The bridges at Portadown

Vol. 3 No. 1 - 1975

The bridges at Portadown

by D.R.M. Weatherup, F.M.A.

former Curator, Armagh Museum

In an earlier paper I attempted to show how, with man’s increased mastery of his environment due to modem engineering techniques and equipment, Craigavon had been planned with a complete disregard for the natural factors which had previously governed the settlement pattern in north County Armagh. 1

An early photograph of Portadown looking from High Street towards the Bann bridge

The glacial spillway (that shallow, ill-drained valley cut by the waters of the retreating ice at the end of the Ice Age) which runs north-south from Lough Neagh to Carlingford Lough at Newry was, until recent times, a serious impediment to east-west movement. It was a morass and only readily crossable at certain passes where the firm ground came down into it.

Here, on a slight rise to the west of the Bann some ten miles up stream from Lough Neigh, at a point between the fenlands of the Lough basin and the boulder clay of the drumlins where the river was both deep and wide Michael Obins built a bawn and founded the town of Portadown in the early 17th century.

The Obins family had purchased the estate of Ballyoran (of about 1,000 acres of land) from Richard Cope for the original grantees, the Powell's, had not developed it but sold the land to the Rev. Richard Rolleston from whom it passed to the Copes. The finding of flint tools, and stone axes and of dug out canoes in the river bed, 2 suggest that it may have been a crossing place as early as Neolithic times but it only assumed significance when it became the most northerly bridging point of the river.

The crossing at this place was one of particular importance because it was situated between the valley of the River Lagan, running from the east coast at Belfast Lough; and the Clogher Valley which allowed communication between the Sperrin mountains to the north and the Monaghan highlands to the south thus leading through Tyrone into Fermanagh while there was a route going south from Armagh towards Monaghan, and another along the western side of Lough Neagh.

With a ford at Derrybroughas some three miles to the north and at Knockballybrianboy or Knock to the south, it was probably not a fording place but rather the site of a ferry or landing place. The name Portadown is "considered by some to have its derivation from the Irish "Port-a-Duin" meaning landing place of the fort or by others to be of English origin and a contraction of "Port of Down". It would seem possible that the Irish form was mistranslated by the English settlers." 3

First mention of a bridge

The first mention of a bridge occurs in the depositions setting out the Planters' lies in the Civil War Of 1641-42. The bridge, a long wooden structure which would appear to have been built by Obins, was cut in October 1641 by Captain Toole McCann on the orders of Sir Phelim O’Neill and from it numerous British settlers were driven into the river and drowned. 4 In 1648 British forces are recorded as crossing the Bann at Knock Ford on their way to Killer and Loughgall, a diversion to the south which would have been unnecessary' had there been a bridge in use at Portadown. 5

It would seem unlikely that it had been repaired before the restoration of Charles II in 1660 for the town was destroyed by Captain McCann in June 1646 after Munroe's defeat at Benburb and a bridge is not mentioned in the Cromwellian Survey of County Armagh made in 1657. 6 The bridge was certainly rebuilt by 1682 when it was described by the Rector of Drumcree as "a fair wood bridge near upon a thousand feet in length”. 7 Wooden bridges have of course a comparatively short life and Thomas Molyneaux in 1708 described how they went through Portadown on their way from Armagh to Belfast and how their "horses passed over in a wherry, the Bridge which they were then a building, very large and handsome, being not yet finished". 8

This bridge is less enthusiastically described in the House of Commons Journals in 1750 - "The canal runs into the river Bann near Portadown, where there is a wooden bridge low and flat that in time of floods boats are obliged to wait five or six weeks before they can pass under the bridge." It was suggested the best method of avoiding the delay would be to make a cut of one hundred and twenty-five perches with a large arch of stone, which would cost not less than £232.10.0d. No action appears to have been taken although the members resolved that "a gangway is necessary to be made from Truemans lock, in the County of Armagh, to the bridge of Portadown, by the side of the upper river Bann for the towing of boats" 9 and anyway four years afterwards the bridge was swept away in the great floods of 1754.

