This week saw the 200th birthday of the ionic ‘Ha’penny Bridge’ in Dublin. The Bridge was opened in May 1816 and replaced the Ferry which linked the North and South quays along the River Liffey. The bridge with its graceful cast iron curve is one of the iconic symbols of not just Dublin but of the country.
I have often heard that the ‘iron’ for the bridge came from Leitrim and in particularly Sliabh an Iarainn, the Iron Mountains which dominate the south of the County and stretch from Lough Allen to the Cavan border. Across the grand expanse of Lough Allen is the better known coal mining community of Arigna. I have struggled to find any evidence that the ‘iron’ used in the bridge came from Leitrim. Firstly one has to establish is whether or not the ‘Iron’ is the Iron Ore or the cast iron spans that make up the bridge.
It is known that there used to be an iron industry in the County until the early 1800’s. The legacy of this is placenames such as Furnace Hill in Drumshanbo. But would a small scale foundry be capable of making the cast iron lengths for the bridge. Perhaps?
I was disheartened when I read the following from the Dublin City Council sponsored ‘Bridges of Dublin’ website:-
“When the sailing ships, transporting the Ha’penny Bridge from the Coalbrookdale Foundry in England, dropped anchor in Dublin, it was then an outpost of the British Empire with a population of less than 200,000 people. The bridge, assembled on site, opened on May 19th 1816 and citizens enjoyed ten toll free days.”
Another source was pandering the same foundry:-
“Accepted as the symbol of Dublin, the Ha’penny Bridge (originally Wellington Bridge after the ‘Iron Duke’; offically Liffey Bridge) was opened in 1816. Cast at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire in England, the bridge acquired its unofficial moniker from the toll paid to cross the river – one old half penny. The bridge was the only pedestrian bridge on the Liffey until the Millennium bridge further up was opened in 2000.
Despite these sources there is no primary source quoted so perhaps it’s still possible that the iron ore for the famous bridge came from Leitrim and that the iron may also have been cast in this area. There is a history of iron mining and working in Ireland but all is linked to the difficulty in extraction and gradual decline in charcoal which was required to heat up the furnaces. The beginning of the Industrial Revolution in England brought about the last great flourishing of mining in Ireland but Irish iron industry was always on a fairly small scale. In the 1770’s one Arthur Young declared that there were foundries in Belfast, Newry and Dublin and he believed there were no others in Ireland at that time.
There were however numerous small foundries that made spades, shovels, picks, horsehoes, nails and common utensils like outs, pans and kettles. In later years the local iron ore supply dwindled as it became cheaper to import pig iron from England and even from Sweden.
In the early 1780s Arthur Young declared that the principal Irish smelting-furnace was at Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, and that:
“Its produce annually, when at work may be about 300 tons … there is another of the same sort at Mountrath, in the Queen’s County, but from the great scarcity of charcoal it does not work above three or four months every third or fourth year; when this furnace is at work that at Enniscorthy is idle.”
It was around this time that the biggest smelting works in the country was developed at Arigna. It was hoped the combination of iron ore from the Leitrim mountains and the local coal could be combined to reduce costs and compete with the imported pig iron. The initiative was undertaken by a Reilly family who petitioned Parliament for a Grant in 1789 but this was refused. Four years later the family went bankrupt.
The Reillys were understandably bitter at the government’s lack of support, for in May 1797 John Foster, the Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, received a letter warning him that:
“The foundry which belonged to Mr La Touche at Rigna (some place in Connaught) … they have settled principles of disloyalty there, and it is almost impossible to find a man in that quarter of the country who is not a United Irishman. Mr Reilly, who held the foundry before Mr La Touche, is most active in this business and gives the lower orders of the people every encouragement, and that he will, when it is necessary give them a cannon. It is understood he has eight pieces concealed. I hope the foundry has supplied him with no balls, of which care should be taken the men being all disaffected”.
The iron works were taken over by Peter La Touche who was the MP for Leitrim and well known Society Banker. Unfortunately his attempts were also doomed to failure and all he was left with from the enterprise were the large iron gates to his estate.
In view of the struggles of the ironworks was it really feasible that this is where the constituent parts of the famous bridge were mined, smelted and cast?
I next read the well-known Dublin History website ‘Come here to me’. Its take on the bridge is as follows:-
“The idea for the construction of the bridge came from John C. Beresford, a member of Dublin Corporation, and William Walsh, the ferry operator. The bridge was to be christened the Wellington Bridge, in honour of the Duke of Wellington, victor of the Battle of Waterloo only a year previously and a native Dub. The Dublin Evening Post, barely able to contain themselves, reported on the opening of the bridge that:
“A testimonial to the Hero of the British Army has at last been erected – a Testimonial at once creditable to the name with which it is to be honoured, greatly ornamented to the City of Dublin, and eminently useful to her inhabitants. We allude to the arch of cast iron thrown over our river, from Crampton Quay to the Bachelor’s Walk, opposite to Liffey Street, and which, we understand, with the express permission of the Illustrious Duke, is to be called Wellington Bridge. This Arch, spanning the Liffey, is one of the most beautiful in Europe: the excellence of its composition, the architectural correctness of its form, the taste with which it has been executed, and the general airiness of its appearance, renders it an object of unmixed admiration.”
Interestingly, for something so associated with Dublin, the bridge itself was cast at Shropshire in England. Some Dubliners refereed to it not as the Wellington Bridge but rather the Triangle Bridge, which Frank Hopkins has noted was bestowed on it owing to the controversial background of John C Beresford, one of the men who had brought the bridge into being. Beresford was a former Tory parliamentarian who had twice sat in Westminster, but controversially was also active in a yeomanry which opposed the United Irish rebellion of 1798. His riding school premises in Dublin became synonymous in the mind of republicans with torture and the practice of flogging rebels upon a triangular scaffold.
The practice of torture was described in one nineteenth century history of Ireland thus:
“The triangle was a wooden instrument made in the form of the letter A, about twice the height of a man, to which the person to be punished was tied, hands and feet, and lashed with wire cords knotted. In the midst of this torture, questions about the conspiracy were asked, and if the answers not satisfactory, the punishment was renewed!”
Trying to find the Foundry where the ‘Ha’penny Bridge’ was cast has proved elusive. I’ve learned a bit about the iron smelting process along the way and the methods of torture employed against Regency period rebels. To conclude I’m leaning towards the smoky valleys of Shropshire instead of the drumlin hills of Leitrim. I’d welcome anyone with evidence to the contrary.