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Riverrun

Nathan Hugh O’Donnell

There are currently seventeen and a half bridges over the river Liffey in the stretch between the walled and listed site of Hickey’s Fabrics HQ on Parkgate Street and the river’s mouth in Dublin Bay. First, right up against the high stone wall and marking the end of the pedestrian way along the riverside, stands the industrial-age Seán Heuston Bridge, over which the red line Luas now runs. Built to commemorate the visit of King George IV to Ireland in 1821, it was originally named the King’s Bridge, though – like most of the bridges on the Liffey – it has since had several different names, both official and colloquial.

The Frank Sherwin is its more recent and less stately partner, a concrete construction sandwiched up against it and named after a town councillor. A long stretch separates these two mismatched bridges from the next, a royal blue cast iron structure built in 1859 and named, appropriately enough, the Victoria and Albert Bridge, since renamed the Rory O’More. Cheek by jowl with this piece of decorative iron Victoriana – perhaps also appropriately enough – stands the James Joyce Bridge, joining the house on Usher Island where Joyce set his short story “The Dead” with Blackhall Place. Three of the oldest bridges follow: the high narrow hump-backed Mellows Bridge (previously the Queen’s Bridge, then the Queen Maeve Bridge), the Father Mathew (previously the Whitworth Bridge, which was built on the site of the oldest bridge in Dublin, the New Bridge, also simply known as The Bridge), and the O’Donovan Rossa Bridge (once the Richmond Bridge, also the Sarsfield) by the Four Courts. The next bridge, with its cantilevered footpaths and cast iron lampposts, linking Capel to Parliament Street, provides the best illustration of this tangle of Liffey titles: it is still commonly referred to by three different names, the Grattan Bridge, the Essex Bridge and the Capel Street Bridge. It also provides one of the most satisfying – though at one point the most controversial – views in the city, toward City Hall and Dublin Castle.

The Millennium Bridge is a relatively recent commemorative addition, a lightweight prefabricated steel structure installed in 2000, to much acclaim. Its architects were given a difficult remit: to create a bridge to mark, and celebrate, the millennium, while at the same time remaining “sensitive” to its near neighbour, the Liffey Bridge, universally known as the Ha’penny. From here onward, we are on familiar territory, the heart of the city. O’Connell and Butt Bridge are well known, as is the infamously ugly black iron bulk, with its emblazoned golden harps, of Loopline Bridge. Beyond this cluster of nineteenth century structures, a succession of more modern bridges has been built to connect the new eastern reaches of Dublin’s spreading centre. The Talbot Memorial Bridge of 1978; the Sean O’Casey Bridge of 2005; and the magnificent Samuel Beckett Bridge, completed amid the economic turmoil – rather spoiling its symbolism – of 2009. Finally, the functional East Link Bridge, built in 1987, marks the last crossing point of the Liffey, apparently – as its name surely suggests – without any symbolic or architectural aspiration whatsoever.

These are not the only bridges on the Liffey of course. But they do represent an important unitary set, demarcating the public stretch of the river through the city, adjoined by almost continuous footpaths on both banks – with the exception of a short patch on the south side between Sir John Rogerson’s Quay and York Road in Ringsend. They are connecting devices for a city marked by longstanding north-south divisions. Their history reflects the changing priorities and tastes of Dubliners over time.

The earliest bridge, at the Ford of the Hurdles, next to the present-day Four Courts, was a timber toll-bridge, replaced in 1428 by a masonry bridge, lined like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence with shops and houses, funded and operated by the Dominicans. Through the seventeenth and eighteenth century, bridges were designed with high humped arches and narrow spans, usually commissioned by the City of Dublin, though in some cases private citizens, or the mercantile Port of Dublin, were patrons. All have since been flattened out, and many of them widened, to accommodate first horse-drawn and then motor traffic. Each bridge, laid down at a different historical juncture, marks a new set of urban connections, new ways of linking districts, and often new ways of navigating the town’s centre – a centre which has shifted over time. Hence the site of the earliest bridge now seems somewhat removed: it was built to connect the old walled city to the Viking settlement of Oxmantown and the important road to Tara. By the late nineteenth century, the centre had shifted to the newly widened and harmonised street network between O’Connell Street and College Green: O’Connell Bridge was rebuilt to sustain the increasing levels of traffic along what remains today Dublin’s principal axis. In this sense, the bridges can be read as historical signposts to the changing mechanisms of urban life.