The bridge collapses

The first stone bridge in Portadown was commenced in 1763 and completed during the next year but part of it collapsed in 1765 when according to the Belfast News letter 10 "three of the arches of the new stone bridge over the River Bann fell down a few days previously. The bridge consisted of seven arches and had been open to carriages from October 1764. It was thought that the accident came about because of two facts, firstly that it came into use too soon before the work took bond, and secondly the wet season with consequent great floods"

The bridge was repaired but was again damaged by floods in 1786. There is a description of it by Lt. Col. Blacker in Shaw Masons "Parochial Survey of Ireland." "There is no town in the parish, though from the rapid increase of buildings on the Seagoe side of Portadown bridge, that town may be shortly said to extend into it. The fine bridge just mentioned, stands in this parish; the small bridge of two arches which is to be met with on the causeway leading to the town, being the division of the parishes and baronies. The old bridges having been swept away in the year 1754 and it being difficult to get a proper foundation in the old channel of the river Bann, a new one was cut parallel to it, the present bridge built, and the water turned into the present channel. It consists of seven large arches, turned with cut stone, the centre or main arch being sufficiently wide to admit the passage of the sloops which trade on the river." 11

The old 13 arch narrow bridge at Portadown from a map drawn in 1820.

Thus Blacker records this major reconstruction on dry land to the Edenderry side at the river and the diversion at the Bann into a new path under the completed structure, while the old bed was filled up and subsequently built over. This confirms that the alteration to the east took place pre 1816 when Shaw Mason's work was published and not around 1837, as some writers have assumed. 12

The possibility of two moves eastwards can be ruled out for a comparison of sheet nine of the 1835 six inch Ordnance Survey map with the modern one reveals the river running in the same course on both. The earlier map, however shows that the upstream portion at the old bed had then been filled in and a broad pool was formed by water flowing over the area of the former river north of the bridge. In 1786 the Post-Chaise Companion said at Portadown that it "is pleasantly situated on the river Bann over which it hath a good bridge. The canal from Newry falls into the Bann within a mile of this place." 13 but in 1804 Coote disposed of the town in one paragraph and of its river crossing with the extraordinary phrase "the Bann navigation to Lough Neagh crosses the road". 14

In 1819 Thomas Bradshaw records that the bridge had by then got thirteen arches and he states in his directory that "It’s pleasantly seated on the western bank at the river Bann, over which there is an excellent bridge of thirteen arches." 15 A representation of this bridge survives as the cartouche at a map drawn in 1820 when the Manor of Ballyoran alias Portadown was sold by the Rev. Archibald Eyre Obins, the last male representative of his family, to his kinsmen Robert Sparrow who had a survey of the Property made by William Greig and John Hill. The map was in the Tandragee estate office until its contents were presented by the Duke of Manchester to the Public Record Office at Northern Ireland.

Decision taken to replace the old bridge

The Ordnance memoirs at 1835 describe the bridge as "old and narrow" and "connecting the town of Portadown with a number of houses built on the other side of the river in Seagoe Parish on the road to Lurgan," and we are informed that "it has long been contemplated and we believe now decided to build a new one at an estimated expense of £8,400."

From further notes made by the Ordnance Field Officers we learn that in the summer months the meadows along the Bann were covered with back cattle and that the river was narrow above the bridge but widened out almost to the size at a small lake below it. 16 This note about the cattle is of interest as Lord Conway in the "Progress of his Forces against the Rebels" dated 26th October 1642 complains that "the Irish and their cattle were so acquainted with the Bann that they took to the river like ducks." 17

The contract for a proposed new bridge was confirmed at the County Armagh Summer Assizes in 1834, but already in 1833 an advertisement had appeared in the Newry Telegraph on 1st November. It reads as follows:-

"To Architects - Wanted a plan, specification and estimate of a bridge to be erected over the river Bann at Portadown in the county of Armagh. The river Bann is 170 feet broad and forms part of the Newry Navigation. The Plans, etc., to be left at the house of Mr. Thomas ShiIlington, Portadown, on or before the first of January next, upon which day the committee will meet there. Thirty guineas will be paid to the person whose Plan shall be approved of, who will also get the execution of the work upon giving satisfactory security.”

