Ireland’s time-space revolution: improvements to pre-Famine travel

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2007), The Famine, Volume 15

A Bianconi coach (‘Bian'). From 1815 until the 1850s Charles Bianconi revolutionised public transport with his regular scheduled car service. (National Gallery of Ireland)

A Bianconi coach (‘Bian’). From 1815 until the 1850s Charles Bianconi revolutionised public transport with his regular scheduled car service. (National Gallery of Ireland)

From about 1730 Ireland experienced a series of communications developments that pro-foundly altered the opportunities to move around the island. Road, canal and, later, rail initiatives meant that by about 1860 a communications revolution had occurred. A wide-ranging ‘time–space compression’, as it is termed by some geographers, radically reduced the time, and to some extent the cost, of travel. The progress of these far-reaching changes is recorded at the time mainly through a host of small entries in contemporary newspapers and in the directories that began to be issued in the 1730s and appeared regularly from the 1750s.
Turnpike roads
The earliest initiative came with the building of the turnpike roads—Ireland’s first system of planned long-distance routes. The first Turnpike Act, providing for tolls to be levied on traffic along the route, was passed in 1729 and related to the roads from Dublin to Navan and to Naas and on to Kilcullen. Over the next decade, further turnpike acts provided for the extension of these routes and for further radial routes from Dublin. Other early acts dealt with the routes out of Belfast, and between Cork and Mallow, and Limerick and Ennis.
During the rest of the century, a network of tolled turnpike roads developed across much of midland and southern Ireland and along the eastern corridor north from Dublin to Belfast and Coleraine. Many of the turnpike road developments involved the building of new sections of higher-quality road—developments that are also distinguished by their long, straight stretches. The legacy of the early turnpikes is still evident along some major routes, for example from Kilcullen to Athy, and from Kinnegad to Mullingar.
From the start, the new turnpike roads made an impact that was soon readily appreciated by property-owners. A 1746 advertisement (Dublin Journal, 15–18 March) that gives extensive detail on a large house and garden at Monasterevan, Co. Kildare, included the comment, ‘Note, it is all turnpike road to Monasterevan’, and added: ‘The said house is fit for a gentleman, a tavern or inn, the turnpike being now to run directly through the town of Monasterevan’. Modern readers can surely find a resonance in this language of 260 years ago. If ‘motorway’ were substituted for ‘turnpike’, this might almost be a contemporary estate agent’s hyperbole.

New coach services

Directories and newspapers describe the transformation that came with the turnpikes. Long-distance hire services and dedicated route coaches are advertised from the late 1730s. A 1746 directory has an entry for Pat Jones’s landau, which ‘sets up at York-minster in Capel-street [Dublin]. Goes to all parts of Ireland, especially the North’. Two years later, at Hugh McCartan, the Boot Inn, Bolton Street, Dublin, there was available ‘a four-wheeled chaise with two horses, may be hired to run to any part of the kingdom on turnpike road’.
More regular services were also developing. Twice-weekly stagecoach services from Dublin to Drogheda, Kinnegad and Kilkenny were being advertised in 1737. It cost 5s.5d. to Drogheda and Kinnegad, 12s. to Kilkenny, and—a forerunner of modern airlines—there seems to have been a 20lb weight limit on what could be carried. In the early 1740s, the Drogheda ‘stage-chair’ (later described as ‘stage-landau’) offered a twice-, then thrice-, weekly service that ‘goes and comes constantly, passenger or no passenger’. A once-weekly service to Athlone operated from 1738, becoming twice-weekly about 1750. The Kinnegad service extended to Mullingar in 1747; by the early 1750s this service was running four times weekly.
All these services departed from Dublin inns: the Kinnegad coach set up at the Raven, Smithfield, while that for Kilkenny started at the Coach and Horses—‘next gate to the Three Gloves Lane’—and later from the Robin Hood, Dame Street. The coach for Athlone left from John Vaughan in New Church Street, ‘facing Tom of Lincoln’. Significantly, and perhaps ominously, departure times from Dublin were advertised, but in the early years there is no mention of an estimated arrival time. You arrived when you did, and you were never late because there was no schedule—surely something that might appeal to some modern carriers.

Forerunner of the M4, as depicted on Alexander Taylor's map of County Kildare in 1783. Traffic on the road west from Dublin passed through the ruined Maynooth Castle. Note the sign for a small tavern beside the castle gate.

Forerunner of the M4, as depicted on Alexander Taylor’s map of County Kildare in 1783. Traffic on the road west from Dublin passed through the ruined Maynooth Castle. Note the sign for a small tavern beside the castle gate.

