It’s hard to believe that Palmerstown Bridge, the main artery linking Mayo’s remote north-west corner to the rest of the county, dates back to the decade before the 1798 Rebellion.
Part of Mayo’s architectural heritage, Palmerstown Bridge, stretches between the townlands of Castlereagh and Rathnawooraun, 4 km from Killala, and is one of the oldest bridges in Mayo that is still in daily use.
Palmerstown Bridge has seen the evolution of horse transport to the automobile, and, at the dawn of the self-driving, electric vehicle, it is still the main crossing point on the L133 between Ballina and Mayo’s most northerly stretch of coastline.
No matter how often I cross the long and narrow bridge on my way to Lacken, Ballycastle, and beyond to follow the North Coast Road, I am always struck by the simple grandeur of the structure that has been a landmark for countless generations of Mayo people.
The simple, but beautiful 11-arch masonry bridge, spans the Cloonaghmore river (also known as the Palmerstown river and Owenmore river), which flows southward into the small bay at Rathfran.
There is no precise documentation to say when Palmerstown Bridge was built due to the destruction of grand jury records in the Four Courts fire of 1922 during the Civil War. Prior to the formation of local authorities in Ireland in 1898 bridges were built and maintained by grand juries.
The earliest record of a bridge at Palmerstown is in the Taylor and Skinner’s Maps of the Roads of Ireland in 1778 which shows a bridge between Palmers town and Cas. Rea (Castlereagh). Is this the same bridge or was it a forerunner of the current structure? We cannot say for sure.
However, what we do know from local lore is that Palmerstown Bridge was built circa 1788 by the 6 Langan brothers who had come from Donegal and settled in the Ballycastle area.
The Langan family name is still very prominent throughout North Mayo and descendants of the Langan brothers have continued the family tradition of excelling in the construction and engineering fields to this day.
Crossed by General Humbert
Just 10 years after its construction, in 1798, the bridge was used by General Humbert and his French army who landed at nearby Kilcummin to support the Irish uprising against the occupying British.
Evidence of the strategic importance of the bridge from early times can be gleaned from the remains of an old stone watchtower on a hill overlooking the bridge.
The background to the construction of Palmerstown bridge in the 1780s was the expansion of trade and commerce in the latter half of the 1700s that led to the building of roads and bridges throughout Ireland.
And it was an Act of the Irish Parliament in 1765 – “An Act for More Effectually Amending the Public Road” -that laid the foundation for road and bridge building in Ireland over the following 70 years.
While there is no evidence of the type of bridge that preceded the existing Palmerstown Bridge it is likely to have been some kind of wooden structure, using timber from the extensive local woodland, some of which remains. Sadly, most of the native woodland was felled in the 1940s and 50s when a sawmill operated in the area.
The ruins of the water-powered, 3-storey Palmerstown Mill is another interesting architectural feature and evidence that Palmerstown was once a busy commercial intersection.
The old flax mill, which also produced flour during World War 11, is a large building and must have been a big employer in its day. The mill race and sluice are still there, but the water-powered wheel was removed many years ago.
Palmerstown, on the left bank of the Cloonaghmore river took its name from the local landlords, the Palmer family, who held extensive estates in counties Mayo and Sligo.
Palmerstown House (formerly Palmerstown Court), The Palmer family mansion, was burned to the ground by the French army and the Irish rebels in 1798 as they passed by on their journey to Killala.
In the mid-19th century Henry A Knox, a member of another local landlord family, leased the townland from Sir William Palmer. Mr Knox converted the yard buildings of the original house and his descendants continue to live there today. The front gates of the estate face Palmerstown Bridge.
Evidence of the excesses of the local aristocracy who built near palaces for themselves on both banks of the Cloonaghmore river while our forebears lived from hand to mouth is no longer to be found in the area.
Castlereagh House was the ancestral home of the Knox family and was located on the left side of the road, opposite the old creamery. In an ironic twist of time, all that remains today of that palatial building and its pretensions is the simple white-washed cottage where the stable hands once lived.
In more recent decades, Palmerstown blazed a trail in the 1950s when Palmerstown Creamery was opened on the banks of the Palmerstown river beside the bridge.
The simple, one-storey, old creamery building is an inspiring reminder of the self-help ethic in Ireland before the EU when local farmers came together in a spirit of entrepreneurial cooperation to set up a business that offered a guaranteed income for struggling dairy farmers in North Mayo.
Palmerstown Creamery accepted its first churn in June 1957 and was Mayo’s first permanent milk intake point.
A gallon milk made 1/6d in those days and the creamery was a hub of activity during the milking season. On the 20th anniversary in 1977, there were 512 suppliers and the average amount of milk per supplier in 1977 was 4,945 gallons.
The writing was on the wall for the creamery like many other similar small dairy intake plants with the advent of bulk milk transport vehicles and the formation of the much larger North Connacht Farmers’ Co-operative Society (NCF) in 1972.
NCF, later Connacht Gold, and now known as Aurivo Co-operative Society Ltd, was originally the amalgamation of four co-ops in the North West of Ireland, Achonry, Rathscanlon (Tubbercurry), Riverstown, and Kilmactranny.
Over the next two years, six other co-ops in the region, Gurteen, Ballaghadereen, Kinlough, Kilbarron (Ballyshannon), Palmerstown and Ballintrillick, followed suit and joined NCF.
The maintenance and repair of old masonry bridges such as Palmerstown Bridge is an ongoing challenge for Mayo County Council who must balance public safety with good conservation practices.
Hopefully, the Council can continue its good work in ensuring Palmerstown Bridge continues to provide a safe crossing for motorists for many years to come.