Planning Your Visit to Ireland? Trek Along the Iron-Age Trackway at Corlea
Updated: Feb 19, 2020
I love bogs. Not only do they provide us with sweet-smelling turf for burning over the winter, which keeps us so warm and cosy and drowsy, but they hide extraordinary secrets which they allow us to find, now and again.
Such as bog butter…
Various spectacular votive offerings…
And bog bodies…
And then there’s this…
Hmmm, you might be thinking, that doesn’t look anywhere near as impressive as the gold and the bog body. Maybe not, on the surface, but there’s something about this trackway which gets me quite excited. Patience, Myth-lovers, all will be revealed…
I finally got to visit the Corlea trackway on Friday. I’ve been wanting to go for YEARS… you may remember I wrote about it HERE, quite some time ago. This great wooden road, known as togher in Irish, was discovered in 1984, when Bord na Mona were digging turf to supply a power station. Experts were called in, and so began an excavation which was to last until 1991.
The track is made from oak planks approximately 3-3.5m long and 15cms thick, laid upon birch rails 1.2m apart. This particular stretch of track was 1.6km long, but another part of the road had been found much earlier in 1957. Both tracks meet at a dry island in the centre of the bog. As you can see from the pictures below, the planks were held in place by long pins in the outer edges of the planks, via mortis holes.
Interestingly, dendrochronology dates the timber from both tracks to between late 148BC and early 147BC, suggesting the entire road was built within the space of a year. It is thought that 300 large oak trees were felled for the planks, and a similar number of birch trees for the pins. It was a massive undertaking. Further investigation of the area has revealed another 108 toghers, with another 76 in another nearby bog. And I wonder why… why were so many paths required across one small patch of bog?
Professor Barry Raftery, who was responsible for managing the excavation project, believes that the alignment of the road indicates it connected Uisneach, in Co Westmeath, with Cruachain, also known as Rathcroghan, in Co Roscommon. Both of these locations were important centres of ritual and ceremony in ancient times, so it’s not surprising that they may have been linked by a grand roadway. Cuachain was the ancient capital of the province of Connacht, and home of Queen Medb, whilst Uisneach was known as the naval, or centre of Ireland where all provinces met. It was here the great fire festival of Bealtaine was celebrated.
Intriguingly though, the road was only in use for ten years, before its weight carried it deep into the bog. This suggests the builders didn’t really know how to build wooden roads, or that they didn’t understand the nature of the bog and how it functioned. However, the construction of the track indicates great skill, and people had been building tracks across bogs in Ireland for centuries, so I’m pretty certain they knew exactly what they were doing! It seems this trackway was built for one specific reason or event only, one which did not involve simply crossing a bog. Unfortunately, we have no idea what that one specific reason or event is.
The road is very wide, inviting speculation that it may have been used for wheeled traffic, such as chariots and carts. Looking at the rough and uneven surface of the road, I’d be very surprised if that was true; a horse would more than likely break a leg on a track like that, and it would not be easy to pull a cart across. As for chariots, it is unlikely they were ever used in Ireland, even though they appear in many of the old stories. Very little evidence of chariots has been found in Ireland, compared with Britain and Europe. So more than likely it was used for travellers on foot.
Now here comes the really exciting part that I hinted at earlier! 😁 I love archaeology and history, but as you know, it’s mythology which really floats my boat. When a correlation is discovered between archaeology and myth, I tend to get a bit hyper, because it’s so very rare. Well, guess what? There is one here!
Comparisons have been made between the Corlea trackway, and the ancient mythological tale known as the Tochmarc Étaín, ‘the Wooing of Étaín’. You can read my take on this story HERE, and I’m not going to retell it now. But in the story, in order to win the hand of the fair lady herself, Midir is tasked with many challenges, including building a great road across a bog where there had never been a road before. And here is how it was done…
“Then Eochaid commanded his steward to watch the effort they put forth in making the causeway. The steward went into the bog. It seemed to him as though all the men in the world from sunrise to sunset had come to the bog. They all made one mound of their clothes, and Midir went up on that mound. Into the bottom of the causeway they kept putting a forest with its trunks and roots, Midir standing and urging on the host on every side. One would think that below him all the men of the world were raising a tumult.
“After that, clay and gravel and stones are placed upon the bog. Now until that night the men of Ireland used to put the strain on the foreheads of oxen, (but) it was seen that the folk of the elfmounds were putting it on their shoulders. Eochaid did the same, hence he is called Eochaid Airem i.e. ploughman, for he was the first of the men of Ireland to put a yoke upon the necks of oxen. And these were the words that were on the lips of the host as they were making the causeway: ‘Put in hand, throw in hand, excellent oxen, in the hours after sundown; overhard is the exaction; none knoweth whose is the gain, whose the loss, from the causeway over Móin Lámraige.’
“There had been no better causeway in the world, had not a watch been set on them. Defects (?) were left in them. Thereafter the steward came to Eochaid and brings tidings of the vast work he had witnessed, and he said there was not on the ridge of the world a magic power that surpassed it.”
And the defect mentioned in the last paragraph? This is how the story refers to the fact that the bog sank after only ten years. You can read the full translation of the story HERE.
The Corlea Trackway has a lovely Visitors Centre, and tour guides who will take you out onto the bog itself. The excavated stretch of the track lies in its special hallway, where temperature and humidity levels are maintained at optimum level for its conservation. You can’t walk on it, but you can walk all around it, and study it as long as you like. The centre doesn’t really get a ton of visitors like other heritage sites do, as it’s a bit off the beaten track (pardon the pun!), but that’s an advantage in my view… you probably realise by now that I am a big fan of all things ‘off the beaten track’.
The Corlea Trackway Visitor Centre is open to the public from March to October. Opening hours: 10am – 6pm. The last daily tour takes place at 5pm. Tel: 00 353 (0)43 3322386. You can find it just 8km from Ballymahon on the R392.
Make sure you go.
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