A Milestone in Navan

by Anthony Holten


boundary stone

Fig. 1 The Marker Stone on Abbey Road

From 1952 until 1957 I was a pupil in the old Brother’s School, which stood on the banks of the River Blackwater alongside Abbey Road in Navan. The schoolyard entrance was located about fifty yards beyond the end house in Saint Ultan’s Terrace and consisted of large double gates. These were deeply recessed in a high stone wall and covered with a peeling, faded green paint. They presented a somewhat grim picture, as this establishment had a fearsome reputation amongst children of the era because of its corporal punishment regime. But that’s a story for another day.

Whilst hurrying to school, my foot sometimes struck a marker stone protruding from the footpath alongside the high wall on the town side of the school grounds. Being a good little boy, I didn’t curse or swear in response to the pain of my stubbed toe, but muttered bedad a few times, then hurried onwards . . . knowing from experience that worse suffering would befall me should I be late for school.

The cause of my pain was a rectangular stone column standing about three feet tall, with its top forming a semicircle – in appearance it was similar to the old milestones, some of which were still mounted alongside the Navan to Dublin road in those long gone days. Though badly eroded by the ravages of time, some markings could be discerned on the outer face: at the bottom the figure 4 was clearly legible; in the centre were several scratches that vaguely resembled a big arrow pointing skywards and at the top, just below the semicircle were the almost completely eroded remains of two engraved letters. Local history not being part of our school curriculum in those times, I never learned more about this marker stone or why it stood there by the wall of the former old Navan Abbey.

The years passed by and following many ramblings I settled in County Cork. But during these times, on frequent visits to Navan I noticed the old stone marker still standing on Abbey Road and marvelled at how it had survived the ravening lion of progress. But my interest was merely in the abstract – I had not as yet taken an abiding interest in old roads or their history. Several years ago, following my early retirement, I developed an interest in the ancient road network of County Meath, especially in the area around Navan and Tara. This new hobby took me along many of the old roads in the county and led me, inevitably, to taking an interest in the milestones sited alongside the old turnpikes, coach roads and post roads of former days – which rekindled my childhood interest in the old marker stone beside the brother’s school.

My newfound knowledge of milestones and their origins, suggested that the placement of this stone was illogical, if it was, in fact, a milestone. The number on these stones denoted a specified distance between destinations in Irish Miles (or long miles, 2240yds). In earlier days, the milestones on the main turnpike and coach road routes from Dublin were measured from the gates of Dublin Castle, whereas the later post roads were measured from the G.P.O. Roads emanating from provincial towns and cities, however, were measured from the Tholsel or Market House. The old courthouse on Ludlow Street in Navan being once the Tholsel, therefore, a milestone marked with number 4 didn’t make sense in the centre of Navan. Although I asked many of the old-time residents of the town about the origins of the stone, none could throw any light upon the subject – so it seemed as though the origins of the old marker would forever remain an enigma . . . I was forced to the conclusion that the milestone may have been shifted from elsewhere to its present location.

Then one day the mystery was solved for me in Cork!

Whilst reading Tom Spalding’s book, entitled Cork City, a Field Guide to its Street Furniture, I came upon a picture depicting a very similar marker stone, which is located alongside the Old Youghal Road beside Collins’ Barracks on the northside of Cork City. This barracks, formerly named Victoria Barracks, was built in 1806 and featured prominently in the burning of Cork City during the Black and Tan war. The marker stone is built into the boundary wall and is one of four boundary markers associated with this establishment. The stone has the following engraved upon its surface: At the top the letters BO, in the centre an arrow pointing upwards and at the bottom the number 3. These show that the stone was mounted by the Board of Ordnance, whose arrow symbol was the precursor of the later Ordnance Survey Benchmark (a similar upward-pointing arrow with crossbar) and the number 3 indicated that it was part of a series of such markers.

The Board of Ordnance was the predecessor of the British Ministry of Defence which was known by the former name until 1855. The older form of the symbol, the arrow without crossbar, was sometimes known as The Crows’ Foot or Sappers’ Mark and seems to have been superseded in Ireland by the more modern version (the arrow and crossbar) during the 1830s when the first Ordnance Survey was conducted. The latter symbol can be seen engraved upon stone walls, gate piers and the breast walls of stone bridges throughout the countryside; being used to designate the elevation of the site above sea level.

Tom Spalding states in his book that such boundary marker stones are incredibly rare and are, therefore, valuable mementos of the past.

So it would seem that the milestone on Navan’s Abbey Road was, in fact, a boundary marker for the old Cavalry Barracks, constructed upon the site of the ancient Navan Abbey – the premises were used as the De La Salle brother’s school from 1917 until 1957. The barracks was built circa 1715 and housed some militia and the Navan Cavalry. It’s possible, therefore, that the marker stone could date from that time. If my memory serves me well, there was another such stone located further along Abbey Road towards Spicers’ gate lodge, beneath the former high stone wall with the embrasures (gun-slits) that once commanded the approach to the barracks from the direction of Bannon’s Cross. This wall has disappeared long since. The surviving stone was obviously part of a set of such markers, which were most likely placed at the four corners of the quadrangle that constituted the barracks, its attendant parade ground and stables.

In conclusion, it’s almost a miracle that the remaining boundary marker survived the many changes that took place in Navan throughout its lonely stand on Abbey Road: And that it didn’t suffer the fate of many ‘real’ milestones, being used as a windowsill or doorstep, or adorning someone’s back garden. Maybe now would be a good time to give the old stone a facelift; perhaps a good starting point might be to have a modern day craftsman re-etch the symbols carved by some long dead stonemason of yesteryear.