At the beginning of the eighteenth century English roads were arguably among the worst in Europe and Irish roads, where they existed at all, were certainly no better. Large areas, particularly in the remoter parts of the country, were road-less apart from foot and bridle tracks. Samuel Molyneux, visiting the north of Ireland in 1708, wrote that ‘from this [Coleraine] to near Newtown [Limavady], which is half-way to Derry, is all a most excellent new, artificially made causey in dismal, wild, boggy mountains … ’twill cost £600.’

In the course of the century, road-building fanned out from Dublin, moving from the more economically developed south and east of the country to the west and north-west. In 1744 Mrs Delany, visiting her husband’s deanery in Down, told her sister that ‘I never travelled such fine roads as are all over this country.’ In the same year the Almanac was listing routes from Dublin to Carrickfergus (Belfast was still relatively unimportant), Londonderry, Galway, Waterford, Cork and Limerick, routes that were not dissimilar to those used today or recently, particularly before the advent of the super-highways in the late twentieth century.

Apart from main highways, as markets developed much of the country became covered with a network of minor local roads, although there were still some isolated areas at the beginning of the nineteenth century. For instance, Wakefield found that ‘Kerry Head is formed by a path­less mountain which does not exhibit the smallest trace of a road’ and around Glengarriff he found ‘the inhabitants of the mountains living in villages near the coast to which there are no roads’. This he contrasted with the Inishowen Peninsula in Co. Donegal, where he had found good roads, although none were shown on the map.

In 1844 the Devon Commission advocated a policy of ‘the opening of extensive mountain districts by the formation of roads’, both because it would lead ‘to the adoption of improved modes of cultivation’ and, equally importantly, because it would open ‘to the officers of justice and the local authorities, places which had been the secure haunt and impenetrable refuge of the outlaw and the robber’. The outlaw and the robber flourished where the economy was underdeveloped and even where there was easy access to the main highway – the sea – roads were required to provide marketing facilities for the hinterland.

In the 1730s and 1740s acts for the encouragement of road-building were a major feature of parliamentary legislation. For instance, eight statutes for the improvement of roads were passed in the 1731–2 session of parliament, and ten in each of the two following sessions, 1733–4 and 1735–6. Turnpikes supplemented the ordinary road-building by the counties and were indicative of the country’s developing economy and aspirations for the future. They were built and maintained by entrepreneurs, prepared to put up capital for their construction in the expectation that the tolls collected for their use would not only keep the roads in repair but repay, with interest, the initial investment. They were almost invariably under-financed and even where, in some cases, attempts were made to remedy this by a lottery, they were unsuccessful. The most successful trusts were those involved in the transport of linen from the north to Dublin.

However, enthusiasm outran economic sense and other turnpikes did not prove so profitable. In 1753, when Primate Stone was looking for ways to ensure that a budgetary surplus should not ‘lie forever in the hands of the Treasurer’, he suggested to the Chief Secretary, Lord George Sackville, that ‘the most popular thing would be to pay turnpike debts. The roads all over the country are gone to ruin, the tolls are mortgaged so as to leave nothing for the repair … The grievance has arisen from mismanagement, but it is a grievance. The roads are almost impassable and there are no funds for repairing them.’

In the 1770s Young found that the turnpikes had, in general, fallen below the standard of the ordinary roads, declaring that ‘they are as bad as the by-roads are admirable. It is a common complaint that the tolls of the turnpikes are so many jobs, and the roads left in a state that disgraces the kingdom.’ There was a steady stream of road-building statutes throughout the century, although after the initial enthusiasm many of these statutes were concerned not so much with new roads as with trying to improve existing toll roads and make them financially viable.

Ordinary roads were constructed by successful presentment, or petition, to the Grand Jury. Following the assizes the Grand Jury reconvened to consider roads and other public works, such as bridges, gaols and workhouses. The petitioner declared to the Grand Jury that the road would lead from one market town to another and that its construction was for the public good. Maps and estimates were produced, and both the petitioner and the supervisor of the work swore to the truth of the valuation.

In theory anyone could make such a request, but in fact they were usually made by the resident gentry, the agents of absentees, clergy, or very substantial tenants. Petitions accepted were filed and those rejected destroyed. If a bridge was constructed over a river marking the boundary between two counties, the counties had to agree to share the cost. Problems occurred when the Grand Juries of adjoining counties did not agree: for example, the Devon Commission found that the road from Limerick to Tralee had a gap of a mile over bogland on the Co. Kerry side of the border.

