Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Thoughts on the bridge

We take it for granted in Kilcullen today, but the bridge that links the two sides of the town and what was once the main road south from Dublin has a long history, writes Brian Byrne.

Before it was put in place, the 'real' town was what's now Old Kilcullen, the principal houses and street — outside the original monastic settlement — being down along the green area below the tower, a commonage now fenced off to prevent illegal encampments.

It made sense that the town be a little away from the river, and on a height. It was easier to defend a height than a valley, and there were Viking marauders who were very capable of plundering their way a long distance upriver. Indeed, the records show the monastery town being attacked by the same Vikings on at least two occasions in the 900s. We can presume that there was a ford over the river at that time, which would indicate to the raiders that there might be rich pickings within short marching distance. Of course, once they'd get to the top of the valley on the south side, the round tower of Old Kilcullen would be readily visible, and attractive. The raiders are recorded as having taken a thousand prisoners, a reflection of the importance of Old Kilcullen at the time.

By the early 14th century, the level of traffic to and from Dublin to the south was growing. A canon of Kildare Cathedral, Maurice Jakis, undertook to build a stone bridge at Kilcullen. We don't know a great deal about him, except that he is described as a 'master' and he knew stone, so it can be deduced that he had the skills. It seems also that he had funds, because there's a reference to his 'munificence' in providing the bridge. He may have had bishop status, as he is described as a 'prelate' in a Chronicle of 1577 by Hollingshed. Anyhow, he had the job done in 1319, sowing the seeds for the shifting of the Kilcullen's centre of gravity from the hill to the river.

We don't have any further description of that first bridge, though it became important enough to be destroyed by the Irish in the religious war triggered by the Rebellion of 1641 against England's attempts to turn the country Protestant. If we want to imagine what it looked like, Maurice Jakis also built the bridge at Leighlinbridge in Co Carlow, still in use today.

The Kilcullen bridge was gone by 1644 when a detachment of British soldiery is recorded as having had to cross the Liffey by the ford at Athgarvan. There is also a French traveller's description in the same year of having 'dined at Kilcolin Bridge, where ends the English ground'. The group swam over the river 'with much trouble, carrying our clothes upon our heads'.

Sometime in the next decade, a new bridge was built at Kilcullen, and it is mentioned in the Down Survey of 1656. The six-arched edifice with which we are familiar today was described as 'handsome' by the writer WR Chetwood in 1748, and another French visitor remarked on it in 1790. There's a sketch of it (above) from 1795 by Sir William Smith and a description from 1837 as the structure having 'an interesting and venerable appearance'.

And a little gem in Bardons Pub is a print from an original engraving of the bridge by J Greig, with people fishing and washing clothes, from the perspective of what would be today the end of the Valley across from the Canoe Club. The original drawing is by the celebrated Irish artist George Petrie, and the engraving was produced for 'Excursions Through Ireland', a book published by Longman and Company in 1820, authored by Thomas Kitson Cromwell. The version in Bardons, unlike the original held by the National Library, is tinted.

Looking close, Petrie's drawing depicts parts of the bridge looking dilapidated, and it may well have been refurbished around 1850, as that's the date given to it by the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage. There's also a photograph (above) in the British Royal Collection Trust, presented to Edward VII when Prince of Wales by Captain Edward Dyne Fenton of the 86th (Royal County Down) Regiment of Foot, on or around 1861.

A pair of paintings by local artist Richard Murphy, between 1938 to 1946, give us impressions of the complete bridge from a downstream aspect, and part of it leading onto the market square from upstream.

This writer has a strong recall of the bridge before it was widened in the early 1970s, at which time the current mass concrete face of the upstream side was left exposed when a parallel connected bridge was constructed (picture above courtesy of Geraldine Nugent). There was a commitment then that the original stone facing would be replaced, but this was never done. Prior to the widening, there were no footpaths, and it was something of an adventure for pedestrians to get across at busy traffic times.

The view from downstream at the top of this piece still shows elements of what the 19th century possibly refurbished bridge was like, and it would be a great service by the local authority if that original commitment to restore the upstream facing were to be honoured. Possibly the original stones are languishing in some Council depot, their origin forgotten.

Environmental project, anyone?