If you live in a place, it is easy to become complacent about its character and what makes it so appealing, so welcoming.
Just standing on the bridge in Graignamanagh is therapeutic. The tidal River Barrow below you making its way to meet up with its two sisters moves slowly but as many local people know, and will never forget, is a callous killer too.
On the lower side of the bridge, the Barrow stretches before you towards New Ross and you can see Tinnahinch Castle and beside it the lock that forms part of the Barrow Navigational and in the background, is beautiful Brandon Hill.
On the other side of the bridge as you look upstream, is the quaint quay, dominated by the Waterside Restaurant and guest house, (an example of what can be achieved in tourism) with barges tied up alongside it.
Above it is the boat house, then the swimming area and the Devil’s Eyebrow while enchanting Graignamanagh wood in full foliage, entices you with leaves waving at you, as if to say come on.
On the opposite side of the river is the tow path to Clashganny where once stood the Tinnahinch hotel which catered for the huge amount of river traffic. Looking down on all this is historic Mount Brandon House on the Carlow side.
The bridge has been blown up and has linked two baronies and two counties for hundreds of years and in 1959 two tanks went over it to test its stability. (Thanks to Colm Walsh for that nugget of information.)
And it had a twin in Clarecastle, Co Clare over the River Fergus
And to this day there is a question mark over who actually built it. The romantics feel it is the work of George Semple while Kilkenny Co Council, backed up by a number of records say it is the work of Semple’s disciple, George Smith who also built the current Green’s Bridge in Kilkenny city.
The answer may lie in the long since demolished bridge at Clarecastle which was built by another Semple based on a George Semple design and it seems that while Smith may have actually built the bridge in Graig, he seems to have used the design of his mentor, Semple and it is recorded that he spent a lot of time in Semple’s library going overt his designs. So they may both, in some respect, be responsible.
However, local historian and chairman of Graignamanagh Historical Society, Owen Doyle tells a story that has passed down through the generations.
“We were always told that George Semple’s signature is knitted into the fabric of the bridge in one of the key stones that forms the arches underneath,” he said with the authority of a retired college lecturer .
However no one has seen it and it might be a good project for the summer to find George Semple’s name under the bridge and put an end to the confusion that reigns And a reward of E50 awaits the person who does find it.
Incidentally, a poem from over 200 years ago, indicates that it was built by Semple.
The anonymous ditty, written after 1800 and included in the lae John Joyce’s wonderful book, Graiguenamanagh - A Town And its People, also gives an idea of the grandeur of the bridge as well as its importance:
There is a bridge that Semple built
When Ireland was a nation
It’s strong and good, no winter flood
Can shake its old foundations.
But if you’re near when boats appear
Some fine old fashioned oaths you’ll hear
The haulers here, now how to swear
With great imagination
However, the bridge in Graignamanagh is above all else a beautiful piece of engineering. Experts agree that it is one of the most “aesthetically pleasing” in Ireland and has stood the test of time.
And in 1959 the Irish army drove over the bridge with two tanks to test its stability.
It is also the part of the final journey for those from Graignamanagh and Tinnahinch who die.
Their corteges make their way over the bridge to St Michael’s cemetery close to the Barrow
And from the centre of the bridge, the castle and lock at Tinnahinch take precedence.
The original bridge was in situ around 1540 at Graignamanagh - wooden - it didn’t last very long.
Tinnahinch Castle which languishes on the left, downstream from the bridge is in a shocking condition and there is nothing to tell you of its rich history or the fact that when it was built after 1620 by James Butler (Mountgarrett branch of the family) he brought all the local Gaelic chieftains into the castle to a banquet on the top floor.
Butler had water poured over them from cisterns overhead and with their heavy clothing on them, the warriors were unable to get their swords out of their scabbards and they all perished.
The monks in Duiske Abbey were horrified and put a spell on the town that some people claim still survives, it has to do with rain and deluges on big days like the annual regatta and other events.
And tellingly, after that the “Mad Butlers” of the castle came to a bad end after a sex scandal and the murder of a young boy by “the” Mad Butler after his mother asked Butler to speak to her son because she felt he had become unruly.
Mad Butler, after he hanged the boy, handed his body back to the mother. He was murdered after that.
Anyway the castle was built to defend a ford and there was a bridge here in 1656 and we know this from the Down Survey map of that year.
The remains of this wooden bridge were discovered when work started on the Tinnahinch lock as part of the Barrow Navigation.
And indications are that it led from Duiske Abbey through Brandondale and the park to connect the old “Coolroe-Aclrae” road.
The boats now travel up and down the river through the last arch on the Carlow side of the river and this is the exact opposite of when the Barrow Navigational was at its height.