But bridge-building has never been wholly utilitarian. The earliest bridge was erected by a monastic order, a not atypical exchange in medieval Europe. Bridges were often sacral structures, in Europe as elsewhere, commissioned by religious institutions and even built, as in the case of the Pont Saint-Bénézet in Avignon, by saints. And bridges continue to perform useful symbolic (though rarely religious) services in a twenty-first century economy. They are often important emblems – of uniting communities, of social progress, of regeneration – or in the case of Ireland over the past two decades, of national prosperity. The creation of a new bridge in a dense urban space generates as a rule enormous fanfare. The opening of the Samuel Beckett Bridge, for instance, was marked by an open air performance by a crowd of decorous harpists in green gowns. Marking the point where the Liffey ferry used to bring workers from one dock wall to the other, it was credited with opening up a new vantage point in a completely re-imagined urban district. People crowded to take pictures of the cityscapes it opened up, views of the Southside Docklands and the Bell Tower, of the new Convention Centre, of the unfinished monuments to the wealth and, for most observers, the excess of the Celtic Tiger. Maybe more heartening was the regular sight, during the long summer afternoons of 2010, of the boisterous boys of Sheriff Street and Pearse Street using the new bridge as a diving board, leaping competitively into the river or simply using the bridge’s new “vantage points” as platforms to strut like proud peacocks for the photographs of passersby.

I mentioned there are currently seventeen and a half bridges over the river Liffey. The half refers to the latest addition to the sequence, still under construction, between O’Connell and Butt Bridges in the very urban heart. In a city racked by economic crisis, and by the even more damaging failure of its political, religious, and business elites, bridge-building can be one of two things: a gesture of hope and reconstruction, or a strategic sop to a populace seething at enforced inertia, and at the long-term prospects of unemployment, poverty, and emigration. Bridges are aspirational structures, devices for framing new narratives of a city. A new bridge can represent a way out, a recasting of the story of Dublin. The latest bridge is still under construction. Whether it can tell a new and convincing story remains to be seen.

 

ON AN overcast morning in April, approaching by the Luas tracks and the rehomed Anna Livia statue in the Croppy Acre Memorial Park, the Liffey does not look particularly prepossessing. Two bridges at very close quarters – the Frank Sherwin and the Seán Heuston, a Dublin City councillor and a 1916 rebel respectively – connect Ellis quay to Heuston Station on the far bank. The Seán Heuston Bridge is a handsome iron structure, built to commemorate the visit of George IV to Ireland in 1821: the year, and a series of decorative wreathed crowns, remain gilded on the balustrades of what was until 1941 known as Kingsbridge. The Seán Heuston, which in 1980 was deemed inadequate to the task of catering for ever increasing traffic on Dublin’s quays, remains an admirable piece of neat ironwork, painted very strikingly gold, white and blue. In contrast, the reinforced concrete of the Frank Sherwin, designed in-house at Dublin Corporation and awarded the Irish Concrete Society award in 1982, while it certainly bears traffic, hardly commands much veneration otherwise. It dominates the view of the river here, a flat grey granite block effect, underneath which the river runs shallow and murky.

