A millennium or so ago, here where Father Mathew Bridge stands today, a simple, probably wooden, structure served the emerging Viking town of Dyflinn. It led from the fortified, riverside settlement, cluttered with wattle and daub huts to the sparsely inhabited, verdant north side and beyond to the tribal ruled, island interior.
Whenever it fell, whether under the weight of winter snows, or by force of spring floods, or perhaps burned in an act of war, it was rebuilt - for Dyflinn, a trading mecca of the longboat world, needed its bridge. Viking Dublin grew, prospered and fell to the Norman King Henry ll, who in 1171 came to survey his newly won territories whereupon his administration set about building a castle on a high spot, overlooking the Liffey and the bridge. Yet, it was not till the reign of his son that this wooden bridge was replaced by a stone structure - the King John Bridge - granted by royal decree in 1214. Tales of the time tell of a living bridge, higgledy piggledy with shops, houses, a tower, a bridge gate and of it being torn apart by hand and the stone used to fortify the town walls when Scotland’s Edward Bruce breathed terror upon the town in 1317.
Washed away by Liffey floods in 1385, the bridge was not completely rebuilt for forty years and as was customary in Medieval times, its care was granted to religious brothers, who exacted a toll from all travellers and in return blessed them with holy water. Through almost four hundred years the bridge stood while the city changed - bursting from it walls, lofty tudor houses sprung up to overhang the river, quay walls framed the riverscape, then came the march of canny merchants and developers across the Liffey, stamping their trademark grand brick houses along the quays, over onto the north side and deeper to the south.
Still in use till 1814, though repaired and restored from time to time, the bridge was, by then, a ‘crazy, wretched pile of antiquity’. The new bridge, the Whitworth Bridge, opened in 1818, just as the new era of industrialisation dawned and a new kind of Nationalism stirred in the hearts of Dubliners. A little over 100 years later, in 1922, it became the Dublin Bridge of the newly independent Ireland and then, in 1938, the Father Mathew Bridge.