The old, and now disused, Limerick Navigation was in five sections:
- one mile of canal from Limerick to the Shannon, cutting off the rapids at Corbally
- one mile in the river to Plassey, where the University of Limerick is now
- the Plassey-Errina Canal, bypassing the Falls of Doonass and rejoining the river opposite Portcrusha, downstream of O’Briensbridge and Montpelier
- the river again up to Killaloe
- a short canal bypassing the rapids of Killaloe.
Here is a rough sketch-map.
O’Briensbridge is on the upper of the two river sections. The village is in County Clare; the settlement of Montpelier, on the other side of the bridge, is in County Limerick.
O’Briensbridge was on the main waterway from Limerick to Lough Derg and, ultimately, to Dublin, Liverpool and London, from 1799 until the last trading boat passed through in June 1929. Until 1799 the rapids in the lower reaches of the Shannon — notably at Killaloe, Doonass and Corbally — had meant that
the merchants [of Limerick] are forced for the space of neer half a score miles to convey their goods by Land-carriage as farr as Killaloo, city and Bishoprick; where they may be reimbarked in boats of burthen.
O’Briensbridge is nowadays cut off from Killaloe by the ESB’s Parteen Villa Weir. This stretch of the river was never an easy one for boats, partly because of rapids at Parteen (ineffectually bypassed by a shallow ‘running canal’, a short cut without locks) but mostly because of the fall in the river at O’Briensbridge itself, the shoal on which the bridge was built and, at first, the absence of a towpath under the bridge.
In 1807 the Grand Canal Company’s agent in Limerick thought that the passage through O’Briensbridge was particularly dangerous because of the strength of the current and the height of the water in winter. He said that John Brownrigg had in 1804:
fixed a cable by means of a large Rock sunk in the Shannon above the Bridge with a large Buoy chained thereto, that the Cable was led through the Arch, and had a small Buoy at the termination, all which was found to answer the purpose of warping the Vessels up the Stream against violent Currents in the Arch of the Bridge.
Brownrigg himself had said this in 1801:
[…] there is one arch near the Clare side something loftyer than the others, this is called the Navigation Arch, because the boats in winter pass under it; It may be safe to do so in winter but I would not advise the smallest boat to make choice of this Arch in Summer, because just close above the bridge and on the west point of the arch, is the remains of an Old Castle, demolished in the war time.
At the time, the large arch on the left (the Co Clare side) was two arches, so the navigation arch was the fourth out. Here is a sketch of the system:
The boats in use at the time were fairly small. Brownrigg identified these types:
- flat-bottomed boats, crewed by two men and carrying 6–8 tons, moving turf, sand, lime, brick, stone etc around Limerick. These may have been like the sand-cots used until after World War II; L T C Rolt wrote about one in his book Green and Silver and a reproduction cot was built a few years ago
- lighters, carrying 12–16 tons, worked around the port
- “half-keeled” boats, with square sails and rudders, carried 6–8 tons between Limerick and Killaloe
- similar but larger boats, carrying 18–20 tons, worked on the lake above Killaloe, dredging for marl (which was used as a fertiliser).
So the boats working through O’Briensbridge were fairly small. Boats going upstream were expected to haul themselves up and boats going downstream to let themselves down using the cable, but few had large enough crews; they also lacked windlasses and hawsers. Many boats were reluctant to use the navigation, especially after two boats sank there. Even when, in 1826, John Grantham was offered one year’s toll-free passage for his new-fangled steamer, the problems at O’Briensbridge (on which he had written a report in 1822) caused him to suspend the service in January 1827.
Thomas Rhodes examined the bridge in 1832. He said:
The velocity of the current at this bridge during the month of November last was upwards of 3 miles per hour, calculating 800 feet above and 750 feet below the bridge, which was performed in six minutes. Immediately under the bridge, the velocity was 5 miles per hour, and the fall about 10 inches. The 4 arches next the north [Clare] abutment being so very narrow (viz. 19, 23, 23, and 26 feet), renders the navigation exceedingly dangerous to lives and property, and it is surprising that no more accidents happen.
Vessels laden with merchandise are obliged to stop here for a considerable time, for the purpose of being warped up through the arches by a capstern, which is placed upon a pier projecting into the river 50 feet; and by means of a block affixed to a floating buoy in the river, leading in a line with the large or fourth arch: a rope is dropped through this arch and fastened to the vessel, and being already attached to the capstern, she is by 8 or 10 men (according to the resistance of the water), hauled through the arch; this mechanical operation causes great delay, and not without serious risk.
A capstan is much the same as a windlass, but it has a vertical rather than a horizontal axis. Here is a speculative reconstruction of the system Rhodes described.
I’ve shown a pier with an island at its outer edge. If men were going to work a capstan, they would need room to push the bars; the capstan area would therefore have to be wider than the pier section, which was presumably used only for access. The nature of the pier is not described, but presumably water could flow beneath it. And perhaps the use of a buoy allowed some distance between the end of the island and the boats’ route up through the bridge, avoiding any increase in the speed of the current. So that seems clear enough. And then we have the bridge itself, as drawn by Rhodes:
You can see the navigation arch, still “loftyer” than the others: the thirteen others. For Rhodes shows fourteen arches, but the bridge now has only twelve.
The Shannon Commissioners
Rhodes recommended making four of the arches into two and carrying out other improvements:
To remedy this great inconvenience and risk to lives and property, I would propose taking down the four arches at the north end of the bridge with the land abutment, and the three intermediate piers towards the centre; to dredge the bed of the river to at least 7 feet below the lowest summer-water, and build the hind abutment and track-way for horses, and a centre pier, capable of receiving two arches of 60 feet span each, composed of timber or iron.