There is a time-honoured tradition amongst Dubliners of denigrating the river Liffey. I remember, as a child, visiting my father in Dublin, my sense of the city’s scale and importance, its airy magnificence. I remember the stalls on O’Connell Bridge, the passageway through Merchant’s Arch, the rush across the Ha’penny Bridge. And I remember the first time I heard one of my father’s friends, a Dubliner, complain of the river’s filth. “Rancid,” he called it. “A rancid fucking river.” It was not the last time I’d hear the Liffey so described. The filth, the litter, most of all the smell. And the facts remain. Over the side of the Seán Heuston you can see, collected on a tidal island of mud, an upturned bicycle frame and a shopping trolley. All the way along the river, at low tide, can be seen these skeletal remains, the detritus of generations of vandalism. The drainage schemes of the early 1990s redistributed sewerage and made the river a much cleaner water-course, but memories of a river of what looked like toxic grey-green sludge have been slow to die. And there remains the issue of, at low tide, the stench. But is the Liffey in fact a notably dirty river? The smell is rare, and actually typical of brackish urban rivers. It bubbles at low tide out of the silt, never properly dredged, of Victorian Dublin: any city of Dublin’s size will be saddled with it. What’s more, the brown colorants on the water can be traced to its peat bog origins. These are the peculiarities of a central river in any major conurbation. Reviling it can sometimes seem like just another symptom of the strange Dubliners’ proclivity to disparage everything about the city – it might be no more than a sort of shared verbal tic, as it were – or it might be the neurotic effect of some gnarled sense of modesty.

All of that said, on an overcast morning in April, at the Ellis Quay approach, first sight of the river hardly inspires awe. Each road along the river is traffic-bearing, with two footpaths. I took the northern path, along the quay wall, and began to make my way downriver. These riverside footpaths see little use: it’s customary for pedestrians to take the footpath furthest from the river, against the continuous line of mostly Georgian frontages that overlooks the river on both sides.

One marked difference between the banks of the Liffey and the banks of, say, the Irwell in Manchester or the Zenne in Brussels is that in Dublin the city was built to face the water. The Liffey had been a particularly treacherous river, prone to flooding, its mouth originally much further inland, and the sprawling bay almost unnavigable to maritime traffic. As the many important sea walls were built and land reclaimed the city moved further and further east. This process made possible the creation of much of modern Dublin. Until the seventeenth century, St Stephen’s Green, Pearse Street, most of Trinity College – emblems of Dublin’s Georgian heart and the centre of the city ever since – were all more or less marshland. But for the distinctive shape of the city as it exists today the biggest single debt is owed to James Butler, Duke of Ormond, viceroy for King Charles II, who in 1674 decreed that all buildings must be designed with their frontages facing onto the Liffey. (It was Ormond, also, who in 1662 designated the vast area of the Phoenix Park as a “royal deer park”, securing for the Dublin of the future one the largest urban parks in Europe.) His was a civic and ennobled ideal of Dublin, the prestigious “second city” of the British empire.

Yet in many ways the quays seem among the least civic parts of contemporary Dublin. Unlike the decorous splendour of Merrion Square or the grandly unassuming order of Dame Street and Dublin Castle, there survives, along the quays, little sense of leisure. The various uses to which over time they have been put reflect perhaps the difficulty of Ormond’s ambition. Urban populations, it would seem, are loathe to trust their rivers. From almost the beginning of the riverside walk, Collins Barracks and the Guinness Brewery at St James’s Gate occupy prime position, dominating both banks of the river all the way along Ellis Quay. After this grim institutional face-off, the quays are overtaken by petrol stations, disused shop-fronts, and the drab solicitors’ offices clustering around the Four Courts. There are few concessions to aesthetics or leisure. The stretch to the city centre is populated by bleak furniture “warehouses”, threatening pubs and the derelict Ormond Hotel, named after the Duke, which, as a small deteriorated plaque on one corner of the collapsing facade affirms, formed the backdrop of the “Sirens” chapter of Ulysses. There is an inescapable air of dereliction here, one which even the riches of the Celtic Tiger were unable to dispel.

By the Four Courts I step out of the way to let a hurrying man in a pristine suit struggle past, pulling a suitcase along the splintered paving stones. There is no space along the riverside path. The citizen on the quays has no access to the calm of the river, as, only a few hundred yards upstream, residents of private walled apartment complexes – with names like Riverpark and Bellevue – or walkers along the banks of the War Memorial Gardens can relax into the sense of the river. The city pedestrian is not encouraged to engage. It seems that Ormond’s dictate was not enough to counter a peculiar human aversion. The city, particularly after independence, retreated from the quays, which became simply arteries for heavy traffic in and out of the city, transport routes for articulated trucks from Dublin Port to the rest of the country. Since 2007, all trucks have been diverted from the quays, but it is difficult to shift the long-held perception of these roads as thoroughfares for traffic, particularly when, at some points, cars continue to hurtle over four separate driving lanes on a relatively narrow road. The duke’s civic project had the very unintended effect of leaving the quays, centuries later, singularly unwelcoming to the citizen at leisure.

