Declassified files: Demand for more imaginative M3 bridge names drew a blank

The M3 bridges carry huge numbers of people across Belfast each day, avoiding the city centre
The M3 bridges carry huge numbers of people across Belfast each day, avoiding the city centre
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Ministers reluctantly agreed to give to the M3 bridges over the Lagan names which they had initially dismissed as “unimaginative” – because they could come up with no better names themselves.

Work had begun in 1991 on the new motorway and railway bridges which allowed east-west traffic to bypass the city centre and by 1994 they needed to be named, even though the first phase of the M3 would not open to traffic until the following year.

The Department for the Environment proposed that the road bridge be named ‘Lagan Bridge’ after the name of the river it spanned and the rail bridge be ‘Dargan Bridge’, after William Dargan, who was instrumental in the expansion of the rail, port and industrial infrastructure of 19th century Belfast.

A note from Northern Ireland Office minister Michael Ancram’s private secretary said that the minister viewed the suggestions as “unimaginative” and he “wonders if there are no great names from the glory days of Belfast as the second city of the Empire which could be revived.

“‘Lagan Bridge’ would be rather like calling Westminster Bridge ‘Thames Bridge’!”

A seemingly light-hearted hand-written note on the memo suggested ‘Titanic Bridge’, ‘Geordie Best Bridge’. ‘Linen Bridge’, ‘Rope Bridge’. ‘Tobacco and Tea Bridge’ and ‘Ancram Bridge’.

That prompted similar levity from veteran NIO official Peter Bell, who wrote: “Taking our cue from Michael Ancram, we have been giving through the great names from the ‘Glory Days’ of 19th Century Belfast, only to find we couldn’t think of too many. (Roaring Hannah would be one roaring clergyman too many.)

“The United Irishmen seemed, in these days of the Joint Declaration and Anglo-Irish cooperation, a much better bet: But Wolf Tone was a Dubliner; Henry Joy McCracken was hanged, as was Thomas Russell; and Samuel Neilson became a ‘supergrass’.

“Going back in time, we saw a lot of mileage in an ‘O’Neill Bridge’ until one stopped to ask the question: ‘Which one?’

“Further back still, Cú Chulainn seems to be becoming a folk hero of both traditions – but no one would be able to spell the name; he was horrid to dogs; horrider still to Southerners (hence his appeal to the UDA); and one does not want ‘Gae Bolga’ to fall into paramilitary hands.

“So we scratched our heads; thought radically; until Mr Thomas came up with the ‘Simon & Garfunkel Bridge’ – to be known, colloquially, as ‘Bridge over Troubled Waters’.”

In response, a confidential February 1 1994 memo from the private secretary to the secretary of state said that “like Michael Ancram, the Secretary of State is not particularly enthused by the names suggested, nor is he any more favourably disposed to links with 1960’s music, no matter how appropriate!

“However, in the absence of any other suggestions, he is content to agree that the names of the cross harbour road and rail bridges should be Lagan and Dargan respectively.”