Boyhood in the 1940/50s Ballinasloe
Chapter 6 – The Red Bridge
by Declan Burke
The 10 year old lad shook and shivered in the summer heat in the iron coffin of a box girder where he crouched rattled and vibrated while a train sped past, unseen, within arms length ...
That was me.
Such was a rite of passage we boys imposed on ourselves those days.
The box girder is a major structural component of the Red Bridge, a railway bridge spanning the River Suck about a half-mile east of the Railway Station. The box girder is made up of many riveted structural iron boxes about 100m long in total. Each box had a cut-out in the middle which a small boy could wriggle through, and the trick was to go to exactly half-way and wait for a train.
Although it was called the Red Bridge, it was really a faded maroon, but it was the focus of our summer as it led to great adventures. It was built with massive limestone piers and was originally designed to accommodate two rail lines although one line was never used. The unused rail-bed was not surfaced and apart from the structural I-bar girders you looked straight down into the River Suck.
Naturally, we ran foot-races over those open girders.
A farthing, a quarter of a penny, would assume the outline of a full penny if left on the track while the iron wheels of the train rolled it out by passage. It had to be a fairly long train, though.
I don't know anybody who successfully 'passed' one but we certainly dreamed of wealth generated by such nefarious schemes.
Since the Red Bridge was a bit too far out from town to walk, we rode there on our bicycles and the tires had to be protected from heat blow-outs. A bike left standing in the full sun would develop a swelling of the tire at the bottom (or was it the top?) and eventually this would explode, ruining the tire and tube. The answer was to stand the bicycle upside down and let the wheels spin freely in the breeze. I do not know if it actually worked, but we always acted as if it did, so that anyone walking east along the track would come on 20 to 30 upturned bicycles beside the Red Bridge on any hot summer day.
Downstream, the river split around an island and the girls used the right-hand branch and the boys the Rive Gauche with the island separating them, more or less. For some reason, lads developed a great interest in swimming across the river, exploring the island and 'accidentally' meeting the girls, but actually this was in a very minor key.
This was the Ballinasloe where Father Cummins had decreed the segregation of the sexes; he decreed that women must worship on the left side of the church and the men on the right. This was ostensibly to improve piety and eliminate blackguardism, as in the surreptitious activities of some wiseacres tying the coat-belts of courtin' couples together while occupying the pew behind.
But it actually illustrated the whimsical power of Father Cummins, the administrator of the parish.
Why did he do it? Same reason as a dog licks his balls. He could.
Probably nobody defied this edict till a newly-wed doctor arrived with his new wife in the mid 50s and as newly-weds and they totally ignored the edict and still remained good Catholics.
Amazingly, the sky did not fall.
The Red Bridge and its river were attractive despite the non-existent swimming facilities. A lonely life-preserver on a post was added in the latter years. The main problem was that you had to swim vigorously to keep any circulation going at all, as anyone who ever swam in an Irish river knows.
The mark of excellence for any swimmer then was to swim a mile against the current, upstream of the bridge, where the main stream narrowed to about 25m wide and flowed swiftly. You could be swimming hard for ten minutes and when you looked up, you were still beside the same bush on the bank. It took a high degree of fitness to swim that mile. It was possible though, to rest as the bottom was unusually hospitable with a type of vegetation that was pleasant to stand on and as well, the river was only about four feet deep in the 'cut' anyway, but it served to get us very hardy and fit.
My mother knew we had been swimming when we came home for tea with ravenous appetites. I still remember the special cookies she baked in anticipation of the onslaught.
Now you know why my generation worked hard all those years to get funds for an indoor swimming pool. Of course we never anticipated the panic over asbestos that led to the (in my opinion, unwarranted) closure of that magnificent achievement.
The fields around the Red Bridge were fecund with mushrooms, provided you got up at 3:30 a.m. and went hunting them. Then the children would hawk their wares on long thrawneens* along the roads. It was then I discovered my astigmatism as I could never see the mushrooms before someone else grabbed them. A trip to Stanley Lowe (an optician) in Galway equipped me with glasses and once more I was a contender in the mushroom sweepstakes.
My father taught me to cook mushrooms by putting a dollop of butter in the cusp and placing the mushroom on a hot plate till the butter melted, then 'down the hatch'. Mouth-watering.
The Red Bridge had the salubrious effect with the railway embankment providing a wind-break so we could sunbathe. I always thought the suntan obtained at northern latitudes lasted a lot longer and looked better than that acquired in southerly climes. You could even get sunburn there.
Amazingly, the Railway people were very tolerant of our use of their property, and sadly there was always some bastard who would abuse that trust. The ceramic insulators on the telephone poles were a very tempting target and these delinquents would destroy them with stone-throwing as casually as they would flick a cigarette butt away.
Then, 'the man' would shut off our access for a while, and who could blame him?
... The steam engine passed and I emerged from the box-girder on the Red Bridge. Country silence returned.
I gazed down the track as the train disappeared in the distance. Something happened in that brief time and I am still not sure what.
* Thrawneens: a corruption offrom the Irish tráithnín meaning a dry grass-stalk, in this case of the Centaurea nigra or common knapweed.