 

THERE ARE nevertheless certain nice symmetries to be observed within the sequence of these bridges. Two of the most recent, the Samuel Beckett and the James Joyce, were built by the celebrated Santiago Calatrava. Both are named after Irish writers and Calatrava’s inventive use of iconic silhouettes in his designs, the harp and the open book respectively, makes evident the artistic allegiances of this Joycean engineer. These are playful, postmodern, monumental bridges, startling feats of engineering in pure white: testaments to Celtic Tiger wealth and the desire to place Dublin on the international map in terms quite specific to the twenty-first century: as a centre for ‘urban design.’ Rather less aspirational is the symmetry between another pair, the Talbot Memorial and the Frank Sherwin, two very similar three-span concrete bridges, both finished with granite dust “to give the impression of granite facing blocks”: a desire which surely reflects something about the era in which they were built. The first was designed by DeLeuw, Chadwick and Ó hEocha, the second in-house by the Corporation; both were designed to deal with congestion problems in the city, and they were constructed within four years of one another.

Reflecting the priorities of a very different era is the harmonious arrangement of the bridges on either side of the Four Courts – the Father Mathew and the O’Donovan Rossa. The Father Mathew Bridge was built on the site of the Ford of the Hurdles, and as such marks the original Liffey crossing. The present stone bridge was built between 1816 and 1818, planned to complement the O’Donovan Rossa Bridge, built two years earlier. Both are elegant three-span masonry bridges with elliptical arches, emblems of an age of prosperity in Dublin: adorning the first of the bridges can still be seen keystones representing Plenty, Industry, Commerce, Hibernia, Peace, and Anna Liffey herself. They are topped with cast-iron balustrades, clad with graceful stone copings, as is the quay wall fronting the Four Courts, and the other three-span bridge upriver, the Mellows Bridge, creating a sense of concord along this particular stretch of the Liffey, a sense of small-scale Augustan composure.

Again there is the series of cast iron bridges that are interspersed with these varying sequences of postmodern, neo-classical, and concrete functional bridges. The earliest of these, the Ha’penny Bridge, was built in 1816 to replace a tolled ferry service previously in operation: the new bridge retained the toll, hence its colloquial and best-known name. The bridge is another elliptical arch, constructed using several identical sections, the iron structures cast in the Coalbrookdale Foundry in Shropshire. Coalbrookdale was a tiny village located, appropriately enough, in the Ironbridge Gorge, which became the heart of the industrial revolution, romanticised by painters like Turner and de Loutherbourg in the early nineteenth century, when the association of industrial society with “black satanic mills” had not yet impinged upon the romantic imagination. The Ha’penny Bridge was a statement of the values of the age, a simple structure of unapologetic cast iron, proudly showing off the materials of industrial progress. For the design of the other two, similarly exposed, cast iron bridges, a very similar seven-ribbed, single arch structure was used: the metalwork for the Rory O’More was cast at the St Helens Foundry in Lancashire, while that for the Seán Heuston came from the nearby Phoenix Iron Works. Both were built to commemorate royal visits – the first by George IV in 1821, the second by Victoria and Albert in 1861. Yet only a little over a decade later, in 1872, the remodelling of Grattan Bridge, with its new cast iron cantilevered footpaths, and its ornate cast iron flourishes, was greeted with widespread revulsion by Dubliners and dismissed at the time as the ugliest bridge in the capital. When in 1880 Sackville Bridge had to be rebuilt to align with a widened street network, the engineers had learned their lesson: the new O’Connell Bridge reflects the neo-classical tradition of the earlier stonework bridges, Mellows, Father Mathew and O’Donovan Rossa.

