Majella Reid visits some of County Longford’s heritage attractions, including the site of one of Europe’s finest Iron Age trackways and the Knights & Conquests Heritage Centre, which is dedicated to the legacy of the Normans.
Corlea Trackway Visitor Centre
White bog cotton blew gently in the summer breeze, as I cast my eye around the roaming peatlands. Small lakes, formed from the cutting of peat, dotted my view as purple heathers, green mosses and tall sturdy bull reeds all proudly lay claim to the landscape.
I was in the townland of Corlea, some three kilometres from the village of Keenagh in County Longford, and I was here to visit the Corlea Trackway Visitor Centre, home to one of Europe’s finest Iron Age trackways.
The centre holds a preserved ‘togher’ or section of this ancient timber trackway. The togher is approximately 18 metres in length and is encased within the building, while the submerged trackway in the peatlands beyond the centre, extends a further 1km.
Discovered by Bord na Móna employees, the Corlea trackway was excavated from 1984 by the late Professor Barry Raftery of U.C.D. and is the largest of its type in Europe. It stretches from a north west to south east direction, from dry land in the east to an island of dry land in the bog to the west.
It is believed that all the timbers (mostly oak, but some silver birch and ash) were felled, split and cut to four metre lengths, which were laid side by side to form the trackway. It is believed from dating by Queens University Belfast that work started on the trackway in 147BC and continued through 148BC.
According to the Corlea Trackway Visitor’s Guide, “During the second century BC there are indications that significant tribal developments and re-organisation were taking place in Ireland… The building of the Corlea trackway was another prestigious construction of the period.”
The guide goes on to say that, unlike the earlier tracks, its significance clearly transcends the simple needs of the local farming communities and begs the question, why was it built?
“Over the decades since the excavation, many have wondered this,” says Mary Forbes, tour guide at Corlea Trackway Visitor Centre. “An obvious answer is to transport goods and animals over the boglands. However, when the archaeologists inspected the timbers more closely, they discovered that there were no markings on the trackway. This has left many puzzled.”
One theory that has developed is that the trackway was built as part of a link between the sacred Celtic sites of Cruachain (where aénaige or great seasonal assemblies took place – located in County Roscommon) and Uisneach (a large ceremonial site that has been shortlisted for nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage Site – located in County Westmeath).
Therefore it is believed the Corlea trackway had a ritual purpose. The fact that the majority of timbers are from the oak tree, which was believed to be a sacred tree by Celts, adds to this belief. But it is all conjecture.
Many also believe that the trackway is referenced in the ancient mythology of Midir & Étain. This story is much celebrated in County Longford and it tells the tale of Midir’s quest to find his true love, Étain.
“He has four tasks to perform for the High King of Ireland. One of these is to build a road. In the story the King’s spy reports back that all the men in the world were building the road,” said Mary.
Another dip into folklore reveals that many locals in Corlea and surrounding hinterland knew that a great trackway lay submerged beneath the boggy soils. They called it the ‘Danes’ Road’, named after a local place. It should also be noted that there is another trackway located nearby at Derraghan More.
The Corlea Trackway Visitor Centre is built on the exact axis of the trackway in the bog. There is an audio-visual presentation on the excavation and preservation of the timbers of the Corlea trackway, as well as interpretative panels and artifacts.