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Bridge over troubled water

Only the lyrical words of a poet could give meaning to the sad origins of Bunlahinch Clapper Bridge by the coast near Killeen, south of Louisburgh, a unique relic among Irish bridges and a reminder of a sad episode in Mayo’s tragic past.

And I think how many thousands
Of care-encumbered men,
Each bearing his burden of sorrow,
Have crossed the bridge since then.

The Bridge, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Bunlahinch Clapper Bridge south of Louisburgh in Co Mayo. Photo: © Anthony Hickey
Bunlahinch Clapper Bridge south of Louisburgh in Co Mayo. Photo: © Anthony Hickey

The simple and yet charming stone bridge was built over the Bunleemshough River in the mid-19th century during the Great Famine by Evangelical Protestant missioners.

The bridge was part of a settlement of converts, bribed to forsake their religion for food, a home – and education for their hungry children.

Standing on the Lilliputian bridge on a summer’s day after walking the Killeen Loop, I thought how a bridge is a metaphor for bringing people together, but Bunlahinch Clapper Bridge stood for the opposite, personifying division – a lasting reminder of a time when class and religion was used to exploit the less fortunate.

Ancient form of bridge

There is no other bridge like the 37-arch Bunlahinch Clapper Bridge in Ireland. The nearest Irish equivalent is a clochán across the Camoge River, at Knockainey in Co Limerick.

Mayo’s clapper bridge has much more in common with an ancient form of bridge found on the moors of Devon (Dartmoor and Exmoor) and in other upland areas of the United Kingdom.

Bunlahinch Clapper Bridge is typical of its type, formed by large flat slabs of stone, and limestone at Bunlahinch, supported on stone piers. Its design allows floodwater to flow through the holes between the piers.

According to the Dartmoor National Park, the word ‘clapper’ derives ultimately from an Anglo-Saxon word, cleaca, meaning
‘bridging the stepping stones’.

Bunlahinch Clapper Bridge south of Louisburgh in Co Mayo. Photo: © Anthony Hickey

The purpose of the bridge was to link the newly-built homes, school and church divided by the river. But for the converts, it was more a case of burning bridges as they were never accepted by their Catholic neighbours who labelled the settlement The Colony.

The outpost was short-lived with many of the converts emigrating. All trace of the Evangelical village is gone except for the 45- metres long footbridge, still in use, and maintained by Mayo County Council.
Bunlahinch Clapper Bridge’s uniqueness as a man-built structure in an Irish context is given an even deeper resonance because of its bitter origins.

Today, the bridge is a stop along the Clew Bay Archaeological Trail, surrounded by well-tended farmsteads and holiday homes, far removed from the hardships of the 1840s when Bunlahinch Clapper Bridge was built.

By Anthony Hickey

Follow writer and photographer, Anthony Hickey, as he travels around his native Co. Mayo, Ireland.