Writing in The New York Times of October 18th, 1931, the soon-to-be-president of the United States and stalwart champion of the engineer Franklin D Roosevelt wrote: “There can be little doubt that in many ways the story of bridge building is the story of civilisation. By it, we can readily measure an important part of people’s progress.” The Liffey bridges tell us much about the history of the city of Dublin, about the changing materials of industry and the nature of prevailing tastes. They provide a potted narrative of the built environment, that curious amalgam of individual caprice and collective will. Perhaps the most telling feature of this history is its troubled chronology: in the fifty years between 1860 and 1910 a total of five bridges were built, amongst them some colossal feats of innovative and controversial engineering. In the fifty years that followed – and more, up until 1978 –Dublin acquired none.

 

AT THE pontoon on North Wall Quay, two boats are moored. The first is a replica famine ship, now a not particularly inspiring commercial museum, featuring wax peasants languishing in a diorama of incongruously buffed pine, which convey, as is claimed on their website, a “a deep sense of history” and a “vivid sense” of the plight of famine emigrants. The second is a much smaller and more modest vessel, a long flat red boat, close to the water, a purpose-built low-profile boat with two engines and a glass viewing roof, named, with what seems a failure of both imagination and grammar, “Spirit of Docklands”. It is now the vehicle for daily sightseeing tours up and down the river, run by Liffey Valley Cruises.

I am met on the pontoon by the boat’s skipper, who has agreed to give his perspective on the Liffey bridges. Paul is broad-shouldered, welcoming. He shakes my hand. He looks, I think, like a well-put-together man from a little country town, though he is, he assures me, from Portmarnock. On board is Ray, the tour guide, an older man originally hailing, he tells me as we take our seats in the cabin, from Sheriff Street. He points vaguely, though Sheriff Street – a working class district which became, like Moore Street, a byword for old Dublin – is cut off from the river now by huge blocks of redeveloped corporate dockland architecture. Ray has been leading tours since 2009, when he retired from the post office: first in Dublinia, now here. He loves the history, he says, and he means it, though it is clear that he loves Dublin too.

They run, he tells me, up to six tours a day at the busiest patch of the season, “when the cruise ships are in and the festivals are on”. I ask them about the boat’s name ‑ who came up with it? “A bunch of people,” says Paul. “This was originally a Docklands initiative.” And its purpose? “To reconnect the city with the river,” says Paul, trotting out what is I can’t help but suspect is the official line. Ray interjects: “It was a Docklands thing. 2005. Boomtime. The Dublin Docklands Authority commissioned it. They wanted to show off the area.” I gather, from his tone, that the Dublin Docklands Authority are no longer operating the service? Ray points out the boat window, at a magnificent modernist concrete-and-glass office block with a slanted cylindrical glass roof, on the quayside across the river. “You see that? That was the HQ for the Dublin Docklands Authority back that time. Overlooking the docklands. The views! That was the sort of show they were running. Then when the shit hit the fan, they had to move ...” he turns and points, with evident relish, at a narrow one-storey port-style building which appears to be panelled with temporary hoardings “ ...into that shed.”

It does seem a fitting irony, in the light of the extremely questionable activities of the DDA during the boom, allied with Anglo Irish Bank, cultivating an environment of frenzied development, investing ludicrous multi-billion euro sums in land that now lies idle. A little downriver stands the brutal shell of the unfinished Anglo HQ, eight stories of deserted concrete which have become synonymous with the hubris of the Celtic Tiger. I ask what they make of the regenerated area. Has it been successful, in their eyes? Paul is on the fence. “Parts of it now,” he says. But Ray is emphatic.”The Docklands? No way. No way. Sure there’s nobody around.”

“It’s better than what was here before, you have to admit that,’ says Paul.”That’s short term memory, that’s all that is. I remember when I was a kid we’d come down here and there’d be so much going on. Stalls. Restaurants. People everywhere. Dockers. You wouldn’t believe the bustle. We used to come down here mitching, a gang of us. And you know, I remember there were restaurants here selling sushi, so there were. Sushi!” He laughs. “That’s going back,” he says. “A different world.”

