Newspaper advertisements of 1752 heralded Dublin’s new bridge - one guinea lottery tickets would help fund its construction - for Humphrey Jervis’ old Essex Bridge, first built in 1676, was deemed no longer repairable. The seven arch bridge, built with stones pilfered from the nearby ruins of 12th century St. Mary’s Abbey, and which originally had a timber drawbridge, had suffered many collapses and endured many rebuilds such as in 1724 when floods loosened the arches.
The city corporation called on George Semple, architect and engineer, who laid much of the blame for the bridge’s demise on King George I. For it was the grand pier on which his statue rested and which abutted from the western side of the bridge, which did much to cause the damage by altering the flow of the Liffey. In addition, the bridge simply rested on timber grids which had been sunk into the river bed.
The gifted engineer and his crews set to work in January 1753. They toiled around the clock and at depths up to ten metres below street level, while nature flung all it had at them - sudden floods threatened to sweep them away, dams disappeared into the sucking ooze of the riverbed, sewage smells rose up to overpower them and the quay wall fell in upon them. However, the new bridge finished on schedule and on budget, opening in April 1755 and costing £20,661, 1 shilling and 6 pence. Economies had been made by reusing some of the stones from the abbey but most importantly, Semple revolutionised the building of bridge foundations in Ireland by using cofferdams. Twenty globe style oil lamps illuminated the bridge at night and it offered the notable comfort of having a raised stone walkway.
Time brings change and in 1865 leading citizens of Dublin decried Semple’s bridge as too steep and too narrow. In 1873, work began under Port engineer, Bindon Blood Stoney and contractor, W.J. Doherty. For a while Dublin even had three bridges to boast of here as two temporary bridges were erected - a pedestrian one linking to Capel Street and an eleven span bridge at Swift’s Row. Stoney remained faithful to Semple’s five arch design and to Semple’s creed - that his bridge would last as long as the Sugar Loaf. For under Grattan Bridge today are Semple’s foundations - and a little of St. Mary’s Abbey.