Tuesday 25 June 2019

200 years of the Ha'penny Bridge - and it wouldn't be here today only for the 1916 Rising

Picture of the Ha'penny Bridge in Dublin Picture credit; Damien Eagers
Picture of the Ha'penny Bridge in Dublin Picture credit; Damien Eagers

Alan O'Keeffe

The 200th anniversary of Dublin’s Ha’penny Bridge would not be taking place today if the 1916 Rising had not happened.

The cast-iron bridge – one of the city’s iconic landmarks – was considered ugly by some members of the city council a century ago when control of the crossing was due to be handed over to Dublin Corporation.

The idea of demolishing it was growing before 1916, according to historian Pat Liddy.

Mr Liddy, who conducts several themed walking tours of the capital, said all thoughts of demolishing the bridge were forgotten as the council’s attentions were diverted by the destruction of the heart of the city in the Rising.

The Ha’penny Bridge was assured many more decades thanks to the actions of the council in 2001, when it spent more than €1m on refurbishment.

It is Dublin’s most iconic bridge and has come to symbolise the capital in many images over the years, including appearances in many films and television dramas.

Picture of the Ha'penny Bridge in Dublin. Picture credit; Damien Eagers
Picture of the Ha'penny Bridge in Dublin. Picture credit; Damien Eagers

The Ha’Penny Bridge was never the official name.

It was built in 1816 to replace leaky boats that ferried people across the Liffey at that point, and the toll for using it was a halfpenny. The money went to William Walsh, the owner of the leaky boats that the bridge replaced.

Walsh was an alderman of the city and received £3,000 in compensation for the elimination of his ferry service. He was granted a lease on the bridge for 100 years and charged pedestrians the same price of half-a-penny that they paid for a trip on one of his boats.

Mr Liddy said obstacles were placed on the bridge to stop Dubliners taking their horses across. The wily Dubs had claimed the horses were exempt from any charges as “they weren’t pedestrians”.

An average of only 450 people a day used the bridge in its early years, compared with the 30,000 who use it now.

It was named the Wellington Bridge, in honour of the Irish-born Duke of Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo the year before it opened, but it was always known to Dubliners and visitors as the Ha’penny Bridge.

In 1913, a proposal by Hugh Lane to replace it with an art gallery spanning the Liffey at that point received considerable support, but nothing came of it.

Control of the bridge was handed over to Dublin Corporation in 1916 and tolls were eliminated in 1919.

Volunteer Thomas Harris recalled how during the Rising a toll man had tried to charge volunteers to cross the bridge.

“We were issued with two canister bombs. We went down Liffey Street out on the Quays and across the Ha’penny Bridge. The toll man demanded a halfpenny!” he told an interviewer. Of course, they refused to pay.

The bridge was officially renamed the Liffey Bridge in 1922 as the new Free State began to remove colonial names, but Dubliners continued to call it the Ha’penny Bridge.

Nowadays, it provides a link from Merchant’s Arch on the edge of the bustling Temple Bar to Liffey Street on the north side.

In 1816, after it was commissioned by Lord Mayor John Claudius Beresford, the bridge’s graceful iron arches were cast at the Coalbrookdale Foundry of Abraham Darby in Shropshire. The design and construction were overseen by John Windsor.

By the 1990s, the bridge was dilapidated. Consulting Engineers Mott MacDonald EPO, on behalf of the then Dublin Corporation, indicated that while the superstructure was sound, the railings and deck were succumbing to the ravages of age and corrosion.

The bridge was closed for renovation in early 2001. Extensive work was carried out by Irishenco and sub-contractor Harland & Wolff in Belfast to repair and renew the cast-iron arches and railings.

Wider entrances were created at either end where the toll booths once stood to allow standing space for pedestrians waiting to cross the busy roads.

Conservation principles required that as much as poss-ible of the original fabric be retained. In fact, 98pc of the original cast iron was re-used.

The railings were repainted in their original off-white and the newly strengthened bridge was re-opened on December 21, 2001.

The quality of the work was recognised when it received a European Union Cultural Heritage/Europa Nostra Award in 2003.

The bridge has always been a place for people to beg for money. Buskers are also fond of the busy river crossing.

Aoife Matthews (27), a nail technician from Marino, said she and her boyfriend Harry Sullivan (28), a drummer from Castleknock, feel the bridge is a romantic place. Aoife loved when the bridge was festooned with roses on St Valentine’s Day last year.

Harry liked the way padlocks were attached to the bridge by couples as a symbol of their love. However, the locks are removed regularly to avoid doing damage.

Lord Mayor Criona Ni Dhalaigh, who leads a ceremonial walk across the bridge today to mark its 200th anniversary, issued a statement for the occasion saying that “the bridge is a cherished landmark, beloved by Dubliners and visitors alike”.

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