Red Iron Recalled

Waterford Greenway has brought many benefits to the City & County, and one of them for me was the first views it gave of the Suir Railway Bridge or known in more recent times as the Red Iron located at Grannagh.  Although it might have been new to me, several generations of Waterford youth grew up around the bridge. In choosing it as the title for one of his most popular plays, Jim Nolan captured to many the essence of the bridge, a gathering point, a hangout, a safe space for teens who wanted to just be, and how can you just be, unless you are away from the eyes of adults.  But did you realise that the Red Iron was originally planned to be located much closer to the city?

The Red Iron, or Suir Railway Bridge in its heyday. Note the buoys in position below the bridge opening span in the River Suir for warping. What looks like a lighter is moving with the tide on the Waterford bank to the left. The Kilkenny bank is to the right.

Suir Railway Bridge was opened in 1906 as a means of connecting the railway line which had just opened to Rosslare and via the crossing to travel on to Cork, via Kilmacthomas, Dungarvan, Lismore, Fermoy and Mallow. Once completed the Waterford South Station became redundant to rail, and the North Station then became the city’s sole terminal.  The bridge was in regular use up to March 1967 when the last passenger train left Dungarvan for Rosslare. The line was reopened again to facilitate a magnesite ore processing plant at Ballinacourty but this closed in 1982. CIE would have run occasional maintenance locomotives on the line up to the 90s. A span was removed over the weekend of May 27-28th 1995 and dumped on the Kilkenny bank. I guess the hope of its owners was that the rest of the bridge would rust away into the river.

I had a bit to say to the camera about the Suir Bridge and its opening span to filmmaker Ben Rowland back in 2021. The program was C5’s World’s Most Scenic River Journeys. Disappointingly for me, most of what had to say went on the cutting room floor

The underused, and later abandoned bridge became a mecca for young people in Waterford City from the 1970s onwards.  And my good pal Mark Power recently shared his own personal memory of the bridge which gives a sense of its attraction and danger!

My memories of growing up in the 80s in Waterford were of adventure, curiosity, wonder, and endless fun during the long hot summers. Without a care in the world, a group of us from the same street would head off out to the Red Iron Bridge, during much simpler times, with no phones and gone for the day. We would walk or BMX our way there. It was around the time of the film “Stand by Me” 1986 and we would walk and recite the dialogue from the film on our way there. One could start a line from the film and the rest of us would finish it off.  We’d cut up left just past the dog pound where the track ran over the road. We would run, throw stones into the mud, play tig, and climb the ladder to the top of the tower in the middle to get the best views. Some even walked along the top, but only the brave would dare follow.

Although dangerous as it seems now, we did not see the danger, we just saw it as a day of having a laugh with our friends. The centre span was still intact at that point, and you could walk all the way across to the “lemonade factory”, I think it was some soft drinks store. I remember cycling across the flat part next to the track on my BMX, you needed to pay attention for that one, as you’re looking down and can see through the gaps down to the water. One of my friends tried it and ended up flying over the handlebars. He was fine after a few minutes, as we were made of rubber and invincible then, but he knew better than to try it again.

 Then there was always the threat of the infamous “Yellow Cab” coming across the bridge and catching you. I was told it was a small carriage that was used to police the track. I still don’t know if there was ever any truth to it because as many times I had been over there, I always avoided “getting caught”. I personally had never laid eyes on it, so it was most probably a made-up story, but it was real for me back then and the fear was always there. It’s funny really that “The Yellow Cab” was the only thing we were scared of, with a million and one other thing that should have killed us. In the end, we made it out alive, and it gave me and my friends memories that will last forever (you know who you are). I still bring my girls out there and tell them the stories and fun we had back in the 80s. It was our “Stand by Me”, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I really appreciate Mark sharing his memories with me. It reminded me of our own gallivanting around Cheekpoint, away for the day on the strand, the rivers, the Minaun, Hurthill or to the Barrow Railway Bridge- long wonder-filled days, adventure, some danger, and lots of laughs. But we were a long walk from the Red Iron!

Mark Power AKA the amazing videographer that is Waterford Epic Locations
Mark highlights the damage to the Red Iron at the start of his video, following a train crash on the 24th July 1945, miraculously no one died as far as I am aware

As I mentioned in the introduction, the Suir Bridge was not originally planned for Grannagh at all.  The siting and construction were actually a tortured affair. Initially, in 1890 a plan was proposed to cross a mere 1300 ft above the then road bridge in the city, Timbertoes.  However as ships would have to transit through the rail bridge also, the Commissioners, raised serious concerns about the merit of the proposal.