The first coaches to Belfast ran in the 1740s. The departure inn varied: the Boot in Bolton Street, the King and Queen in King Street, the Unicorn in Capel Street. In 1741 the journey to Belfast cost four English crowns from Dublin and took three days, stopping at Drogheda on the first night and at Newry on the second. A year or two later, it was specified that the coach would always run with six able horses. Based on a 5am start, the journey could be done in two days in summer, three in winter. Twenty years later, the ‘Newry Flying Coach’ was still taking one and a half days in winter, but just about managing Newry in a day in summer.
Across Ireland all long-distance journeys involved overnight breaks. For Dublin to Cavan in the 1750s the overnight stop was at Kells. It was the same 30 years later. For Dublin to Kilkenny, a day and a half was still needed in winter during the 1770s. An alternative route to Kilkenny was by Athy and Castlecomer. For Dublin to Limerick, even in the 1790s when regular mail coach services began to operate, an overnight stop was required at either Maryborough or Mountrath.
What these and other examples suggest is that, in the 1730s and ’40s, coaches could rarely make more than 30 or 40 miles in a day; even in the 1760s and 1770s, when the turnpike roads were well established, journeys of about 60 miles in a day were good going. On the Great Connaught Road, Kinnegad represented a day’s journey in the 1730s, and a decade later Mullingar could be reached in a day. But even in the 1780s a winter journey to Longford required an overnight break at Mullingar.
New service stations
With the growth of coaches came a parallel growth in communications-related services. Travellers had to have somewhere to eat and rest, and, just as importantly, horses had to be refreshed and changed. The response to these requirements is seen in the growth of the inn system. Inns were already established along some of the main routes in the second half of the seventeenth century, but the turnpike roads gave them a new impetus. Just how significant that was is illustrated by the run of advertisements for new and refurbished inns that appear at frequent intervals in newspapers from the mid-1730s.

Early turnpike routes and inns advertised in Dublin newspapers, 1730–60.

Early turnpike routes and inns advertised in Dublin newspapers, 1730–60.

Inns developed early along all the main roads out of Dublin. Those on the Dublin to Kilkenny road, which were advertised between 1735 and 1750, either for letting or on account of their custom, included the Angel Inn at Kill, the Great Inn of Naas, the Red Lion and Black Lyon at Kilcullen Bridge, the George at Timolin, the George at Castledermot, the Great Inn at Carlow, ‘commonly known by the lower Bear’ (but in 1745 patriotically, or perhaps prudently, renamed the ‘Sign of the George’ by its new landlord [Dublin Journal, 15–18 June 1745]), and a new inn at Leighlinbridge ‘at which the Kilkenny stage sets up’. Further afield, an inn is recorded at Ninemilehouse in south Tipperary in 1746. Two years earlier, a house in Mountrath ‘in which the earl of Mountrath formerly lived’ was being advertised as ‘very fit for an inn’ (Dublin Journal, 6–10 March 1743–4).
A 1757 advertisement for a coach service from Dublin to Kilkenny via the new Athy to Castlecomer turnpike road gives extensive detail on the organisation of the new service. Following a 6am start on the outward journey, breakfast was at Rathcoole, mid-day dinner was at Kilcullen, and the overnight stop was at Athy. The following day breakfast was at Castlecomer, with the coach arriving in time to dine in Kilkenny. The road by Kilkenny was then the main route from Dublin to south Munster, hence the comment that ‘it is not doubted that the Munster gentlemen will, for their own conveniency, make use of this road’.
Horses, as much as travellers, needed rest and forage. On long journeys, a smooth passage was facilitated by providing fresh horses, usually at intervals of around ten to fifteen miles. When a twice-weekly stagecoach to Eyre Court in east Galway was advertised in 1774, it was noted that five sets of horses would be needed, part of the explanation for the high charge of 30 shillings (English) per passenger. Some twenty years later, the Armagh ‘fly coach’, a fast lightweight vehicle, promised to make the 70-mile journey in one day with the aid of six sets of horses.


The role of inns as staging posts for both men and horses clearly had a bearing on their spacing. Along the Great Connaught Road, inns can be identified at five to ten mile intervals. They included those at Leixlip, Maynooth, Kilcock, Enfield, Clonard and Kinnegad. Over time, however, inns in different places dominated. In the early years there were short intervals between changing stages. In the 1750s the new Kings Arms in Leixlip could offer a good first stage. Later, as coaches improved (steel springs were being advertised as state-of-the-art in the 1770s), intervals lengthened and Maynooth could become an alternative first stage. Beyond Kilcock, there was no obvious candidate for a second or, certainly in earlier years, third stage. The need for an inn between Kilcock and Clonard/ Kinnegad was the opportunity for the emergence of Innfield—now Enfield—as a vital staging post on a hitherto rather village-poor section of road.

