Frank McNally: An Irishman’s Diary on the very longmile road
Ireland’s expandable distance measurements
“On Thursday last – Christmas Day – I finally got around to making a debut appearance at the Goal Mile” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
I’ve been meaning to do it for years, but on Thursday last – Christmas Day – I finally got around to making a debut appearance at the Goal Mile. Dublin’s Phoenix Park was my nearest venue. And as I jogged there with an imaginary friend, Roger Bannister, I was quite psyched.
In fact, by the time we reached the starting line, at the Fifteen Acres, Roger had agreed to pace me through an attempt on the mythical six-minute barrier. Then the lady waving us off broke some bad news. Pointing out the triangular course around the football pitches, she announced cheerfully, “It’s about a mile-and-a-half.”
I should have known that measurements in this part of Dublin would be unreliable. The so-called Fifteen Acres is a notorious case in point. I’m not sure where it begins and ends, officially. But the contiguous open space there must be 400 acres, minimum. I’d like to buy land off the man who thought it was only 15.
In the event, even the “mile-and-a-half” estimate for the course proved an understatement. We had almost done that on the first two legs of the triangle, from where there was still a long back straight. “You go on ahead,” I told Roger, gulping for air. “Don’t wait for me”.
Then I lumbered home after him. When I stopped my GPS watch at the end, it read 2.78 kilometres: one-and-three-quarter miles in the old money.
Still, I was glad I’d done it afterwards. And even aside from the official good cause, I suspect the organisers were performing a public service. We all know that food portions in the western world are getting bigger, especially at Christmas. It’s only right that the Goal mile should keep pace.
There were some suggestions, by the way, that the measurement unit in operation might have been the old Irish Mile, as opposed to the English or “statute” version more commonly used here prior to decimalisation.
Local variantBut prodigious a unit as the Irish mile was, it exceeded the English by only 480 yards, making it just over 2km. So not even that would have explained the Phoenix Park course. Maybe the measurement was a local variant, exclusive to Dublin, like the one on the Longmile Road.
Europe used to have many different miles, in fact, going back to the Roman original, which was based on the concept of 1,000 paces as marked out by advancing armies (and itself a variable unit, depending on how well fed the solders were and how hard they were marched).
One of my favourite obsolete measurements, also a kind of mile, was the Russian “verst” – found everywhere in the works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. To read of someone living, say, “90 versts” from the nearest railway station always evokes that country’s vastness, and its snowy bleakness in winter.
And yet this is probably just onomatopoeia, hinting at the idea of Dostoevsky’s characters going from bad to verst, as they so often do.
In reality, disappointingly, a verst was little more than a kilometre.
The Irish Mile remains a ghostly presence in Ireland, albeit usually now just as synonym for what, elsewhere, is called a “country mile” – an infinitely expandable unit. But as late as the early 20th century, it was still an actual measurement in places.
A 1902 travel guide warned visitors of a dual signage system whereby certain counties – Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Antrim, Down, and Armagh – gave distances in statute miles, while Donegal miles were still exclusively Irish, and most other places had a mixture of the two.
But as a legal measurement, the Irish mile was on its last legs then, and independence didn’t help it. I know this because of a case at Bray District Court in 1937, reported in this paper, wherein a haulier was convicted for operating a lorry at Greystones in contravention of his licence. The licence limited him to a 15-mile radius of Dublin’s GPO, whereas Greystones was just outside that at 16.5.
The defence case, however, was that the legislation didn’t specify which miles were meant. It could even be nautical miles (1.85km each), suggested a solicitor. But in the absence of a definition, and especially given the then-recent enactment of de Valera’s Constitution, it seemed reasonable to presume the Irishness of miles, unless otherwise stated.
Sadly, the court did not agree. A further element of farce had been added to the case by that fact that the defendant’s name was “Judge”. That didn’t help him either. He was fined four guineas.