The Forristals, their fortunes and their way of life have been intrinsically entwined with Ferrymountgarrett bridge for generations - Through rebellions, floods, murders, and the foundation of the State, they remain in situ, just yards from their original home which was right on the water’s edge.
Today they run a thriving, timber business borne out of the presence of the bridge. They were the caretakers of this hugely important link between Kilkenny and Wexford and are still held in high regard in both counties.
This river crossing is steeped in history as a ferry, wooden bridge and now a metal-concrete bridge which opened up to allow river traffic up and down the tidal River Barrow which looks absolutely stunning from the parapet of the bridge which, although it is a protected structure, looks unsightly
For centuries the only bridge on the Barrow was at Graignamanagh so without the ferry and the bridge here at Mountgarrett, Wexford people would have been denied access to counties Kilkenny and Waterford.
And in the late 19th century when the bridge was in danger of being destroyed by ice, the Forristals risked their lives to go out on the “glass sheet” and cut a passage through so that the wooden bridge would be saved. This was only hours after the bridge on other side of New Ross, three kilometres away, had been toppled by the forward rushing ice.
The bridge has been the site of numerous ambushes, skirmishes and was the scene of a shoot-out during the War of Independence and was partially burned down. The inventive Forristals used to place a bench from their workshop to cover the hole caused by the fire in the centre of the wooden bridge. That way farmers were able to bring their cattle to the fair in New Ross.
The notorious highwayman, the Robber Freney had one of his great escapes here and hoodwinked the Crown Forces (again).
And don’t be fooled, the metal boxes on top of the bridge are not empty, but full and weigh around 150 tons and were used to lift part of the bridge up to allow river traffic through.
And in living memory, daredevils would dive off the bridge into the tidal Barrow below. And when the Barrow was a working river, barges were often stuck on the upstream side of the bridge for hours because, at high tide, there would not be enough room to pass underneath.
The Forristal children loved this and used to climb on the barges while the barge men weren’t too pleased, because they were stuck, hungry, waiting to get home.
And jurors in a controversial court case, who made the “wrong decision” were fired off the bridge in 1821 and told to find their own way home. Some drowned. And this was at the request of the trial judge at the Wexford assizes and they were actually dumped off carts into the river below from the wooden structure.
The bridge is the subject of a brilliant research piece by the late Edwards Law just before he died that is included in the 2013 Old Kilkenny Review brought out by the Kilkenny Archaeological Society.
However the best story concerning the bridge comes from Bridget Forristal who spent her childhood there and it involves her grandfather, James who died in 1902. This event happened in the late 1890s when a man wanted to cross the tolled bridge with his horse and cart but was broke. He was politely refused by Mr Forristal. He proceeded to unyoke the horse, tied the animal to the back of the cart and went under the cart himself and carried it along. When Mr Forristal, a very affable human being, asked him for the toll, the man said to talk to the driver (the horse). James Forristal saw the funny side of it and let the farmer through to County Wexford for free.
Tolls were common up to the start of the 20th century, and we have them again now on our motorways. We learn from Edward Law that in 1894, two New Ross businessmen were paying James Agar of Gowran Castle an annual rent of £62 9s 8d for the ferry rights and that it was agreed that a figure £1,160 would be a fair compensation figure to buy him out.
We are indebted to the Forristals, especially Bridget Forristal for sharing her childhood memories of the bridge. She remembers the bridge centre piece being opened and ships passing through.
She also remembers the bridge being opened up for maintenance and for pleasure craft like the “yacht” owned by the Tighes of Woodstock, Inistioge who were frequent river users up to 1919.
She has wonderful stories of swimming around the bridge and fishing there. She learned to swim in the Pill, a little inlet off the Barrow, 50 yards downstream of the bridge and from here she graduated to swimming at the bridge in summer, whether it was sunny or raining.
She remembered being told that up to 1902, there was a charge to cross the wooden bridge and was told that it was a farthing for a man to cross and a half penny for a man and his pig to go over.
And this is borne out by Edward Law (RIP) in his wonderful article on the bridge. He revealed that a full sized cow cost a half penny to get across while a coach and four horses cost 5 shillings.
