Statistical Survey of the County of Clare, 1808

By Hely Dutton

Chapter V - Section 7

State of roads, bridges &c. &c

THIS is a subject, on which I dare scarcely trust my pen; I had frequently heard, before I came into the county, that many abuses existed in the management of roads, and that, as in every other public work, jobbing was practised, but I considered such information as somewhat exaggerated; but, since I have been an eye-witness to the numberless abuses, that present themselves in every part of the county, I do not hesitate to declare, that the most barefaced and infamous system of road-jobbing prevails in every barony. What are we to think, when it is well known, that three presentments have been obtained for the same number of perches of road, but in different perjured names: that it is a common and well known agreement between landlord and tenant, that a higher rent shall he paid for a farm on account of using influence to obtain presentments at an exorbitant rate for the tenant: that roads are frequently made, where they are entirely useless, merely to throw money into the pocket of some poor relation, favourite, or person, to whom debts were due? It will scarcely be credited, but not the less true, that a grand juror asked, and was actually paid 30l. for using his influence in procuring a presentment. A friend of mine was present, when a poor tenant offered a very high rent for a small farm, "because he knew his honour would get him a bit of a presentment every year," and his honour* promised to do so. 

In accounting for presentments the most barefaced perjury is well known to be used; new roads, that have a small quantity of earth or bog thrown up from the ditch on either side and covered with an inch or two of clay, which they have the assurance to call gravel or sand, are always sworn to be faithfully and honestly executed. Frequently an affidavit is made, that a road is made with small stones and gravel; the small stones are as large as a man’s head and the gravel is a whitish clay; they swear, that a sufficient passage is left for the water on each side of the road, yet frequently it is covered with it and impassable. The most shocking perjuries are used in the affidavit to obtain the presentment; two credible persons swear, that a certain sum per perch is the least it can be effectually executed for, whilst they well know, that half the money would be more than sufficient. I have scarcely seen any road, that could not be repaired and effectually gravelled for 4s. 4d. per perch, fourteen feet wide, and allowing the gravel pit to be half a mile from the road; yet many receive for the most ill-contrived roads covered with clay, thrown out of the gripe on each side, upwards of 5s. 5d. per perch, and sworn to. It is a well-known fact, that affidavits for presentments are often signed by magistrates without having been sworn, and some gentlemen would reckon themselves ill-used, if they were asked to swear, and probably a message might be the consequence.**  

A few days before the assizes in August 1806, I saw a road mending with six or eight inches of absolute clay, laid on at once, in which my horse sunk almost to his knees, yet the overseer swore it was repaired with gravel or small stones, and the tender-hearted conservator repeated the same. I have seen in the barony of Inchiquin a mountain road, that was sworn to be made with gravel or small stones &c., and for which the contractor, a gentleman, received 5s. 5d. per perch; my readers (of any other county) will be astonished, when I informed them, that this road was contracted for by him with his tenants at 1s. 6d. per perch, and the remainder pocketed by this conscientious gentleman; the trench on either side of this road consisting of bog was thrown on the centre, and over this a thin covering of soft slate dug up on either side under the bog, and through which I could not pass in summer, nor was the part, that was finished, of the smallest use, except to his own tenants for drawing home their turf, as but a small portion of the intended line was executed. Very frequently a new road is made at both ends, and remains unfinished in the middle for many years, though sworn to be passable from one town to another, and the money pocketed.

An act of parliament of the present reign gives a power to grand juries to appoint a conservator to each barony or half barony, with a salary of 50l. per annum. It may be necessary to state the duties of the office to shew, that it is impossible any grand jury, consistently with their oath or honesty, could retain them a moment, when it can be proved by ocular demonstration, that they have neglected every part of their duty; I regret to have to state this very culpable neglect, not to say worse of grand juries.