Traces of the old lock, below Bank House across from the Tinnahinch are still there and you can make out an old harbour.
There were also two dry docks there and these are now ,alas, filled in. What a joy it would be if they were returned to their former glory as part of the much needed remedial works needed to tame the Duiske River which flows into the Barrow just below the bridge. (Big Phil take note).
On the east side of the bridge is the site of the old Navigation hotel and writing in the 1830s, Samuel Lewis said there were 40 to 50 boats moored at this point each capable of carrying 40 tonnes and this point was asserted by local man, Billy Hoare.
Seven splendid arches
There was a ford at the bridge site and in 1764, the present bridge at Graignamanagh was built by George Semple or George Smith in a Palladian style, similar to the bridges at Castlecomer and Inistioge, although the seven arch bridge at Graig is probably the best example of this style.
We now know that the ornate designs on both sides of the bridge were inspired by Duiske Abbey and the shapes on the opposite page clearly identify this, like the he oggee headed niches and the various ocili between the outer arches.
In his seminal book, Graignamanagh - A Town And Its People” the remarkable John Joyce suggests that the elaborate decorations on the bridge walls and arches were done in anticipation of the arrival, on the Barrow, of the large passage boats which later brought Castlecomer coal, which was loaded on the Barrow at Leighlinbridge, through Graignamanagh.
The seven arch spans on the bridge increase from 19’4’’ to 31’10’’ in mid-stream.
The walls are limestone and there is some suggestion that the outer walls of the Duiske Abbey complex were used to complete the bridge.
The old bank building and the Anchor Bar at the Graignamanagh side of the bridge have been let in a disgraceful condition.
They are falling down and they give a shocking impression of the town and while there are other abandoned properties, if the facade was cleaned up and painted it would do much to enhance what is a fabulous place to visit.
Kilkenny County Council should insist that something is done with it.
This is in complete contract with F.J. Murray’s pub directly across the road and on the corner of the quay.
Built in the 1800s it is really well maintained with most of the historic fabric inside and out retained.
The shop front is of a high artistic design, displaying high quality craftsmanship in an exotic, almost Moorish theme.
And it would be unfair to mention Graig without talking about another gem, Mick Doyle’s pub across from the abbey where you can buy your groceries, drink a pint, get ammunition for your shotgun and buy a pick axe and nails - all at the same time
And you might even meet celebrity chef, Edward Hayden in there.
Billy Hoare, remembers the good times when the town thrived thanks to the river traffic and recalls locals with their ass and carts waiting for the boats to dock and bringing tea chests up Main Street.
“It was the biggest inland trading port in Ireland serving the port of New Ross and provided a livelihood for hundreds of people,” he explained.
Colm Walsh, a great local historian and champion of Duiske Abbey explained along with Owen Doyle that on Friday, the 13th of June during the 1798 rebellion the arch closest to the Carlow side was blown up by the Crown Forces.
They explained that the rebel forces were coming from Co Wexford under Fr Murphy and marching on the town. The rebels were forced to cross the river at Goresbridge.
It is said by people in the town, to this day, that some of the stones from the bridge were blown 200 yards upstream into Barrow Lane such was the amount of gunpowder used in the blast.
Fish - Water quality in our rivers improves every year and numbers are returning and the Barrow at Graignamanagh is no different.
The River Barrow is renowned as a coarse and game angling river for bream, roach, dace, hybrids, rudd, perch and pike (for which the Irish river records are held) brown trout, salmon and white trout. The river has easy access points and a towpath which run on both sides.
Eels are particularly abundant here and every cast from the quay seems to land a lamprey whether it be the Brook, sea or river lamprey variety.
There seems to be a heron resident downstream of the bridge at the confluence with the Duiske River coming down from Brandon Hill.
Otters, stoats and other mammals are present as are Daubeton’s Bats and a good number of owls, unlike the other bridges in the area while the kingfisher nests close to the bridge and can be seen darting at the water’s edge, particularly at the Tinnahinch side.
Thank you to my old friend, Billy Hoare for his information as a member of an old river family and for his many kindnesses and to Owen Doyle and Colm Walsh for their knowledge and great memories.
Thanks to the late John Joyce for his wonderful records of life in Graig and Tinnahinch.
Thanks also to Helen Breen-Allen and Deirde Joyce at Graignamanagh library for facilitating me and for their forgiveness.
Appreciation too for Mel Meaney of the Duiske Inn for feeding me with such succulent fair
Thanks to Tinnahinch’s finest: Kay, Cathy and Ann Butler for posing for Pat Moore.
Thanks to Edward Hayden for all his help.