Happy Birthday to Dublin’s Ha’penny Bridge

Posted by The Skibbereen Eagle | May 19, 2016 1


Happy Birthday to Dublin’s iconic Ha’penny Bridge which is 200 years young today.

They have been crossing it free of charge for a whole century now, but Dubliners have a long memory. So, although it was first named in honour of the Duke of Wellington and later rechristened Liffey Bridge, one of the city’s favourite postcard images will turn 200 this week still known universally by the name that trumped the others: Ha’penny Bridge.

It has survived to this day despite my own best efforts. Many years ago I led a student march over the bridge from Bolton Street on the Northside to Leinster House on the Southside. The police had advised me to take a different route because of the condition of the bridge. With what I know about harmonic vibration today I would not ignore their advice and we were lucky that 300 students were not floating on the River Liffey instead of protesting about fee increases!


Until 1917 there was a charge of half a penny to cross the bridge. The turnstiles on either side of river were removed in 1919. Before the bridge a ferry service carried passengers across the river. The cast iron pedestrian bridge was built in 1816 by Liffey ferry operator Willie Walsh and John Claudius Beresford of Dublin Corporation. Willie Walsh had seven ferries operating at various points along the Liffey. However, when his boats went into disrepair, he turned to building bridges. And modest as it sounds, it was sometimes controversial. 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.

The bridge has a 43 metre span, is 3 metres in width and rises an elegant 3 metres above the river. The superstructure is composed of three arch ribs, each formed in six segments. Seen today in the original off white colour, it has, in the past, been dignified with less complimentary tones – black and silver – and covered in advertising hoardings. Made of cast iron, the bridge was cast at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire, England. halfbridge002

As late as 1861, an angry letter writer to The Irish Times complained about the way commuters were being hit, coming and going. It was suggested that many took long detours to avoid the charge. It remained contentious – if only for the inconvenience – as late as the 1916 Rising, during which combatants from both sides reported the toll-keepers attempting business as usual. half5

But, aptly, that was the year the bridge was finally liberated. And although Dublin Corporation fretted about whether the old ironwork could cope with the increased traffic, the structure somehow maintained its integrity.

In fact the 1916 Rising probably saved the bridge as it led to the abandonment of proposals to create “Florence on the Liffey” by replacing it with an Art Gallery.  The aesthete and art collector Hugh Lane, who could afford the halfpence, once dismissed the bridge as ugly and suggested a dramatic replacement, courtesy of a friend, architect Edwin Lutyens. Their combined efforts would have meant a river-spanning art gallery, housing Lane’s collection. WB Yeats heartily approved, foreseeing a piece of Florence on the Liffey. But potential corporate sponsors, including the controversial businessman and politician William Martin Murphy, were less enthused.

A bitter Yeats wrote about grubbing financiers whose only ambition was to “fumble in a greasy till/and add the halfpence to the pence”. The Ha’penny Bridge, meanwhile, endured and Hugh Lane died in the sinking of the Lusitania. Eventually, age caught up with the bridge. In 1987, the structure was found to be subsiding at a rate faster than the Leaning Tower of Pisa: three inches in 17 years.half4

By 2001 it needed a £1.8 million restoration, during which Dubliners had to cross the river on a pontoon. Since then, the biggest threat to the bridge has been “love locks”; a 21st-century scourge of metal railings in romantic places. But after early tolerance, such aberrations are now quickly removed. So considering its age, the bridge is in pristine condition for its 200th birthday.

The event will be marked on Thursday by a ceremonial north-to-south crossing at 12.30pm, involving descendants of those who commissioned and built it. This will be followed by talks on the bridge, from 2pm to 4pm at City Hall. There is no admission fee – not even a ha’penny – but it will be first come, first seated.

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