Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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THE BRIDGES OF DUBLIN CITY

Dublin Bridge is falling down, falling down, my fair lady. At least, that’s the worrying verdict of the National Conservation and Heritage Group who last week (August 2009) announced that the 130-year-old O’Connell Bridge, which spans the River Liffey at the heart of Dublin City, is falling apart. And this despite last year’s costly effort by Dublin City Council who closed off a section of the bridge to fix a number of defective pillars, shifting bollards and stress cracks in the masonry. The juggernauts may be largely gone from An Lár but evidently the weight of all those double-deckers, motorcars and simple humanity is proving too much for the iconic Victorian masterpiece.

Meanwhile, the Dublin Docklands Development Authority are preparing to unveil and smash champagne bottles to celebrate the opening of the splendid new Samuel Beckett Bridge in 2010. This will be the fourth new bridge to span the Liffey in the past nine years.

Dublin would not have been possible without its bridges. It’s all too easy to forget that this is a city built upon rivers and bordered by a wild and tempestuous sea. Three hundred years ago, most of the present day city centre was a soggy marshland swamp, washed over by the tidal waters of the rivers Liffey, Tolka and Dodder twice daily. Think of the medieval pilgrims and lepers bound for Santiago del Compostello who boarded their fragile ships right where the Pearse Street Garda Station stands today. Or the winter of 1792, when the waters rose so high that the Duke of Leinster was able to sail his pleasure craft safely onto Merrion Square.

During the 17th century, the first major steps were taken to tame Dublin’s rivers with the construction of stonewalls, or quays, such as the North Wall and the East Wall. Hand-in-hand came a new age in bridge building. They’d been building bridges in Dublin at least since Norman times but the old bridges, made from wood and clay, invariably collapsed and washed away anytime there were adverse weather conditions. Henceforth, the city’s bridges would be made from bricks and mortar.

The oldest bridge on the Liffey today is Queen Maeve’s Bridge. Built in 1764, this was originally called Queen’s Bridge after George III’s Queen Charlotte, but craftily renamed after independence for the no-nonsense queen of Connacht. In fact, most of the city’s bridges have been renamed after Irish icons - Queen Victoria became Rory O’More, Kingsbridge became Sean Heuston, Richmond became O'Donovan Rossa, Whitworth became Father Mathew, Carlisle became O’Connell.

For many, the most memorable of Dublin’s bridges is the Ha'penny Bridge, officially called Wellington Bridge after the 'Iron Duke'. This was the only pedestrian bridge across the Liffey until the Millennium and Sean O’Casey Bridges opened in 2000 and 2006 respectively. The Ha’penny opened in 1816 and takes its name from the half-penny toll pedestrians paid to cross it in the Victorian Age. That’s a concept the cash-strapped City Council may yet reincarnate to pay for their impressive restoration of the bridge earlier this century.

But the most important crossing of the Georgian Age was undoubtedly O’Connell Bridge. Completed in 1795, this new bridge (originally Carlisle Bridge) was designed to prevent any of the larger cargo boats from sailing upriver to the traditional power-base of the Dublin merchants at present-day Wood Quay. Instead it shifted the entire city centre to the new developments springing up on the reclaimed lands around the Custom House. These lands were owned by a wealthy new Dublin elite, headed up by the Gardiner and Beresford families, who had enormous vested interests in the Custom House itself. Dublin’s merchant princes were naturally outraged by the entire scheme but powerless to prevent it.

Nicknamed the ‘King of Ireland’, John Beresford was the shrewd Commissioner of Revenue who secured James Gandon to build both the Custom House and O’Connell Bridge. Gandon had been all set to move to St Petersburg and work for Catherine the Great when Beresford gave him an offer he could not refuse.

However, while Charles Haughey may have regarded Gandon as a magnificent architect, the London-born Huguenot was by no means a brilliant engineer. His bridge was a sloppy effort. For starters, it was far too narrow to cater to all the traffic coming in from the seven streets approaching it. More worryingly, it had extremely slack foundations. Within forty years, Gandon’s bridge had become so unevenly settled on the riverbed that its’ central crown had become a treacherous peak, scratching and snapping at all the under-carriages crossing it. In 1852, the influential Earl of Charlemont described it as ‘the most dangerous [bridge] in Europe’.

Inevitably it was the Victorians who came to the rescue in the shape of the exceptionally bearded Port and Docks Board engineer, Bindon Blood Stoney. Born in Offaly, Stoney is known as the Father of Irish Concrete, with which material he built most of the quay walls running through the city centre. Stoney also invented the diving bell that now stands upon Sir John Rogerson’s Quay. Under Stoney’s direction, a team of courageous dockers entered this bends-inducing bell, plunged down to the river bed and cleared the floor at the base of O’Connell Bridge back to bedrock. New foundations were duly fitted and filled with concrete and a new bridge, incorporating some of Gandon’s, was laid on top. Soon after O’Connell Bridge opened in 1880, Gandon’s earlier work was demolished. It is the cracked pillars in Stoney’s bridge which are today sounding the alarm bells for Dublin City Council.

Not every bridge is beloved. The Loopline Railway Bridge has been subject to much abuse since its completion in 1891, with Big Jim Larkin lambasting it as ‘the foulest thing that ever disgraced the city’. For all that, the wrought-iron crossing is not such a bad-looking bridge. It’s simply the location that boggles, cutting off the splendid view of the Custom House from O’Connell Bridge. In a way it’s a rather epic reminder of the latter days of the Industrial Age, like the revolutionary Scherzer Bridges on the North Wall.

In 1932, the Catholic Church went head to head with Dublin Corporation over the naming of present day Butt Bridge. With the massively important Eucharistic Congress headed to Dublin that summer, the Hierarchy demanded the bridge, formally Sir Isaac Butt Bridge, should be renamed Congress Bridge. However, the Corporation insisted the bridge should retain that of the Home Rule Party founder. The Corporation won the face-off, although a memorial to the Congress is to be found on the bridge. Moreover, while its arguable that less than 1 in 10 Dubliners would know ‘Butt Bridge’ is named after Sir Isaac, at least the name gives Americans something to chuckle about.

Not much can be said in aesthetic praise of Dublin’s late 20th century bridges. The utterly forgettable Talbot Memorial Bridge, which opened in 1978, prevented the Tall Ships and much-loved blue and cream Guinness ships from mooring outside the Custom House. Likewise, the East-Link Toll Bridge may provide a vital short-cut across the rivers but its hardly a work of grace and beauty.

Conversely, Dublin’s 21st century bridges are truly impressive additions to the city. Dr. Santiago Calatrava Valls is responsible for both the James Joyce and Samuel Beckett bridges, while the award-winning Sean O'Casey is a work of aesthetic genius. Whether these new bridges will be causing headaches for Dublin City Council in 2109 remains to be seen.


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