byO´ Conchobair Rua in 1406, and O’Conor
has suggested that this rath may have been an earlier O´ Conchobair residence.74
In the south of the county, Roscommon town is at the junction of a number of
71For a detailed discussion of this thesis, see K.D. O’Conor, The archaeology of medieval rural
settlement (Dublin, 1998). For literary evidence of Gaelic Irish construction of a possible moated
site, see Katherine Simms, ‘Native sources for Gaelic settlement’, in P.J. Duffy, David Edwards and
Elizabeth FitzPatrick (eds), Gaelic Ireland, c. 1250–1650 (Dublin, 2001), 246–67.
72Roger Stalley, The Cistercian monasteries of Ireland (London, 1987), 87.
73ALC, vol. 1, 643.
74O’Conor, Archaeology of medieval rural settlement, 94.
74 Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy
FIG. 2—Longford and Roscommon: medieval settlement, c. 1300.
DORAN—Medieval Communication Routes 75
PL. VII—Roscommon Castle.
routes: the main artery going north—Route 9, linking the Slighe Assail and the
Slighe Mho´r—is bisected by Routes 10 and 11 there. Roscommon was an important
early Christian foundation. The Cross of Cong, presented to the monastery by
Toirrdelbach O´ Conchobair in 1132, was probably manufactured at Roscommon
by Ma´elI´su mac Bratdan Uı´ Echan, a member of an ecclesiastical family associated
with Cloncraff in Co. Roscommon.75 The complexity and subtlety of its design
make it one of the last great masterpieces of Irish medieval metalwork. A number
of other pieces are linked to what was clearly an important workshop.76 An O´
Conchobair stronghold may also have been established at Loch na nE´an (Loughnaneane),
a now dried-out lake just west of Roscommon Castle (Pl. VII).77
The Dominican priory of St Mary at Roscommon was founded by Felimidh O´
Conchobair in 1253 and is sited at the crossing point of Routes 9 and 11. Monuments
in the friary include the tomb of Felimidh O´ Conchobair. Only two tombs
of Irish kings survive in Ireland; this is the earlier of the two and the more important.
The most impressive surviving monument in Roscommon is the thirteenthcentury
royal castle. This was an integral part—in conjunction with other royal
castles at Athlone and Rindown and the baronial castle of Ballintober—of the
crown’s strategy to secure Connacht. The Anglo-Norman settlement here was
75P.E. Michelli, ‘The inscriptions on pre-Norman Irish reliquaries’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish
Academy 96C (1996), 1–48: 9.
76Cormac Bourke, ‘The bells of saints Caillı´n and Cuana’, in A.P. Smyth (ed.), Seanchas: studies
in early and medieval archaeology, histor y and literature in honour of Francis J. Byrne (Dublin, 2000),
77Ann. Conn., 835.
76 Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy
established in the late 1290s; it had an uneasy history and was probably abandoned
some time after 1360.78 Whereas the choice of Roscommon as the site for a castle
to inspire awe was most likely dictated by a number of factors, the strategic advantage
offered by these routeways was probably a significant one. It is possible that
a connecting road led to Ballintober; the modern road may follow its route.
After 1250 the crown made a series of land grants in south Roscommon, with
the royal castle at Roscommon as the cornerstone of this policy. Southern Roscommon—
the Fews of Athlone—was part of Geoffrey de Costentin’s grant of 1200;
the area was known as O’Naghtan’s county. Graham has suggested that the motte
at Castle Naghten (Ballycreggan) was constructed to control the route from Athlone
to Rindown, a narrow and arduous way passing through bogland.79 Since
water travel was a safer and more efficient alternative, efforts were made by the
Crown to control access to Lough Ree.80 It is noteworthy that the motte at Castle
Naghten is situated between Routes 9 and 11 running towards Roscommon town.
If its role is linked to the protection of Rindown, then the motte may have been
constructed quite late, since the first documentary reference to a fortification at
Rindown is that to the castle built by Geoffrey de Marisco in 1227.81 Dundonnell,
beside Route 9, has been identified as a possible ringwork by both Barry and
Graham. The impressive earthworks at Rahara, sited midway between the two
roads, are another possible ringwork, although the prospect of an Elizabethan
reuse of these earthwork sites invites caution.82 On Route 11, I have assumed that
the road crossed the Shannon at Athlone; the other options would be Termonbarry
or Lanesborough, and since the next point given is Clonard, this would be
a substantial detour.
In County Longford two minor roads run from the Slighe Assail at Longford
town. Both are linked to key early ecclesiastical establishments: Clonbroney, Granard
and Abbeylara on Route 13 and Ardagh on Route 14. Longford was a principal
seat of the O´ Fearghail, the primary Gaelic Irish family in this area. In 1400 they
founded a friary for the Dominican order; the house became observant in 1429.
During the fifteenth century Longford, along with Granard, developed as a market
settlement in the manner of the earlier Gaelic market at Rockingham. There is
no record of an Anglo-Norman settlement at Longford, although one existed at
Lissardowlan 24km away. The early nunnery at Clonbroney was a significant establishment.