Grand Juries were not immune to self-interest nor averse to providing jobs for their friends. Roads were made to gentlemen’s houses and often detoured round their es­tates; hence many of the curves on Irish roads today. One of Lord Abercorn’s agents, Nathaniel Nisbitt, complained to him that: ‘I am far from thinking the road coming from the county of Derry laid out to advantage … I am told it was to bring it through a little town of Lord Bessborough’s called New Buildings, was the occasion of its being run crooked.’

The valuation of the land on which the road was built was another source of contention, as this depended on its agricultural classification. In 1751, another of Lord Abercorn’s agents, John McClintock, told him that ‘Mr Sinclaire wou’d not consent to lett the road pass through his arable land according to the method agreed on … some time agoe and valued at turff bogg … the direction in which Mr Sinclaire wou’d now have the road carried comes more on your Lordship’s estate … and is not so straight … I objected to it.’

Financing road-building was an old problem. Until 1759 the construction of roads was a local responsibility, depending on so many days’ compulsory labour. After 1760 these public works were paid for by the cess or county rate, which varied from county to county. The cess financed all the administrative activities of the Grand Juries in their respective counties, and fell largely on the tenants. In the 1770s Young found that 21/2d or 5d per acre was usual, but in the most highly rated area, the rich county of Meath, the cess was levied at 10d per acre.

In 1763 the high cess levied in certain northern counties resulted in the ‘Hearts of Oak’ movement – a widespread outbreak of rural violence in Ulster. The cess had been pushed up by the gentry on the Grand Juries, who were anxious to improve the roads, possibly to meet the demands of the expanding linen-based economy.

Comparisons between areas were complicated not only by the use of statute, Scotch or Irish acres but also by the fact that ploughlands continued to be a unit of local taxation in certain regions. Young, in the 1770s, commented on the inequality of a tax based on an unequal meas­urement of land. Road taxation had a long and tortuous history. A statute of James I had laid a general charge for road-building on each parish, requiring it to supply the necessary labour and equipment.

All sorts of devices were used to elude road work, including arguments based on the regional variations in land measurement. The 1612 act, which was reaffirmed in 9 Anne, c. 9 (1710), placed the responsibility for making roads on those who held ‘plow-lands’. Queen Anne’s Act endeavoured to prevent the evasion of this duty in areas where the term ‘plow-lands’ was unknown, by enacting that in those areas the Grand Jury was to decide the area equivalent to a ‘plow-land’ and in these areas the tax would be levied on acreage.

The 1710 Act decreed that local tenants’ compulsory labour on road works was to be confined to six days annually but, whereas this duty had previously been restricted to the parish, work could now be required within a two-mile radius of the parish boundaries.

The annual period of work, previously between Easter and the feast of St John the Baptist, June 24, was to be extended to 1 August. The parish still had the obligation to provide tools, such as iron crowbars, for workmen who required them, and the vestry could levy up to £2 for this purpose.

In 1739 the Rev. William Henry, commenting enthusiastically on the development of the road system in south Ulster, added that ‘they are so accustomed now to these public works that they look on it as part of their yearly labour and in the months of June and July fall as regularly and cheerfully to the breaking of stones and gravelling the roads as in March to the plough and harrow’. This optimistic observation was unfounded. Compulsory road labour was always unpopular and almost invariably inefficient.

By 1750 the system was breaking down, particularly in the north where, in 1750, John Colhoun, one of Lord Abercorn’s Tyrone agents, wrote that ‘John Kinkead complains he has been already 20 days attending the roads and has not yet sett off one fourth part of it, nor can he but on unreasonable terms; scarce any will work here now as they used to do … John thinks unless they are obliged to work for their money on reasonable terms it will not be so easie or well don.’

Although many of these roads provided the foundation of those travelled today, visually they would have been very different, for not only were they earth and stone roads, but few had hedgerows or were bordered by trees. Some travellers considered this an advantage, as it allowed the wind to dry them quickly after the frequent showers. Young describes the construction of these roads: ‘they throw up a foundation of earth in the middle of the space from the outsides, on that they immediately form a layer of limestone, broken to the size of a turkey’s egg; on this a thin scattering of earth to bind the stones together and over that a coat of gravel where it is to be had … the road is beautiful and durable.’

