Thursday, May 23, 1996

The Bridge of Athy

Crom a Boo, known to Historians as the war cry of the Fitzgeralds but to every Athy person it means just one thing - the graceful humped-back bridge which spans the River Barrow in the centre of the town. This week we celebrate its Bi-Centenary. On the 23rd May, 1796 the first stone of the new bridge was laid by Robert Duke of Leinster.

The river Barrow was a natural frontier which in early times was forded and eventually bridged. The river crossing which was located in the vicinity was a place of trade which quite naturally gave way to a settlement in the 12th Century. The inevitable transition to a fortress town was to be expected given the need to protect this important river crossing.

A ford or crossing point on the Barrow would have been located at the point where the river water had spread itself to a shallow depth over hard ground such as rock or gravel. The next development was likely to be stepping stones placed on the river bed which in time would have been planked to give a Clapper Bridge. This was effectively the mere joining up of the stepping stones by placing oak planks across them and allowing pack horses and individuals to walk across without stepping into the water.

Strange to relate that the first bridges other than those of the Clapper Bridge type may have been provided by the Religious Monks. Bridge building was a recognised form of charity and indulgences were granted to those who donated funds, material or labour for that purpose.

Did the monks of the Holy Cross who built the first Monastery on the river bank alongside Woodstock Castle, in the area now known as St. John's, build the first bridge in Athy? We know that there was a Hospital attached to the Monastery which catered for the needs of travellers and given the designation of bridge building as a work of charity it is quite likely that the Monks built a bridge across the river near to their Monastery.

The first reference we can find to a bridge in Athy was in 1417 when Sir Richard Talbot, Viceroy of Ireland, built the bridge and a castle to defend it which he garrisoned with soldiers. This type of fortified bridge was a typical development in medieval years and in Athy's case was to give the town a description it has never lost "a garrisoned town". This early bridge was in all probability a typical medieval narrow humped-backed bridge with deep embrasures over the piers into which persons could stand to avoid oncoming carriages.

Whites Castle which is still in use after almost 600 years remained occupied by a garrison until about 1720 or thereabouts. It was then turned into a town jail as the military took over the purpose built barracks at the end of what became known as Barrack Lane, off Barrack Street. The castle remained as a jail until 1830 after which it was used as a local Police Barracks until the 1890's.

Crom a Boo Bridge, built in 1796 was likely to have replaced an earlier structure but not necessarily Talbot's bridge of 1417. The Confederate Wars of the 1640's were played out in many arenas throughout Ireland and Athy was for a period of eight years was one of the centres of war involving the Royalist, the Parliamentarians and the Confederates. The town was bombarded by cannon fire many times and the Dominican Monastery, the local castles and the bridge all succumbed to the destructive forces of the cannon ball. It was for this reason that the 1417 Bridge is unlikely to have survived until he existing Bridge was built in 1796 by the contractor Sir James Delahunty, Knight of the Trowel.

The late medieval period witnessed the development of water driven power and the construction of water mills. At either end of the Bridge of Athy mills were located and mill races channelled the water to the wheels which drove the mill machinery. A mill operated on the west side of the Crom a Boo Bridge up to 1924 and the ruins of the mill building were still standing until the late 1960's. Between Whites Castle and the present Castle Inn once flowed the mill race for the mill of O'Kelly which stood on the site. A tablet inset into the south wall of Whites Castle bears the date 1575 and refers to the O'Kelly mill.

Crom a Boo Bridge while still in its infancy was to witness many cruel acts. Trial by Court Martial was a common occurrence in Athy during the months of May and June 1798. Seven men were tried, convicted and hanged in the town in the early days of June. Six of those men were from Narraghmore and had been arrested following the killing of John Jeffries of Narraghmore whose widow Mary together with a number of other local residents had fled to Athy for protection. The seventh man hanged was named Bell, a graduate of Trinity College who lived in the Curragh. One of the Narraghmore men was Daniel Walsh a steward of Col. Keatings of Narraghmore and a member of the Narraghmore Yeomanry. On the day that Walsh and his companions were hanged, members of the Loyal Athy Infantry erected a triumphal arch across Crom a Boo Bridge under which the convicted men had to pass on their way from the jail in Whites Castle to the place of execution. The prisoners were accompanied by Fr. Patrick Kelly, a local curate, who enraged by what he saw rushed and knocked down a Yeoman named Molloy. Grabbing at the orange flag which was hoisted on the spot he pulled it down and trampled on it. It is believed that the yeomen who were present did not react as one might have expected because the prisoners were escorted by members of the Waterford Militia whose rank and file members were co-religionist of the prisoners. The hangings took place at the basin of the Grand Canal. Two of the seven were beheaded and their heads were placed on Crom a Boo Bridge to serve as warnings to the local people of Athy. Following Lord Edward Fitzgerald's arrest the local yeomen defaced with sledges the coat of arms of the Geraldine family which had been placed in the wall of Whites Castle when Crom a Boo Bridge was built in 1796.

Last week candles for peace in Ireland flowed on the water under Crom a Boo Bridge where once the blood of 2nd century warriors from Munster and Leinster had mingled with the "dumb waters". The locals stood on the River Bank watching the fading lights drift from view in a scene which must have been reminiscent of 200 years ago when the Duke of Leinster laid the first stone of Crom a Boo Bridge.

Happy Anniversary Crom a Boo.

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