What's in a name?
The variety of names given to this bridge in the couple of centuries since it opened allow a fascinating glimpse into the history of Dublin, Europe and bridge making. Its first name, though never officially so, was the Wellington Bridge. Then in 1922 the unofficially christened Ha’penny Bridge became the Liffey Bridge, the inspiration for this name being entirely obvious.
Stamping the name ‘Liffey Bridge’ in the record books was most likely an act - and one of many at the time - to rid the city of its colonial era nomenclature as it sought to establish a distinct identity in the newly independent Ireland. In another moniker, the Iron Bridge, there are echoes of the famed Wellington, the Iron Duke and therein lies a story. Wellington earned his nickname when he safeguarded his house from stone throwing mobs by installing metal shutters across the windows. He did not so much mind the mobs indulging in this robust form of protest, however he most certainly disliked the cost of replacing the windows.
In the annals of bridges another explanation and equally likely one is found for the names Iron or Metal Bridge. The Ha’penny is recorded as one of the first iron bridges in the world, a thoroughbred from the great ironworks of Coalbrookdale. The technological advances of the early Industrial Revolution allowed the construction of the world’s first cast iron bridge, also The Iron Bridge, across the River Severn in Shropshire. It too was built to replace a ferry service though it is now a national monument and closed to vehicular traffic. Iron Bridge or Metal Bridge are names belonging to a vanishing past and seldom heard now. Nor does one much hear the charmingly musical name ‘Triangle Bridge’, which notes the lattice work of the structure. An increased toll gave rise briefly to the Penny Ha’penny Bridge, but it just didn’t roll off the tongue quite smoothly enough.
It is the name Ha’penny Bridge which nestles in the hearts of Dubliners and the Ha’penny Bridge it will always be.
‘Just because one was born in a stable, does not make one a horse’.
Thus remarked the First Duke of Wellington and so called ‘reluctant Irishman’ for whom this bridge, when opened in 1816, was named. Born in 1769, Arthur Wellesley was the sixth of nine children. Named for a deceased older brother, in later years, his family struggled to recall whether he had been born in Dublin or at the family seat, Castle Dangan in Co. Meath and even the month of his birth. Was it March, April or May?
His family of country squires, were looked down upon by some in Dublin society as being ‘lower tier’ Anglo Irish. Notwithstanding this, nor their straitened financial circumstances, his intensely ambitious mother, focussed on the greater opportunities of London society and the top public school, Eton, for her sons.
Arthur was a disappointment. He failed to live up to the standards set by his brilliant older brother Richard, being variously described as a lack lustre, idle, sometimes angry and other times indifferent character. His musical ability, inherited from his father, a composer and first Professor of Music at Trinity College, Dublin, was not valued or nurtured by his mother. For him, it was decided, was the well trodden route of the younger son and Richard purchased a commission in the army.
Posted to the vast Indian subcontinent and the hothouse atmosphere of colonial society, Arthur discovered, like many an Irishman abroad, that he had talent and ambition. With the influential Richard, made Governor General of India in 1798 and through his own efforts as a military campaigner, he achieved position, reputation and wealth. Thus emerged the decisive, authoritarian future Commander in Chief of the British Army, two times Prime Minister of Great Britain and the man who would one day capture the popular imagination by defeating Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.
‘Old Nosey’, as he was known among the troops, the one time errant child, triumphed as the hero. Brother Richard, incidentally, is the great, great great-grandfather of Elizabeth ll, a fact which, no doubt, would have pleased his mother. Arthur also held political office in Ireland and championed the cause of Catholic Emancipation through the resistant political classes in the London Parliament. Perhaps he was more of an Irishman than he cared to admit.