Ferry services across the River Liffey date back to at least the Fifteenth Century, but in 1665, they were granted a charter by King Charles II. The Charter gave the mayor and sheriffs of the City of Dublin the right to maintain ferries over the river. They were required to provide at all times from an hour before sunrise to an hour after sunset a sufficient number of boats and all other things necessary and becoming. It empowered them to levy a toll of one halfpenny from every passenger who used the ferries to cross the river.
One of the ferry stations on the south shore of the Liffey was at Fownes Street Lower, known as the Bagnio Slip. The word bagnio comes from the Italian word for illicit bathing house or brothel and there were many bagnios in Temple Bar masquerading as wash houses. In the early 19th Century, William Walsh of Aungier Street, a member of the lower house of Dublin Corporation known as the ‘sheriffs and commons’, leased the tolls of the ferries from the Corporation. A toll bridge at the Bagnio Slip would be lucrative, especially as it would provide a shortcut to Crow Street Theatre in Temple Bar, which was Dublin’s chief theatre, so Walsh proposed building a bridge and the Corporation agreed.
Costing £3000 and cast at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire, England, the iron bridge was transported to Dublin in sections and assembled on site. The bridge comprises an elliptical arch of 43 metres, is 3 metres in width, and rises 3 metres above the River Liffey.
The bridge opened on 19 May 1816 with ten days toll-free to celebrate and remained Dublin’s only pedestrian bridge until the completion of the Millennium Bridge in 1999. It was originally called Wellington Bridge, after Arthur Wellesley, the Dublin-born Duke of Wellington, and victor at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815, but the name wasn’t popular. Only a year after its opening, it was being referred to as the Metal Bridge.
On 29 September 1817, William Walsh was granted a further lease of the tolls of the ferries, which now included the Metal Bridge, for 70 years. It was later extended by 29 years, giving Walsh and his successors the right to extract a halfpenny (ha’penny) toll until 1916. The lease was amended in 1835, setting down stricter terms for Walsh and also enabling him to run other ferries across the river.
In the early days, an average of only 450 people per day used the bridge and despite several campaigns over the years to abolish the toll, Dublin Corporation couldn’t do anything until the 99-year lease expired. Footfall across the bridge increased, however, and by 1878, the tolls amounted to a net annual income of £329 3s 10d for William Walsh’s successors.
In 1913, a proposal by Sir Hugh Lane to replace what The Sphere described as ‘a hideous iron bridge covered with advertisements that is at present one of the eyesores of Dublin’ with an art gallery spanning the Liffey designed by Sir Edward Lutyens was turned down by Dublin Corporation.
William Walsh’s lease expired on 29 September 1916 and control of the bridge reverted to Dublin Corporation. It was expected they would abolish the toll, but a further temporary lease meant a toll was charged until March 1919.
When the Irish Free State was established in 1922, the bridge was renamed The Liffey Bridge but it remained more commonly known as The Metal Bridge. It wasn’t until decades later that it became known as the Ha’penny Bridge.