A definite standard of road-building emerged. Main roads were to be 18–20 feet wide, with a metalling of broken stones 8 inches deep in the centre and 5 inches at the side with a gravel shoulder. Second-class roads connecting market towns were to be 15–18 feet and minor roads 12–15 feet wide; in both cases metalling was 6 inches deep in the centre and 4 inches at the sides.

As the roads depended on the materials locally available, their quality varied from region to region. For instance, in 1787 John Wesley, then 84 years of age, declared indignantly that ‘we went over horrible roads to Newry. I wonder that any should be so stupid as to prefer Irish roads to the English. The huge unbroken stones of which they are generally made, are enough to break any carriage into pieces.’ Mourne granite was not the easiest material to break into small pieces for road making. In fine weather, it was probably easier to ride than to travel in a carriage. For most of the century the Irish Bar on circuit rode with their briefs in their saddle bags, followed by mounted servants carrying their books and gowns.

Considerable distances could be covered on horseback. For instance, in 1750 a younger John Wesley, riding near Kilkenny, wrote: ‘I think this was the longest day’s journey I ever rode; being fifty Irish, that is about ninety English miles’; an Irish mile was 2,240 yards – 480 yards longer than the English mile. Few can have known the Irish roads better than Wesley, who travelled them continually for nearly half a century.

John Carr, visiting Ireland immediately after the Union, commented that:

One great cause of the roads in Ireland enduring so long when once constructed, is owing to there being no ponderous wagons, or other heavy carriages, to cut them into ruts, except the few mails and stage-coaches, which are scantily established in different parts of the country … A common car generally weighs about 2 cwt 2 qrs and 4 lbs [129 kg], and a common English wagon from 55 cwt [2,794 kg] to 3 tons [3,048 kg].

Unfortunately this durability, to which Young also referred, was in part a reflection of the road system’s overall failure to become the vehicle of industrialisation on the scale anticipated when the roads were constructed or improved. For instance, the English wagon drawn by a single horse and travelling on a macadam road carried approximately two tons, and an Irish car approximately a quarter of that weight. In the latter part of the eighteenth century most travel­lers commented favourably on the state of Irish roads. Carr considered that Irish roads ‘are surpassed only by those of Sweden’.

Before the advent of the railway in the mid-nineteenth century, land carriage of heavy or bulky items presented considerable difficul­ties. Horses and mules were the principal methods of moving goods too large or heavy to be manhandled. The Irish parliament was anxious to encourage inland transport, particularly for coal and corn to warm and feed the growing population of the capital.

To this end it passed a series of acts giving a bounty on the inland carriage of corn to Dublin from 1758 and, in 1767, this bounty was extended to include coastal shipping. The most successful of these acts was that of 1784, 23 & 24 Geo. III, c. 19, known as Foster’s Corn Law after its spon­sor, John Foster (0805). Along with improved communications and marketing facilities, they encouraged a return to arable farming in suitable areas.

Young noticed the effect of the earlier bounty, and even more of the roads, on encouraging inland transport to Dublin from counties as far away as Roscommon, Sligo and Mayo, writing that:

This business of carriage was mentioned to me as proof of the great excellency of the Irish car. They carry from 9 cwt to 12 cwt [of corn] with a single horse that is not worth above £5. The distance from hence is 67 miles, and they are nine days going and returning: they come back loaded. For 16s 3d they will carry a load of anything to Dublin without the advantage of any bounty.

The Irish car was a wooden platform with two long shafts and solid wooden wheels. The platform could be fitted with sideboards so that it became a receptacle for grain, turnips, turf, etc., or a wickerwork container or cage could be roped to it for carrying commodities or animals. The small Irish horse, harnessed with a collar, was backed between the shafts of the cart and connected to them by means of a rope or chain hooked on to the collar. By the end of the century Scottish drays with high spoked wheels and iron axles were popular in the north, and they remained the basic farm cart until farms became mechanised in the twentieth century. Their manufacture, in Dublin, was sponsored by the General Farming Society.

