The Carey Bridge situated at the Fair Green area of Mullingar, has been an important Pedestrian crossing over the Royal Canal since 1953. What we see today is the second much wider pedestrian bridge constructed in 1998, to replace the smaller bridge which stood number yards nearer towards the Greenbridge side. On either side of the canal, you may still view the impact of the previous bridge on the wall and canal banks.
So let’s look at the history of the Carey Bridge and what led to its construction and indeed it’s naming.
After Irish Independence one of the first tasks Mullingar Town Commission aimed to achieve was to create more housing for the town’s inhabitants, with many of our towns inhabitants living in sub-standard accommodation.
The Fairgreen area which for centuries, was also the main location for trade and livestock sales with markets and fairs still very much part of the commerce of the town, was viewed as being a prime location for housing with its large land expanse and central location to the town centre.
By the late 1920s, twenty houses named Grand Parade, were constructed on the Fair Green outside the main gate of the Army Barracks. Grand Parade was a very fitting name for this housing scheme, with it incorporating the historic nature of the location which held many fine grand military parades over the centuries.
This of course is unlike many housing schemes today, which bear little or no resemblance to the topography or history of the locality.
The town commission also sought and succeeded in taking charge of the Married Quarters in the Army Barracks for use as social housing, and in the process, naming them St Finians Terrace and St Laurence’s Terrace respectively.
An interesting point to note at this juncture, was that only a mere year or two previous, an Irish Army Officer and his young family had lived in a section of these Married Quarters, one of the young boys of that family was Charles J. Haughey, who later became the Leader of Fianna Fail and An Taoiseach.
As the 1930s and indeed 1940s progressed, more housing schemes also began to spring up in the Fair Green including, Cathedral View, St Brigid’s Terrace and the Green Road. For sure, the first twenty years of Irish independence witnessed the members of Mullingar Town Commission on an important mission, and that mission was to provide homes for the town’s residents leaving no stone unturned…… literally!!!!
The increase in housing of course symbiotically witnessed an increase in the population at the Fair Green area of town, not to mention the great mass of people that thronged the area on fair days. Local residents and their children wishing to attend local schools, the Garda Barracks and church services in the Cathedral of Christ the King, literally on the other side of the Royal Canal, had to walk down into the town centre to access these locations.
Consequently, it was reported that a very dangerous situation and habit was now becoming the norm amongst the younger population, with it being reported that local school children were using the railway as a short cut to get to school. A meeting of Mullingar Town Commission in the early 1950s, heard that it was only a matter of time before tragedy struck, especially regarding the newer diesel trains which were much quieter than the steam engines and therefore less likely to be heard by the school children.
However, from the late 1930s onwards, a long serving member of Mullingar Town Commission, James Carey had began to lobby both his colleagues on Mullingar Town Commission and Westmeath County Council, to alleviate this concerning issue and sought the construction of a pedestrian bridge across the Royal Canal.
Commissioner James Carey was a coach builder at Castle Street in the town centre, and had previously proposed the idea of the construction of an airport in the Lynn/Clonmore area of the town, which of course never materialised.
However, on this issue he was not going to give up and he campaigned relentlessly for the next number of years, indeed, so much so, that the proposal became known as the Carey Bridge by locals, long before the local authority and its engineers even had it even planned let alone designed!!
At the June meeting of the Mullingar Town Commission in 1950, the issue of a pedestrian bridge over the Royal Canal was once again raised by James Carey and as to why there was such a delay is in its construction. In response, it was reported that at the recent County Council meeting that a letter was read from C.I.E. agreeing to give permission to Westmeath County Council to erect a foot-bridge over the Royal Canal, however, there was a caveat included.
This Caveat as proposed by these leaders of Irish transport was that, before a bridge could be constructed, that it should be agreed that on six months’ notice from C.I.E. that the bridge could be taken down if they (C.I.E.) deemed it necessary! This latter suggestion by C.I.E. was rejected by those present with Mr L`Estrange stating that “They would not agree to that”.
The County Manager also informed the meeting that another issue that arose regarding the delay of the construction of the bridge was that Lord Greville still held a lease on a portion of the land adjoining the Royal Canal. Things were definitely not looking good for the construction of the Carey Bridge with bureaucracy and “red tape” creating obstacles.
By July, The County Engineer informed the Commissioners that C.I.E. had now granted permission for the erection of the bridge but that what was now holding up its progression was again, permission from Lord Greville, who held a right of way on the land from the Green Road to the banks of the Royal Canal.
In response, Commissioner James Carey positively informed the meeting, that in view of the manner in which Lord Greville had acted previously when he handed over the Market House and part of Dominick Street, the Fair Green and tolls to the local authority a few years previously, that it was hardly likely that he would now hold up this project any further.
In March 1951 at a meeting of the Mullingar Town Commission, Mr Jennings stated that all that was needed now for the erection of the Carey Bridge was permission from the County Council for the erection of a bridge at the site, for which the Town Clerk interjected and informed everyone present, that this had been carried out.
The County Manager also informed everyone that he received a letter from the solicitors of Lord Greville who still had an interest regarding land on the Fair Green side of the proposed bridge and that it stated that his Lordship was willing to dispose of his interest in the site in question, Commissioner James Carey had worked his magic on his Lordship!!!