They get up to unmoor, and as Paul begins to take the boat upriver, to a second pontoon on Bachelor’s Walk – the pick-up point for the first tour of the day – Ray and I sit and talk about his memories of the river. He recalls, he tells me, the Guinness ships mooring up as far as the Custom House, which they were able to do up until the low-lying Talbot Memorial Bridge was built in 1978, sending the working life of the river yet further downstream. That is the other narrative to be traced in the history of the bridges. Each bridge built from the late nineteenth century on sent the Port of Dublin further and further out to sea. Even the creation of the Docklands over the past few decades has been seen as an encroachment on an essential and overlooked resource. For if the operations of the port are seen as distastefully industrial, they are also undeniably, economically crucial.

Ray praises the Samuel Beckett Bridge as we begin to make our way up the river, but we pass under the Sean O’Casey Bridge without any comment, which, though it won awards for its engineering, has not endeared itself to the people of Dublin. I ask him do they get many Dubliners taking the tour? “Not at first,” he says. “I think at first people didn’t understand what we were doing. People didn’t think of the Liffey in that way. But more and more now we’re getting Dubs in. People love it when they see it, word of mouth starts to spread. It really opens up the city for people. You get to see things from another perspective. And then, people bring their stories along with them too.”

As we pass the Custom House he tells me about a recent passenger, an elderly man who’d lived most of his life in Hull, back in Dublin for a holiday, who took the tour and could remember as a boy seeing the Custom House in flames. May 1921. Ray stares at the Custom House as he speaks as if trying to conjure it up. “A different world.” Then he turns and points out the far window. ‘We get the odd seal as well, which is always a laugh. And a sea otter we saw yesterday. I’ve never seen a sea otter come up this far before.’

As we pass under O’Connell Bridge, he directs my attention upward, to the glass roof, and a long crack in the underside of the bridge, the line which marks the joining together of the old Sackville Bridge with the later addition. ‘Making it the only bridge in Europe as wide as it is long,’ he says, concluding our chat, getting up to help tether the boat. But I want to ask him one last question. “So which one is your favourite bridge?” He doesn’t even need to think. “Sure, the Ha’penny,” he declares, as if the question could have only one answer. “Look at it,” he says, indicating the iron arch which has, with the swing of the boat, been suddenly framed in the windows. “There’s more photographs, paintings, versions of that bridge than there is of any of the others. There’s no other bridge like it in the world. Did you know they were almost going to tear it down, in the early 1900s? They were going to build a gallery bridge, like one you’d see in Florence or the like. But do you know what scuppered it? Do you know what they said? It was the ‘effluvia’, they said. No one would want to look at the paintings because of the ‘effluvia’ – which is a nice way of saying the stink!” He chuckles to himself as he makes his way onto the deck, repeating the word once more on its own, savouring it, to get the fullest comic effect: ‘“Effluvia!”’

 

RAY WAS referring to a controversy that raged for a summer in pre-revolutionary Dublin, leading to what remains one of WB Yeats’s most famous poems, the scathing “September, 1913”. At the heart of this controversy was the “gallery bridge”, which was never built. It had been proposed by Sir Hugh Lane, the great patron of the arts, as a possible home for the collection of valuable Impressionist paintings he intended to present as a gift to the city of Dublin. This was the era of the Celtic Revival, that renaissance of the arts in Ireland that produced the oral histories of Lady Gregory, the poetry of Yeats, the innovative design work of Dun Emer Industries and the Cuala Press, the Abbey Theatre movement and the plays of Sean O’Casey and JM Synge. This is the cultural tradition in which the campaign for the gallery bridge must be understood. Lane even went so far as to commission a plan for a Venetian-style bridge by the eminent Edwardian architect Sir Edwin Lutyens – designer of the splendid War Memorial Gardens further up the Liffey banks as well as countless other commissions in England and India. The issue over which the controversy arose, however, was the question of who should pay for this decorous amenity.

