What was once known as “The Great Bridge of Kilkenny”, now looks despairingly bleak, its fine features wiped away over the years by trundling trucks while it has been “raped” on one side by persons unknown.
Built in the likeness of the romantic, Roman bridge in Rimini, Italy, it was once a feature of the city’s pride, a noble structure, the gateway to the city with a corn mill on either end accommodating the St Cathedral’s Close episcopal flock- Standing like a magnet for smaller mills and mill races around it while providing the stability for fine houses and a huge number of traders in the vicinity. It was also an ecclesiastical gateway from St Canice’s to the cathedral in Leighlin, Co.Carlow.
Socially it served a huge purpose, lovers met on the bridge and many protests over the centuries went over the bridge while invaders, dignitaries and those bent on destruction of the city used it while the notorious Nore felled a number of bridges at this point from 1190 to 1762 but not since. Simply, put, it has been a conduit for every facet of human endeavour in Kilkenny since the 10th century.
It was the start and finish of the Old City Walls and led to the city centre via Green’s Gate, marked on the Archaeological Survey (Ref. Map 4a: 40) and now destroyed above ground level.
This structure, of international architectural significance played a huge part in the economic life of the city. And the latest bridge on the site built in 1766 by George Colles, based on a design by George Smith (1763-7), a pupil of George Semple, has provided Kilkenny at its border to the east with real character and yet it is left in a desperate state. This is in stark contrast to the treatment of classical bridges in other cities, especially on the Continent where they are celebrated and feted.
Green’s Bridge has been described as one of the four or five finest bridges in Ireland (Craig 1982, page 279). It was renovated in 1835, with parapets added and this only added to its status. It is of major international architectural significance.
But after the “vandalism” of 1969, all we are left with is a bridge, almost characterless, threatened to be overrun by vegetation to the sides and on its parapet. On which drivers fight over who has the right of way to pass over and where pedestrians take their lives in their own hands crossing it. There isn’t room for two trucks to pass on it and sometimes it can be very scary when you dive over with a truck coming against you. It is being ground into submission, shaking it to its foundations.
Over 19,000 vehicles per day go over it. It was not designed for this. How long more can the structure survive under such a burden? What would happen traffic if the bridge had to close? The city would come to a standstill and accusations would fly.
Whether or not a new bridge is built over the Nore to accommodate the ridiculously named, Central Access Scheme (CAS), something has to happen with Green’s Bridge and Environment Minister Phil Hogan and the new management in County Hall and the councillors need to show some attention to this structure. Enough money has been spent on High Street.
In 1969, when a lot of the real damage was done, the stones from one side of the bridge were removed as “a temporary measure” by Kilkenny Corporation and replaced by the awful looking railing we now have, kept in place by concrete splints placed on top of the wonderful limestone arches with grotesque looking pipes running along it.
One of these pipes, is in a state of decay with parts of it are falling off looks shocking. Another pipe, bright blue in colour leads no where and carries nothing, no liquid no solids just comes to an end at the Greenshill side of the bridge. What a statement for a medieval city to make. How can this be tolerated?
And as you look at the bridge from the brewery side of you can see all the weeds coming out of the crevices, undermining the very fabric of the structure but that’s nothing compared to the state of the bridge on the far side.
Trees, probably sally and other vegetation are beginning to take over the river banks, upstream, on either side of the bridge and are encroaching on the stone walls that keep the bridge upright. And it is a far cry from the unkept promises made almost 20 years ago when the local authority said it would return the Great Bridge of Kilkenny to its former glory. We are still waiting.
Former city and county engineer, Don O’Sullivan, a man of some vision, came up with a plan to restore the bridge to its former glory using the original Tiberius Bridge over the River Marecchia in Rimini, Italy as his guide. Mr O’Sullivan’s decision was predicated by what happened in 1969, when Kilkenny Corporation removed the far side of the bridge. The stones were, carefully numbered and kept for safe keeping in the Corporation Yard from where they were stolen. It is rumoured but not proven that they were used as a boundary wall not too far from where they were stolen.
And it’s not just the bridge, the mill races, the flood water gullies all around it, that are in danger, the area around it as far as the boundary wall with the brewery all need to be part of the integrated plan for the bridge. For example, as you turn left over the bridge on to Greenshill there is another site which is in much need of restoration, Part of it is for sale and inside this plot, is an area by the river bank which has a sign saying fishing rights are reserved, and close to the bridge wall at this point is a beautiful old water pump which could easily be restored while the flood relief apertures at the wall of the bridge at this point are all boarded up and the former mill-race on the far side never sees water now. It’s all a mess and it needs someone with a bit of vision to restore it. Maybe the Keep Kilkenny Beautiful (KKB) committee might take up the cause and if they did, things would happen. I wonder will any of the newly elected councillors have the gall to have this historical site brought back to what it should be, a jewel in the heritage of the city.
On the city side of the bridge, you used to be able to walk down to the river’s edge and go for a swim and it was there you would meet the late Gerry Dunne and other residents who always had a good story to tell.
That is now cut off and you have to walk under the arch on a slanted stoned walkway, taking a serious risk to your safety to get to the other side.
If you walk to the end of Greensbridge Street from Troysgate there is a walkway to your right with barriers on either side of it, to stop you running headlong into the water. Before that there is a grass incline on the green area and this was the old road from the city leading to Green’s Bridge and underneath, there is a little walkway, littered and if it were cleaned up, it could be become a graffiti zone. Wouldn’t our own free, outdoor art genius, Mick Minogue love that?
