The Liffey and Dublin

The River Liffey, Dublin Bay and the city - these three together form a splendid trinity. Hewn by nature and wrought by man through a thousand years and more of tumultuous history it is, as ever was, the river - the spring water and briny sea foam of Anna Liffey - which nourishes this trinity’s existence.

For it was the river which enchanted the first settlers, promised nourishment for their bodies, communication with their faraway homeland and protection from their enemies, and the river which formed the character of the bay making it at once beautiful and treacherous.

Who named this ancient river? The Liffey, Abhainn Life, Avenlif and Joyce’s Anna Livia Plurabelle - all these names most likely derive from Magh Life, the rich plain or Magh of County Kildare through which the Liffey loops and curls on her way to the sea. In ancient Ireland the ‘Magh’ was also an order of priests and the Liffey, a mere bog stream born of the Wicklow hills, magically swells, grows and teems with life as it gathers pace across the plain, blessing the populace with abundant food.

Image of The Liffey and Dublin

Early river crossing where Fr Mathew Bridge is today

© Dublin City Council

Whatever it’s origins, it is a powerful name, adopted by Cairbre Liffeachair, third century monarch of Ireland who married the daughter of the legendary Fionn MacCumhaill. It is a name which slipped off the tongues of the Vikings, the Normans, the Tudors, the rebel Irish Earls, the United Irishmen, the Victorians, the heroes of 1916 and the citizens of the new republic. And to each it was the same River Liffey, an indivisible part of their Dublin. And to each it was a different River Liffey, for in each era Dubliners left their mark upon the riverscape.


The first Viking longboat, the oars of 50 men slapping the water in unison and sailing high on the waves of the Irish sea, rounded into Dublin bay and sailed up the river more than one thousand, two hundred years ago. The Norsemen’s intent was not peaceful - they were pirates of the North Atlantic. They invaded, they battled, they won and greedily enjoyed the spoils.

Sometimes, enticed by the promise of a special place, they stayed.

So, from the moment these first Norsemen ascended a hill and triumphantly erected their trademark pillar stone on the south bank of the river, opposite where Gandon’s Custom House stands today, the story of the Liffey changed. The primeval scene of coarse meadow, creek veined marshes and meandering river changed as more and more Norsemen arrived. The warlike figureheads of their longboats crowded the river mouth and the salty air grew thick with the rancid smell of the horse fat used to grease the sails.

The rising tide brought them upriver to a great tidal bay - below where Christ Church stands today - cradled by gentle cliffs which swept from behind forming a protective bluff on the seaward side and encircled by a dark flowing river, which obligingly pooled fresh water near its meeting with the Liffey. The Vikings plundered the river and its banks for food, felled trees and built shelters. They staged daring raids on foreign shores and carried their booty of gleaming jewels and terrified captives up from the Liffey shallows on high tide and into their shoreside settlement.

Image of The Liffey and Dublin

A Viking boat moored by O'Connell Bridge, 1988

© Irish Photographic Archive

It was the Vikings who first girdled the Liffey with a quay.

It was the Vikings who put the river to work and built a simple wooden bridge.

But what was this river? From where did it come? With what promise did it lure the Viking invader?

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Geography of a River

More than 500 metres above sea level, deep in the Wicklow wilderness and a mere 20 kilometres or so - as the crow flies - south of Dublin city centre, the River Liffey bubbles up through soft mountain bog. From this splendid isolation it begins a long, meandering journey, coursing west, north and northeast, through Wicklow and Kildare, before making that final, decisive, eastward turn towards Dublin.

The Vikings, of course, knew nothing of this 120 kilometre long odyssey from source to sea. Their riverscape began where the Liffey’s journey ended and mere axe throws away they claimed land, near where Wood Quay stands today, and made their homes. There is no story passed down through history of how the ancient Liffey riverscape, which unfolded before them used to be, other than that which science can help uncover and the imagination can create.

