A Short History of Dublin’s Ha’penny Bridge

The bridge in 1818 by Samuel Frederick Brocas

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.

Roque’s Exact Survey of Dublin 1756 – Bibliothèque nationale de France – Public Domain – Tap/Click to open map in a new tab

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.

William Walsh listed in The Treble Almanack For The Year 1832

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.

An engraving of the bridge in Warburton, Whitelaw and Walsh’s History of Dublin Vol. 2, published in 1818

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.

The Dublin Evening Post of 15 May 1817

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.

Dublin Assembly Roll 1824

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.

Along the quays

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.

Sir Edward Lutyens’ design

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.

In 2001, Dublin City Council undertook an extensive refurbishment of the bridge. In the past, the bridge was painted black and silver but is now back to its original off-white colour. Today, an average of 30,000 pedestrians cross the bridge and it remains the best known of Dublin’s bridges.

© Lorna Peel

Dublin, Ireland, July 1887. The city is struggling in a seemingly never-ending heatwave and Will receives devastating news from his father. John has only months to live but his dying wishes leave Will reeling. With the Fitzgeralds suddenly facing money worries, some difficult decisions must be made. Can Will and John repair their complicated relationship before it’s too late?

When a tragic accident brings unexpected truths to light, Isobel discovers a forgotten life intertwined with her grandmother’s. Nothing can prepare her for Lily’s story but will learning of their families’ pasts bring Isobel peace or further heartbreak?

Read an excerpt from Chapter One…

The sun was setting as their cab made its way to the quays. It stopped behind another cab on Bachelors Walk and Will got out. To his immense relief, a solitary lady was standing on the bridge looking downriver through the railings towards O’Connell Bridge.

“It’s Mother,” he told Isobel, lifting her hand and kissing it. “I don’t know how long we’ll be.”

“Take as long as you need,” she replied softly, and he closed the door.

Pulling the remaining coins from his trouser pocket, he extracted a halfpenny, crossed the street and held it out to the tollman, who shook his head.

“The lady has asked that no one be allowed onto the bridge for a short time, sir.”

“The lady is my mother and today, she has learned that soon she will be a widow.”

“Put that halfpenny away and go to her,” the tollman said, his face crumpling in sympathy. “And give this back to her,” he added, holding out a half-crown.

“Thank you.” Will put the coins in his pocket and walked to the middle of the bridge. “Mother?” he began, and she jumped and turned to him with tears in her eyes.

“Will? How did you know where to find me?”

“You told me once that this is where you accepted Father’s marriage proposal.”

“Yes. Oh, Will, I did love him so very much once.”

“I wish I could protect you from what is to come, but I can’t.”

“I know and I’m scared. Once your father leaves the Journal, what will we do? We can’t continue to live at number 67 on his savings.”

“We will discuss practicalities at another time, but you will both continue to live at number 67,” he told her adamantly. “And Father will do his best to hide it, but he is terrified about the future, too. Which is why both you and he need your family around you. Evelyn is on her way to number 67 as we speak.”

“Evelyn? Why?”

“Isobel thought you had gone to number 8 to speak to her about Marcus. When we called and you weren’t there, Evelyn was concerned for you – and puzzled – so I told her to take a cab to number 67 and Father would explain.”

“Explain how much?”

“That will be for Father to decide.”

“I should decide it, too,” she cried. “Evelyn knows nothing about—” She broke off, unable to say Maria Simpson’s name and turned back to the view. “Perhaps it’s time Evelyn knew, but I wanted to tell her myself.”

“Let’s return to number 67.”

“Is Harriett there?” she asked, and he nodded.

“When Isobel and I left, Father was breaking the news to the servants and Harriett was about to make tea for them all,” he explained and his mother spluttered an incredulous laugh.

“Harriett making tea… The world has certainly been turned on its head today. That’s my cab over there. I must pay the cabman,” she added, opening her handbag, but he gently closed it.

“I’ll pay,” he said and took her arm.

They walked to the second cab, Will nodding gratefully to the tollman as they passed. He helped his mother inside, and Isobel kissed her cheek. He paid his mother’s fare, then returned to the second cab and instructed the cabman to take them to 67 Merrion Square.

Explore my blog for more excerpts, character profiles, and background information

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I’ve created a map with locations which feature in The Fitzgeralds of Dublin Series. As a few locations don’t exist anymore, some are approximate but I’ve been as accurate as I can. Tap/Click in the top right hand corner to open the map.


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