As part of the city’ flood relief scheme, a huge underwater archaeological examination of the area around the bridge was undertaken, much of the work was done by local thatcher and diver, Jimmy Lenehan. Excavation within, and slightly beyond the east river bank revealed five surviving sections of the collapsed 16th century bridge including two piers, two sections of collapsed masonry and a bridge abutment.
The walls of the western most extent of a post-medieval mill building with associated river bank revetment walls were also revealed on the
southern side of the bridge abutment remains.
It appears that before the first bridge was built there in the 10th century, it was a ford for many highways which converged at this point. And this was alluded to by Ann Tierney in her survey of The Bridges of The River Nore.
However we learn from Hogan’s book on Kilkenny (1884) that a bridge had to be built at what is now Green’s Bridge because the old ford (shallow crossing point) was converted into a mill pond for one of the new mills built by the clergy and Hogan credits, Flemings, 12th century settlers from Flanders with the building of the bridge.
The bridge completed in 1766 has five limestone arches elliptical in design (shaped like a flattened circle) giving each arch the appearance of a gearwheel. There are two-arch culvert on the Green’s Hill side and on the other side there are two little passageways under an older road, leading to the bridge which can still be seen as an incline at Greensbridge Street.
The spandrels (space between the arches) are elaborately ornamented with Palladian (Italian 16th century) motifs and highlighted by dressed stone arch pieces. As explained earlier the stone a parapet survives only on one side. There are other little additions on the brewery side to do with water services and a permanent metal ladder brings you to the service area for the water services.
The most common animal life around Green’s Bridge are Daubenton’s bats. Some roost under the bridge while hundreds more fly under the bridge eating the little mayflies and stone flies which come to the surface in the summer.
There a number of other bird species here apart from the migratory sparrows including the dipper, a little river bird which feeds on grubs, large and small insects. And the wonderfully sounding and brightly coloured Kingfisher lives within a stone’s throw of the bridge and Jimi Conroy - local Conservation Ranger with the National Parks and Wildlife Service would not divulge the exact nesting place because kingfishers are an endangered and protected species. It speaks “volumes” of the river water quality that we have such an abundance of wildlife surrounding the “Great Bridge of Kilkenny”.
The most common fish species at Green’s Bridge is the Lamprey eel. There are three different kinds present under the bridge, in the shade. The brook lamprey does not migrate and stays around the bridge all its adult life. The migratory sea lamprey can grow up to 40 inches in length and returns in spring from the Atlantic Ocean. Smaller fish species include minnows and sticklebacks while upstream, freshwater pearl mussels survives and are found no where else in the world.
Interestingly there are no pike left in the river after they were removed using electrical pulse a few years ago.
However, the most fascinating animal to grace Green’s Bridge is the playful otter. A romp of otters live downstream in a holt near the Ossory Bridge. You will see them feeding on white trout and eels, near the bridge, sometimes on their backs, on summer evenings and are visible from the bridge itself. Nocturnal, over the last number of years, they seem to have lost their fear of humans. I hope that nothing untoward happens to them.
Origins of the name
No one living seems to know the origin of the name Green’s Bridge and one of the few references to it centres around a Greene family who “acquired the land in this area on October 21, 1631. According to PM Egan’s excellent book on Kilkenny, and he thought this is where the name Green Street and Green’s Hill came from. They had strong connections with Kilkenny Castle and left as quickly as the came in 1856 but the name of Green’s Bridge stuck rather that the Great Bridge of Kilkenny which was replaced by the bridge of 1763..
However in her excellent thesis of 1996, Ann Tierney detailed the history of the bridge and said that the great merchant John Rothe in his will of 1619, bequeathed to his son John: “All my messauges in the Greene Street of the Irishtowne” which she felt discounted Hogan’s theory.
And in a court case from 1631, Ann Tierney revealed how a Thomas Gafney was found “seised of one orchard called Krainesborough’s Orchard, adjoining Greene-street, in the Irishtown.” And she quoted John Hogan’s ‘Kilkenny : The Ancient City of Ossory, The Seat of its Kings, The See of its Bishops & The Site of its Cathedral as her source.
We are also told by Hogan that: “During the flood of 1763, people gathered on John’s Bridge to observe the collapse of Green’s Bridge. “As they stood transfixed on events upriver, John’s Bridge also collapsed, plunging all who stood on her into the murky, swollen Nore below. Sixteen people died. To this day locals and visitors alike speak of ghostly shapes, leaning on the walls of the new structure, gazing in the direction of Green’s Bridge.”
Thanks to Declan Macauley and Damien Brett of the Local Studies’ Service of Kilkenny County Library and all the other very helpful staff at John’s Green who work so diligently on our behalf, often without thanks.
Thanks to Jimi Conroy - local Conservation Ranger with the National Parks and Wildlife Service for being so accommodating
Thanks to the wonderful Mary Flood of Kilkenny Family History at Rothe House
Thanks to Sean Kerwick, published author and regular contributor to Ireland’s Own.
Thanks to Ann Tierney for her thesis “Survey of the Bridges of the Nore in Co Kilkenny (1996)
Thanks to Coilin O’Drisceoil, archaeologist for his brilliance