Effectively at the time ships had to “warp” through such bridges.  Many ships of this era still did not have engine power and so were at the mercy of wind and tide when underway.  Warping involved a sailing ship approaching a bridge at the correct time of tide – either side of high or low water was used, depending on the direction the ship was traveling.  The vessel heaved to at the opening span, and ropes were run through buoys on either side of the bridge by hobblers (local skilled boatmen).  When ready the ship manoeuvred through using the tides and the ropes to safely negotiate the bridge.

Captain Nicholas Parle of the Harbour Commissioners was to the fore in pointing out the very obvious issues with transiting sailing vessels, then without any auxiliary engine power, not through one but two opening spans.  Even with the very capable assistance of the Hobbler crews, such a manoeuvre was hardly feasible through two bridges. Moving several ships both upriver and downriver at the correct time of tide would have been impractical and probably caused bottlenecks, and most possibly involve ships having to wait for an entire tide (6hrs or 12 hrs, depending on the direction of travel) between the two bridges. 

An image of a sailing vessel being warped through Timbertoes. I realise this is an anorak special, many readers may not really care, but the skill and timing required for this were admirable, and I find it fascinating. Such a procedure is rarely photographed, but you may notice that below the bridge one of the buoys used can be seen in the river. Above the bridge a hobbler craft is at one of the upper buoys whilst another hawser is off to the right outside of the shot. Onboard the sailors were probably singing a chanty as the hauled the hawsers aboard. Another two hawsers were paid out from astern keeping the ship on course. This protected the bridge and the ships rigging and spars, yards and masts.
A close-up of the above image shows both hawsers leading away from the bow of the vessel. Hopefully, this might give some appreciation of the space required to warp just one vessel through. Perhaps it might help the reader appreciate the Harbour Commissioners concerns. Also note the yards on the three masts have been moved to assist the transit.

In 1898 the plan was revived and it seems that not one but two different rail companies had plans to cross the Suir, at much the same point as the 1890 plan.  William Friel as Engineer of the Commissioners raised similar objections about the position, but as the plan included a solid base or abutment reaching some 50 feet into the river from the Kilkenny side, Friel also raised the issue of silt deposits along the railway wharf and beyond if such an impediment were placed into the river.  If the modern reader has any doubts about this point, take a drive out to Cheekpoint at low water!  He proposed, and it was accepted, that an extra span of the bridge to reach the shore would alleviate the issue.

Another concern of the railway was the requirement of a 6ft wide footbridge to allow citizens to cross the Suir without the cost of the Timbertoes toll, it seems the rail companies avoided this expense by agreeing to a payment of £5,000 to the Corporation, which went into a fund towards the cost of buying out the toll, something which was later achieved and the end of 1907.

The Toll Gates on Timbertoes. The Bridge was finally made toll-free on the last day of December 1907

It seems that the bridge was still to go ahead in the proposed location up to 1899 when a contractor was employed to survey the area, and they realised that the ground was too soft and they would have to bore to a significant depth to reach the hard ground.  It was 1902 before an alternative location was sought, which eventually led to the siting and construction at Grannagh.  The Suir Bridge was commenced in 1904 and was ready by 1906. 

A notice published in the local papers giving notice of the new bridge

As stated previously, the last passenger train left Dungarvan in March 1967 and in March 2017 the greenway opened along the original railway line.  The opening span was removed from the Suir Bridge in 1995, and I have seen comments on social media saying it should be replaced and the bridge incorporated into the greenway infrastructure.  Watch this space, I guess. 

The removed span resting on the margains of the CIE goods yard rusting away

Two parting thoughts on the location.  Would CIE, now Iarnród Éireann have ever got away with simply removing a span out of the Suir Bridge and letting it rust into the River Suir if it was located in the town?  I hope not, it certainly would have been a much more controversial decision at the time, than it seems to have been.

But really what I am left with about the Red Iron is how fortunate that move of the location to Grannagh.  Would the Red Iron have been as nearly as relevant to so many of the youth of Waterford if it had been located as originally planned in the town?   Would Jim Nolans classic play have ever come to be? The Red Iron was a mecca because it was out of the way, removed from the glare of disapproving adults, a spot where young people could just be themselves, take risks, imagine themselves as they yearned to be, and laugh out loud without judgment.  Mark Power and his pals might be judged harshly by this generation’s more safety conscious parents, but were they at any more risk in relative terms, than a child today alone in their room glued to a smartphone? 

I drew on newspaper reportage of the era for its article, but mostly I referred to Ernie Shepherd’s excellent work on the railway line – Fishguard & Rosslare Railways & Harbour Company.

I have a number of events planned for the coming year, please visit the Talks & Walks section of my website for details and booking. Our next event is this coming Sunday – a gentle stroll through the Faithlegg estate. If you would like to subscribe to my monthly maritime blog, please complete the details below