FOR families who have lived in the town or environs for generations the talk was compulsory listening.
It had to be of interest too, to those who later made their homes in the popular town and perhaps those who may some time call Callan home were also keen to be au fair with Callan of yesteryear.
JOE KENNEDY of Callan Heritage Society gave a fascinating insight into the history of Bridge Street in the South Kilkenny town
The story of Bridge Street is in many ways the story of Callan.
When Callan Town was built by the Normans in the late 12th century it was built on the south side of the King’s River.
It was surrounded by a defensive embankment on three sides with the river as its defensive boundary to the north.
Its principal streets, as they are today, ran north, south, east, and west intersecting at the Cross, a linear medieval town.
The streets were East, South, West and Bridge Street. Castles were built at the outer ends of these streets and at the river to control access.
Two of the streets retain their original names, West Street, and Bridge Street.
In time South Street, became Green Street, and East Street, Mill Street.
The town got its Foundation Charter in 1207 from William, Earl, Marshall, Lord of Leinster, married to Strongbow’s daughter, Isabelle. In 2007 the town celebrated its 800th birthday.
This charter confirmed extensive rights and privileges on its Burgesses and Freemen, who together with the Sovereign (mayor) constituted the Corporation of the ‘Town and Liberties of Callan’.
The Liberties was a large rural area under the corporation’s jurisdiction.
For centuries before the coming of the Normans the ford on the river was of vital strategic importance, controlling movement from Munster to Leinster.
Clodeen Lane was the access way to the ford from the south, and Kenny or Kilkenny Street was the access way from the north.
After the Normans had established Callan Town they built a stone bridge (the Big Bridge) connecting it to the north side of the river and to the settlement that existed there.
This settlement containing about five acres was a suburb outside the jurisdiction of the corporation.
It was enclosed by an earthen bank and ditch with palisades. It comprised Lower Bridge Street, Mill Lane and Kenny Street.
Many inhabitants were workers on the Manor of Callan where the centre was the Motte and Bailey, the Moat as it is called, where the Lord of the Manor lived.
In some old documents, Lower Bridge Street is referred to as Little Bridge Street to distinguish it from Upper Bridge Street.
In medieval documents the town on the south side of the river was known as Le Irraght of Callan and the settlement on the north side as Callan le Hille.
The hill being referred to is the rising ground where the Convent of Mercy now stands.
A Mill Race ran from ‘the Paupers’ on the King’s River to the ford at the Big Bridge.
It was constructed to provide a mill with a constant supply of water.
A bridge was built over this mill race at the Kilkenny Road end of Bridge Street, opposite the convent and another bridge was built in Mill Lane near where the old Bacon Factory and KCATS are today.
A quaintly worded plaque beside the little bridge opposite the convent reads:
This bridge was built Patrick Walsh Esq MP, Sovereign of Callan,
Inspector AM 1791 by Ambrose Williams Architect.
In the 15th century the Augustinians built their monastery on the north side of the King’s River and constructed a small bridge connecting the Abbey Meadow to the town.
This bridge gave the townspeople access to the Abbey Well and a supply of clean drinking water.
You had four bridges on the North side of Callan town. Two over the King’s River and two over the Mill Race, veritable ‘Little Venice’.
Upper Bridge Street has a distinct medieval appearance – ‘narrow street with the houses huddled together’ as historian Dr Willie Nolan termed it when observing it from the height of the Minauns Road near the Old Abbey.
Down the centuries, Green Street and Bridge were the principal streets, mainly because they were part of the direct main coach road from Dublin to Cork.
In addition to its importance as a stopping off point on the main coach road.
Callan was also the market town to a wide hinterland.
How long the original Big Bridge lasted or how many times it was rebuilt is not knows.
The first sketch we have of the bridge is on the Down Survey Map of 1655.
It shows a large bridge of three arches with access to the town controlled by a stout castle where Somers Pub/Shop stands today.
The 1813 Miller, Robertson Sketches of Callan show a hump backed bridge of three arches.
This sketch is in the 2007 Callan 800 Book. A new bridge was built in 1818:
Erected at the expense of Kilkenny County Council, August 1818. During the Sovereignty of Humphrey Hartley Esq JP. Middle arch destroyed in 1922
Restored 1925. R.F. Bowen County Surveyor.
The bridge was blown up during the Civil War by the Republican Forces occupying Callan. That was to prevent the Free State Army from entering the town from the Kilkenny side.
This military tactic was a failure because the Free State Forces crossed the ford on the river and entered via Clodeen Lane.
To give people access when the middle arch was missing, planks were placed across it from the other two arches,
Artist Tony O’Malley when going to school slipped off the planks and fell into the river, breaking his arm. He was the only known casualty.
Bridge Street posed a major traffic bottleneck in the years before the By-pass Road was constructed in 1997.
Lorry drivers particularly dreaded going through the narrow street. There was great relief when the new road was opened.
The colourful shops and small businesses like Powers that made Bridge Street such a vibrant place for centuries have largely closed down.
Major supermarket chains have to a large extent been responsible for this. What the future holds is a moot question.
During the 1920s the streets in Callan were re-named to reflect a more patriotic era.
Green Street became Edmund Rice Street, West Street to John Locke Street, Mill Street to St Augustine Street and Bridge Street became Coyne Street after the Fenian patriot Edward Coyne, born in Lower Bridge Street.
Local people, in their own inimitable way, ignored these changes and kept the street names they had known and loved.
So,to this day, Bridge Street, as it always was, is still Bridge Street.