The Life of St Samthann, the foundress of this house, is one of the few
texts dealing with a saint native to the area. Granard was the caput of de Tuit’s
manor, which he held from de Lacy. His large motte and bailey is situated on top
of a hill at the south-eastern end of the town (Pl. VIII). This border motte is the
earliest recorded motte in the region, dating to about 1199. Granard is associated
from the seventh century with St Patrick, who is recorded by Tireachan as having
78ALC, vol. 2, 443, 461; Ann. Conn., 139, 153; T.B. Barry, ‘Late medieval Ireland: the debate
on social and economic transformation, 1350–1550’, in B.J. Graham and L.J. Proudfoot (eds),
An historical geography of Ireland (London, 1993), 99–119: 117.
79B.J. Graham, ‘Medieval settlement in County Roscommon’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish
Academy 88C (1988), 2–38: 25.
80Harbison, ‘Rindown castle: a royal fortress in Co. Roscommon’, 144.
81ALC, vol. 1, 295.
82Graham, ‘Medieval settlement in County Roscommon’, 27–8; Timothy Cronin, ‘The
Elizabethan colony in Co. Roscommon’, in Harman Murtagh (ed.), Irish midland studies: essays in
commemoration of N.W. English (Athlone, 1980), 107–20: 118.
DORAN—Medieval Communication Routes 77
PL. VIII—Granard motte, Co. Longford.
established a church there. Aerial photographs suggest that the motte and bailey
occupy part of a much larger enclosure, perhaps connected with the early Christian
complex at the site. The incorporation of mottes into earlier defended communal
sites is seen elsewhere in Europe in this period.83 The medieval borough
of Granard was situated one kilometre south-west of the modern town, in the
townland of Granardkill.
Tradition links Ardagh with St Patrick—the first bishop, St Mel, was his kinsman.
It was the chief church of the politically important Conmaicne and was
recognised as one of the dioceses of the province of Armagh when Tuam was
separated from Armagh in 1152.84 The diocese of Ardagh, which covers most of
the modern county of Longford, was one of the last in the country to have a
parish network. By the end of the early fourteenth century, the framework was still
not in place. There is no documented road link to the crossing at Be´al A´ tha Liag
at the northern end of Lough Ree. The earliest documentary references to A´ th
Liag occur towards the end of the early historic period, when the site acquired
strategic importance as a gateway between Connacht and Meath. The sources refer
to the building and destruction of bridges across the Shannon at this site by both
the Ua Ma´el Sechlainn and the O´ Conchobair.85 In the early thirteenth century
th Liag was part of the de Lacy lordship of Meath. The strategic importance of
the site prompted the construction of a castle, probably a motte, by Walter de
83Robert Bartlett, The making of Europe: conquest, colonization and cultural change, 950–1350
(London, 1994), 65–7.
84Gwynn and Hadcock, Medieval religious houses: Ireland, 60.
85Ann. Clon., 165, 191.
78 Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy
Lacy in 1221. In contrast to Athlone, which developed into a substantial settlement
at quite an early date, no evidence exists of any significant settlement at A´ th Liag.
A number of toghers were constructed in the stretch of bog to the east, and it is
possible that one of these was part of the road leading from Ardagh and linking
to the Slighe Assail (Fig. 1).
The relationship between the road system and the settlement distribution is
difficult to measure. The picture presented in Fig. 1 is obviously incomplete, as
the evidence for many early roads has vanished, either because they have fallen
out of use or because they have been obliterated under modern roads. Stout noted
in his study of ringforts that high-status secular dwellings were sited away from the
main routes.86 A similar arrangement is seen in the distribution of tower houses
in these two counties, although some, such as Moydow and Ballinmore, are close
to the junction of a number of roads. It is not possible to know if these roads
were in place in the medieval period. Ecclesiastical and borough or market settlements,
however, are situated close to routeways.87 Both early church sites and the
later order houses follow this pattern. Elphin, for example, is at the convergence
point of a number of roads.
The growth of the Gaelic market settlements at Granard and Longford was
undoubtedly aided by their location (Fig. 1). Longford is at a crossroads on a
main highway, and Granard is on a feeder route. The developments are typical of
the fifteenth-century economic expansion that saw the proliferation of tower
houses and the spread of friaries, particularly in Connacht. Both of these are
indications of disposable wealth created by localised economic and political stability.
88 This economic recovery is particularly notable in areas such as this region
that were outside the ambit of the Dublin government. The success of these market
settlements exemplifies the changes in the Irish economy during this period.
As exports were derived increasingly from pasture rather than tillage farming,
Anglo-Norman towns became more and more dependent on the largely Gaeliccontrolled
hinterland for produce to export. The contact that the regional road
system provided with the markets and port towns of the east, south and west was
essential for this trade.
