What's in a name?
Tune in to the hum of city chat as you cross Father Mathew Bridge today and you might never hear of it being called any other than the Church Street Bridge - after all when travelling south to north, Church Street is a natural progression in your journey.
The official name, Father Mathew Bridge, was bestowed upon the bridge by the city fathers in 1938. In Ireland of the 1840s this Tipperary born priest was almost as famous as the Liberator himself, Daniel O’Connell. As O’Connell whipped the people of Ireland into a frenzy of nationalist zeal, Father Mathew observed the destruction wrought by the demon drink and instituted a national preference for abstinence. Alcohol had numbed many poor Irish men and women against their daily diet of poverty, hunger and utter hopelessness. Together Father Mathew and O’Connell offered personal and national salvation. The Irish Total Abstinence Society was founded in Cork, by Father Mathew who was inspired by nothing more than his desire to save ‘one poor soul’ from ‘intemperance and destruction’. Nationally and internationally, he was responsible for over six million people pledging to abstain from alcohol for life. In Dublin alone, ‘the pledge’ was taken by more than 72,000 Dubliners at a gathering by the Custom House in 1840. Such were the effects of the movement that pubs shut their doors and distilleries closed for lack of custom. Pope Gregory XVI took the pledge and wore the gold medal of the Cork Total Abstinence Society and Father Mathew personally initiated the escaped slave and social reformer Frederick Douglass into the movement while he was on a visit to Ireland. The 1930s brought a renewed interest in abstinence following the death of Matt Talbot, a reformed alcoholic, who died on a Dublin street, his body torn and cut from the chains of mortification wrapped around it by his own hands. In the spirit of the times the bridge was renamed the Father Mathew Bridge.
Charles Whitworth was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland from 1813 to 1817. He cut his diplomatic teeth in the court of Stanislaus Augustus of Poland when Warsaw was at the centre of political intrigue. Eleven years of residence on the banks of the River Neva in St. Petersburg followed and then a stormy diplomatic sojourn in Paris. His skills were then required in Copenhagen where Britain stood accused of aggression towards the northern states. For the handsome and charming Charles, an impoverished eldest son, romantic intrigue went hand in hand with political life. He was a favourite of queens, duchesses and countesses to whom he was a generous purveyor of flattery and friendship. They, in turn, discreetly replenished his ever empty purse. In Russia, he became engaged to the wealthy and influential Countess Gerbetzow notwithstanding her being still married. He was created an Irish peer in 1800 - Baron Whitworth of Newport Pratt in Mayo. On recall to London in 1801 he married Diana Arabella the widow of the Duke of Dorset, who had been his patron. She was an heiress with an immeasurable wealth of political influence. When the newly divorced and utterly smitten Countess Gerbetzow arrived in London she was summarily dispatched by the formidable Diana. Having proved himself in the grand theatre of European politics and with his wife’s influence, Whitworth was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. His were a safe pair of hands as he was against Catholic emancipation. However the Whitworths’ time in Ireland was marred by great personal tragedy. Diana’s son, the 21 year old Duke of Dorset, was killed in a riding accident while out fox hunting with Lord Powerscourt. Whitworth was recalled to London in 1817. The following year the present bridge was completed and named in his honour. He died after a short illness in 1824 and having no heirs his titles became extinct.
Menacing Viking sails were first sighted from the coasts of Ireland in the 8th century. Having left their native Norway and Denmark in search of fairer land and greater fortune, these skilled navigators staged raids along the coasts of Scotland and England and some eventually pulled their longboats ashore in green and pleasant Ireland. Dublin became an established trading post in a network of similar settlements, from where the men from the north, the Norsemen, spread their message of eleventh century diplomacy - plunder, pillage and trade. It had a population of about 1,000 in the year 900 which grew to 4,000 within a hundred years. The mud and timber dwellings were dominated by the hearth fire which provided warmth, light and a means to cook. Fresh water came from the rivers Liffey and Poddle. Daily life was busy with weaving, animal rearing, coin minting and iron smelting. Warriors came and went with their bounties of goods and slaves. The invaders had also to fight a rearguard action against the resentful element of the native Irish and tend their alliances with others.