‘. . . all Kinds of Entertainment for Man and Horse . . .'-the new Dublin–Kilkenny coach service advertised in 1757.

‘. . . all Kinds of Entertainment for Man and Horse . . .’-the new Dublin–Kilkenny coach service advertised in 1757.

The minor drama of the competition between different inns is played out from the 1750s and is surely an issue that deserves further research. Another such issue is the economic impact of individual inns. Inns were of major importance in village economies, yet they appear to have received very limited academic attention. To appreciate the significance of the local inn, we have only to contemplate some of the contemporary newspaper advertise-ments. A good example is that for the Leinster Arms, the new inn opened at Maynooth in 1777 (Dublin Journal, 29 Nov.–2 Dec., also 27 Feb.–1 March). Richard Vousden, the proprietor, promised the public ‘good four post beds and bedding, constantly well aired’, as well as the best wines and ‘the best meats the markets can afford’. But he also gave prominence to the location of his inn and its wider context on the road west:

‘He has got stables at the New Inn, where he means constantly to keep chaises and horses, which will enable him to drive that long stage between Maynooth and Kinnegad with more expedition, without advancing the expense to the travellers. He hopes the impartial public will consider he was the first that set up chaises on that road. Post chaises, as usual, in Maynooth, and also at the New Inn, which is mid-way between Maynooth and Kinnegad. Post chaise and pair at thirteen pence a mile, four horses at nineteen pence halfpenny. Gentlemen may be accommodated with horses to their own carriages at the above price.’

The ‘New Inn’ referred to here was at what was then ‘Nineteen-mile-house’, now Enfield.
As traffic increased, so did the size of inns. In the 1750s, a house in Monasterevan built for an inn was advertised as having stables for 30 horses, while the Great Inn in Mountrath had stabling for 50 horses in 1758. The Great Inn at Newbridge and a new inn at Kilcock respectively offered stabling for 60 and 40 horses in the 1760s and 1770s. But in 1797 the inn at Maynooth is recorded as having stabling for ‘above one hundred horses’. Just how frequently it operated at capacity is unknown, but this certainly seems large. A large number of hands must have been needed to provide bedding and storage, not to mention less regularly needed services such as those of the blacksmith or wheelwright.

The rail bridge across the Boyne at Drogheda (as it looked before 1932), opened in 1855, completed the rail link between Dublin and Belfast.

The rail bridge across the Boyne at Drogheda (as it looked before 1932), opened in 1855, completed the rail link between Dublin and Belfast.


For a brief period about 1790, the stagecoach services were threatened by the prospect of the canals as rivals. The Grand Canal from Dublin had been expanding for some 30 years and had now reached as far as Monasterevan, Co. Kildare. It was to continue through the midlands, reaching the Shannon about 1804. The canal offered a more comfortable journey, but it was a fixed route and maximum speeds were around seven miles an hour. Nonetheless, for a couple of decades, canals, particularly those that might open up coalfields, were seen as potentially attractive development prospects. In 1789 for a brief period a coach operator offered a Dublin–Kilkenny journey that involved travel by canal to Monasterevan and the rest of the way by coach.
But this journey was slow and required an overnight stop. Across most of Ireland the challenge from inland navigation either did not materialise or else was soon seen off by faster, and sometimes more frequent, coaches. New mail coach services were inaugurated in 1789, and were to run along a developing system of post-roads from 1805. By then, too, other routes had developed, and the coaches could carry more passengers. A major provincial initiative came in 1815 with the launch of the famous ‘bians’, the long car services promoted by Charles Bianconi. From a base at Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, they extended across much of southern and western Ireland.
Coach services (not all of them involving the mail) listed in early nineteenth-century directories radiate from Dublin across Ireland. With these developments a more extensive part of Ireland began to come within 24 hours of Dublin, although even then such a time was only possible with coaches running through the night. In 1805 Mullingar was reachable by mail coach in nine hours, and Boyle in 24, but it took 28 hours to reach Sligo. In 1811 some journeys to Cork still required an overnight stop at Kilkenny in summer and at Carlow and Clonmel in winter. A new fast option, however, offered a probably highly uncomfortable journey via the new Cashel road in just 26 hours. Journey times had consolidated further by 1820. By then Belfast was attainable by light day coach in a time of fourteen hours. For goods traffic, however, the time was much slower: a journey of 40 hours and a fare of 17s. 4d. were required.
With better coach services and progressively shorter travel times, traffic increased and new opportunities emerged. In the process, ‘activity spaces’ widened. The famous Irish diarist Humphrey O’Sullivan, writer of Cinn Lae Amhlaoidh in the 1820s, thought little of taking the coach from Dublin to Kilkenny and walking through the moonlight over the hill to his home in Callan. Such a journey would have been much slower and would have required much more planning 100 years earlier. Further time improvements had taken place by the early 1830s. By 1834 the mail coach from Dublin was making Belfast in twelve hours, Derry in eighteen hours, and Enniskillen and Sligo in thirteen and sixteen hours respectively. The journey to Galway also took sixteen hours, Limerick fourteen, Cork twenty, and Waterford twelve. All the main centres could now be reached in well under 24 hours.