Where now the most easterly of the Liffey bridges - the East-Link, the Samuel Beckett and the Séan O’Casey - straddle the river, imagine that then was its wide mouth, the longboats sailing through as it narrowed into a channel around where the Talbot Memorial Bridge hums with city traffic today. Behind them was the beautiful amphitheatre of Dublin Bay, to the north they passed what was, most likely, pleasant meadow land and to the south beyond Dodder Bay, the rising land later to be known as Lazar’s Hill, along the top of which Townsend Street runs today. Taking a gentle south westerly turn, cautiously rounding jutting promontories tall and small, they sailed past another southside bay, where Gandon would, many centuries hence, build a great bridge, later to be O’Connell Bridge and north from which one of the widest thoroughfares in all Europe would, one day, stretch across the tidal plain. Bays, loughs, rivers and streams, many forgotten and some later to be named - Poddle, Cadslough, the Pill, Bradogue - opened out before them to the north and south. They navigated a great reef - in time named Standfast Dick - barring the river channel west of where the iconic Ha’penny Bridge is now the focal point of the visitor.

Image of The Liffey and Dublin

Dublin, circa 840

© Irish Historic Towns Atlas, Royal Irish Academy

Their chosen place of respite after the treacherous journey across the wild northern seas was an escarpment which curved around a great tidal bay and upon which, a few handfuls of generations later, their ancestors would found Christ Church Cathedral. Nearby pooled the waters of the River Poddle - the Dubh Linn or Black Pool - and a river crossing, the ford of Áth Cliath, built by the native Irish. Forays beyond Christ Church Bay, to where the river curved due west again, would reveal more loughs, streams, stunning valleys and fertile hinterlands all the way to where the tide and the Liffey parted at a place later known as Chapelizod.

Daily intimacy with the river would reveal how at low tide shingle beaches shaped the riverscape and at high tide she lapped where later the streets of Temple Bar and the gates of Trinity College would come to stand. For the Vikings this was an enviable find and they set about moulding the riverscape for their own needs. Below the escarpment they piled earth into a bank, holding back the river with wooden posts - the Vikings were Dublin’s first developers and with a simple wooden quay changed the ancient riverscape.

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Then Came the Normans

The Normans came to Dublin, not by sailing up the Liffey, but by marching down upon it from the Wicklow mountains. They invaded by invitation - an overture by Dermot McMurrough, exiled King of Leinster. McMurrough hoped to win back his kingdom, lost in a dispute with the High King of Ireland. His arrangement with Richard de Clare, the legendary Strongbow, was one of many reciprocal military such helping hands between the Irish, Welsh and English, at a time when Lords and Kings jostled each other for power.

Dublin town collapsed to the Normans in 1170. The Vikings fled to the north bank of the Liffey at Oxmanstown. Strongbow, by now married to Dermot’s daughter Aoife, exerted a firm hand of control on the city of Dublin. So firm, his king, the Norman Henry ll came calling in 1172, to check Strongbow’s power and in 1185, Henry declared his son John, Lord of Ireland. John unexpectedly inherited the kingship and thus the lordship of Ireland was tied to the English throne.

And what meant all of this for Dublin and the River Liffey? The Normans possessed superior technology, knowledge and administrative know-how which they put to good use in times of war - and peace. The city walls were strengthened, a stone castle erected, a crane facilitated the loading and unloading of ships and the calculation of customs due, and a charter, allowing the city its first stone bridge, was granted to the city by King John in 1214. The river became even busier, with ships anchored two and three deep along the shore line. Around the crane Merchant’s Quay developed and Wood Quay too was a focus of much river activity.

The population grew from a mere 1,000 souls or so at the time of invasion to many thousands more. A growing population required services and the Normans turned their innate inventiveness to providing Dublin with its first piped water supply.

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Water, water everywhere…. but not a drop to spare!

This catchphrase could well have tripped off the lips of Dubliners many, many times over the centuries. For here was a Viking town burgeoning into a modern capital city by the splendid River Liffey - yet with considerable water supply difficulties! Being tidal, deep into the Dublin hinterlands, the Liffey could not provide a supply of drinking water - at least not without considerable human ingenuity.

