The storied history of the 'Big Bridge' in Dundalk
I have always been fascinated by the many old bridge structures around the Town of Dundalk but none more so than by the one I included in my Question Time this week; the one that is best known locally as 'The Big Bridge'. This river crossing has been pivotal to the life of the Town for over one thousand years and there was a ford here for at least two thousand years before those times.
The stone bridge that is there now, as I have mentioned in my answer, was only built in 1819 but there was a wooden structure, which was probably covered over, from the time the walled town was built 'on a gravel ridge leading to the river' in the late twelfth century.
The founding of the town is credited to Bertram de Verdon but the wooden bridge may well have been ordered by John de Courcy whom, I have read, used the town as his base for the invasion and conquest of Ulster in the early 13th century.
The date when the first stone bridge was built I have not come across but it was probably in the late sixteenth century when Sir Richard Bellew, who built Castletown House, was constructing a lot of bridges and fortifications around the old town. An interesting feature of the older stone bridge is that, from illustration of the early town, had seven arches through which the river flowed, whereas the present structure has just three.
The 1819 bridge when built seems to have had metal railings along the top of the parapets on both sides, as can be seen from the metal fragments in holes on the capping stones.
This bridge had a weight restriction placed on traffic crossing but even this did not save the old bridge from needing structural repairs at the end of the last century.
Even this newer bridge has seen much history as, firstly, a Customs Hut was placed on the Lisdoo side of it after the Border with Northern Ireland was created in 1922. Then, not all that long afterwards, the bridge was mined by Irish Army sappers to try to prevent armoured vehicles crossing it in an invasion, prior to the D Day landing of 1944. An action that would have deprived the Town of a water supply had it been implemented.
The Big Bridge has seen many parades and demonstrations crossing it for centuries; and it must also be remembered that it was over this bridge that most former Dundalk citizens remains have been driven, and some carried on shoulders, on their way to their last resting place in St. Patrick's Cemetery at Dowdallshill.