The proximity of these Gaelic market settlements in Longford to the future
Pale resulted in pressure on the markets of Meath, such as Athboy, Kells, Fore,
Mullingar and Oldcastle. In the late fifteenth century the Irish parliament cited
Granard and Longford by name, along with Cavan, as likely to ‘bring great riches
to the king’s enemies and great poverty to the king’s subjects’. The parliament
forbade English merchants to ‘take any goods or merchandise or to carry any
goods from the said markets, or make any concourse or resort to them’.89 This
legislation provides an insight into how much daily commerce must have taken
place between the two communities in this region of shifting frontiers. This trade
was certainly advanced by the access to these market centres provided by the road
and river system.
86Matthew Stout, The Irish ringfort (Dublin, 1997), 103, fig. 29.
87Doran, ‘Medieval settlement in Longford and Roscommon’, map 7.1.
88Howard B. Clarke, ‘Decolonization and the dynamic of urban decline in Ireland, 1300–
1550’, in T.R. Slater (ed.), Towns in decline, AD 100–1600 (Aldershot, 2000), 157–92: 174–9.
89Stat. Ire., 12–22 Edw. IV, 23.
DORAN—Medieval Communication Routes 79
As well as benefiting these Gaelic market settlements, the communications network
may have facilitated internal commerce. Merchants from port towns would
travel to the Gaelic hinterland, selling their imported merchandise and collecting
local produce to export. A well-known letter addressed to a Galway merchant, John
Blake, who died in 1468, and his wife, Juliane French, asked them to bring their
wine to Roscommon town, where they would be able to sell all their goods and
where the writer had linen cloth he owed them.90 Following the economic upheavals
of the fourteenth century, Ireland, like so many regions in Europe, concentrated
on a specialised trade—in this case cattle, whose hides found a ready
market. Towns such as Roscommon, strategically situated on an access road
between two major highways, were ideally placed to take advantage of these new
The road network differs significantly in each county. Longford has a main
road—the Slighe Assail—with two routeways leading from it. (The road network in
Longford is in fact similar today, with one major roadway through the centre of
the county.) Roscommon, on the other hand, has a network of roads; the area is
bisected by the Slighe Assail, and the Slighe Mho´r skirts the southern edge of the
county. In the south of County Longford, a tangle of small toghers run through
the bogs; these, other than the Corlea–Doogarymore road, were mostly for short
internal journeys in the bog and were probably linked to land use. In County
Roscommon, in contrast, an elaborate and complex system of roadways developed,
with a number of important junctions—Tulsk, for example, as well as Boyle, Cruachain
and Roscommon town. The latter, an important site from the early Christian
period, was the terminal point of the Slighe Assail. There were six main
crossing points on the Shannon, in addition to a number of fords. Two of these,
Termonbarry and Cloonburren, had approach roads at right angles on each side
of the river.
Paradoxically for such an apparently isolated region, the juxtaposition of the
Shannon with the two major routeways—the Slighe Assail and the Slighe Mho´r—
meant that it had relatively easy access to the outside world throughout the medieval
period. The Slighe Assail, which linked this part of Connacht with the east-coast
ports and with English and continental markets, was a vital artery. The Slighe Mho´r,
although it only clips the southern end of County Roscommon, was the primary
routeway across Ireland. In addition, this road could be accessed from other parts
of the area: Route 9 links directly to it, but it can also be accessed by sailing down
the Shannon and joining the road at the Cloonburren bridge. This combination
of land and water travel may have been a less arduous and hazardous alternative
than tracking across the bogs. The Shannon is a critical factor to this communications
infrastructure and therefore to the settlement of the area. Throughout
recorded history, the Shannon has been a vital conduit, allowing access to the
outside world and facilitating trade and transport. Without this most dominant
feature in the landscape, and without the juxtaposition of two major roadways
with their feeder routes, the settlement pattern of the surrounding area would
undoubtedly have been radically different.
90K.W. Nicholls, ‘Gaelic society and economy in the high middle ages’, in T.W. Moody et al.
(eds), A new histor y of Ireland. Vol. 2: Medieval Ireland, 1169–1534 (Oxford, 1987), 397–435: 419.
80 Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy
This paper is based on work undertaken as part of a doctoral thesis; I would like
to thank my supervisor, Professor H.B. Clarke, for his suggestion that I include
communication routes as an element of that study. I am also indebted to him for
his insightful comments on this paper. I would like to thank Professor T.B. Barry
for proposing the topic as the subject of an Academy paper. I am grateful to Mr
Bill Doran for technical advice on the maps that accompany this paper and to
Billy Doran for advice on the computerisation of the data that form the basis of
the study. I am indebted to Ms Louise Doran for the photographs. The people in
both counties who showed us kindness and cooperation are too numerous to list
here. I would like, therefore, to thank them collectively, in particular those who
took the time to walk with us and share their knowledge of the landscape. I am
indebted to Mrs Rose Forde, who not only encouraged me to undertake the study,
but also provided the support needed to accomplish it. My thanks are also due to
Roscommon County Council and Longford County Council for financial assistance
with the publishing costs of the colour maps produced as part of this paper.
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from the earliest period to A.D. 1408, translated into English A.D. 1627 by
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*Present address: 7 St Mary’s Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4.
Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Vol. 104C, No. 3, 57–80 (2004) Royal Irish Academy