The act states, that his salary shall not be paid until he shall have laid, upon oath before the grand jury, in a book to be kept for that purpose, a full and exact account of his proceedings, stating when and how often he inspected each road within his district; what nuisances, encroachments, or breaches of the act he observed; what remedies he took to remove or punish for the same; what magistates he applied to; what warrants he received, and what fines he levied; and whether any and what nuisances, ditches, walls, or houses have been made or built, or pits dug on any road or nearer to the centre than this act permits; and in general a true and perfect state of the roads, bridges, and all other works and matters, theron erected, &c. &c. &c. Now how is this explicit and solemn promise on oath fulfilled? In the first place, no such book is kept by the conservator; if there were, the leaves would be unsullied, nor are any questions asked by the grand jury; as to nuisances, encroachments on the roads are permitted by both magistrates and conservators; and whilst Meath and other counties are paying large sums annually to fill in ditches, our conservatives permit new ones to be made, sometimes ten feet broad, and as many deep on each side of the road. At the village of Mylaan, in the parish of Cloney, to the southward of O’Brien’s castle, the road is cut away on each side so much, that scarcely six feet of it remain. Large stones rolling about the road are overlooked; turf-stacks and dunghills are permitted to be made close to the road; bridges and gullets are suffered to remain with dangerous holes for many months; no magistrate is ever applied to; no warrants or fines are ever looked for or levied; yet will it be credited, that at every assizes the conservator does, or ought to swear, that he does his duty, and, unless neglected by the contractor, swears that every presentment is honestly executed? Is there no spark of honour or even pride in the gentlemen of this county, that permit this stain on their character? I cannot therefore hesitate to declare, that I reckon conservators as the greatest nuisance in the county. There may be some exceptions to this character, I hope there are; but I confess I have not been fortunate enough to perceive any.

The experiment has been tried in the county of Galway, and they were found so much worse than useless, that they have been laid aside. It will be seen by their oath that, if they made an honest use of their power, they would be a blessing to the county, and their salary would be totally inadequate to the arduous duties of their office; but, were the present set to receive any addition, it would not make them in the least more attentive. Men of a rank in life much above the present men, and totally unconnected with the county, must be appointed, before any beneficial purpose can be effected. To make this useful, (at the same time it would be a great saving to the county,) 200l. per annum would be but a moderate allowance for each barony. The conservator, should be perfectly well acquainted with the use of a spirit level, and the most approved method of laying out and making roads, and rendered totally independent of the grand jury in laying out new lines of roads. The act of parliament, which enacts that every road shall be finished two days previous to the assizes, is very ill-judged; each road should be finished at least one month before the assizes, by which means the conservator, if inclined to do his duty, would have time to inspect every road, and the gentlemen of the neighbourhood, when they grow ashamed of jobbing, could speak as to the manner, in which it is performed, as the road by that time would expose any defects in the execution; but at present, as so many roads are only finished two days before the assizes, the conservator must have wings to enable him to inspect them all, as some baronies are upwards of twenty miles long and ten broad, yet he swears boldly to the just expenditure of the money for each road. Conservators cannot be contractors for roads, yet it is well known they all are, but in other names.

Contractors for roads are great losers by employing cars instead of wheelbarrows, where the distance is short; and as the greater part of the roads of this county are made of the clay (impudently called gravel or sand) thrown out on each side of the road, wheelbarrows would be cheaper than cars. High hedges are permitted in many places to spoil the road; near O’Brien’s castle, and near Fountain, there is scarcely room left for a carriage to pass.

Part of the road between Kilnorney church and Tomgraney is paved with large stones, not unlike the vile roads of the county of Wexford.

Some roads near Tullagh are repaired with spar from a lead mine, which makes an excellent material.

The road between Bunratty and Ralehine, the hill road, is particularly badly made with very large stones, sharp as broken glass bottles, without any covering, of even clay—a most shameful job! Large sums have been expended, indeed thrown away, on lowering hills in various places; half the money, that has been laid out for this childish whim at Fountain, which still remains a difficult, steep, dirty, bad road, would have carried it on a level; but alas! it would have run through Mr. Daxon’s ground: some of the wags of Ennis, with whom it abounds, call this Annuity hill, as for many years back money has been granted for lowering it. 

At an assizes at Ennis, the payment of a conservator’s salary has been stopped by the judge; yet at the next assizes it was smuggled in, and granted by a judge ignorant of the former act of justice.