In 1837 a field survey was made of Drumcree Parish which states that a “very fine bridge over the Bann at present building”. It was of granite and would display "three semi-elliptical arches and two small semi-elliptical arches." The same authority states that the work was commenced in 1834 and would be finished in 1838. The architects were Arthur Williams and Sons of Dublin and their estimate was £8,000 but it was commonly believed that the actual cost was likely to be £9,000 when completed. 18 According to the Co. Armagh Grand Jury Presentments made at the Summer Assizes of 1834 the Committee appointed to build the bridge consisted of. Viscount Mandrill, Charles Brownlow, Esq., Lieut. Col. Blacker, Charles Hunt, W J Hancock, J H. Carleton, T A Shillington and John Overend, Esqrs., and we learn that the sum of £8,040 – “£4,000 thereof to be levied at this Assizes and the remainder by eight half yearly instalments of £505 each, at each successive Assizes” 19 - was the contract price.

The old bridge demolished

At that time the bridge of thirteen aches was still in use and was demolished in 1839 after the new one had come into service. According to the Portadown News 20 the terrace of houses built by Mr. Marley in 1853 running from Marley Street to Mr. Falloon's has its front wall resting on the parapet of the older bridge and the cut granite coping stones from the parapet are now used as quoins in the houses at the corner of Francis Street and Marley Street. Commenting on the finding of human remains and weapons on this site the Belfast News Letter in 1938 carried a letter from Colin Johnston Robb.

Sir - The human remains and battle gear referred to by your correspondent "G.G" which were found in a navigational cutting near the Regal Cinema, Portadown, were without question relics of the 1641 Rebellion. An old wooden bridge which spanned the Bann at that time was cut by the Irish in order to prevent the English on the east of the Bann from coming to the assistance of their friends on the west side and during the affray a considerable number of the settlers in the western regions of the county were forced, at the point of the sword, over the broken bridge by the Irish, under Captain Toole McCann, and others where many of them perished ... The fact that the river has been diverted explains why the human remains and battle gear were found in a cutting near the picture house which was, in 1641, the bed the Bann. Yours etc."

Bridge widened

The bridge was widened by Portadown Urban District Council In 1922 and although the arches remain they are now only readily visible from the north as an extension was carried out on the upstream side of concrete and stone piers supporting steel girders: to 'give a wider carriage way and footpaths. Charles Johnston, Esq, D L, was chairman of the Committee responsible and the event is commemorated by a bronze plaque attached to the south wall. It now carries westbound traffic only as it has been supplemented by the Shillington bridge to the north. This new bridge is a massive affair some 700ft. in length for it not only crosses the Bann, but continues westward as a raised viaduct over Castle Street. It consists of a two hundred and thirty foot three span prestressed concrete voided slab bridge over the river approached from the railway embankment to the east by a ninety foot viaduct of reinforced concrete while to the west a similar structure extends about 360 ft. to carry the road over Castle Street. 21

The new bridge was ready for use in 1970 and at first access was by a temporary diversion through the old railway station forecourt. The official opening took place on the 9th June, 1970 when H.E. the Governor Lord Grey of Naunton, G.C.M.G., K.C.V.O., O.B.E., performed the ceremony. It is the third line of communications over the Bann at Portadown and situated between the older road bridge and the railway bridge, close beside the latter.

The Ulster Railway Company reached a rail head at Seagoe on the 1st January, 1842, but because of the soft ground the station at Portadown was not reached until the 12th September.

The railway crosses the Bann

In 1845 work on the line to Armagh was commenced and the hardest part was the construction of the bridge across the Bann. So bad was the foundation that iron or stone were not used, but a timber structure in five 39 ft spans was built. Comments were made on its "elegant lightness" but it lasted until 1871 when it was replaced by the present bridge with its cylindrical uprights and iron spans.

The iron railway bridge at Portadown.

