By Niall Murray
As work nears completion on a €1.2m clean-up and repair project on St Patrick’s Bridge, a rare image of 1860s Cork shows its original construction as it too approached an end.
The bridge is not the first to cross the River Lee’s north channel at this location but was put in place after a flood destroyed the first river crossing there in 1853.
The amazingly detailed image is taken from a glass plate negative in Cork Public Museum’s Lenihan collection of photographic images and views of Cork City in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
It gives an idea of the Victorian engineering and construction techniques involved in the replacement structure designed by John Benson. The foundation stone of the bridge was laid on November 10, 1859, by the Earl of Carlisle, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, in the presence of the city’s mayor, John Arnott.
The photographic image was probably taken at the end of September or early October of 1861 — just weeks before the bridge was handed over to Cork Corporation by contractor Josef Hargrave at the end of November.
The posters or placards visible in the foreground at the bottom of the image advertise the ‘arrival’ of the Great Eastern, the Isambard Brunel-designed steamship that was then the biggest vessel on the world’s seas.
But this was not a scheduled stop, as the ship was forced to turn back from a transatlantic crossing because of storm damage and anchored outside Queenstown (today known as Cobh) on September 18, 1861.
The opportunity was not to be missed by local businesses, including the Citizens’ River Steamers Company Ltd which offered round trips from the city and Queenstown to visit or sail around the ship.
Among the posters pasted up on the boards closing off the construction project is one promoting the reduced fares offered by the steamer company from September 28, as the departure of the Great Eastern drew nearer after her repairs.
The workers on the bridge are little more than blurs due to the long exposure time required to take photographic images 157 years ago. According to a record of the bridge’s entry in the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage, more than 100 stone cutters and masons worked on the limestone bridge.
Some workers are busy near the centre of the image at a device with a spinning wheel above head height. Others to the right of this are at work near a rail running along the centre of the bridge, presumably used to move wagons carrying heavy materials from either end of the bridge where materials were stored.
Over the southern end of the bridge stands a high gantry which may have been used to hoist supplies, many of which may have arrived by road or by ship to Merchant’s Quay, just off to the left of the image.
Some of the first limestone balustrades are already in place in the bottom right corner, where the bridge curves into St Patrick’s Quay. More balustrades are lying flat on the near side of the bridge ready to be put into place by the construction team, while a small number of others look to have been just placed on the south-east end of the bridge near the junction of Merchant’s Quay and St Patrick’s Street.
Just to the left of that, the building on the street corner is occupied by John England & Co tobacconists and snuff manufacturers — a rare glimpse into the mid-19th century Cork streetscape.
At the facing corner, the junction of St Patrick’s St with Lavitt’s Quay, stands James Sheehy’s Alliance Arms pub.
Further to the right, or west, along Lavitt’s Quay are signs marking the premises of Purcell’s printing offices and provision merchant Alex Lunham.
Other identifiable businesses are Donegan’s chandler’s two doors from Sheehy’s pub, with what looks like a large sextant promoting the sale of maritime wares to arriving vessels’ crews.
While many buildings in the image still stand today, those in the distant background along the southern sweep of St Patrick’s Street were destroyed in the December 1920 burning of Cork by Crown Forces.
A notable absentee from St Patrick’s Street is Fr Mathew, Cork’s icon of the early Victorian period for his leadership of the pioneer and abstinence movement. The John Foley-sculpted statue of the father of temperance was not unveiled until October 1864 — a very short stone’s throw from James Sheehy’s pub.
Just like the bridge, Fr Mathew has remained in situ for more than 150 years, and Cork City Council expects the river crossing to be fully reopened to pedestrians in November.
Work was completed during the summer to clean, repoint, and repair the stonework, when much more modern engineering equipment than that in the black-and-white photo was in place to allow crews work outside the bridge and under its three arches.
The road surface is being replaced, as are the bridge’s footpaths, while its repaired and restored lamp columns will also be put back in place in the coming weeks.
The €1.2m repair and rehabilitation works are being carried out by the council in conjunction with Transport Infrastructure Ireland — the first major works on the bridge since 1981, 120 years after this rare photograph was taken.