Disagreeable as it may sound in the ears of country gentlemen, I am perfectly convinced, (and do not the foregoing facts corroborate it?) that they are in general the most improper persons to ascertain the lines of new roads, that would be most proper for the public benefit; self is always so much consulted, that every influence is used to obtain the road in the line most convenient to them, totally regardless of the general benefit. I have seen too many instances of this meanness to be mistaken. New roads are almost always laid out by those totally ignorant of the subject. I cannot conceive, how it is possible any person can mark out a road of several miles, where he has to carry it on a level, and round distant hills, without the assistance of a spirit level; yet roads are attempted to be made by those, who, so far from knowing the use of one, do not know its name. I shall relate a conversation I overheard, to shew how these things are usually conducted: the road was intended to be brought on a level for several miles, to prevent the necessity of ascending hills and dipping into deep vallies; the person, whose name was inserted in the presentment, employed another to superintend the work, and who was to receive all the profits.

Q. Paddy did you mark out, where the new road is to run? A. Oh yes Sir, but Biddy Mullowney says she will cleave my skull, if I bring it through her ground; so I turned it up against the hill. Q. Well there is no help for it, it’s no great matter, but where do you go after that? A. To yonder hill, but I don’t know; which side is best. (This hill was half a mile off, and through ground so exceedingly undulating, that it would have puzzled even the experienced eye of Major Taylor.) Q. Well you can mark, which side you think there will be the least cutting on, and go on with the rest until I see you next week. —Thus was this road to be laid out, without even sights, by an ignorant labourer, liable to be influenced either by threats or bribes. In my Observations of the County of Dublin Survey, page 138, I have expressed my thoughts on this subject in the following words: "When a better system of road-making is established, the enormous waste of the public money, that has taken place, will be truly astonishing; and I am convinced, until a National Board of roads is established we never can expect matters to mend; for then the grand cause, grand jury jobbing, will cease, and the conduct be thrown into the hands of scientific and practical road-makers."***   

Every thing I have witnessed in this county has tended to confirm me in this opinion still more strongly.

A few public-spirited and honest grand jurors have attempted to stem this torrent of peculation, but the consequence has been, that they have been threatened with an opposition to every thing they proposed, and the disgraceful expedient was resorted to, of polling every thing they asked for. One gentleman returned the over plus of a presentment; he was laughed at by his brother jurors; such is the morality of the county of Clare!


Are in general in tolerable repair. Some of those on the rivers, that run into the Shannon and Fergus, are not built sufficiently high to admit flood-water at spring tides, and are usually made too near the Shannon. Pipes or gullets are usually very badly made, and highly dangerous, many remaining half open, unnoticed by conservators, and daily passed over by magistrates with unconcern, though they have a power of levying any sum under forty shillings for any sudden failure. I have seen many, that would not have required five shillings to repair if taken in time; but then, if this was done, there would not be a presentment got at the next assizes, of course a job would be lost.

A bridge near the old church of Dysart is in a ruinous way. A new bridge a few perches to the southward of the last bridge is very badly built; it should be re-presented, and the contractor fined. Thomas Studdert, Esq. of Bunratty castle, has built at his own expence a very handsome bridge of one arch over the river Ougarnee; it cost 2000l.; the toll is 6d. for a carriage, and 1d. for a horse. Mr. D’Esterre has also formerly built a bridge higher up the river at his own expence, for which he receives a small toll. The enlargement of the bridge of Carrickvicburne, near Tully O’Dea, has been a most shameful job. There are three arches and two pipes, which altogether leave a water-way of about twenty-eight feet, (and little enough for the water of Lough Tedane, to which it is the outlet;) but this, by a most shameful neglect of the magistrates, has been contracted to ten feet by two miserable eel-weirs. The presentment set forth, that on widening the bridge these eel-weirs should be removed, and a bed of rock, that runs across the river, and helped to keep back flood-water on the lough, should be used in building the bridge: but how has this been complied with? The bed of rocks remains untouched, though very fine building stone; and, so far from the eel-weirs having been removed, the small stones and rubbish of the building have been thrown into the eel-weirs and the water kept higher in the lough than it was ever remembered before, and the adjacent meadows, and turf-bog completely inundated; yet the contractor swore to the just expenditure, and was paid, instead of which an indictment should have been preferred against him.

* There is no part of Ireland, where this poor word is more prostituted.

** If the judges of assize would insist in all overseers and others concerned in public works taking their oath in open court, it would be a means of preventing many horrid perjuries; for it is a disgraceful fact, that many gentlemen would give their honour in a lie that would shrink from an oath.

*** I would not have given this extract, but that the book I allude to is in the hands of very few; and county of Clare gentlemen are not much in the habit of reading.

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