The extension to Armagh was opened in l848 and ten years later it had reached Monaghan and then went on to Clones and a junction with the Dundalk to Enniskillen line in 1863. In 1847 a railway from Portadown to Dungannon was sanctioned and it was opened on the 5th April, 1858. It was extended to Omagh in 1861 where it joined up With the Londonderry and EnniskilIen Railway to give a line to Derry.

Dublin and Drogheda were joined by a railway in 1844 when the track reached the south side of the Boyne where the station was regarded as a temporary one until the river could be bridged. In 1845 an act was obtained to establish the Dublin and Belfast Junction Railway, a line from Drogheda to Newry and thence to join the Ulster Railway at Portadown, and by 1850 it had reached the Wellington Inn north of Dundalk and a horse omnibus ran from there to Portadown and the Ulster Railway station.

The section from Portadown to MulIaghglass near Goraghwood was opened on the 6th January, 1852 and the six mile gap, which included the building of the great Craigmore viaduct, was completed by June of that year, but it was not until a year later that the Boyne estuary was crossed by a temporary timber bridge. It was April l855 before the Boyne viaduct was completed and the line actually finished. 22

The growth of railways and their importance during the next hundred years meant that the railway bridge at Portadown was a focal point for traffic to and from Belfast. Dublin, Armagh and Derry and of as much consequence in the transport pattern as was the road bridge. Only with the eclipse of this form of transport after the Second World War and the increasing volume of road traffic did the need for a second road bridge emerge.

I would like to thank B. I. Trainor, (Deputy Keeper), Mr. W. H. Crawford and Mr. G. J. Slater of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland Mr. J. Vitiate of the Linen Hall Library, The Editor of the Portadown Times Mr. W. Little of the Ulster Folk Museum, Mr. T. Blair and Miss E. McKee of Armagh County Museum for their assistance.


  1. "The Site of Craigavon," C.H.S. Review Vol.2, No.1.
  2. Canoes were found in the Bann at Portadown in 1899 and 1942; Portadown News, 21st August, 1953
  3. Greer, J.V, "Aspects of the Historical Geography of Portadown 1610~1900," unpublished thesis, Q.U. B, 1963, p.6
  4. See "County Armagh Depositions of 1641," bound typescript in Armagh County Museum Library
  5. Paterson, T G F, "Armachiana," Vol. XlV, p.55
  6. See Ulster Journal of Archaeology," Series 3, Vol. 2,1939, pp.212-249.
  7. Brookes, Rev. W., "An Account of the Barony of O'Nealand," which appears in slightly different forms in Portadown Parish Magazine, June 1914, and Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Series 2, Vol.4, 1898, pp. 240~241.
  8. Molyneux, T., "Journey to ,the North, August 7th, 1706," in Young, R.M., "Historical Notices of Old Belfast and its Vicinity," Belfast 1896, p.154.
  9. House of Commons Journals, 3rd March, 1750, pp. 233 and 237.
  10. Belfast News Letter 22nd January, 1765
  11. Show Mason, W., "A Statistical 'Account of Parochial Survey of Ireland," Vol.2, Dublin 1816, p.523.
  12. Paterson, T.G.F., "Armachiana," Vol XlV p. 48; Portadown Times, 1st 'August, 1930 and 15th. January, 1900; Potadown News 9th August, 1947 and 27th September,1957.
  13. "The Post Chaise Companion," Dublin 1786, p.460.
  14. Coote, C., "Statistical Survey of County Armagh," Dublin 1804, p 344.
  15. Bradshaw, T., "The General Directory of Newry, Armagh, etc. for 1820, - Newry 1819, p.91.
  16. Portadown News, 2nd August, 1947.
  17. Paterson, TGF, "Armachiana," Vol. XIV p.85
  18. Paterson, T G F, "Extracts from the Ordnance Survey Notes," p.10.
  19. Armagh Grand Jury Presentments, Summer Assizes 1834, p.17.
  20. Portadown News 9th August, 1947.'
  21. See brochure "Institution of Civil Engineers visit to Craigavon New Town Engineering Works," 1970.
  22. See Patterson, EM, "The Great Northern Railway of Ireland," Lingfield,1962.