The rich history of classical Inistioge bridge where a mermaid was once found

Sean Keane


Sean Keane

A bridge like no other in Europe, where a mermaid once died, where otters and seals chase salmon and trout, where children were washed in summer with carbolic soap, where feuds were settled and which was tolled, providing Inistioge with a prosperity that has long since vanished. Where once, a large yacht went to ground and lay there for weeks until a high tide got him back to the estuary.

A bridge like no other in Europe, where a mermaid once died, where otters and seals chase salmon and trout, where children were washed in summer with carbolic soap, where feuds were settled and which was tolled, providing Inistioge with a prosperity that has long since vanished. Where once, a large yacht went to ground and lay there for weeks until a high tide got him back to the estuary.

Below this bridge is the only part of the ill-fated Kilkenny City-Inistioge canal that was ever completed which can be viewed from Mount Sandford Castle, a folly, which has the most commanding view of the canal and bridge .

And thirty yards downstream of the bridge is the site of the salmon trap, built in 1935 and now dismantled where spawning fish returning from the Atlantic were trapped, had their spawn removed to help restock what is one of the country’s great salmon rivers.

However most of all, the classical bridge at Inistioge is a thing of beauty, a place to go to relax and de-stress. Under its tenth, dry, arch is a beautiful garden with riverside seats where you can appreciate the Romanesque features of a bridge that was completed with great workmanship. For some reason, no one knows why the elaborate work was only carried out on the downstream side of the bridge built in the two years after the great flood of 1763 by George Smith who was also responsible for Green’s Bridge in the city. Smith’s design of the downstream side was based on the design of the Blackfriars Bridge in London by renowned architect Robert Mylne. Its simplicity and elegance are worthy of any Venetian bridge. Go and check it out for yourself.

And once in 1761, the absence of abridge over the Nore spared the people of Inistioge. Two local families, the Fowens and the Deanes were fighting when the Deanes marched in full battle array from Graigue to Inistioge but because; “no goodly bridge” spanned the Nore at this point, and Sir William Fowens; “having by a grand stroke of generalship removed all the boats to the Inistioge side of the river, the followers of the rival knight were stopped short in their midst of their career and were obliged to content themselves with assailing the enemy by showers of stones across the water.” (W.G.S.B. 1965)

A mermaid was taken from the River Nore just below Kilkenny’s most elegantly “pointed” bridge and is included in the Annals Of The Four Masters. This is recorded in the impeccable guide to Kilkenny written by Bassett in the mid 1800s.

And a carving depicting this mermaid can be seen in the wonderfully restored cemetery behind the Catholic church in the village, and is based on a carving in the old Augustinian priory in the village built in 1210.

And while we are on the subject of The Annals Of The Four Masters, we learn from Maura O’Neill’s fabulous Historical Overview of Inistioge that in 962AD the “Ossarians” had a great victory over Amlaeibh, son of Sitric here, where many of the Danish invaders were slain together with Batbarr, son of Nira.

This iconic bridge is the last before the River Nore reaches the sea and is the highest tidal point on the river and from here the salmon fishing gets really good and from April when the run of grilse slows, the best of the fishing is between now and the middle of September and 20lbers have often been caught around the bridge (within a mile).

It is the only bridge in Europe of its kind, boasting 10 arches of equal size. However there is some confusion. It would appear that the tenth arch was added after the original bridge was built. It was to accommodate the Kilkenny City-Inistioge canal that was started below the bridge at the quay and used to bring goods, like coal, from the quay to the bridge where it was brought by cart to Carlow and Kilkenny.

And a painting taken from Bassett’s Guide in 1884 shows just how important it was in terms of tolls and controlling who or what entered the village of Inistioge.

And we learn from Fraser’s Guide to Ireland published in 1844 that; “vessels of a hundred tons burthen sail up to the town.” As with Thomastown, the River Nore was the life blood of the village, along with the Woodstock estate, especially when Lady Louisa was in control of it (she only died in 1900) and created huge business. Alas two of the main buildings on the green, in front of the bridge, are now empty.

When Mai O’Riordan, one of the Phelan’s from the village was young, she and her siblings would be brought to the green area under the bridge and washed in the River Nore. “Everyone did it,” she said. It was common practice and the octogenarian has wonderful memories of the bridge; playing there and watching the river traffic up and down.

From the parapet of the bridge there appears to be the remnants of an earlier bridge downstream this is the Tighe Salmon Trap.

While the village is astounding in terms of architecture and historical significance it is the area by the bridge that draws you, down to the “The Hundred Court, before the hurling pitches. Sadly the two main buildings facing the bridge are closed. What were once thriving eateries are now in need of attention.