In time the Norsemen forsook their pagan gods for Christianity, inter-married and adopted the Irish language and customs. It is to this hybrid of the native Irish and the Norse man that the term ‘Ostman’ applies. The Ostman’s Bridge, Danes Bridge or Black Danes Bridge was most likely a simple wooden affair constructed around the year 1,000, connecting the south bank settlement with the scattered peoples of the north bank and important interior routes. Evidence of other bridges would suggest that trees trunks were laid in the river in line with the flow of the water. Rocks and stones were piled on to ensure stability. Upon these vertical supports were erected on which was built the timber frame for the deck of the bridge. The bridge was most probably replaced around 1215.
King John’s Bridge
Dublin in 1348 was a hushed and silent place and grass grew upon the city’s only bridge, the King John Bridge. The Bubonic plague was rampant in the crowded, filthy conditions of the city. An estimated 14,000 people died. The eerily deserted bridge was a symbol of much change, most notably that Dublin was no longer a Viking settlement. The Normans now held sway having invaded Ireland in 1169 at the invitation of Dermot MacMurrough, the deposed King of Leinster, in an attempt to settle a dynastic dispute in his own favour. The Normans were strategic builders. The castle - their speciality - was designed for defence by a hard core of fighting men and sited to command road and river routes and thus trade, commerce and ultimately power. Dublin Castle, built on high land overlooking the city was to fulfil such a role, first for the Normans and then the English, for hundreds of years.
The Normans turned their attentions to The Ostman’s Bridge, a rattling wooden affair, constantly in need of repairs. In 1214 King John licensed a new bridge to be built. It weathered the earthquake of 1266 and from about 1300 water was delivered from the marble cistern holding the city supply through wooden pipes laid over the bridge to the religious houses on the north bank. In time there was a bridge gate, shops and other buildings upon the bridge. In 1315 Robert the Bruce of Scotland sent Edward, his brother, to invade Ireland. Edward battled his way from the north towards Dublin, reaching Castleknock by 1317. There was panic within and without the city. The suburbs were burned and the bridge torn down and the materials used to strengthen the city’s walls. At the last minute the Scots retreated, Edward ultimately to his death on a battlefield in County Louth. The city rebuilt the bridge but it fell again in 1385. Dubliners waited over forty years for a replacement.
The Friar’s Bridge
From the ancient vase set upon the bridge holy water was sprinkled upon travellers as the friar accepted their farthing toll. For in Dublin, as was common in middle ages Europe, bridges were in the care of religious orders. The tolls, on man and beast, were used to maintain the bridge structure. Dublin’s new bridge was completed in 1428. King Richard ll had granted permission for it decades before and it was the Dominicans, whose priory was on the site where the Four Courts now stands, who agitated for a its completion. It became a living bridge - lined with houses and shops on either side and a chapel of ease, St. Mary’s, where Mass took place every day. Thus, this stone bridge with four somewhat inelegant, unequal stone arches became Friars’ Bridge or St. Mary’s Bridge.
The winds of political change blew hard upon Ireland in the years of the Friars’ Bridge. The English grip tightened and Dublin was their military stronghold. The bridge bore witness to the passage of rebels and soldiers, the heads of traitors, such as Felim O’Neill, were staked upon the gate. History records too that the city authorities at times allowed the bridge to fall into disrepair. It was 1697 before they provided for lighting on the bridge, by which time Paris had over 5,000 public lights. In 1800 Ireland was drawn into union with Britain and the bridge was a tottering edifice. Passengers dismounted from vehicles to cross it, a laden coach being too heavy. Towards the end of the bridge’s time Dubliners were known to avoid the structure entirely as it posed such a risk to life and limb. And so a new bridge was planned, built and opened in 1818. With the last footstep over Friar’s Bridge another chapter in Dublin’s unique history came to a close.