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. Thereafter it was a convenience, paid for in ha’pennies.
Proposed by Dublin city aldermen, John Beresford and William Walsh as a shortcut to Crow Street Theatre the bridge lease was granted to Walsh. It was a lucrative business, yielding £329 and 3s income per annum. Walsh ceased his ferry business on the same stretch of river, in compensation receiving an additional £3,000. The bridge was named, though not officially, for Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington and victor at the Battle of Waterloo. Dubliners dubbed it the Ha’penny Bridge. Today it is very much cherished as a jewel of the city though was not always so thought of. Unsightly advertising was allowed to adorn the bridge until the 1950s. Around that time the wooden deck was covered with tarmac sheets. In the 1980s inelegant, cast iron lighting columns were placed at the bridge mouths and the national transportation agency, C.I.E., even proposed building a rapid rail terminal near the site. Missing rails were not replaced and unsightly scaffolding propped it up here and there. From time to time a compensatory lick of garish coloured paint was applied to the rust and it was at one time improbably bathed in blue light.
A timely, 1998 Dublin City Council assessment called for refurbishment but conserving the bridge as purely ornamental was also briefly considered. In all, fifty two different design options were appraised before the Ha’penny was tented and a temporary bailey bridge erected. Over 1000 individual rail pieces were labelled, removed and sent to Northern Ireland for repair, restoration and painting. Such were the efforts made, that 85% of the original railwork was retained. The 1980s lighting was removed, subtle recessed lighting installed and the bridge mouths smoothed and curved in granite at either end for the comfort and safety of pedestrians. A stepped ramp replaced the steep gradient of old and the deck was given a modern anti-slip surface. After this year long restoration process, costing €1.25million, the bridge reopened on December, 21, 2001.