The original purpose of the structure that is the Salmon Weir Bridge was to connect the new County Courthouse with the County Gaol on Nuns Island. Urban folklore has it that they built a tunnel under the river at the time in order to transfer prisoners from one building to the other, but why would they construct a crossing over and under the water at the same time? It does not make sense. The building of the seven span bridge started in 1818 and finished in 1819.
The weir just above the bridge was built at the same time. It was in the form of a small dam which backed up the water from Lough Corrib and it used to generate power for about a dozen Galway mills.
Years ago, roughly between April and July, one could peer over the bridge into the fast-moving water and watch the salmon fight their way upstream to their traditional spawning grounds. This remarkable sight became a major tourist attraction in the city.
As Burton Stevenson wrote in The Charm of Ireland in 1915: “We walked out on to the bridge to see if there were any real fish in the stream. The bridge has a high parapet, worn glassy-smooth by the coat sleeves of countless lookers on, and there are convenient places to rest the feet, so we leaned over and looked down. The water was quite clear and we could see the stones on the bottom plainly – but no fish.
“‘Look, there’s one,’ said a voice at my elbow, and following the pointing finger, I saw a great salmon, his greenish back almost the colour of the water, poised in the stream, swaying slowly from side to side, exerting himself just enough to hold his place against the current. Then, the finger pointed to another and another and we saw that the river was alive with fish.”
Our photograph today was taken in 1898 and shows two visitors from County Roscommon, Johnny Talbot and Alex Eustace, looking over the bridge.
Sadly, the major dredging of the river in the late fifties and early sixties put an end to that wonderful sight of hundreds of salmon going upriver.
In 1977, it was reported that the bridge at the time handled more than 1,200 vehicles an hour and that the corporation was awaiting a special study on traffic and transport which had been due the previous year. Plans for the addition of a pedestrian walkway to be connected to the bridge are now at the design stage, and hopefully, it will be in operation in 2021.
Our thanks to Emily Eustace for this photograph, and to Paul Connolly for his help.