Pontoon’s extraordinary ebb and flow

Townland tales

Pontoon, Loughil and the two Cuings

John O’Callaghan

Strictly speaking, a ‘pontoon’ bridge is one that floats on the water and is held up by large hollow containers filled with air called pontoons. Pontoon bridges have a long history, dating back to ancient times when they began being used for military purposes. They were first used in China nearly three thousand years ago.
Legendary Persian leaders Darius and Xerxes had pontoons constructed to aid their troops’ passage into Europe in the middle of the first millennium BC. The early pontoons constructed under Xerxes’ orders were mentioned in the writings of the Greek author Herodotus. A century or so later Alexander the Great is believed to have used basic materials to build pontoons across the Oxus, using rafts that were made from the hide tents of his soldiers. These were then filled with straw. According to the chronicles, the earliest floating bridge across the Dnieper River, near Kyiv, was built in 1115.
An early example of a pontoon bridge being built in the UK to be used by civilians was London Bridge. Today there are many examples, all over the world, of long pontoon bridges that have been built for civilian use, notably in the United States. There are two pontoon bridges, for instance, in Washington State that stretch across Lake Washington: the Governor Albert D Rosellini Bridge (spanning over 2.3km) and the Lacey V. Murrow Memorial Bridge (spanning more than 2.0km), and these are the two longest pontoons in the world.

Hound and Holly
In Mayo, straddling the confluence of the two lakes, Lough Conn (‘Hound Lake’) and Lough Cullen (‘Holly Lake’), the single-arched, Pontoon Bridge separates the two townlands of Loughil and Cuingmore, located in the two separate baronies of Carra and Tirawley, respectively. In turn, Cuingmore borders Cuingbeg, a larger townland to the east.
Loughil, An Leathchoill, ‘The Half-Wood’, is one possible translation of this townland name and more than half of the townland is covered in trees (OSi map no 31). I walked through it one evening recently. The lovely sylvan path through the wood is a section of the Foxford Way, accessed at an unmarked side-track on the R310 road, about 500 metres before Pontoon Bridge. The path emerges from the wood onto the R315 road (to Crossmolina) at Corryosla Bridge.
Corryosla is an interesting word, translated as Clochán Oscailte, ‘Open Stones’, referring to nearby stepping stones, according to Logainm.ie, quoting the OS Namebooks. Knockaglana ‘Hill of the Valley’ is the townland adjacent to Laughil and Pontoon Village, where a police barracks and hotel once stood.
There are two Irish words for ‘narrow.’ Caol we know from An Caol, or Keel, in Achill, and cúng, a narrow neck or passageway, that gives its name to Cong. The same word cúng is the root behind Cuingmore and Cuingbeg, the ‘large and small narrow neck of land’, which are perversely named in that the mór is smaller in area than the beag in this case! The Irish for isthmus is cuing or caol, according to De Bhaldraithe’s English-Irish dictionary.

Changing directions
The road (R310) through Cuingmore forks to the right (R318) into the townland of Drummin. This area is very scenic and well worth exploring. A commemorative stone has been erected poet Frederick Robert Higgins, who was born in Foxford in 1896, at a lakeside amenity on the shore of Lough Cullin, directly across from the main entrance to Drummin Wood.
In 1837, Samuel Lewis wrote: “At the south-eastern extremity of Lough Conn is Lough Cullen, sometimes called the Lower Conn; it is separated from the lake of that name by a narrow strait, over which a bridge named Pontoon bridge was built, on the formation of the new mail line to Sligo.
“An extraordinary phenomenon is visible here in the alternate ebbing and flowing of these great lakes; the water is seen sometimes rushing with great force through the channel beneath Pontoon bridge into Lough Cullen, while at others it runs with equal force from the lake into Lough Conn, and this is often observable when the waters of the upper lake are much swollen by floods from the mountains, while the lower lake or Lough Cullen, is the natural outlet of the whole of this immense volume of water.”
On February 9, 2020, following Storm Ciara, Tiernan Brothers’ Fishing Tackle Shop in Foxford posted a short video on Facebook, with the comment: “Out and about after ‘Ciara’ Interesting to see Lough Cullin backing into Lough Conn” – it normally flows south in the opposite direction.

Dr John O’Callaghan is a mountain walk leader who has organised and led expeditions both at home and abroad. He has served on the board of Mountaineering Ireland and is currently on the Irish Uplands Forum board. In 2012, he wrote the winning article that secured Westport’s accolade as the Irish Times’ ‘Best Place to Live in Ireland’.