The Vikings, we must presume, were happy to dip their wooden buckets into the River Poddle, which flowed from the westerly foothills, swirling into a dark pool - the Dubh Linn of Dublin - at its meeting with the Liffey, a stone’s throw from their settlement. The ruling Normans, having dismissed the Vikings to the ignominious seclusion of the river’s north banks, were used to greater convenience in their daily lives and set about some water pipe laying as early as 1244 with a supply running from the Poddle to their grand stone castle on the hill by 1245.

In the medieval order of things, down from the grand society in the castle came the religious houses and across the Liffey, amid an idyll of rich meadowland - where, today, the Four Courts stands - was the priory of St. Saviour’s. The Dominican friars demanded piped water too! Perhaps they were, belatedly, spurred into action by their brothers, the monks of Kilmainham, who had dammed the Liffey at modern day Islandbridge as early as 1210. There may even have been a certain rivalry between the two over fishing rights on the river - a large net fixed by the old bridge was forcibly removed by the knights of Kilmainham, as it interfered with their fishing!

The Kilmainham weir ensured a fresh water supply for the monks and changed an ancient and natural order - the River Liffey was no longer tidal as far as Chapelizod. The friars too got their fresh water supply. A great feat of medieval engineering brought piped water from the Poddle to a large tank near the town. From here, pipes were laid across the new stone bridge - where Father Mathew’s Bridge stands today - and from around the year 1308, the friars could luxuriate in their new water supply, albeit a mere trickle from a pipe no wider than a finger!

Then came a long four hundred years. The town brimmed up and overflowed into unruly suburbs, which clung to the walls. The old bridge straddling the Liffey grew heavy with shops and houses and almost comic with patchwork repairs. The river itself was the receptacle for all of the city’s excesses - from domestic chamber pots, slaughterhouses, markets and bloody murder. Then history sent James Butler, Duke of Ormonde, his majesty’s representative in Ireland, who measured the city for size and set about changing everything - the streetscape, the riverscape and the water supply.

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The Age of Expansion

James Butler, Duke of Ormonde, first arrived in Dublin as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1662. It was he who put the River Liffey at the heart of Dublin by methodically directing the expansion of the city onto the north bank of the Liffey - aided by wiley developers, some more greedy than scrupulous!

Bridges were vital to this plan, though Ormonde had to face down the resistance of ferry owners who saw their livelihood threatened. Obviously not a man to be trifled with as within fourteen years four new bridges graced the Liffey - the architectural ancestors of Grattan, O’Donovan Rossa, Mellows and Rory O’More Bridges. Such was the frenzy of development, a mere one hundred years after Ormonde first assumed the highest office in the land, Dublin’s Viking riverscape had all but disappeared.

With bridges came quay walls and quays - not yet the seamless, riverside, tree lined campshires of today, but almost! The Liffey was contained along the length of the city, interspersed here and there with old houses and warehouses overhanging the water, shingle strands and mudflats were still exposed at low tides beyond the Bloody Bridge, the Gravel Walk Slip still provided a little inland harbour and sailing boats anchored three deep at the old Custom House, before the Essex Bridge. But the entrance to the bay, fortified by walls of stone and wood - three English miles from Ringsend to the Lighthouse - had been engineered, as had the North Wall, though on different lines that it stands today.

Image of The Liffey and Dublin

Mellows Bridge

© Dublin City Council

In 1670 a larger reservoir increased the city’s water supply and the Old Bridge was once again called into service - carrying a water main to supplement the north side’s supply from the River Bradogue, which trickled down from Cabra. Ormonde’s reach even went beyond the city limits. He commissioned a new bridge to cross the Liffey at Chapelizod, a picturesque village and site of the King’s House, an out of town residence for his Lordship. Dublin, after this inspired renaissance, became a place of consequence and thus worthy of an increasingly scientific pursuit - map making.

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Mapping Dublin and the River Liffey

Nearly 2,000 years ago, Ptolemy, a Greek cartographer, may or may not have pinpointed Dublin on a rudimentary map of Ireland, and called it Eblana. Ptolemy’s Eblana did not, however, have a River Liffey! And what is Dublin without its river?

