Lecture delivered to the Meath Archaeological Society at Ardbraccan, September 1964
Some old manuscripts say that there were three great roads radiating out from Tara through Ireland. Some say that there were four other say five. Evidently there were not always five as generally supposed. In fact the roads were made in succession and not all at once. They were constructed when the Connaught dynasty came to the Tara Throne. After the fall of Tara they radiated out from Dublin.
North East along the coast with a side shoot to Armagh.
North West towards Enniskillen and Donegal.
West along the great esker ridge to Galway.
South West towards Cork and Kerry.
South East along the coast to Wexford and Waterford.
There were seven different kinds of roads, each of a different width suitable to a particular type of traffic. The law laid down the width and the chieftans through whose land the road passed had to maintain it that width. Only two types of road come into our story.
The Slí Mór.
The Slí Mór; chief or main road, wide enough for two chariots to pass each other. Originally the chief roads only needed to be wide enough for one chariot - the chieftan's - and everyone else on the road at the same time pulled in to a clearing to let the chieftan proceed along unimpeded. Soon after the introduction of Christianity, the Bishops refused to pull in to let the chieftans pass. The chief roads had to be increased in width to allow two chariots to pass each other. Roads as wide as this are said to have died out after the decline of chariots. These vehicles were used by the saints and chiefs at the Battle of Culdremhne on the slopes of Benbulben, but not much after that date in warfare. Leaders rode on horseback later. At all times the rank and file marched and fought on foot. The chariot roads never ran through swamps or low lying soft ground. They kept to high ground and the tops of esker ridges.
The Great North Western Road is believed to have run from the Hill of Tara over the hill of Balreask Old and not down by the river as the present day road does and goes out towards Enniskillen via Liscarton Castle on the Kells Road.The straight stretch by Liscarton and Castlemartin is said to lie exactly on the ancient roadway to the north west. It has been argued that this road may be the oldest thoroughfare in Ireland, for it may have been used for over a thousand years before the rise of Tara, but in the opposite direction, that is from Donegal to the Boyne Valley. The Chrom Dubh and Lugh worshippers made their first footing in Ireland on Tort Island and west coast of Donegal. They later made their way across the mainland to Meath, choosing Teltown and Newgrange for their family graveyards. It is thought that the line of this Great North Western road is the route they likely took.
The Bóthar is an inferior type of road. Its width was laid down by law to accomodate two cows. If two cows are travelling along a Bóthar side by side, one cow will have room to turn right around. The King asked his lawyers one day on Tara why the Bóthar was measured as the length of one cow and the breadth of a second cow, and the lawyers answered; " A cow using a bóthar must have enough room to turn around and look at her calf trotting at her heels ". Then the King said " But what if the second cow wants to look at her calf ?". The lawyer replied " The second cow must wait until the first cow has finished, Your Majesty ". Bohermeen owes its name to this type of road and is the actual road this story is told about. Ancient Irish roads were paved with large blocks of stone just like the Roman roads.
" Bó " is the Irish word for " cow " and the cow was one of the principal articles of wealth from the most remote ages. They were in fact standards of value, as money is today. Prices, wages, marriage portions, were all estimated in cows by our ancestors. " Bó " is found extensively in place names throughout the country.