According to National Inventory of Architectural Heritage it is a ten-arch rubble stone Classical-style road bridge over river, built 1763, on site of earlier bridge, c.1700. Random rubble stone walls with tooled granite ashlar triangular cut-waters to piers to south having paired Ionic pilasters over supporting carved (moulded) cornice, limestone ashlar tapered (full-height) triangular cut-waters to piers to north having cut-limestone stringcourse over, and cut-limestone coping to parapets. Series of ten round arches with tooled cut-limestone quoined voussoirs, and rubble stone soffits. Sited spanning River Nore with grass banks to river.


An elegantly-composed substantial bridge built to designs prepared by George Smith (fl. 1763-7) superseding an earlier counterpart destroyed in the mid eighteenth century: the bridge represents one of a number of bridges in County Kilkenny rebuilt by Smith following the “Great Flood” of 1763. Each face having been approached as an individual design the Classically-derived dressings to one elevation lend a formal quality to the composition while tapering piers to the reverse elevation, again displaying high standard stone masonry, represent a further distinctive characteristic enhancing the architectural design value of the site. Rising above the Nore valley the bridge forms an imposing landmark in the townscape of Inistioge with the combination of unrefined and dressed stone in the construction producing an appealing textured visual effect in the composition.


The best view of the bridge and the village is from Mount Sandford Castle which is half way up the Point Road by the river, which is accessed by taking the lane at O’Donnell’s excellent public house in the centre of the village.

This folly probably dates from the late 18th Century. It consists of a fanciful rubble Gothic castle and is a nice little trek up the side of the hill but well worth visiting.

Across the road from the bridge, on the village side is the wonderful Old School House Cafe which was once the Protestant school. Many is the lovely open salmon sandwich and apple tart I had there and it is open all summer long, so why not enjoy a delicious bite to eat while sitting outside, with the bridge in front of you.

An unusual stone patterned pavement worked in cobbles outside the door gives the date of the building as 1837. However, the building may have become a school at an earlier date. The school closed in 1965 with only a couple of children remaining and the last person to teach there was a Miss Moon from Thomastown who cycled in and out of the village each day to teach the remaining pupils.

Mai O’Riordan one of the Phelans who once owned the public house in the centre of the town now run by the lovely Avril Lenehan who runs a great house. Mai’s grandfather, Patrick J. Phelan owned the Maltings House on the corner of road facing the bridge and alas this too is closed and is for sale. She recalls fishermen having their salmon weighed in the co-op next to the Maltings when she was very young.

And although she lives in Mountmellick she keeps close contact with Inistioge and gets the Kilkenny People newspaper every week.

She recalled the tennis court on the far side of the river under the bridge and remembers well the river traffic.

She watched from the bridge as the workmen from the old Tighe Estate in Woodstock removed the returning fish from the salmon trap.

Former councillor and community activist, Andy Cotterell pointed out that the last salmon trap was built in 1935 and was an ingenious device designed by a local man, Willie Cody whose son Eddie still lives in the village.

It allowed spawning salmon in but did not let them go back or go forward. The Tighe employees would take a net and remove the fish. They were taken the hatchery on Hatchery Lane, now closed, where the spawn was taken from the fish and where the young smolt were kept in the hatchery for over a year before being released into the river.

The hatchery closed a few years ago after the Inland Fisheries took it over. Andy and everyone else would love to see it re-opened to boost fish numbers in the river which would benefit everyone. Failte Ireland once reckoned that every salmon caught by a foreign angler was worth E5,000 to the economy.


You can watch hurling legend, Eddie Keher’s YouTube video promoting Inistioge on It is a lovely piece of film making.

Thank you

Thanks to Maura O’Neill for her absolutely fabulous historical overview of Inistioge, it’s essential reading

Thanks to Andy Cotterell for his ongoing attempts to improve every facet of life in Inistioge

Thanks to Ann Tierney for her wonderful survey of the “Bridges Of The Nore” in County Kilkenny

Thanks for a delicious breakfast from Denis and Sandra in Circle Of Friends cafe on the Square, Inistioge. Most of all thanks to Mai Phelan, formerly of The Square and now living in Mountmellick for her memories and her love of her own place.

We sometimes overlook the best things in life because of the pressures of modern living. We need to reconnect with our surroundings. So get into the car, drive to Inistioge, park the car on the Thomastown side of the village and walk to the river and under the bridge from the green and pass under the 10th dry arch, sit on one of the beautifully appointed benches, take out your flask of tea and wonder at the beauty of it all.