When John Speed, English cartographer and specialist in town plans, published his intimate map of Dublin in 1610, the Liffey, lovingly drawn, took pride of place - flowing swiftly by the walls of the old city which nestled on the south bank. East and west of the walls, bays, inlets and strands shape the riverscape while, opposite, the north bank, scarcely inhabited, is marbled by creeks and marshland between the walls of the religious house, St. Mary’s, and the Innes. The Liffey is busy with trading vessels,some anchored at ‘The Bridge’, which boasts a defensive gateway, controlling access to the city. The great Christ Church Bay, once a Viking haven, is now reclaimed land, supporting a riverfront portion of Dublin’s walls. Quaintly, Speed measures Dublin - which stretches from the ‘Colledge’ to the remote St. James’ Gate - in ‘paces’, with Merchants and Wood ‘Keys’ running together for a length of around 400 of them.

Bernard de Gomme, a Dutchman, cast his cold surveyor’s eye over Dublin, publishing his plan in 1673. Already the Duke of Ormonde has made his mark: two bridges now straddle ‘The Liffy’ - brought alive by Speed with lovingly drawn tall masted ships and squiggled little waves, but merely annotated by de Gomme. Today, where Westmoreland and D’Olier Street stand, the ground is marked as ‘taken in from the sea’ and protected by a wall, rendering Trinity College safe from tidal floods and marking the Temple Bar area on a map for the first time. William Usher’s Island is named beyond the Old Bridge, opposite which the northside suburbs are taking rudimentary shape. The ‘City of Dublin’ is still contained within the old walls and Merchants and Wood Keys now run into Back Key. The River Poddle, into which the Vikings had dipped their wooden buckets, has been culverted and its bay filled in. Out on the north eastern shores of the Liffey - where the new public transport bridge is today - is a remote outpost of six houses, huddled together as if for safety. A 1714 map of Dublin, beautifully blocked and coloured by cartographer Herman Moll, shows the Liffey’s cache of new bridges, though beyond the most easterly, Essex Bridge, where now the quays stretch out of sight beyond O’Connell Bridge, was muddy strand, laid bare at low tide.

Image of The Liffey and Dublin

Speed's map of Dublin, 1610

© Dublin City Council

Charles Brooking’s 1728 panorama ‘A Prospect of the City of Dublin from the North’ sweeps across the cluttered rooflines of the city from the stately Kilmainham hospital out to the bay, where the Liffey is now contained by the north, east and south walls in various stages of completion. His map of the same date reveals that de Gomme’s six lone houses have been consumed by a gentle 18th century style urban sprawl. Brooking’s Dublin of triangular gables still had a faintly medieval air about it but by 1757, when John Rocque’s Map of Dublin was printed, the city and its cartographer have assumed a brusque, business like tone. Brooking’s map was, after all, published by Act of Parliament and detailed Dublin’s parish divisions - a handy reference for an increasingly sophisticated administration.

By the close of the 18th century, Neele’s map of Greater Dublin, published in 1797, acknowledges in the title alone that Dublin was utterly changed from Ormonde’s time. The settlement, mere heartbeats in history from marauding Vikings, opportunistic Normans and greedy Tudors had become a metropolis, ringed by circular roads to the north and south, and bursting with a vibrant business, commercial and social life. Then came the Act of Union of 1800.

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After the Union

They fled from Dublin, noisily slamming the elegant doors of their city mansions behind them. Clattering over the cobblestones, in coaches piled high with all their worldly goods and chattels, they set sail from the Liffey quaysides, their eyes firmly fixed on London and all its promise. And packed in their travelling chests and portmanteaus, amid the silks and the silver, was the economic heart of a city.

The political and titled classes abandoned Dublin following the Act of Union, which on January 1, 1801 joined Ireland, England and Scotland into the United Kingdom. Parliament House, a stone’s throw from O’Connell Bridge, fell quiet. London was now the only seat of power and money. Dublin’s destiny was one of decline. From once being the second city of the British empire and the fifth largest in Europe, it fell, by 1900, to being the second city of Ireland. Strangely, as if trying to keep the life blood flowing through the city, the Liffey riverscape underwent a period of regeneration even as the genteel squares of Georgian Dublin crumbled into backstreet tenements.