It now appeared that the Carey Bridge would now become a reality and the dreams of Commissioner James Carey were about to be realised. The chairman, Mr Shaw proposed that it would be a nice thing if they wrote to James Carey to inform him of the progress and also the hope that he would be asked to perform the opening ceremony.
By 1952, the Carey Bridge as proposed by James Carey began to become a reality with Westmeath County Council agreeing to its construction. By November of the same year, the Department of Local Government wrote to the County Council approving a tender of £625 from Messrs Tuberwrights Ltd, London, for the supply of a fabricated steelwork bridge to be erected by the Dublin Erection Company at an estimated cost of £800.
It was further noted by the County Manager, that this approval was subject to the obtaining of a license for the free import of 5.1 tons of fabricated steelwork from the UK, subject to the consent of the Commissioners of Public Works.
In 2021, one can only imagine the amount of loop holes and paperwork needing to be carried out by Westmeath County Council at this initial stage of planning and preparation. This, faced with the fact that the Ireland of the 1950s strictly followed an economic policy of rigid protectionism, especially regarding importation.
It was not until the early 1960s, that An Taoiseach Sean Lemass, along with Civil Servant T.K. Whitaker were to open up the Irish economy and break with the rigid policy of protectionism with the implementation of the First Programme for Economic Expansion.
In January 1953 a reporter in the local media stated that it would be another 6 months before the steel would arrive from the U.K. Sure enough, Six months later in June, word came through to the people of Mullingar that the steel for the new pedestrian bridge over the Royal Canal was due to arrive within days. However, this excitement by the residents of the Fair Green area of the town was to be short lived when the tragic news of the death of a prominent local representative was announced.
The very man who for years had campaigned for the construction of the pedestrian bridge over the Royal Canal, so much so in fact, that locals even termed this architectural dream as “The Carey Bridge” long before it was even given any serious consideration, died at the home of his nephew only a short distance away at Grand Parade.
It was recorded that James Carey was 78, and had only retired as a Town Commissioner two years previously after decades of loyal public service to the people of Mullingar.
Poignantly, James Carey, the noted Mullingar public representative, businessman, coach builder, prize winning carpenter, inventor of parts for winnowing machines and hay bogeys but most of all, champion of the residents of the Fair Green area of Mullingar was never to witness his greatest dream become a reality.
However, the oddities of Life have a strange way of making themselves known, and only days after his passing in June 1953, initial ground works began at the site of the proposed Carey Bridge, with the long awaited steel arriving shortly thereafter. On Saturday, 20 September 1953, it was reported in the local Westmeath Examiner newspaper that the steelwork for the Carey Bridge had been erected with Westmeath County Council in the process of providing a concrete roadway to enable pedestrians to cross it.
The bridge was described as being 80ft in length, 6ft wide and weighing 13 ½ tons. Approaching the Carey Bridge, Trees were now planted along the banks of the Royal Canal along with a “lick of paint” following the completion of works.
However, not long after the bridge was opened and much to the annoyance of local officials it appeared that more than pedestrian began to use the Carey Bridge. At a meeting of the Mullingar Town Commission, Mr J Coleman exclaimed that he had been informed that a local man looking to take a short cut into town, decided to travel over the Carey Bridge in his “Ass n Cart” making several attempts to cross before realising it was a hopeless case and finally giving up!!!
For sure, many of the town’s people of Mullingar fell about laughing as they picturing this calamitous scene at the bridge named in James Carrey’s honour. To date, it is not clear whether it was the local man or indeed the poor old donkey, who finally decided to reach this sensible conclusion of giving up on attempting to cross the bridge!!!!!!!!!!!
The Carey Bridge served the people of Mullingar for over 40 years before it was decided that due to an increase in population, that a new more modern wider bridge was required at this location. In September 1997, it was announced that the old steel fabricated Carey Bridge was to be demolished and that tenders were now sought for the construction of a new pedestrian bridge over the Royal Canal.
Construction of the new Carey Bridge began almost a year later in the Summer of 1998 with Westmeath County Council allocating £52,000 for the work. This new bridge was to be located a number of meters to the north of the original bridge which was to remain in place until works on the new bridge was complete.
So it was that in 1999 that a new more modern pedestrian bridge came into operation with the demolition of the old Carey Bridge. In March 2002, it was decided that the hard work, dedication and foresight of Commissioner James Carey 50 years previously, was to be remembered with the erection of a plaque in his honour on the Fair Green side of the new Carey Bridge.
This fitting tribute witnessed local dignitaries including his descendants in attendance in which all present were to recollect the life and foresight of this great Mullingar man of yesterday. The Carey Bridge today remains an important conduit for pedestrians from far and wide who visit Mullingar especially school children as they make their way to the local schools.
So the next time you cross this Mullingar landmark, please take the time to remember Commissioner James Carey and his dream of a pedestrian bridge over the Royal Canal,
“The Carey Bridge: The bridge with a name long before it was even planned!”
Article by Jason McKevitt © Local Historian 2021
(Formerly a resident of Grand Parade, who holds many happy memories growing up in this part of town)