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Just another milestone?
Much of the fabric of our landscape is being trampled on by the Celtic Tiger. In this article Brian McCabe draws attention to an increasingly vulnerable piece of road furniture
      -the milestone
There can be little doubt that the current comprehensive national programme of road-building and realignment is daily disturbing, uncovering and irrevocably changing the landscape and archaeology of this country in a widespread and unprecedented manner. We see the evidence of this on virtually every major road in the country as we go about our daily business-in my own case, on the road formerly known as the Naas dual carriageway, now referred to in signage (and in good Eurospeak) as the N7 national route.
        There have, of course, been the usual statutorily required archaeological digs along the line of the proposed new road in the past year or so, which have turned up many interesting and valuable finds at different points along the “road-take”. A number of other historical artefacts fall outside the scope of such examination, however, and are in danger of being overlooked in the headlong rush to upgrade our roads to cope with the ever-increasing volume of traffic, particularly to and from our capital city. Chief amongst these must be the humble (and increasingly scarce) milestones that in earlier times helped weary travellers to find and measure their way to and from our principal towns and cities.
          It was those master road-builders, the Romans, who first defined the centre of imperial Rome with a “Golden Milestone” and placed milestones on their great roads showing the distance to this datum so that travellers could mark their progress. In those days, truly, all roads led to Rome.
          While this island may never have been part of the Roman Empire, archaeological excavations over the years have uncovered much evidence of pre-Christian roads; indeed, early Gaelic literature and law-tracts contain many provisions in relation to roads and the importance of their upkeep. We do not know whether those built or maintained these roads had their own primitive milestones, but no doubt they had their own way of marking progress towards their desired destinations.
    While there is some evidence of what we would today regard as milestones in England from the seventeenth century, the earliest such examples in Ireland seem to date from the early eighteenth century.
    The problems involved in actually dating milestones themselves are enormous. Contemporary references are very rare and are difficult to associate directly with particular milestones. The earliest Irish documentary source would appear to be Watson’s Almanac, a Dublin directory first published in 1733 and which continued in existence until 1794. From 1779 onwards Watson referred his readers to Taylor and Skinner’s Roadbook of Ireland, which marked the mileage from Dublin to the more important towns.
     Road history, where known, may help the dating effort by providing some terminal dates. For example, where a road has been redirected at some known date in the past, older milestones may survive along the abandoned route or newer ones may stand on the more recent route. The relationship between milestones and administrative road history can be very difficult to define, however. The milestones that currently survive belong, generally, to the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and during the period roads were the responsibility, at different times, of the grand juries, the turnpike trusts and, particularly in the nineteenth century, the Post Office. All appear to have been responsible for milestones at one stage or another, but definitive connections with individual stones are very hard to establish.
     Another help in the dating process in Ireland is the official adoption of the English system of measurement, including mileage, in 1826. It can probably therefore be assumed that any stones that bear the longer Irish mile measurement were erected before this date. An “Irish” mile was 2,240 yards, whereas the “English” (or stature) mile was 1,760 yards. The difference arose from the use of different linear perch, the statute perch measuring five and a half yards and the “Irish” measuring seven. It should also be noted that prior to the completion of the GPO building in Sackville (O’Connell) Street in 1818, mileage in this country was measured from Dublin Castle.
     As with other artefacts, typology may help with dating but, as always, styles may overlap or be subject to regional or individual variation. An attempt at such typology was made in a paper by Joan Murphy and Kieron Murphy, read to the Old Dublin Society  in 1981 and published in the Dublin Historical Record, Vol. 25. They felt that the oldest-looking milestone in the greater Dublin area was to be found in the village of Kilcullen, Co. Kildare. It stands about three feet high, with a  crudely cut rectangular shape and roughly inscribed figures-“21” for the (Irish) mileage to Dublin and “C.K” standing for County Kildare. The stone is currently set into the wall surrounding the Cross and Passion Covenant at the junction of the N9 and N78
    Murphy and Murphy felt the stone pre-dated Watson’s Almanac, which gave a different distance to Dublin. It is possible that it may be a surviving stone from the original Dublin-Kilcullen turnpike, which was, in fact, Ireland’s first toll-road. This road, which has a long and interesting history, was set up by a special act of the Irish parliament in 1729. The rationale for this enactment-and an acknowledgment of how bad the condition of the road was at the time-was spelled out in the preamble, which began as follows:
“Whereas the Highway or Road leading from the City of Dublin through Kilmainham and Rathcoole to the town of Naas and from thence to Kilcullen Bridge in the County of Kildare, by reason of several hollow ways and of the many and heavy Carriages frequently passing through the same, are become so rulnous and bad, that in the winter Season many parts thereof are impassible for Waggons, Carts, Cars and Carriages and very dangerous for travellers and cannot, by the ordinary course appointed by the Laws and Statues of the Realm, be effectually mended and kept in good repair…Wherefore and to the intent that the said Highways or Roads may with convenient Speed be effectually mended and hereafter kept in good and sufficient Repair so that all persons may travel through the same with safety….it shall be in the power of the Lord Archbishop of Dublin (and Trustees) shall and may erect or cause to be erected one or more Gate or Gates, Turnpike or Turn Pikes in upon or across any Part or Parts of the said High ways or Roads and also a Toll House or Toll Houses and there shall receive and take the Tolls and Duties…”
This early experiment in road-tolling (despite being put forward as a temporary measure until the road could be upgraded) was to continue for well over 100 years, until the advent of the railways in the 1840s provided a faster and cheaper alternative transport system and the tolls were eventually-and reluctantly-lifted.
       Prompted by the (re)discovery of a previously forgotten milestone at Johnstown, and spurred on by the impending N7 roadworks, a group of us examined the road from Dublin to Kilcullen over a number of weekends to see how many old milestones still survived along the route. We established that seven such stones are still extant or can be accounted for. Virtually none of these are visible along the present road but can be found either along the line of the old (bypassed) road, in laybys or buried in heavy undergrowth. In one case the stone has been moved many miles from its original location. If one assumes that there was, in fact, a stone every mile along the 21-(Irish)-mile route of the original turnpike, then the rate of attrition for such stones can be clearly seen.
   The seven stones concerned are illustrated here, and those that are still (more or less) in their original location are plotted on the relevant section of Taylor and Skinner’s Maps of the roads of Ireland (1777). Since all of them carry the old “Irish” mileage we can, I think, assign them all to the pre-1826 period. This would seem to be borne out by a Travellers New Guide through Ireland, published in 1819, which describes what can be seen at each of the listed milestones “On the great southern Mail-coach road” through Kildare.
   If the stones concerned do, in fact, date from this early period, this would make them quite rare, and, accordingly, valuable from a historical point of view. Indeed, with the shift to metric road measurement from last year, one can truthfully say of milestones that “they are not making them any more.”
     I would therefore like to avail of this opportunity and use the pages of this prestigious publication, to appeal to all those involved (particularly engineers and, yes, archaeologists) to keep a careful lookout for buried or overlooked old milestones during the course of their week in relation to the ongoing road-building and road-widening programmes across the country.
My thanks to Mr. Liam Kenny, Director of the Association of County and City Councils, who first drew my attention to the existence of the “Johnstown” stone and who shared the subsequent hunt for other surviving stones. Thanks also to Mr. Pat Byrne and his son John for helping in the hunt and for the photos and drawing that accompany this article.
Archaeology Ireland Autumn 2006


In this really interesting article Brian McCabe draws attention to an increasingly vulnerable piece of road furniture - the milestone...our thanks to Brian

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