The development of the postal service, which was expanded and improved throughout the century, had a beneficial effect on the roads as well as the revenue. The Irish postal service was established in 1635, when a proclamation of Charles I included some Irish towns. As early as 1729 there were 109 post towns and 65 of these had two deliveries a week. The mail came into Dublin on Mondays and Fridays and went out on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Although by the early 1730s there was a thrice-weekly service between Dublin and Cork, before 1768 the service to other places was more irregular and less frequent, perhaps a reflection of a lack of demand.

Until 1784, when a separate Irish Post Office was established, the service appears to have been expensive and inefficient. At this time, the Post-Master General was given power to widen and strengthen old roads and to create new ones to carry the mails. These roads were paid for by a national tax, and many were not only straight but of a very high quality; for instance, Carr found that the ‘road from Dublin to Limerick is remarkably broad and fine’ and the same could be said for the road north through Slane and Ardee.

In 1793, 33 Geo. III, c. 32, entered into a contract with the mail coach operators John Anderson and William Bourne in the hope of making the toll roads profitable.48 Stage-coaches now connected many of the major Irish towns. From April 1789 there was a regular service from Dublin to both Cork and Belfast. The Belfast coach took 13 hours. Cross-channel mail went on the government packet boats, which were controlled and paid for by Great Britain. In the course of the century packets from Dublin were supplemented by additional sailings from Donaghadee and Waterford.

Inland Navigation – Rivers and Canals

The relatively minor status of road transport in the pre-industrial life of the British Isles can be easily forgotten in the present age. Sea travel was always preferable, and the British Isles were well supplied with ports of varying quality. Natural waterways and their ports, river junctions and their estuaries continued as the only true centres of communications until a combination of political, technological and economic factors revived and refined the ancient practice of canal-building. Fortuitously, it became the harbinger of the transport revolution, which transformed the carrier from a conveyor of luxuries to a mover of bulk freight.

Before the coming of the railway in the nineteenth century, the land transport of heavy and bulky goods depended on what horses, or men, could carry – the average load of an English pack horse had been estimated at 2.5 cwt (127 kg), and Irish horses were much smaller. But, from the viewpoint of both labour and cost, great weights could be carried relatively easily and economically over water: an English horse on a tow-path could drag 30 tons (30.48 tonnes) on a navigable river and 50 tons (50.8 tonnes) on a canal. Hence, where economic imperatives were sufficient, engineers bored through mountains and built viaducts. But the Irish terrain did not require such heroic feats of engineering, and possibly for this reason Ireland became an early pioneer in modern canal building.

The Irish MPs were deeply interested in the economic development of the country, and acutely conscious of the importance of communications for the development of trade. As early as 1703 the Irish House of Commons received a report from a committee of the House stating the feasibility, and the great national benefits, of constructing a canal between Lough Neagh and Newry. In 1709 the House of Commons was petitioned about improving the navigation of the Shannon, and in the same year the House resolved that it was practicable to make the river Suir navigable from Golden-Bridge to Carrick at a cost of £1,000.

Despite this early interest, it was not until 1730 that the Irish parliament began a policy of canal-building by appointing Commissioners of Navigation. This was largely motivated by the need to provide the rapidly growing capital with a cheap and reliable supply of food, and particularly fuel. Between 1731 and 1742 the Newry Canal was constructed to link the Tyrone coalfield on the shores of Lough Neagh with Carlingford Lough.

This proved illusory, partly because of the quality of the coal, but more because of the easy availability of cheap high-grade English coal. Sea transport was easily available for Welsh and Scottish coal. The canal, however, found an unanticipated outlet in the transport of Irish linen, and the town of Newry grew as the linen trade flourished. The Newry canal was the earliest of the industrial canals in the British Isles, and the most commercially successful of the Irish canals.

The development of the canal system was the most capital-intensive commercial investment made during the century. Canal-building was funded by a mixture of grants from the Irish parliament and private subscription. Regarded as a national investment, they reflect an early realisation that government support was essential for major works of public utility. Unfortunately, the clashing demands of local interests ensured that such private and public capital as was available was spread too thinly. Capital for the effective funding of either social or economic projects was seldom, if ever, adequate.

Schemes for improving nearly every potentially navigable river in Ireland received enthusiastic support from the local gentry, but destructive competition for scarce public and private resources ensured that projects were under-funded and that they either proceeded very slowly or were never finished. The system was still incomplete in 1800 when the British and Irish parlia­ments were subsumed into the parliament of the United Kingdom.

