The Highways and the Byways

I can’t even begin to tell you how bad the Irish roads were back in 1979. For the first few years I visited Ireland, almost every road left a lot to be desired. As with all roads, they originated from cart tracks which were gradually covered with a more durable material than the horse and cart required. However, it appeared that not much attention was paid to the cart ruts and the boulders which the carts had veered around. Gravel, shale, tarmac or whatever other material was available was just thrown on and rolled in. Consequently they were not very flat and took a heavy toll on the motor car suspension. There was no need to impose a speed restriction, come to think of it, much the same as in England these days. You just used common sense if your trip was to last the full duration without mishap.
In the late 1970′s and early 1980′s however, money became available for the poorer countries within the EEC to improve their transport infrastructure. Ireland took full advantage of this facility and it became common, especially in the provincial areas, to encounter a partly laid “new road” winding its way through a maze of dozens of yellow and black oil drums and piles of fine gravel. The strangest thing though, was never seeing anyone about working, just the gravel, the oil drums and the half-finished road! The Irish didn’t go for fancy traffic cones, the like the plagues you see in England by the million? They just do not know what they’re missing. Oil drums rule okay! Over the years, the roads have improved greatly but the driving has remained the same. Driving fast is part and parcel of Irish life it seems. It’s not all Formula One though, some of the older end of the population have made an art form of driving seriously slow. When I say slow, I mean 15 mph slow. Out of Dublin or “Beyond the Pale*” as it might be said, you tend to come into contact with tractors. Tractors are not designed to go fast, or so it appears, in a straight line. It’s worrying that because direction indicators are not required in a field, nor insurance it seems, as a consequence, in the past at any rate, some farmers just didn’t bother with either. Beware the tractors!
The “new” roads, constructed with EEC money, are not dual carriageways, but wide two lane affairs with a hard shoulder on each side, every so often unexpectedly narrowing down into the width of a country lane sometimes only for a few metres before ballooning out again into a ridiculously wide section you could land a jumbo jet on. The skills required to navigate such roads are thus: – If a vehicle is fast approaching from the rear, pull into the hard shoulder without slowing, therefore allowing the vehicle to pass without it having to cross the white line. See, easy isn’t it, but there is more. Alternatively if there are two vehicles approaching you and one decides to overtake, if the slower car does not pull into the hard shoulder, then it is logical for you to use your hard shoulder to avoid collision. You are not being inconvenienced; you are just being courteous. It is expected that you do this. Sometimes. Not all the time. On Fridays and Saturdays, on the N6 from Athlone to Dublin it was not uncommon, in the rush to get home for the weekend, to encounter three cars all approaching you, one on the hard shoulder, one overtaking it and another one overtaking the two of them. It was time to use your hard shoulder again! If there was someone overtaking you at the time, then it was up to who can hold their nerve longest. If, God forbid, there was a cyclist on the hard shoulder or a tractor happened to pop out from a field at short notice, then the best course of action was to say three Hail Mary’s and touch your fluffy Lucky Leprechaun, a compulsory attachment to your rear view mirror.Having survived this, it was then a good idea to pull over into a field or a lane or a stopping place, so you could catch your breath or if necessary, change your underpants! When your heart rate levelled off to about 100 beats per minute, it was the right time to open the flask, sip your lukewarm coffee with your trembling hand and light up a cigarette even if you didn’t smoke. It was advisable to sit and admire the beautiful green countryside for a while whilst contemplating re-entering the Wacky Races. It was not for the faint hearted. That was then, now is now and motorways have thankfully changed some things for the best.

In the short period of time I have been travelling around Ireland, the volume of traffic has clearly been on the increase. As a consequence the roads have had to improve. The traffic infrastructure indicates only a small amount of rail freight and large volume of road traffic. The roads in many areas even today aren’t up to supporting the 38 tonne vehicles, which rumble along them. It is however the only method of getting supplies through to the smaller communities.

I recall following, at a considerable distance I might add, a high HGV along a lane near Athlone, County Westmeath, which was showering the road with splinters of wood as it crashed through the trees and hedges, oblivious to the carnage it was leaving in its wake. Likewise the milk tankers leaving the creameries of Killeshandra and Ardlougher along the Milltown to Belturbet road, must have lost most of their load before reaching the bottling plants. Most of it ended up on the roads and the cars following. There was one particular hump just as a the winding part of the road straightened out near Staghall Old School on the N87, which seemed to rise up a couple of feet in only a dozen yards before abruptly flattening out again. You kind of landed with a huge bump and invariably your springs bottomed out. There were always puddles of milk on the road nearby. I presume there would have been a sour smell to accompany them, but we never stopped to find out.

* The Pale was an area stretching from Dundalk to Kells and down to the Wicklow mountains. It was England’s late 14th century foothold in Ireland, consisting of territories conquered by England where English settlements were strongest. “The Pale” means a district separated administratively and legally from the surrounding area by defined borders. Anything beyond these boundaries are described as “beyond the pale”. The Russian pales under Tsar Alexander III in the 1890’s were little more than large ghettos where the Jews of the time were largely confined and not allowed to live beyond. The Nazis unfortunately took it one stage further, to their eternal shame, and not strictly confined to their own country either.