Walking close to the great Thomastown railway bridge at Jerpoint, you are struck by the magnificent, panoramic views of the local countryside from the parapet with the meandering River Nore below.
You are reminded of the television series, Last Of The Summer Wine, expecting to find the three great characters from that programme, down at the abutments solving the problems of the world.
And indeed that is exactly what the bridge did back in 1850 when it was opened as a timber structure in May of that year leading to an explosion in commercial activity which led to Thomastown to become a vibrant business town.
And later when that timber bridge was found to be decayed, it was replaced by the current metal bridge which was opened in August 1877.
Again, it was the catalyst for a new-found prosperity in the town after the river traffic had come to a stand still due to silt build up and a lack of spend on the proposed Kilkenny-Thomastown canal which never materialised.
The bridge is out of bounds to anyone for safety reasons and it is dangerous to walk over it because you just don’t know when a train will appear. Interestingly the rail on the bridge is carried over a concrete base, and you would have thought that a metal base would have been used.
As you walk along the sides and the walkways, there are mesmeric images of the undulating countryside and you can see Jerpoint Abbey in the distance, downstream. And on a clear day, Coppenagh and Brandon Hill are also visible. In January 1877, rail passengers were forced to walk over the bridge during its construction when the remains of the old bridge were blown away in a storm and some of the timber arches of that bridge remain in the riverbed underneath the existing bridge.
And it absolutely magical to walk down the steps on the railway station side of the bridge on the right left side of the huge limestone arches, to the inch fields below.
And as you walk back towards Jerpoint, the scale of the bridge becomes obvious. The colossal double arches, hollowed out, with fine masonry work are magnificent. Access is by a right of way and a gate off the Station Road on the Mount Juliet side of the railway bridge over the road, which is well used by fishermen, hunters courting couples and old foggies.
It is by far the most imposing structure in the area yet very little is known about bridge and the impact it had when it was built, also known as the Newtown-Jerpoint viaduct and the Thomastown aqueduct it is iconic and has stood the test of time.
It transformed how business was done, ironically at the expense of how trade was carried on, via the River Nore and by the road network.
And we are indebted to an American anthropologist team for providing us with the information to back this up. In their seminal book, A social history of Thomastown,. County Kilkenny, 1840-1983. Marilyn Silverman and P.H. Gulliver explained that before the railway was built and the bridge erected, the river was king. At a meeting of Kilkenny Archaeological Society in 1852, a speaker said that in 1811, 40 years before, Thomastown was the port to “our city.”
He explained that the Nore was navigable as far as Thomastown but because of silt it became almost impassable by 1836 and the speaker said: “What was carried for 4 shillings on the river from Thomastown to Inistioge now costs 10 shilling by rail.”
And a Mr Sydenham Davis in 1837, offered £10,000 to make it navigable again for boats carrying up to “100 ton burdens” to come up the river as far as Thomastown.
Which means at one stage, boats measuring 50 feet in length were coming up as far as the quay in Thomastown and local resident and artist, Shem Caulfield found this amazing as you would when you consider the depth and breadth of the river at this point. But as he said, it gives an idea of the importance of Thomastown as a gateway to New Ross port and the world during the 18th and 19th centuries, before the coming of the rail road. They were heady days and seem a long, long time ago.
Despite the current recession Thomastown is fighting back and boasts a number of thriving businesses, bars and restaurants and the announcement of 30 new bedrooms being built in Mount Juliet is a major boost for the area.
The same cannot be said for Thomastown railway station which reminds me of something from the former East Germany, it looks so forlorn. What was once a beautiful station, complete with hanging baskets and helpful staff like former councillor, Michael O’Brien is now rundown. The station house is all barricaded up and you have to wonder how long more the station will remain open with just an outdoor hut for waiting passengers and no facilities.
It’s a far cry from the time when the legendary Jackie Cody was sent to Mountjoy from the station and up to 1,000 people turned up on the platform to wave him off. He was incarcerated for salmon poaching offences. A practice witnessed from the viaduct bridge. Anyway, the bridge built in 1877 remains in good working condition, despite the fact that a large number of limestone pieces from the arches and abutments are strewn on the ground and looks extremely dangerous.
Every person has their own memory of the bridge and of their time investigating it and James Blanchfield of Abbey House, Jerpoint admitted hiding in the little alcoves at the four corners of the metal structure when trains passed. This is not something that should be encouraged.
And the graffiti artists have been busy too on the bridge with a number of murals of varying quality.
And we do know that one foolhardy young man cycled over the bridge which is from its base, 100 feet above the river below.
And no one is sure if the late Red Roche, a wonderful character from Jerpoint actually cycled over it but he did, we are told, walk over the top of it.
Jim Blanchfield of the Michelin guide guest house, Abbey House, across the road from Jerpoint abbey doesn’t see how it could be possible to cycle over it because of all the rivets on the metal arch over the bridge.
However, on closer inspection the rivets are straight and it would be possible for a bike to wheel between them with extreme care but it is not something that should be tried by anyone.
However, Jack Landy (RIP), Station Road, Thomastown did it on a number of occasions. He was a much loved character in Thomastown and served with the UN in The Congo as a member of the Irish Defence Forces. He died a relatively young man and is still spoken about with great warmth in his own place.
The same is true of John Walsh of Dangan, Thomastown. He also cycled over the bridge on a number of occasions. He was a gifted hurler and played with the Kilkenny minor hurling team in the 1950s and was forced to emigrate to England.