In 1751 the Commissioners of Navigation were merged into the Corporation for Promoting and Carrying out an Inland Navigation, usually known as the Board of Inland Navigation. The Commissioners were given a grant of £7,000 p.a. Their major achievement was a canal system linking the east, west and south of Ireland. The Grand and Royal Canals were built parallel to each other across the central plain of Ireland to link Dublin with the Shannon and Limerick in the west.

Both canals were built in the latter half of the eight­eenth century by joint private and public enterprise – a disagreement among the private participants in the Grand Canal led to the formation of the Royal Canal Company in 1789.

The Grand Canal divided at Robertstown, where one branch turned south to link at Athy with Kilkenny and the Barrow-Nore river system reaching the sea at Waterford. The other branch continued westwards to Shannon Harbour and eventually on to Ballinasloe. The Royal Canal ran to the north of the Grand Canal, and eventually reached the Shannon via Maynooth and Mullingar.

Between 1778 and 1812 approximately £2,000,000 was spent on the Grand and Royal Canals – an enormous sum for a poor country. It is doubtful whether either justified the expense incurred in its construction. They were speculatively built for a trade that did not materialise, either in the type of goods or to the degree anticipated. Ireland did not develop the coalmines or the heavy industry that ensured the profitability of the English canals.

Their greatest success was, perhaps, as passenger transport. They carried pleasure boats which drew the travellers very slowly, at about four to five miles per hour, across the country, while they enjoyed an elegant silver breakfast and dinner service, with a restrained consumption of alcohol. It took 18 hours to cover the 102 miles of the Grand Canal between Dublin and Shannon Harbour, and 13½ hours to travel via the Royal Canal the 54 miles from Dublin to Mullingar. A contemporary stage-coach travelled about twice as fast – at about 8 to 9 miles per hour.

The barges had two separate cabins and offered first- and second-class accommodation. The journey to Shannon Harbour cost 21s or 14s, and to Mullingar 12s or 7s 6d. De Latocnaye thought that ‘The canal boats are very comfortable, being indeed very like those of Holland, but the cost here is nearly double.’ They had one military occasion – the still incomplete canals were used to transport troops during the 1798 rebellion.

The rivers of the commercially important east coast – the Liffey, Boyne and Lagan – are short and unimpressive, and neither Drogheda nor Belfast had a good natural harbour. Both achieved industrial viability only after extensive artificial improve­ments, while the deficiencies of the Liffey as a commercial waterway were a continual source of concern to both the Dublin merchants and the Irish parliament. Apart from the Foyle, which served the immediate hinterland of Londonderry, none of the rivers in the west or north carried any major commercial traffic, because of either navigational problems or the underdeveloped nature of their hinterland.

Young, viewing the various uncompleted navigations in the late 1770s, considered that it was desirable to ‘have something to carry before you seek the means of carriage’, but this is a circular argument in an undeveloped country. However, the Boyne navigation met Young’s requirement, as during the 1760s a big water-powered flour mill was built at Slane, in the important wheat-growing hinterland of Drogheda.

Before the canal was complete flour and grain were being carried from this area in the small Irish carts, but, in the 1780s, after the Boyne navigation connected Drogheda with Navan, there was a two-way traf­fic in grain and flour to, and coal from, the port of Drogheda. The Lagan, which runs through Belfast, had many bleach-greens on its banks, and its navigation played a similar role to the Newry Canal in the transport of linen.

Given the degree of Ireland’s industrial and agrarian development it was inevitable that the building of canals was largely speculative, for Ireland did not have coal or mineral resources on the scale that ensured the brief but spectacular success of British canals. In Ireland, faith in the economic importance of the canals continued well into the nineteenth century for, in 1844, the Devon Commissioners were told that among Ireland’s agrarian problems was a lack of convenient markets ‘chiefly in those districts where there is want of water communication’. Those examined considered that water was the most convenient mode of transport for agricultural produce.

As land prices, and the demand for agrarian produce, rose before and during the Napoleonic War, Wakefield pointed out that ‘the most striking rise in the value of land takes place in the neighbourhood of sea-port towns.’ He found this to be true of places as remote as Mayo or as convenient as the mouth of the Barrow-Suir in the neighbourhood of Waterford. Canals widened their hint­erland and gave easier access to the ports.