Take it to the Bridge
An Irishman’s Diary: One of Mayo’s stranger musical attractions
‘I couldn’t return to Dublin without experiencing some 19th-century rock music, courtesy of Mr Bald. So, parking outside an old, defunct pub called the Musical Bridge Inn, I waited out the storm’. Above, Bellacorick Musical Bridge, in Co Mayo.
In deepest Mayo last week, driving to Belmullet, I crossed what a sign said was “Bellacorick Musical Bridge”. It rang a bell – no pun intended – if only a vague one. I was curious to know what music it played, and how. But it was late and getting dark. So I deferred investigation until the return journey.
Everyone I asked in Belmullet was an expert on the subject. The bridge was played with a stone, they told me: a round one preferably, about fist-size. You could either roll the stone along the parapet with your hand, or you could grip it and hit the bridge at intervals. It both cases, the effect was best if you ran. The northern parapet was reputedly the more musical.
I also learned that the bridge was built in 1820 by the amusingly-named engineer, William Bald, better known for carving a coast road out of the cliffs of Antrim. And that it was subject an ancient curse, threatening something worse than baldness on anyone who finished it; hence, a still-missing piece of parapet.
Two days later, fully researched, I retraced the route eastwards, looking forward to a recital. The barony of Erris was bathed in sunshine at the time, and I was awe-struck by the beauty of the views across the valley to the Nephin Mountains.
Then, within minutes, the sky grew dark and one of those torrential rains of last week swept over Mayo. It became so murky I had to turn my headlights on. And so heavy was the downpour that, when I reached Bellacorick, it was hard to tell the bridge from the river underneath it.
Still, I couldn’t return to Dublin without experiencing some 19th-century rock music, courtesy of Mr Bald. So, parking outside an old, defunct pub called the Musical Bridge Inn, I waited out the storm.
Even from the comfort of a car, the rain was a fright. So was the speed of the traffic heading towards the bridge, supposedly a 50kph zone. Flood waters rose around me, and as lorries careered into them, they sent tsunamis over my roof.
A council worker arrived from somewhere with a shovel, to free the gullies of leaves and other debris. But even though he was dressed like an Atlantic trawlerman, he had to wave down approaching traffic as he worked, lest he be drowned in the wash.
The floods receded, eventually, and the rain eased, although it didn’t look like stopping anytime soon. So I fetched my umbrella and got out. And that’s when I realised – with a loud expletive – that I’d been sitting for half an hour with the engine off and headlights still on. Sure enough, I discovered, my car battery was dead.
Somehow, the humour for music was deserting me. Also, I must report that, even if you haven’t just run down your battery, you can feel a bit foolish trotting along a bridge with a golf umbrella in one hand while pushing a rock with the other.
It only adds to the embarrassment when you’re having to dodge puddles under foot, or from passing cars, or indeed from the rock – splashing water off the parapet. Then there’s the terror of seeing lorries speeding along the bridge in your direction and threatening to turn you into fish-food.
It was, for all these reasons, one of the more stressful musical experiences of my life. Consequently, I fear my playing didn’t bring out the best in the bridge, making it sound less like a piano than a bottle bank. Still, I think I heard an arpeggio in D minor at one point. And even if I didn’t, it was an impressive sound, for a bridge.
By now sodden, I returned to the problem of the car battery. The Musical Bridge pub, now sadly silent, could be of no help. In fact, the only possible jump starts I could see anywhere were from the cars hurtling past. Trying to flag down those seemed my only option. Then I saw a sign for Bellacorick ESB Station and thought: where better to get help with a battery?
In fact, what was once a major peat-fuelled power plant is now greatly reduced, to a mere switching station. Hence the demise of the pub. Even so, I found a helpful staff member who accompanied me back to the bridge, where there was to be one further trauma.
While we were connecting the jump leads, word spread among the local insect population that there was a stranded driver nearby. Conditions were in any case ideal, given the confluence of bog and river and recent downpour. So it was that, as the biblical rains eased, a biblical swarm of midges descended.
We were being eaten live as the battery charged. So when the engine sparked again, I thanked my helper, closed the bonnet, and jumped back into the car, slamming the door. It was too late: at least 50 midges had piled in after me for a lift. A few got out at Crossmolina, more at Ballina. But I was still swatting the rest of them as far as Swinford and I’m not sure a few didn’t make it all the way to Dublin.