A PRELIMINARY BIRD'S-EYE VIEW

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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Composed from the Book of Kells

CHAPTER I.

A PRELIMINARY BIRD'S-EYE VIEW

Letter IRELAND, from the sixth to the twelfth century of the Christian era, presented an interesting spectacle, which, viewed through the medium of history, may be sketched in broad outline as follows.

In those early times the physical aspect of Ireland was very different from what it is at present. All over the country there were vast forests, and great and dangerous marshes, quagmires, and bogs, covered with reeds, moss, and grass. But though bogs existed from the beginning, many districts, where we now find them lying broad and deep, were once forest land: and the bog grew up after the surface had, in some manner, become denuded of trees. Buried down at a depth of many feet in some of our present bogs great tree trunks are often found, the relics of the primeval forest.

But outside forest and bog, there were open plains, valleys, and hillsides, under cultivation and pasturage, and all well populated. The woods and waste places were alive with birds and wild animals of all kinds, and the people were very fond of hunting and fishing; for there was plenty of game, both large and small, and the rivers and lakes teemed with fish. Sometimes they hunted hares and foxes for mere sport. But they had much grander game: wild boars with long and dangerous tusks, deer in great herds, and wolves that lurked in caves and thick woods. There were the same broad lakes, like inland seas, that still remain; but they were generally larger then than they are now; and they were surrounded with miles of reedy morasses: lakes and marshes tenanted everywhere by vast flocks of cranes, wild geese, wild swans, and other fowl. Kites and golden eagles skimmed over the plains, peering down for prey; and the goshawks, or falcons, used in the old game of hawking, were found in great abundance.

A person traversing those parts of the country that were inhabited found no difficulty in getting from place to place; for there were roads and bridlepaths everywhere, rough indeed, and not to be compared with the roads of our day, but good enough for the travel and traffic of the time. If the wayfarer did not choose to walk, there were plenty of ox-waggons; and among the higher classes rough springless chariots, drawn by one or two horses. Horse-riding, though sometimes adopted, was not in those times a very general mode of travelling. What with rough conveyances, and with roads and paths often full of ruts, pools, and mire, a journey, whether by walking, driving, or horse-riding, was a slow, laborious, and disagreeable business, and not always free from danger. Rivers were crossed by means of wooden bridges, or by wading at broad shallow fords, or by little ferry-boats, or, as a last resource, by swimming: for in those days of open-air life everyone could swim. Fords were, however, generally very easy to find, as the roads and paths usually impinged on them, and in many places lights were kept burning beside them at night.

In the inhabited districts the traveller experienced little difficulty on the score of lodging; for there were open houses of hospitality for the reception of strangers, where bed and food were always ready. If one of these happened not to be within reach, he had only to make his way to the nearest monastery, where he was sure of a warm welcome: and, whether in monastery or hostel, he was entertained free of charge. Failing both, there was small chance of his having to sleep out: for hospitality was everywhere enjoined and practised as a virtue, and there was always a welcome from the family of the first private house he turned into.

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