Was Cromwell’s Bridge in Glengarriff (Cork) named after Oliver Cromwell or is there another explanation for its name?
Cromwell’s Bridge in Glengarriff, West Cork, is located on what was the high road to Castletown-Bearhaven. Folklore pertaining to the name of the bridge abounds. Cork antiquarian John Windele noted in 1839:
“Tradition says, that on the approach of Cromwell, on his way to Berehaven, the natives broke down the bridge in order to impede his progress, but he compelled them again to rebuild it; and thus has it since retained his name, as has also the ford ‘Ath Cromwell,’ over which it was erected.”
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In the early 1840s journalist Samuel Carter Hall and his wife Anna Maria wrote a guidebook to entice English visitors to Ireland and to promote the perceived benefits of the Union with Britain. In their widely-read travelogue the lore surrounding the building of Cromwell’s Bridge is even more dramatically delivered:
“History being silent as to the origin of the name, we must have recourse to tradition. When Oliver was passing through the glen to visit the O’Sullivans he had so much trouble in getting across the narrow but rushing river, that he told the inhabitants if they did not build him a bridge by the time he returned, he would hang up a man for every hour’s delay he met with. ‘So the bridge was ready again he come back,’ quoth our informant; ‘for they knew the ould villain to be a man of his word’.”
While the bridge may have been contemporaneous with the period of the Cromwellian conquest, the name probably has nothing to do with Oliver or his army. “Cromwell” is attached to many placenames throughout Ireland and particularly to built infrastructure; in fact a nearby disused roadway is called Cromwell’s Road.
On the northwestern edge of Kenmare town, Co. Kerry, is another bridge bearing the name “Cromwell’s Bridge”. William Petty’s settlers may have erected this single-arched structure in the second half of the 17th century or slightly later; it is probably a packhorse bridge. It has been suggested that its name may derive from an amalgamation of the Irish words “croim”, meaning “stooped” and “maol”, meaning “bald”. The term “maol” is used to describe bridges without a parapet and interestingly, Cromwell’s Bridge in Glengarriff also lacks this feature.
A townland in Limerick called “Cromwell” is known in Irish as “Cnoc Cromail“, which translates as the “Hill of Cromail”. The surnames Cromail and Gromail were Irish versions of the English surname Cromwell and were known in Limerick since as early as the 13th century. This shows that linking the Limerick placename automatically with Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658) in this instance would be ill-conceived as the name may plausibly predate the English general by several centuries.
Returning to Cromwell’s Bridge in Glengarriff, surrounded as it is by woodland, it has been suggested that the name evokes the Irish “crom choill” meaning “sloping wood”.
Another interesting placename in the area is Corriveillaun, which applies to the woodland just east of the bridge. The name is marked on the Ordnance Survey 25-inch map, which was produced between 1897–1913. Given the slight phonetic similarity, “Cromwell” could potentially derive from “Corriveillaun”, which is evidently an Anglicized name but our research has not uncovered the original Irish version. One possibility is “Currach An Mhaoilinn” meaning a bare or flat-topped marsh. A more likely possibility is “Currach Bheithe Lán” meaning “full marsh of the birch”. The latter makes sense when we consider that downy birch trees commonly grow in the wet woodland along parts of the Glengarriff River.
>>> READ MORE: Glengarriff village in the mid-19th century
Another theory, one offered by David Myler of Walking with Stones, is that the name of the bridge could derive from the Irish “croiméal” meaning “moustache” in reference to the shape of the arches. This suggestion has also been made in relation to Cromwell’s Bridge in Kenmare.
It is now impossible to determine with absolute certainty the origin of the name of the bridge in Glengarriff. It is also known as “Keamagower”, possibly an older name, which derives from the Irish “Céim an Ghabhair” meaning “goat’s leap”.
Depictions of the bridge
Cromwell’s Bridge in Glengarriff has attracted much attention from artists and photographers since the early 19th century, with the many works of art depicting the bridge in varying stages of ruin and with differing numbers of semicircular arches. The artwork indicates that the arches varied significantly in height and width, and supported a narrow hump backed carriageway. Allowing for a degree of artistic licence, it seems that some of the earliest images of this picturesque bridge show four or five arches.
One such example is the piece by English artist William Bartlett (above). Bartlett visited Ireland on a number of occasions between the 1820s and early 1840s with many of his sketches appearing in Ireland Illustrated published in 1831 and The Scenery and Antiquities of Ireland published in 1842. His illustration of Cromwell’s Bridge, with its five arches intact, probably dates to the 1830s. By this time a new bridge had been built upstream from Cromwell’s Bridge, which can be viewed in the background of the drawing.
Within a few short years some of the arches of Cromwell’s Bridge had suffered damage. In 1839 Windele described it as a triple-arched bridge and observed that it was no longer in use: “[It] is an old time-worn disused structure of three arches, shorn of its parapets, and ruinous, but still a striking object in the landscape”.
A lesser-known sketch (above) produced probably in the early 1840s by Belfast artist Andrew Nicholl shows three arches. But oddly some later artistic works show a four-arched structure, such as the drawing (below) by American artist Frederick B. Schell which was published in 1884.
In the twentieth century the bridge and two of its remaining arches suffered further destruction.
The bridge today
Today only a single arch of Cromwell’s Bridge survives extending from the south bank of the river towards the centre of the channel. It was constructed from rough rubble sandstone and limestone. A pointed cutwater survives which extends to the full height of the bridge protecting the remaining pier; a short section of the rubblestone voussoirs of the adjoining arch also remains clinging to the extant pier.
Although in a highly ruined state, Cromwell’s Bridge is among the oldest surviving stone bridges in Co. Cork and likely dates to the 17th century. This century saw a spate of bridge building throughout Ireland but most were constructed from timber and do not survive today.
Archaeological Survey of Ireland, RMP CO104-016; KE093-080.
Coyne, J.S. 1842. The Scenery and Antiquities of Ireland Illustrated from Drawings by W. H. Bartlett. Vol. 2. G. Virtue: London.
Hall, S.C. and Hall, A.M. 1841. Ireland: Its scenery, character, &c. Vol. 1. How & Parsons: London.
Irish Tourist’s Illustrated Handbook for Visitors to Ireland in 1852. 3rd ed. (1852). Office of the National Illustrated Library: London. Irish Tourism Archive, Technological University Dublin.
Irish Travel, vol. 1 no. 2, Oct. 1925.
Joyce, P.W. 1887. The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places. 5th ed., vol. 1. M.H. Gill and Son: Dublin.
Minch, R. 2009. ‘Bartlett, William’. Dictionary of Irish Biography.
Murphy, D. 1902. Cromwell in Ireland: A history of Cromwell’s Irish campaign. Gill: Dublin.
O’Halloran, W. 1916. Early Irish History and Antiquities and the History of West Cork.
Placenames Database of Ireland.
Schools’ Folklore Collection, vol. 341, p.509.
Turk, E., Carey, L.L. et al. 2013. Heritage Bridges of County Cork. Cork County Council.
Windele, J. 1839. Historical and Descriptive Notices of the City of Cork and its Vicinity. Cork.