Bridget’s grandfather, uncle and father were all caretakers and her grandmother Catherine was also named as an official caretaker after Bridget’s uncle died because her father was only 16 and while he did the work, he was officially too young to be named caretaker. Her uncle Patrick Forristal died at Rosemount, the estate directly across the bridge from the Forristal home.
He was cutting a branch of a tree which hit him on the head. He was killed instantly. Bridget was born a month after he was killed and arrived at Ferrymountgarrett four months later.
When she was young the most common traffic on the river were the local boats going to Roches of Ballyanne bringing coal and flour from Odlum’s mill at St Mullin’s.
She absolutely loves the bridge and a painting of it, by her daughter, artist, Emma Byrne, takes pride of place in her home which she says good-humouredly is “unfortunately” over the bridge on the Wexford side at Ballytober.
She is delighted that the bridge has been painted red the way it was when she was a child.
“I loved every minute of my life there,” she said. “We swam in the river under the bridge. “And I remember people diving off the bridge at high tide. One man who did it, who is now dead was John Furlong from New Ross and another great swimmer who lived close to the bridge, Billy Broaders also dived off it regularly and he went to live in Graignamanagh when he got married,” she said.
As for wildlife, she recalled there were otters there and remembered her father fishing for salmon and trout while there were moorhens, swans, ducks (wild and domesticated), kingfishers and a host of migrating birds in the area when she was young.
There is even more wildlife there now thanks to improved water quality and other environmental measures.
Researcher Edwards Law tells us that the IRA burned down the centre of the bridge during the War of Independence so that the Black and Tans in Woodstock, Inistioge would not have easy access to the New Ross area. Bridget Forristal said the bridge was only partially burned down in 1921 and if someone wanted to transport pigs, sheep or cattle the Forristals would get the large plank of wood in their workshop by the water’s edge and place in the centre and the animals would be brought across.
During the Civil War the bridge was practically destroyed and a ferry boat operated for a short period before a temporary, replacement bridge was built.
Freney the robber
The Robber Freney was a highwayman who operated around Kilkenny in the 1740s. One afternoon, he tried to board the ferry at Ferrymountgarrett and was refused by the ferryman because the local judge had reserved the ferry for himself and his entourage.
Freney returned dressed as a blind traveller leading a pack animal loaded with brooms (with muskets underneath). The judge granted his plea for passage so that he might get to market on time to sell his goods.
As they were getting off, a troop of soldiers who had been looking for Freney boarded to go back over to the Kilkenny side. When Freney, out of disguise at this stage was a safe distance away, he thanked the judge by shouting down from a height at him, for his kindness and rode off.
The current bridge across the River Barrow was opened with a Scherzer mechanism lifting span on November 7, 1929 and completed at a cost of £22,500. It is understood that it was open to pedestrian traffic from May 1929. People using the Barrow are constantly being warned to be careful at Ferrymountgarrett bridge because there is only seven feet of a gap between the bridge and the water at high tide.
The bridge is a strange looking specimen and wouldn’t it be brilliant if the lifting mechanism was brought back to working order to allow for even more people to enjoy the Barrow navigational.
It is, believe it or not, a protected structure because there is nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world.
However we should be thankful to have the bridge in place. In 2008, over E400,000 was spent by Kilkenny County Council after a report commissioned by the council found serious defects and recommended that no abnormally large or heavy vehicles be permitted to use the bridge until it was repaired which happened straight away
Before we finish, it is important to emphasise the importance of the bridge not so much now but in the 18th and 19th century. At that time, the only other bridge over the Barrow was at Graignamanagh and so that was the first bridge before the river hit the sea, which effectively denied Wexford people access to Waterford and Kilkenny in the west. The ferry at Ferrymountgarrett operated from the 1440s when the Earl of Ormond made a grant of the ferry to R Devynysh.
Thanks to acting Kilkenny County Council Manager, John Mulholland and the library staff of all the libraries in the city and county. We are blessed to have such dedicated and sincere people working in our local authorities and it’s important to recognise that.
In life you meet great people like the Forristals of Ferrymountgarrett bridge. Bridget Forristal shared memories that would not otherwise have been recorded and her neph ews John and Patrick were equally kind with time and information.
Thanks to the late Edward Law for his article on the bridge contained in the 2013 edition of the old Kilkenny Review. Thanks to Pat Moore for the magnificent photos of the bridge.