Five new bridges - the iconic Ha’penny Bridge in 1816, the Richmond (O’Donovan Rossa) Bridge in 1816, the Whitworth (Father Mathew) Bridge in 1818, the King’s (Sean Heuston) Bridge in 1828 and in the far flung suburb of Lucan the new bridge of 1813 - were built. The quays too were given some timely attention by large Ballast Board work crews - some of whom were convicted criminals opting for hard labour rather than deportation. From an uneven collection of higgledy piggledy quaysides there emerged, by 1830, the modern quayscape, the Liffey framed by uniform granite walls topped with attractive copings. Quay extensions were completed, the last being Victoria Quay in 1863.

Image of The Liffey and Dublin

Ha'penny Bridge, 1818

© National Library of Ireland

Another seven bridges were completed or rebuilt in the second part of the 19th century, including the beautiful Carlisle (O’Connell) Bridge in 1879 and that industrial behemoth, the Loopline. Ever increasing numbers of Dubliners criss crossed the bridges each day as the population of the city rose and rose. And talk of the transformed riverscape was as common then as is idle conversation about the weather today - but for all the wrong reasons.

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’..and the Liffey it stank like hell..’ - Summer in Dublin, Bagatelle

In the mid 1800s, for a length of the Liffey of about two kilometres - from Barrack (Rory O’More) Bridge to Carlisle (O’Connell) Bridge - one hundred and eighty one sewers emptied their untreated contents into the river. It was no wonder that the Liffey’s powerful miasma was the talk of the town!

Day and night, the effluence added to that of the week, the year, the decade and the centuries before. Vikings were the river’s first polluters, pitching their waste directly into the Liffey’s clean waters from atop their cliff settlement. Improving on that rather uncivilised system the Normans built latrine towers for more efficient waste disposal, swept the streets clean after busy market days and ordered fish and other animals to be eviscerated by the water side - which kept the walled town clean (to the standard of the times), but it all ended up in the river.

As commerce grew so too did industry along the quays and banks: shipbuilding, slaughter houses, bigger, busier markets, taverns, residences and for all the river was a convenience which they expected the tide would wash clean twice a day. Ships sailed in and out disgorging their passengers, goods - and waste. Dublin’s youth who made a sport of diving from the masts of sailing ships, complained of the rubbish in the water below. Tributaries duly collected the waste of greater Dublin, cleansing the growing suburbs and obligingly poured all into the Liffey. Laws were passed and punishments decreed - a fine of five shillings or five days hard labour was earned by any brave soul who threw ashes, dirt or rubbish into the sewers within the city which fed into the Liffey - not so much for the preservation of the river, as the senses of the citizens, for blocked sewers produced powerful miasmas and they were content for those miasmas to be the Liffey’s alone. Convicted felonists, given a choice between hard labour on the River Liffey and deportation to the harsh worlds of far flung colonies, choose the latter in many cases!

By the early 19th century the problem was acutely clear - the city had no comprehensive sewage system. Even private houses had cesspits in their gardens into which the household waste was emptied and which drained into the Liffey, directly or indirectly. The introduction of the ‘must have’ flush toilet simply delivered to the cesspit in a more discreet way. In tenement buildings, many close to the river, the cesspits and the gardens were one and the same thing, with waste piled metres high. The link between air and water borne disease was beginning to be made and experts in the newly developing field of public health were clamouring for action.

Piecemeal improvements were made. By 1825 the city’s open sewers were closed in a rudimentary fashion and larger, more robust sewers were being laid citywide - but still emptying into the river. The chattering classes were not short of ideas - enclose the Liffey, they shouted, or build sewage channels along each side, leaving a narrower but cleaner river flowing through the city. The practical solution adopted by most Dubliners was to cover one’s mouth and nose and scurry over the Liffey bridges, most especially at low tide!

Work on the much talked about city sewage system finally began in 1896 and it was in operation in 1906. Buried beneath the quays are giant interceptor sewers which direct all waste to the Ringsend pumping station. The city could breathe again - almost. The foul smelling Camac still emptied directly into the river until around 1980 - allowing a rock group to record a best selling song!

