What's in a name?

Before the 13th century had long begun a weir was evident here, where the Liffey obligingly meandered through the meadowland. Perhaps it was first constructed by the monks of Kilmainham who established their priory high on the slope overlooking the river around the year 1174 or, maybe by their forbears upon the land. A mill race too was made by cutting a channel from the weir south of the river towards where the bridge stands today. In doing so an island was created and also a name which has comes down to us through the many hundreds of years since the good friars tended the fertile land and teeming river.

Inevitably the bridges crossing the Liffey here came also to be known by the same name, though the name rested some hundred years and more, while Sarah Bridge reigned.

Island Bridge grew from a rural idyll and most holy place, to a hamlet, a place of industry, a suburb and is now an inner part of the city. It has many mentions in the annals of Ireland: Brian Boru camped here in 1013, looking down on Dublin besieged; conquering Strongbow founded the priory, a place of recovery and refuge for the poor and the sick; Silken Thomas passed this way en route to Finglas to solicit support for his doomed rebellion of 1534; Henry Vlll decreed the lands and priory to himself in his ruthless dissolution of the monasteries and an early morning conversation overheard in an Island Bridge tavern played hard against another ill fated rebellion, that of Robert Emmet in 1803.

One man, however, had a singular idea to alter the shape of the riverscape here at Island Bridge, much as the weir builders did over 600 years before him. Thomas Steele, a repeal associate of Daniel O’Connell, but also an engineer and diving bell inventor, published an essay in 1840 outlining his ingenious plan to cut a channel from the deep water of the Island Bridge Weir, through the fields of the Royal Hospital to Chapelizod and beyond. Despite some official discussion and the Ordnance Survey Office being asked to make land available, his plans came to nothing - not even, as one town councillor hoped, to make the river navigable merely to Chapelizod so the good citizens of Dublin could enjoy a ‘healthful and delightful’ water excursion.

The landscape has much changed here at Island Bridge, yet a brief moment of reflection while watching the Liffey waters from the bridge can bring one on an excursion of a thousand years and more.

Sarah Bridge

Young, beautiful and spirited, Sarah Fane laid the foundation stone of the present Island Bridge on June 22 1791. As wife of the Lord Lieutenant and Ireland’s most eminent lady, she was happily undertaking yet another duty to showcase the work of her husband and his administration.

Image of Island Bridge - What’s in a name?

Sarah Fane, Countess of Westmorland

Hers could have been a different life but she chose love over a great fortune. Her father, Robert Child, was one of England’s richest men and vehemently disapproved of the attention the financially embarrassed and somewhat uncouth John Fane was paying to his seventeen year old only child. In January 1782, Sarah slipped from under the Rubens ceiling in her palatial Adams designed home and fled with the waiting John. Her enraged father was soon in hot pursuit, racing from London with his armed entourage and gaining sight of the couple as they neared the Scottish border. Jumping clear of his carriage, Child shot and felled one of Fane’s horses. Under cover of gunshot, Fane’s party frantically cut free the dead horse, while a groomsman crept unseen and sabotaged Child’s carriage. He watched, powerlessly, as they sped away to Gretna Green.

Having been appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1789, John Fane, Earl of Westmorland brought his wife and young family to Dublin, where, though disinherited by her father, Sarah still led a life of privilege and influence. Wherever she charmingly bestowed her attentions, society gaily followed - to charity balls at the Rotunda, the card assemblies of the socially ambitious or exhibition hurling matches in the Phoenix Park. She favoured home industry, eschewing the shopping pleasures of London for Jewster’s hat shop in Dame Street or Mr. Robinson’s, fabric factory in Beggar’s Bush. However, plague and pestilence know no social boundaries. John Fane, by order of his office, increased quarantine measures in the face of the threat to the city in 1793. Sarah was reported to be ill, recovering and ill again through the summer. She bravely took a carriage ride in October but died at the Vice Regal Lodge in November. Her distraught husband fled to friends while the house was dressed in mourning - the rooms draped in finely woven, black cloth, decorated with lighted wax tapers. From there she journeyed for the last time across her namesake bridge, en route to the family mausoleum in England.