These arches should be flat, and the segment of an ellipse which would be capable of allowing the canal vessels to pass at all heights of the river: I should also propose to take away the capstern and its pier, deepening the side of the river from the bridge to about 200 feet above this pier, and bringing the retaining wall forwards, or into the river 10 feet at the bridge, and diminishing to the present line at 700 feet upwards.
He provided this estimate of the costs:
- 831 cube yards hammer-dressed masonry @ 13s 6d = £560/18/6
- 1761 cube yards rubble masonry, in retaining walls above and below bridge @ 6s = £528/6/-
- 15000 cube yards excavation, in deepening and improving the river bed @ 5d = £312/10/-
- Contingent expenses = £140/-/-
- Total £1541/14/6
But the Shannon Commissioners, who carried out many of his recommendations, didn’t carry out that one. Here is what they did:
This old and badly-constructed bridge, with large piers, erected upon a shoal extending across the river, proved a great obstruction to the free discharge of the winter floods. Seven arches [at the Limerick end] have been removed, and six of 27 feet span have been built, and the bed of the river deepened. The effect, upon the completion of the work, was very sensibly experience by trade boats in ascending the river, and by the diminished head of water they had to pass through.
The contractor experienced a good deal of trouble to keep the ground within the stanks dry during the operation of laying in the foundations of the piers and abutments; two chain pumps and a horse pump were employed, but were unable to keep the water down, and to do so effectually the contractor was obliged to erect a steam engine, in addition to the horse and chain pumps. The quay, 700 feet in length, has been completed, a lay-by formed, and mooring posts put down; the trackway has been greatly improved immediately below the mills, where there was a very awkward and inconvenient bend in the river bank. The average number of persons employed daily at O’Brien’s Bridge, from 17th June to 31st December, was 116, being equivalent to 19,177 days’ work. The quantity dredged was 6000 cubic yards.
The interesting thing about that is that the Commissioners rebuilt the bridge on the Limerick side, whereas the navigation arches were and are on the Clare side. The difference between the new Limerick arches (right-hand side) and the older Clare arches can be seen clearly in the photo below. So why didn’t the Commissioners for the Improvement of the Navigation take this obvious step to improve the navigation?
Who did it?
The Parliamentary Gazetteer noted the matter:
All these [Rhodes’s] recommendations have not been carried into effect; but, in the course of 1844, 7 arches at the co. Limerick end of the bridge were removed, and 6 of 27 feet span each substituted for them. A quay 700 feet in length was also completed, and a lay-by formed.
But it was wrong. The Shannon Commissioners reduced the number of arches by one, and didn’t provide a towing-path under the bridge, but somebody did.
Sean Kierse says:
After the works of 1843–44 the seven old arches on the Clare side still remained. Slater’s Directory of Ireland 1856 stated that the bridge had twelve arches. It would appear that the first two arches on the O’Briensbridge [Clare] side were converted into one large arch, probably about 1848.
Ruth Delany gives no date:
A new navigation arch and towpath replaced the two nearest arches at the west end, producing the twelve-arch bridge as it is today with the present arches two to six from the west end remaining of the pre-1833 bridge.
But I think we can put a date to it. Henry D Inglis took A Journey throughout Ireland, during the Spring, Summer and Autumn of 1834. He says:
About two miles up the river from Castle Connell we reached O’Brien’s bridge; an old bridge, with a castle, and small village, on the Clare side of the river. The bridge has thirteen arches, and is only interesting from its antiquity.
Assuming Inglis didn’t make a mistake in his counting, the seven Clare arches must have been reduced to six by 1834; the seven Limerick arches were not so reduced until 1844.
But if the Shannon Commissioners didn’t do the work, who did?
One J K (identified by the Literary Gazette as Emerson Tennant, MP for Belfast and author of the well-known book on how to capture elephants) claimed authorship of a book called Letters to the North, from a Traveller in the South. Writing about the activities of Charles Wye Williams and his (Inland Steam) Navigation Company, he says:
From Limerick to Killaloe, owing to the rapids I have mentioned at Castle Connell, vessels are obliged to pass through three short canals, to avoid the shoal water; O’Brien’s bridge likewise presented an obstacle, but this has been removed by the company’s taking down and enlarging one arch for the passage of their boats.
It was Williams wot done it.
It was probably also Williams who re-positioned (or replaced) the capstan. For there is still a capstan, and it was in use until navigation ceased in 1929. However, its position does not match that described by Rhodes: it is on the towing-path, not on a pier. And the roller at its base is aligned to lead a rope to the towpath arch, not the old navigation arch.
This anchor was found in the river bed a few years ago.
It’s a very large anchor, far too large for any of the early-nineteenth-century vessels using the navigation. It’s also an old anchor: it has a wooden stock, and wooden stocks were being phased out from the early nineteenth century (although presumably old anchors were still available for many years afterwards). Could it have formed part of the system for anchoring buoys for the cable? The place where it was found is consistent with that, and the other artefacts found nearby, including chain and limestone blocks with rings in their tops, might also be part of such a system.
Much remains to be learned.
How many navigation arches?
Self-propelled vessels, of course, don’t need to use the towpath arch and the old “loftyer” arch is still available, although it’s now the third rather than the fourth from the Clare side. R Harvey, travelling by steam launch in 1896, offered a third option:
When navigating your vessel here, be always careful to go through the third arch at high water, and the fourth arch at low water, counting from the tow-path side.
I have not tested that advice.
July 2011: here is an article about the significance of the capstan at O’Briensbridge and the route to Liverpool.