There was disgruntlement at the request, from Lane and his associates, that Dublin Corporation should provide £22,000, to match what could be raised from private donations, toward the estimated construction costs of £43,000. There were also qualms about the loss of a bridge which had become so much a part of the urban scene. There was talk of condescension. But it looked, as late as August 1913, as if the Corporation would cough up, and the bridge would be built. That is, until William Martin Murphy rowed in. Murphy was a business magnate and press baron, chairman of the Dublin United Tram Company, owner of Clerys and the Irish Independent, “the Bantry jobber” as he is known to the Citizen in Ulysses. Through his ownership of one of the most respected dailies in the country, Murphy disseminated his truculent opposition to the gallery bridge. In a letter to his own newspaper printed on January 17th, 1913, he made his most aggressive attack upon the project, affecting the position of a baffled “Paudeen” (or common Irishman) at whom Yeats had seemed to jeer:

There has been much eloquence wasted these last few days; and all the old platitudes have been trotted out about the ‘priceless collection,’ the ‘envy of Europe,’ the ‘resort of pilgrims,’ the educational effect upon the taste of our citizens, etc, the answer to which may be summed up in one word. Fudge. But by all means let us look at the facts before we pass this verdict. Let us recap. We have been presented with a free gift, given freely, of some fine old paintings, a contribution to the City of Dublin. Then we have been told that this free gift, given freely, is by the way to cost us £12,000 of our taxpayers’ money – this at a time when surely one could be forgiven for concluding, upon even a brief survey of our civic mechanism, that on the contrary money in this city seems rather scant. It is to cost us, too, our view of the River Liffey. A modest price perhaps, but then we are a modest people. It will cost us all this, then; and, so far as I can see, it will near cost us our credulity into the bargain.
I am writing of course, let me clarify, from a mere Paudeen’s point of view. I am by no means fit to meet the eloquence of a Mr Yeats or a Mr Lane. But in my simple way I would rather see in the city of Dublin one block of sanitary houses, in habitable condition and at low rents, replace one single reeking slum than all the pictures Corot or Degas ever painted.

This is shrewd populist posturing, coming from a man of such power and wealth. His references to the “reeking slum” are loaded with a particularly black irony, considering his role as principal anti-trade unionist and architect of the infamous lockout in the autumn of that same year. Nevertheless, in the face of his opposition, plans for the gallery bridge were shelved. Lane died on the Lusitania in 1915, and legal abnormalities led to decades of dispute over the rightful inheritors of his Impressionist collection. Its current status, partially shared between the National Gallery in London and the Hugh Lane Gallery – finally homed in Charlemont House on Parnell Square and opened to the public in 2001 – reflects an unhappy compromise arrived at in 1959.

Exactly a hundred years on, this divisive and telling episode features as little more than a footnote in the much more significant – though if one were being churlish one might also add the much more ideologically assimilable – centenary commemorations of the Lockout. Yeats’s famous excoriation of Murphy and his class has even been misunderstood as a declaration in support of the 1913 workers:

What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone;
For men were born to pray and save:
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

I remain unsure to what Ray was referring when he mentioned “effluvia”, though there were those who opposed the bridge on the basis that moisture from the river would harm the pictures. In any case, the Ha’penny Bridge survived and became eventually the most celebrated of the Liffey’s bridges, alongside the Poolbeg chimneys probably one of the most recognisable visual representations of Dublin city.

Just a little downstream of this piece of cherished civic architecture, the new bridge is currently being built. A piece of very simple and elegant contemporary design, but requiring elaborate construction, the site – between Marlborough Street on the northside and Hawkins Street on the south – is for the moment an explosive snarl of wooden beams, splayed at all angles, inadvertently reminiscent of Frank Gehry’s 2008 design for the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion. This new bridge, when built, will bear the tracks for the new cross-city Luas extension, connecting the physically and symbolically divided red and green lines installed in 2004. It is to be completed by the end of the year, meaning that precisely one hundred years will separate the creation of this new bridge from the cancellation of the old one. Of course the gallery bridge does not feature at all in the popular imagination – most Dubliners will never have so much as heard of it – but it is tempting to see in their physical juxtaposition a neat illustration of Roosevelt’s claim. In the first instance, a private patron sought municipal support to create an artistic resource for the capital – though he can hardly have imagined it would be accessed by more than the cultivated few. In the second instance, a range of public agencies and private interests has invested in the modernisation of Dublin’s transport infrastructure, aiming to bring it up to international standards and make Dublin more appealing to foreign investors. Both are contributions to an idea of the city, and to the welfare and prosperity of at least some of its people. Across O’Connell Bridge these two ideas of Dublin – one under construction, the other an unbuilt spectre, neither of them at time of writing actually built – face each other.

