At Drumlyn Hill on the road from Portadown to Gilford, the road to the right leads to Tandragee. Have you ever wondered why there are so many bridges to cross in the first half mile of this highway?
Prior to the building of the Newry Canal some 250 years ago there was only a ford over the River Bann at Knock. Today the ford is obsolete but five bridges in less than 1/3 mile are required to serve the same purpose. This all happened because the Newry Canal had to get through to Portadown.
Prior to building the Canal, the Cusher River, coming down through Tandragee from Clare, entered the Bann in the vicinity of the Old Flour Mill in Moyallon. When the Canal reached the townland of Moyallon (to facilitate its construction) the courses of both the Cusher and the Bann had to he considerably altered.
Starting a furlong above the White Bridge, the course of the Bann was changed: first left and then to right of its old course and it was made to flow in an artificial bed for over 1½ miles under the White Bridge, the Red Bridge, and Dynes' Bridge to re-join its old course at the ford at the bottom of Knock Lane near the present golf links.
The Cusher too was altered to a new course on the left side of this swampy valley and carried in an artificial bed for three miles from where it entered the townland of Loughans to its new entry to the Bann at Point of Whitecote.
Most of the disused river beds were filled up including the first half-mile of the old Bann. But some were left open and can still be seen. In wet weather one can trace the bed of the disused part of the old Bann all the way.
One very interesting spot is where the new Bann crossed the old Bann halfway between the White Bridge and the Red Bridge. Here, if one looks carefully, one can see the top of the stone wall built across the old river to strengthen the bank of the new river and prevent the water leaking into the former waterway. The waters from local drains and the tail race from the waterwheel of the Flour Mill were channelled into the latter part of the old Bann and kept its course open down to the junction at the old ford.
The Newry Canal was then made to converge with the new bed of the Cusher and for the last 1½ miles of its journey it runs parallel with the Cusher and only a few yards from it. This necessitated the crossing of four water courses where prevailing there was only one.
The old road over Knock ford, through Mullahead via McIntyre's lane to Stramore and on to Gilford was abandoned because it was decimated by all the new watercourses. Consequently a new road was made from Drumlyn Hill to Tandragee. This road required five bridges to carry it over (1) The New Bann, (2) Old Bann, (3) Canal, (4) Cusher and, 100 years later, over (5) the new railway.*
It is interesting to note that all these new watercourses were dug with spades. To accomplish this gigantic task an army of about 250 soldiers was employed. During their sojourn in the neighbourhood they camped in the field, now own by McCracken's, opposite the railway bridge. Until recent times, this was called The Camp Field.
All this took place around the year 1730. But so good was the workmanship and engineering that only one of the bridges has had to be replaced (Dynes' Bridge after 230 years). All the others are adequately coping with our modern traffic. As we contemplate an oil shortage today, I pose the question: Could the modern generation tackle such a big job with spade and shovel and do it as well? Many senior citizens testify that, until early in the present century, local farmers clubbed together about twice a year, bought a Lighter load of coal and unloaded it into their carts at Knock Bridge.
A more exciting item of news is an advertisement which appeared in the Newry Telegraph of 17th February 1813: "A passenger service from Knock Bridge to Newry has been introduced by the respectable Quakers of Moyallon". This enabled people from a wide area to go to Newry, transact their business and return home the same day with ease, comfort and convenience. We are also informed that First Class Cabin fares were 3/4 [3s.4d. or approx. 17p] and Second Class 2/1 [approx. 10p]!
In his book on Canals of Ireland, Dr. McCutcheon tells us "On 17th April a packet boat over the same length of canal was scheduled to take about four hours and the advertised single fares were 2/11 [15p] (1st class) and 1/3 [6p] (2nd class). Cheap Day Returns were issued on Saturdays at 3/4 [17p] and 2/1 [10p]. This regular passenger service - the only one ever operated on an Ulster canal - continued for about thirty years, though the numbers of passengers carried must have been fairly small and no mention is made of it in the report of the Railway Commissioners in 1838.
On the opening of the Ulster Railway to Portadown in 1842 the morning train from Belfast made a connection with this boat on three days a week. It is fairly certain that the three mile connection between the railway terminus at Seagoe and Knock Bridge was by stage coach.
This peculiar stretch of Bann is steeped in history. What better way to enjoy a summer evening than by tracing all these interesting changes on the spot? Come and see where the Moyallon Weir used to be and the site of the Moyallon vitriol yard - the first in Ireland!
If you treat yourself to a picnic by the rippling Bann you may he rewarded with a fleeting glimpse of a kingfisher as it dives to capture a trout for its evening meal.
*(The vicinity of these five bridges is generally known as "Knock Bridge" although the title should really belong to the bridge over the Old Bann)