IF ever there was a heritage gem that was hidden, forgotten about, left to deteriorate, allowed to become a dump then it is the Clapper Bridge close to Little Venice. Where you ask? For over 800 years this foot bridge had been used by the people of Graignamanagh to cross the rich and clean Duiske River as it meanders its way into the the River Barrow from Brandon Hill. It was one of the oldest standing bridges in Ireland?
How, you ask could this happen?
Disgraceful is a harsh word and one not to be used lightly. However, when you consider the history attached to this place and its crucial part in the development of one of the most beautiful towns in Ireland, it is an apt word.
There have been promises made by the County Council and by others to do something about it. Civic minded souls in Graignamanagh Historical Society like Owen Doyle and Colm Walsh, Billy Hoare and others have done their best to highlight as have politicians like Ann Phelan TD and newly co-opted councillor, Tommy Prendergast. But there protestations have had the same affect on the powers that be as the droppings of a swallow on the water levels of the Grand Cooley dam in Washington State.
It gets worse - Now it appears that the central stone of the bridge has gone. It does not appear to be in the bed of the river. Was it washed away? No one seems to know. What is really is the lack of passion among many people in Graignamanagh that an iconic piece of its past has been all but lost.
This is the fourth in our series of hidden heritage gems in the city and county and probably the most important in terms of highlighting what has happened to it and for the first time putting the facts on record.
To begin to appreciate the story of the Clapper Bridge you have to look at the long association between the town and the Cistercian monks and Duiske Abbey. Duiske takes its name from Dubh Uisce (black water) and in 1204, the Norman Cistercians from Stanley Abbey in Wiltshire, England decided to build an abbey in the deep secluded valley where the Duiske and Barrow rivers meet.
They started the mill and can you see the water which powered the Mill Wheel, diverted from the Duiske river, coming down the waterfalls made by the monks and rejoining the Duiske below Lady’s Well just yards from the bridge.
The Clapper Bridge crossed the river on the shortest, route between the 13th century abbey and its mills.
In medieval times, the monks would bring the corn from the abbey, which was 20 times the size it is today, and have it grinded in the mill, before returning with it to the abbey. Of course, a community grew up around it and these first monks lived by their three vows and a huge part of their role was providing food and alms for the local people.
Then it became the walkway for the local people and remained so for hundreds of years. While the Barrow navigational has had a major impact on the lives of the people of Graignamanagh the Duiske seems closer to their hearts and hence the name Little Venice for the homes enveloping it. Of course when it floods, the Duiske causes chaos and many houses are filled with water and silt as a result.
Just as an side, it must be heartbreaking for people in business, like Philip Cushen of Cushen’s Mills to look at the walkway from the mill to the abbey and try to comprehend how things were left to get so bad.
Absolutely nothing has been done to address the mess and plans Cushens had for a visitor centre between the mill race and the river will now probably never see the light of day because of red tape.
Grandiose sentiments have been expressed by Kilkenny County Council, to reconstruct the bridge and these are contained in the County Development Plan of 2008.
But is this part of a bigger problem? Many people think that Graignamanagh is suffering because it is on the border of the county, away from the centre of power in Kilkenny city. It may not be true but if ever there was a case for positive discrimination, it is here. And there is no point in asking the OPW to get involved because all they will do is put up a plaque stating that the monument is in the care of the Commissioners of Public Works. And how the Clapper Bridge is not already a national monument is beyond me, an outsider, and I would suggest, any reasonable person.
Would a world class heritage gem like the Clapper Bridge, the waterfall, Lady’s Well and the old walkway from Cushen’s Mill to Duiske Abbey be left in this state if it was in Kilkenny city? I know that Sean Leahy, Kieran Crotty, Peter Bluett, Sean Kerwick and Elaine Bradshaw and the other great people in the the Keep Kilkenny Beautiful (KKB) committee would have path worn to city hall land county hall demanding action.
Before people say that this is an Eamon Dunphy type rant just look at the facts and the history surrounding this structure.
The people of Ireland a huge debt to the medieval monks who populated this country and left us a built, heritage which remains in some cases, largely intact despite centuries of neglect. No where is this more obvious than in this beautiful town of Graignamanagh where Duiske Abbey stands as a testimony to the Cistercian order who built and to the local people who paid for its restitution.
Part of that heritage of Graignamanagh is the Duiske river which provided the water for the Mill constructed and rum by the monks.
Between the two most important sites is the River Duiske and the first bridge over it, The Clapper Bridge.
It was the main crossing for the Cistercian monks as they made their way from what is now Cushen’s Mill to Duiske Abbey. It also boasted Lady’s Well. The well is now full of silt and needs to be cleaned out. It is not that long ago since people used the water from the well as their drinking water, knowing that it was filtered bythe rocks and graveland on its way down from unpolluted Brandon Hill.
Someone needs to lead a campaign to bring this disgraceful situation to an end. If this area was brought back to life it would reflect well on the community, would draw people and could do what the last government’s urban renewal scheme failed to do, spark a revival in the centre of the town. Why not a trail of the Duiske from where it rises in majestic Brandon Hill, the highest point in County Kilkenny (Brandon Hill will feature later in this series) to the mill and then the Abbey, That might appeal to a lot of tourists.
Over the years many promises have been made to the people of Graignamanagh that something would be done. Nothing has happened and the place is a shambles. Local people are partly responsible and the rubbish left at the site is generated locally. Looking at Graignamanagh as a whole, it has not received the official TLC it requires. On Mondasy of this week, The Minister for the Environment, Phil Hogan has given a commitment to visit the site in the next two weeks and on Tuesday morning, the Minister for Heritage, Arts and the Gaeltacht, Jimmy Deenihan TD has undertaken to ask officials in his deaprtment to provide him with a brief of what can be done.