The New Clonsilla Bridge, spanning the great expanse of water known as the Royal Canal, can lay claim to be one of the great bridges of our time, though this does not necessarily mean that anyone will take its claim seriously.
It spans the complete breadth of this great waterway, starting on the elegant north bank and reaching, in the best tradition of bridges, the south bank, while the foaming torrent of the inland waterway rages beneath.
Although not as long as the Öresund bridge linking Malmo and Copenhagen, nor as wide as the Golden Gate in San Francisco, the New Clonsilla Bridge, as it has come to be affectionately known by local residents, has a charm and a natural beauty that draws sightseers from all over the world, particularly at rush hour.
The need for a new bridge across the Canal was first mooted in the Middle Ages when several peasants died of starvation while trying to cross “ye olde humpe backe bridge” at Clonsilla. Such was the weight of vehicular traffic crossing to darkest Luttrellstown and beyond that the line of carts stretched “as far as the eye can see and even further, yea unto as far as the eye cannot see,” according to one reliable eye-witness.
With typical efficiency the New Bridge took seven hundred years to plan and discuss in a series of high-level interdepartmental meetings, with transport and environment bickering constantly and finance merely smiling and shaking its head. During this time, many plans were formulated and some even got as far as the drawing-board stage, notably the grandiose design of architect Wolverine de Guinness in the seventeenth century, whose chocolate bridge with liquorice balustrades won popular support from the local peasantry.
The great Isambard Kingdom Brunel came to Clonsilla in 1854 and proposed that a suspension bridge be constructed across the canal with Egyptian obelisks, surmounted with golden statues of furry woodland animals, supporting the chains. However, when the Council disclosed that they had only allocated £5 to the construction of the edifice, Brunel became moody and refused to leave the kitchen.
At Easter 1916, the Clonboyne Brigade of the Irish Citizens Army was apparently thwarted in its attempt to link up with Pearse and Connolly in the GPO by its inability to cross the old bridge on a Bank Holiday and despondently turned around and went home for tea instead. WB Yeats apparently wrote a play about the events but lost it one night in a cake shop.
The statistics for the construction of the bridge are frightening. 140 Norwegian spruce firs were scythed down in their prime to make the lats. 2,000 tons of sand was imported from Bundoran to mix the concrete. Ten men died during the construction, which took nearly seventy years and 10,000 migrant workers from Eastern Europe were involved in some way or other in the erection of this marvellous edifice. A plaque commemorating their efforts was attached to the bridge but it proved too heavy and fell into the muddy waters below like Excalibur disappearing back into the lake.
The new bridge was finally ready in 2008 and, on its opening, it was estimated that three million people crammed into the village to watch Lionel Ritchie cut the red ribbon and to plead with him not to sing Dancing on the Ceiling. A further 750 million watched on television and Diana Ross took penalty kicks as part of the high class entertainment. Charlie Bird’s hushed tones as the Dalai Lama made the first traverse of the bridge will live long in RTE history.
Originally designed as a twelve lane road / rail / aqueduct, Government cutbacks meant that the plans were scaled back at the last minute, leaving it with the capacity to carry fifteen pedestrians a minute north to south. The bridge is constructed in the classical style with 53 wooden slats forming a slight concave upon the grey iron surround.
The railings on either side were constructed to shoulder height to rule out the possibility of a rushing commuter slipping and plummeting to the canal ten feet below. Nevertheless Inland Waterways have installed a full time manned lifeboat station beneath the bridge, ready to push out into the stagnant waters at a moment’s notice, should the unthinkable occur.
One unusual aspect of the new construction is that the approach path is actually longer than the bridge itself as the construction company had a job lot of railings that they wanted to pawn off on the Council.
Many observers have also noted that the approach path also leads up to the bridge from an angle and have wondered aloud at the reasoning behind this. Apparently, (and I have this on good faith from a man I met in the Paddocks the other evening) this is because it was felt that commuters would build up too much of a head of steam if they had a straight run from approach path to bridge and would be unable to stop safely on attaining the railway station on the opposite bank.
The initial plan to prevent this had involved speed ramps but when it was discovered that the company had transferred their ramp-manufacturing business from Coolmine to India, it was decided in political circles that a good old fashioned 60° turn in the path would be a more desirable alternative.
Naturally the bridge has been earmarked as a possible target of an attack by Al Qaeda (full name – Alistair Qaeda) and a crack squad of anti-terrorist marines, disguised as wood pigeons in a nearby tree, hold the bridge under constant surveillance. There is even a rumour that at least one explosives expert is strapped to the underside of the bridge at all times in case Al watches Bridge over the River Kwai and gets ideas.
There are many legends and superstitions associated with the New Clonsilla Bridge. One states that if two lovers kiss on the bridge under a full moon in April during Coronation Street, then their first born child will have red hair, providing of course that one of them is female. And at least one junior minister in the government has been known to come to the bridge in his stockinged feet to pray to St. Attracta of Sligo for help in the local elections.