It probably seems unimaginable to most visitors and locals alike today, but in the era before the Ha’penny Bridge the only way to get across the Liffey was by taking a ferry. In the early 1800s, a man named William Walsh operated seven ferries across the capital’s river. But by 1816, the ferries had fallen into disrepair and the city’s authorities told him to either get them fixed or built a bridge.
And so the arch-shaped, wooden-decked Wellington Bridge was completed in May 1816, at a reported cost of three thousand Irish pounds. Walsh was given a licence to charge people to cross the 140-foot bridge, but told that if locals didn’t like the new system he would have to remove the bridge at no cost to the public purse. No such objections were evident, and the bridge soon became a permanent feature of the city’s landscape.
It had turnstiles at both ends, with a rate of halfpenny for each crossing – the same price as the ferries it replaced. Thanks to that inimitable Dublin characteristic of giving everything a nickname and calling nothing by its proper title, the bridge soon became known as the Ha’penny Bridge. A later name change in 1923 to the Liffey Bridge (or Droichead na Life in Irish) – still the official name to this day – had no effect on this nickname whatsoever.
The tolls, which by the end had reached one and a half pennies, were finally removed in 1919. Around the turn of the millennium, the bridge had to be closed for nine months for stabilisation works. Belfast-based Harland & Wolff, makers of the Titanic, were tasked with replacing the wooden decking as well as most of railing decorations and handrails in a project that ended up costing 1.6 million euro.
The bridge returned to daily use – complete with a bright new coat of white paint – in December 2001. The Belfast men had done such a good job, the restoration project was given the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage in 2003. Given this endorsement, and the fact that at last estimate the bridge was being crossed by some 27,000 people a day, the Ha’penny Bridge is sure to remain a fixture right in the heart of Dublin for decades to come.
By Bill Lehane.