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|The Esker Riada is a natural
system of mounds consisting of gravel and rocks which are believed to have been deposited
approximately 10,000 years ago, when an ice-age glacier covering western Europe melted as
a result of local climatic warming.
The word "esker" seems to be an Anglicised version of the Celtic word "eiscir" (meaning ridge), and it appears in slightly different forms in several Irish placenames. For example, the village name of Ahascragh (in East Galway) is a corruption of the Celtic words "Áth Eascrach": and the name suggests a place where there is a river crossing in the vicinity of a number of ridges.
To the Celts (or Keltoi as the ancient Greeks called them), the Esker Riada was know as "An Slí Mór": which means "The Great Highway". According to the Greeks, and as alluded to in Homer's epic poem the Odyssey (in Book XI, line 16), written around the 8th century BC, the Celts seem to owe their origins to the much earlier Cimmerian and Scythian peoples: who, in the very dawn of human history, are believed to have inhabited parts of the area now known as the Ukraine (in Russia). These ancient peoples had very elaborate burial customs, and burial places; they were skilled metallurgists it seems; and they apparently did not have (or want) any written language. They also owned large herds of horses, and were probably the very first group of people to master the art of horse riding: which would have given them several huge advantages over all other groups living at that time. Connemara Ponies are believed to be the modern descendants of the horses used by the ancient Celts in Ireland. (The world renowned Cossack cavalry soldiers, who lived mostly in communes in the Ukraine area, are thought to be modern local descendants of the Cimmerian and Scythian peoples.)
Celtic art styles and the high quality of craftsmanship used to implement them, the complete absence of any efficient form of Celtic written language up to the time of St. Patrick (in the 5th century AD), and the Celtic love of horses all tend to favour the belief that the Celts were descended from the Cimmerian and Scythian peoples (who are thought to have eventually merged together as one people many centuries ago). Some might also argue that there are very interesting similarities between Irish step-dancing (as seen in performances such as Riverdance for instance), and Cossack folk dancing. Also, the Russian word "kazak", from which the English word Cossack derives, is a name used for a person who has no fixed home: a wanderer in other words. (View map of the Caucasus Mountains region)
Much of the Esker Riada is flanked by bogland. It runs in an east/west direction across Ireland (sometimes in the form of parallel ridges), and it divides the island into two parts which are roughly equal. For the very earliest people of ancient Ireland, An Slí Mór was the country's most important land based thoroughfare.
Ireland's largest river, the Shannon, provided the earliest settlers in the area with an easy means of travelling north and south; and by coincidence it happened to flow through a gap in the Esker Riada which was right in the centre of the country. Between them, the Esker Riada and the Shannon formed a natural "crossroads" right in the heart of Ireland. In a general sort of way the four main arteries of this intersection led off in the directions north, south, east, and west.
Mythological Celtic sun gods are said to have used the line of the Esker Riada as the arena for their daily battles; and the moment to moment outcome of their power struggles was displayed in terms of light and shade all along the ridge. Some evenings, these occasionally fearsome conflicts would end in a blazing ball of blood-red crimson; and people would watch in amazement as the raging battlefield sank slowly into Galway Bay. By morning time, when it rose again at the opposite end of the Esker Riada, the sun might still be showing signs of the blood-letting which took place the previous day.
Following a battle at Maynooth around the year 123 AD, Ireland was politically divided into two parts (north and south of the Esker Riada) known as "Leath Cuinn", and "Leath Mogha": "Conn's Half" and "Mogha's Half".
Medieval Latin texts refer to this natural mound which transverses Ireland as "Via Magna". Saints, the dispossessed, scholars, beggars, Celtic royalty, wandering poets, and armies (including the infamous Black & Tans who are still remembered by a few in the New Inn area), are amongst the many in Ireland's long and often troubled history who have travelled the Esker Riada.
Around the year 548 AD, St. Ciarán founded the monastic settlement of Clonmacnoise where the river Shannon and the Esker Riada cross each other. Not surprisingly perhaps, this strategically placed monastery quickly became a major European centre of spirituality, learning, trade, craftsmanship, and political influence. At least two Celtic High Kings of Ireland are buried there. After almost 1500 years, Clonmacnoise (which is just 6 miles or so downstream from the town of Athlone) continues to attract large numbers of visitors each year. Though St. Ciarán himself died shortly before his monastery at Clonmacnoise was complete, the group of people he assembled there carried on working: and (in effect) they eventually created what is possibly the world's first and most influential Christian university. For several centuries, including a lengthy period after the Anglo Norman invasion in the 1100's, the area in and around Clonmacnoise was ruled over by the Celtic "Mac Cochláin" family: which has several Anglicised spelling variations including, for example, the surnames Coglan, and Coughlan.
Hundreds of years before Clonmacnoise, many of the pre-Christian travellers on the Esker Riada would have been coming and going to places like Tara, and the Rath of Feerwore (where the Turoe Stone originally stood). Earlier still, they would have used it for trips to Newgrange - which was built around 3,100 BC. Possibly as long as 2,000 years before Newgrange, the people who built the Cairn at Alloon would have also walked or rode their horses along the Esker Riada. The Cairn at Alloon (which is just 5 miles to the north of New Inn village) could be in the region of 7,000 years old - making it one of the very oldest manmade monuments in the world.
The village of New Inn in East Galway seems to have evolved in a way which almost left it sitting right on top of the Esker Riada ridge. Unfortunately, most of the New Inn section of this historic natural monument is now missing.
As a result of work which began in the mid 1950's, a 1.5 mile long section of the Esker Riada which ran through the village of New Inn was removed by Galway County Council for road building materials. Some of the photographs on page 2 provide an indication of what they left behind in its place.
|Letter to President Mary McAleese (December 29th 2000)|