Do not attempt to cycle across this bridge. It would be a fatal mistake and while there is public access to the bridge from the gated entrance on the Station Road, you have to be very mindful of passing trains.
On the day before the present bridge was opened in 1877, it was stress tested and five brave men drove their engines and tenders on to it.
This metal span replaced a wooden one which decayed, shook violently when trains passed over it and it moved seven inches along its 212 feet. It was famous back in the time and renowned as the longest single-span railway bridge in the “British Isles.”
What led to its construction?
In 1845 the merchant princes of the area did a survey to see if it was worth their while building a railway bridge over the Nore and connecting Thomastown with Waterford. According to the Irish Railway Gazette, a traffic count on the road between Waterford and Thomastown in January, 1845, counted 2,584 pigs and 2,633 carts carrying goods over the previous fortnight which was under the average. Amazingly, the railway and the bridge were not universally welcomed and in 1842, an attempt was made to stop it. However it failed.
The wooden structure was completed in 1850 but from the start there were concerns over its safety and soon, evidence of decay in the timber was spotted.
Single-span railway viaduct over river valley, built 1850, with two-arch abutments to north and to south. Renovated, 1877, with span replaced. Rock-faced limestone ashlar walls to abutments with tooled-limestone ashlar chauffeured string course to piers, cast-iron tie plates, and tooled limestone ashlar string course supporting parapets having cut-limestone coping. Pair of segmental arches to abutments with round traverse relieving arches to piers having tooled cut-limestone string courses to spring of arches, rock-faced limestone ashlar voussoirs, and cut-limestone soffits. Replacement single span, 1877, with pair of wrought iron bow string girders. Sited spanning River Nore valley with grass banks to river.
The Kilkenny to Thomastown line, part of the Waterford Railway, opened on 12 May 1848 and was extended from Thomastown to Jerpoint Hill, opening in May 1850 and this became known as the Jerpoint Halt. Goods were transported from here by road to the other side of the river where they were again put on the train.
This relatively short section required the construction of the viaduct over the Nore, consisting of timber lattice girders supported on heavy masonry abutments, to a design by engineer Captain William Moorsom. The viaduct was 200ft long and 78ft above the river. Twenty-five feet wide, it was designed for two lines, although only one was built. The timber was supplied by Messrs J. P. Graves, Waterford and New Ross, at a cost of £3,300.
From the start there was public unease about its safety, and Michael Sullivan, MP for Kilkenny City, brought these concerns to the railway company.
A series of tests were carried out by a Captain Laffin in 1850, a Colonel Wynne in 1854 and finally in June 1858 by Captain H. W. Tyler of the Royal Engineers. Tyler’s report concluded that, while the bridge was safe, it needed constant monitoring, and recommended that the railway company should start preparing for its replacement with a more permanent structure.
In 1875 the directors at last decided to replace the timber portion of the structure with iron. The contract was awarded to Messrs Courtney, Stephens and Bailey, and construction started in the autumn of 1876. On the evening of 29 January 1877, a violent south-westerly gale damaged the old timber superstructure. Early the following morning the gale increased again and by daybreak all of the new construction had blown down, completely blocking the track.
Debris was quickly cleared to allow passage by foot, with trains stopping short on both sides. In his paper to the Institution of Engineers in Ireland, the engineer for the new viaduct, Charles R. Galwey, stated that ‘Every exertion was made to clear the line, but owing to the difficulty of handling such large masses of iron and the shortness of the days, this was not accomplished till the afternoon of 2 February’. Two days later engine traffic was again allowed across the bridge.
On 3 August 1877 the iron structure was tested with five engines and tenders, covering the whole span of the bridge and weighing in all nearly 200 tons. The results were satisfactory and the removal of the old bridge followed, taking some three months. Subsequent tests showed that much of the timber was rotten. Ironically, it was not the ‘best Memel or Archangel fir’ but the pitch-pine timber used as a partial substitute, and which Captain Moorsom had suggested ‘should be avoided in the future’, that was found to be in the best condition. Some of the original timber piles could not be extracted and so were broken off at riverbed level—where presumably they still survive.
Interestingly the engineer on the project was a Charles Galwey and the name remains in the area.
Under the bridge are little recesses where Daubeton bats dwell and from here they feed on the summer flies and grubs. And the area is teeming with wildlife.
There are sparrows and dippers and the rich coloured Kingfisher is also here. The diversity speaks volumes of the river water quality in the Nore.
Salmon is the most sought after fish on the river while trout are also delicious as stated previously, there are no pike left in the river after they were removed using electrical pulse a few years ago.
There are stoats, otters, mink all living in various degrees of harmony and the fox is a common site by the banks looking for birds eggs.
Thanks to the late Joe Norton, National Monuments Section, Department of the Environment for his series based on the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage’s ‘building of the month from which much of the detail is taken. He was muched love by his colleagues.
Thanks to Orla Worth of Thomastown library.
Thanks to the Blanchfields of award winning Abbey House, Jerpoint; Jim, Helen (from Kildare) and James.
Thanks to scholar, Joe Dunphy for telling us about John Walsh, Dangan.
Thanks to Eamon Hayes for telling us all about Jack Landy, Station Road.
Thanks to local artist and historian, Shem Caulfield. He has a great love for the river and the town and a depth of knowledge to match.
Thanks to the charming Dick Manogue of the Cafe Sol Bistro, Thomastown for the wonderful food.
And most of all thanks to Ann Tierney for her work”A Survey Of Bridges On The Nore” from 1996.