A bridge to close the gap and open up a town

 

The Taoiseach is expected to perform next month's official opening of the new Aghalane bridge linking Cavan and Fermanagh. There are even rumours that the British Prime Minister may attend, a reflection of the symbolic significance attached to the reopening. The original bridge was blown up in the early 1970s.

The N3 from Dublin to the north-west was the only national primary route to close because of the Troubles and it will be one of the last Border roads to be reopened. More than 100 other roads have been opened since 1994.

The bridge will be named after Senator George Mitchell, who visited the site in September to lay one of the beams.

As well as shortening the route between Dublin, Fermanagh and south Donegal, the bridge will open up Belturbet to people living two miles away north of the Border. In the 1960s, they shopped and went to dances in the small Cavan town.

When the Troubles started, the old stone bridge spanning the Woodford Canal at Aghalane took on a different significance for Protestants, who saw it as an escape route for the IRA over the Border. Loyalist paramilitaries are blamed for blowing it up, and after several attempts throughout 1972-73, it was finally left unpassable.

Mrs Joan Bullock, whose farmhouse is closest to the bridge on the Fermanagh side, is hopeful that the violence of the past will never return. She describes the early 1970s as a time when people were "living on their nerves". Her husband's cousin and his wife were shot dead in a nearby farmhouse. A school principal was also killed by the IRA.

"People just hope that they are going to be allowed to live in peace. They don't like the way things are going at the moment, but I hope people have learned enough from the last time not to start it again."

The "road closed" sign will soon be taken down and this peaceful and scenic corner of Fermanagh will be exposed to unprecedented traffic. Major changes have already taken place, especially since the opening of the Shannon-Erne Waterway, which includes Woodford Canal. A steady flow of cruiser traffic will pass under the stone-fronted bridge and holiday homes have been built in the area to cater for increased numbers of tourists.

Mr Anthony Vesey, a member of Cavan County Council and chairman of the Belturbet Traders' Association, says a council survey estimated that traffic will increase by 50 per cent to some 5,300 vehicles a day once the bridge opens. He hopes their Border neighbours will again use the town for shopping and socialising.

But it would be wrong to assume that all relations broke down. Joan Bullock recalls a time when her brother-in-law, who owned a farm on the southern side of the bridge, could not save his hay because he was in hospital.

When she finally made the 12-mile round trip to the farm, she found a Catholic neighbour had already done the work - a gesture that probably means more than any metaphor-laden speech we are likely to hear when the Senator George Mitchell Peace Bridge, Aghalane, opens near the end of March.