Dublin in the mid 18th century and the battle lines were drawn: some citizens desired a new bridge and others decidedly did not. At stake was the dominance of the medieval quarter but when architect James Gandon was smuggled into Dublin to begin building the new Custom House in 1781 the city’s eastward shift became unstoppable.
Parliament duly sanctioned a new bridge. In 1791, a Gandon design was agreed - his earlier, magnificent offering with a central triumphal arch, colonnaded walkways and an equestrian statue of the king was rejected as too costly - and the building of a hump backed, three arch bridge, of Portland stone and granite, got underway. The keystones boasted carvings by Edward Smyth representing Anna Liffey and the Atlantic and obelisks decorated each corner. Opened to pedestrians in 1792 and to carriage traffic in 1794, Carlisle Bridge offered a perfect view of a new, elegant, Dublin.
As early as 1818 repairs were required and at a Royal Academy Exhibition of 1841 a model for the widening of the bridge was displayed. By 1852, lying unevenly on its foundations, it was ’ the most dangerous bridge in the empire’ yet required policemen with batons to clear the traffic congestion. Construction of Bindon Blood Stoney’s most elegant, almost square bridge began in 1877.
Adorned with Parisian chic in the form of four ornamental lamp standards on each parapet and three on the central footpath, it also boasted new balustrades. Stoney thoughtfully located doorways to the gas and water pipes under the central arches and out of view. The bridge developed in parts with sections each side of the old bridge opening in 1879. A new central section replaced the old bridge and the completed O’Connell Bridge opened in August 1880. From time to time the architecture of the bridge has been dabbled with - the parapet lamps were brutally reduced to one arm in 1919 but the classical three arm design was restored in the 1990s.
A large copper bowl, filled with plastic ‘flames’ immersed in water, decorated the bridge briefly in 1953 but met its fate at the bottom of the Liffey. A proposal of 1955, to erect a six metre high, domed, perspex traffic tower was, thankfully, rejected though it was once permitted to park on O’Connell Bridge! The history of the bridge is that of the modern city - rebels hung from gallows here in 1798, O’Connell’s voice boomed out from here, the leaders of 1916 passed this way, shots rang out across it in the War of Independence and the Civil War and the final address of the 1932 Eucharistic Congress was given from the bridge.
All told, it seems hardly a bridge and more a destination - O’Connell Bridge, Dublin .