But even greater, and much more far-reaching, journey-time changes were to come with the advent of the railway. The first railway in Ireland was built in 1834. By the mid-1850s some of the main long-distance routes were at or near completion. Belfast and Galway were now just five and a half hours from Dublin. Cork was just seven hours away. Where 100 years earlier it had taken a full day to reach Mullingar from Dublin, now the journey was just two hours, less than an hour longer than it is at present on a good day. Sligo, however, with no train yet, was still over twelve hours from Dublin. Wexford, in a similar situation, was eleven hours distant by mail coach.
With the spread of the railway came a new Ireland, and the rapid demise of the great coaching services and the associated great coaching inns. For some places the end of the coaching era had a devastating impact. One such village was Kilcock, Co. Kildare, whose economic vitality was dealt a body blow. Its changed circumstances are pithily summarised in a valuation book record made in March 1850:

‘The town of Kilcock, some years ago was a place of considerable importance and business, now it has gone down completely especially since the opening of the Midland Great Western Railway. There is very little business now doing in it and those persons who used to keep inns and places of entertainment for travellers are almost beggared. The rent value of houses is scarcely more than 3/5 of what it was a few years ago.’

Estimated journey times, mid-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century.

Estimated journey times, mid-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century.

This was a story to be repeated across Ireland. At Leixlip, for example, James Hartley, the coach operator, had recently spent a large sum rebuilding the stable yard. Now (c. 1850) he found himself paying out £100 to have his concern taken off his hands. Although the famous bians continued into the 1860s, long-distance coaching was by then rapidly imploding.


The implications of the great ‘time–space compression’ of pre-Famine and immediate post-Famine Ireland have yet to be properly evaluated. As early as 1798, however, the government and insurgents appreciated the potential significance of the new mail coach services: for the former, they were a tenuous lifeline between a beleaguered capital and a fragmented hinterland; for the latter, their disruption was a key objective that might also be used to signal the successful initiation of the rising. Not surprisingly, the government gave high priority to improving internal and external communications in the aftermath of 1798. With these developments came a range of other changes, some of them psychological and social. As Daniel O’Connell was quick to perceive, opportunities for national identity took on a new reality.
What is certain is that by the 1850s time–space relationships in Ireland had been transformed. A new joined-up Ireland was emerging. One of the great ‘what ifs’ of Irish history must be what might have been the scenario if that joining up had been completed fifteen or twenty years earlier. In 1846–7 it was still only possible to travel by train about 50 miles from Dublin. Except for the area around Belfast, most other journeys were still slow and difficult. At least in travel terms, two contrasting Irelands existed: a connected and an unconnected. It is salutary to speculate what might have been the outcome if a more joined-up Ireland had existed at the time of the Great Famine. No doubt there would have been little immediate impact on the vast structural problems in Ireland’s economy and society. But with greater ease of movement, less friction of distance, the greatest humanitarian disaster to happen in Ireland might have been treated with more sympathy, and certainly more alacrity. At the very least, if a joined-up communications system had been in place, it might have been very difficult to plead ignorance of what was happening.

Arnold Horner lectures in geography at University College Dublin.

Further reading:
J. H. Andrews, ‘Road planning in Ireland before the Railway Age’, Irish Geography 5 (1) (1964).
D. Broderick, The first toll roads: Ireland’s turnpike roads, 1729–1858 (Cork, 2002).
L. M. Cullen, Life in Ireland (London, 1968).
K. B. Nowlan (ed.), Travel and transport in Ireland (Dublin).


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