There is always a certain curious appeal in the blueprints of unbuilt structures: the projected cathedral of Capel Street or the National Theatre on Parnell Square (both designed by Patrick Abercrombie as part of his 1922 Dublin city plan) are others. What’s more, every bridge, built or unbuilt, is in some way utopian. While the council deliberated over the summer of 2013, the people of Dublin clamoured with suggestions for what the new bridge should be called, many of them attesting to this abiding link, between bridges and writers, between forms of story-telling: the Lady Gregory Bridge, the Abbey Theatre Bridge, the Constance Markievicz Bridge, the Bram Stoker Bridge. Perhaps understandably, no one suggested the Hugh Lane.

 

FROM THE East Link Bridge, the Docklands are a vision of a modernised Dublin, both banks of the river a mass of concrete and glass, catching light. Much of it is derelict land now, of course. The Anglo building looms over it all, joining a distinguished line of Irish ruins. The Dodder and the Grand Canal both meet the Liffey at this point, and flow together into the Irish sea. This is the last bridge: beyond it are the fishing cottages of Ringsend on one side, the grid-like jumble of Dublin Port on the other, and the two red and white towers of Poolbeg. Gulls wheel overhead, screeching.

Our reasons for building bridges have changed enormously over time. The bridges of the past ten years have reflected the needs of a modern economy: they are funded as public-private projects, designed by significant engineers, invested in a symbolism of urban design and urban life that prioritises the internationalist and the corporate. As such they seem utterly removed from the Liffey’s first bridge: monastic, tolled, sacred. Yet it cannot be said that we have entirely lost our sense of the sanctity or holiness of bridges. The fervour that surrounded the naming of the new Luas bridge testifies surely to our continued if transmuted reverence. Campaigns were fought. Petitions were signed. There were heated debates at public meetings about representation, about planning, about democracy. At the beginning of a decade of commemorations, the question of who we honour, and why, has imbued the debate with real currency. Such a sense of civic entitlement surrounds little else in modern corporatised Dublin.

Bridges provide, after all, a way of telling particular stories about a place. Bridges at their most obvious level create pathways across the city, synapses, new ways of connecting the disparate parts of an urban sprawl, which might explain why so many of them are named after writers. Of course you can’t escape a certain suspicion of hyperbole here, of pseudo-aspirational doublespeak. Naming bridges after writers does not mean supporting literature. Instead, through the Celtic Tiger the interest in bridge-building became typical of the legacy designs of Fianna Fáil and the new class of inflated property developers and financiers. For all their beauty, this will probably be the story told in the future by the new Calatrava bridges.

As to the newest addition to this miscellaneous set of bridges, the committee of city councillors decided, after long deliberations, to name the bridge after Rosie Hackett, a Jacob’s biscuit factory worker, champion of workers’ rights, founder member of the Irish Women Workers’ Union, 1913 Lockout activist and participant in the Irish Citizen Army during the 1916 Rising. This will be the first Liffey bridge to be named after a woman, and the first in many years to be named after anyone but a canonical writer. Is this a triumph of civic right-mindedness? Is it, as some have argued, a lazy co-opting of the historical cause of socialism into Dublin’s anodyne official culture? Or is it simply the option least likely to give offence? Any decision will risk criticism in such surprisingly heated circumstances. Never before has there been such a palpable sense, among the people of Dublin, of ownership over these bridges: a remarkable development in itself, and – aside from the stories we might yet tell about the Rosie Hackett – some reason for hope.
4/11/2013

Nathan Hugh O’Donnell is studying for a PhD and teaching English at Trinity College Dublin. He has had stories published in The Manchester Review, Chroma Queer Literary Journal and The South Circular and is working on his first novel.

 

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