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by Tom Kenny

The Parliamentary Gazeteer of Ireland was published in 1845 and stated that “the old, or west bridge, over the main current of the Galway River, was built in 1342; and till the erection of the new bridge (The Salmon Weir bridge built 1819) was the only passage from the eastern districts of the county to the great peninsulated district of Iar-Connaught. In 1558, a gate and tower were erected at its west end; and afterwards, another gate and tower were erected in its centre; but these were long ago entirely demolished. About 42 years ago, the bridge was thoroughly repaired on its north side, and was pronounced by architects to be strong; but it soon experienced the effects of the neglect which are so generally apparent in the town; and in consequence of dilapidated parapets, narrow carriage-way and the utter want of side-pavements and of lights, it was, a few years ago, a rather hazardous means of crossing a deep and impetuous river on a dark night”.

Several years later, in 1852, the Office of Public Works reported that the old West Bridge had been removed in the course of the drainage operations in the river channel, during which time the canal and the canal basin were built, the heavy walls on either side of the river were built and what we now know as O’Brien’s Bridge was constructed. “During the past year, the new bridge has been built. It consists of two principal arches spanning the main river channel, with two of smaller size for the passage of the water of the eastern and western mill conduits. The two principal arches are segmented, the chord of each 50 feet and the versed sine 5.5 feet. The rise was limited by the small difference of level between the surface of flood waters in the river and that of the streets forming the approaches. The smaller arches for the mill conduits are of 20 feet span each. The width of the roadway is 40 feet of which 12 are occupied in footways.

These works are now completed and the bridge is thrown open for traffic. During the excavations for the foundations, and the building of the piers and abutments of the principal arches, advantage was taken of the power of the small mill on the east side of the bridge to unwater the works; and a considerable saving by this means effected in that heavy item of expenditure.

The limited space of ground occupied by the mill-conduits at the site of the new arches rendered it impracticable to supply a sufficient supply of water for the mills by a subdivision of the channel, and it was found necessary to divert the waters of the channel altogether to admit of the execution of the works. This object was, however, accomplished in a very short space of time. The arch on the eastern side, including dams, excavations and centering occupied only six days in its erection and that on the western side, only nine days; and by previous arrangement, and timely notice to the mills whose power was stopped for that time, no expense for compensation to them was incurred".

Patrick Nugent was the contractor who built the bridge. It was an imposing feature, an important improvement to the town, a significant landmark and an example of Galway’s urban development during the 19th century. For some reason, in 1889, it was named after William Smith O’Brien, a long since deceased M.P. who had been a leader of the Young Irelanders, was transported to Tasmania, pardoned and released. He had little to do with Galway and I have no idea why the bridge should be called O’Brien’s Bridge.

Our photograph was taken c.1942, some 600 years after the original wooden structure was built and as you can see, the defence of the city was still an important aspect of life on the bridge. The white things we see on the right were in fact tank-traps, designed to keep potential invading German tanks out of our city. We have been unable to decipher the graffiti seen under the pole on the left but it was some kind of demand of England. Just barely visible in our photograph is the legend ‘Geraghty's Tailors’ painted on the roof of, you guessed it, Geraghty's shop.