The Coffin on the Black Bridge

Written by x after interviewing Mick Devery
The ‘Three Rivers’, site of the Black Bridge on the river Brosna
Pollagh is a village in the bogs of County Offaly, nestled between two waterways: the river Brosna
and the Grand Canal, both central to its story. The canal arrived in the early 1800s along with the
first settlers who used the rich blue clay running along the Brosna valley to make bricks. The industry
helped the village to thrive throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Canal barges
took the bricks to Dublin for sale.
In spite of the commerce, Pollagh was particularly isolated. There were no roads into the village until
the 1930s. Villagers had to walk along the grassy banks of the canal to Tullamore in one direction or
to Ferbane on the other for supplies. On the far side of the Brosna was Ballycumber which locals also
frequented for groceries, or in the case of this story, a pint. The nearest church and cemetery were
on this side too, in Boher.
The Brosna flooded the fields across its callows every winter, making Pollagh almost inaccessible for
months at a time. Before the road bridge was built, locals used a makeshift wooden structure called
the Black Bridge. During times of flooding it was barely above water. There was a boat too, but it
might be on the wrong side, so locals relied heavily on this provisional crossing. They adapted their
lives to the landscape. Needs must, as the saying goes, and have your wits about you.
One Sunday in the early 1900s, Tim Duffy, a bachelor famer from the village, set off for a pint in the
pub in Ballycumber, as he often did. The Black Bridge was located a few fields away from the
village, at a spot called ‘the Three Rivers’, where the river Clodiagh and a small brook join the
Brosna. Tim crossed the river, three fields on the far side, and over the railway bridge on the
Ferbane to Ballycumber road. He had his few pints in Flynn’s in Ballycumber. Around midnight he
started his solitary six mile walk home.
In the dark of night by the flowing Brosna, he felt his way onto the Black Bridge. To his horror he
found his path blocked by a heavy wooden rectangular box, which he soon realised was a coffin. The
bridge was only about three feet wide and the coffin was laid across the bridge, resting on the
barriers on each side. Tim, perhaps superstitiously, didn’t want to pass under the coffin. He was a
strong man of six feet or more, so once he had recovered his composure, he lifted the coffin up off
the barriers and pivoted 180 degrees. He left the coffin down, and now he was on the right side for
Bewildered, he continued his walk home over the fields. As he neared the village, he saw three
candles lit in the windows of a neighbour’s house, a sign that someone had died there. He found out
the next day that an older man of that house had passed away that morning. The family had ordered
the coffin from the undertaker. It was arranged they would bring it as far as the Black Bridge for
collection. The family had been delayed in picking it up, which is why it was on the bridge late at
night to give poor Tim a fright.
A six mile walk across rivers and rickety bridges, not to mention encountering a coffin, might seem a
world away to us now, but Tim Duffy’s determination to have a pint is something we might all
understand in this period of lockdown.