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The lights first came on over O’Connell and Grattan Bridges - powerful, illuminating electric lamps replacing those symbols of Victoriana, the gas lights - in 1907. And they reflected a city still mired in neglect, for when 1800 turned to 1900 Dubliners wearily shuffled into time’s new reign, one that would test them dearly.

Barely had the dust from their ill shod feet been blown from the steps of Liberty Hall - where during the months long Lockout of 1913 queued for meagre food rations - when the revolutionaries of 1916 strode out on their way to the G.P.O. and British gun ships sailed up the Liffey and volleyed their deadly missiles after them bequeathing a tottering, skeletal, bombed out quayscape to the city.

Deadly conflict was to play out across the city twice more - first for Independence and then for political supremacy in the Civil War - and flames licked the Liffey when the Custom House and the Four Courts burned. As the nation settled into nationhood and Dublin rebuilt her architectural treasures the beauty of the River Liffey and her bridges was often overlooked in favour of their more functional service. Lost in the turmoil of the times was a 1913 scheme to replace the Ha’penny Bridge with a ‘highway’ over the Liffey from Henry Street to Dame Street. In the 1920s Dublin Corporation investigated the possibility of replacing the Loopline with a railway tunnel under the Liffey and in 1929 a Transporter Bridge which would swing cars, carts, cattle and citizens across the river on a gondola, just where the Samuel Beckett Bridge is today, was proposed and legislated for. In the event, only the new Butt Bridge of 1932, set out under the same legislation, went ahead as the old bridge was too narrow and steep for growing city traffic.

A 1924 agreement between Dublin Corporation, the Dublin Port and Docks Board and Pembroke U.D.C for a pedestrian tunnel under the Liffey was whittled down to a service tunnel on the grounds of cost and its 253 metres duly bored from the vicinity of East Wall Road to Thorncastle Street in Ringsend. Remarkably this was very close to the site of an 1870 proposal for a tunnel. Image here Advice from the City Engineer and the Planning Officer was sought in 1960 on a proposal to cover over the Liffey in whole or in part to provide car parking facilities. One scheme envisaged an extended bridge spanning the river at lengths and the other a shelf type structure extending out from the quays, between bridges, and covering half the river width. The difficulties of construction, flooding concerns and the general unsightliness persuaded the good officers otherwise!

Image of The Liffey and Dublin

Proposed tunnel under the Liffey, circa 1850

© National Library of Ireland

Had the 1973 Central Dublin Traffic Plan received the green light today’s Liffeyscape would be very much more industrious in tone. The plan offered a number of options, all including a motorway bridge to be built in approximately the same location as the East-Link Bridge. Near the old city where the picturesque trio of bridges, Mellows, Mathews, and O’Donovan Rossa, span the river today a new trinity of modern, concrete bridges was proposed. One would fly 8 metres high over the Liffey, accompanied at quay level by two further bridges. This scheme faded into quiet obscurity and the ever increasing problem of city traffic was unobtrusively dealt with by the construction of two road bridges to the east, The Talbot Memorial in 1978 and the East-Link in 1987, one westerly city bridge, the Frank Sherwin in 1981 and the West-Link Bridge of 1990, itself part of the orbital M50 route.

The city presented itself with a new Liffey footbridge, the Millenium, the second only since the Ha’penny, just as 1999 turned to 2000 and its discreet, eclectic lighting illuminates a more confident and well shod city! But time’s spotlight should also fall on the Liffey as she flows through the Wicklow mountains and from where disaster often tumbled onto the city below.

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Damming the Liffey

Floods wreaked havoc on Dublin through its thousand years and more of burgeoning cityhood. Swollen by frequent and torrential rainstorms, the floods were as fearsome and deadly as they were unpredictable and uncontrollable. And where the rising tide met the swift Liffey waters, bridges of stone and timber crumpled, men and animals were swept away and floodwaters sloshed through the streets and under the doors of city residences - a powerful finale to a river’s journey.

An Ruirthech and Auin Louiffa they called her, names spoken in awe of her rapid running water and though no annals of the Liffey’s changing moods have been handed down, here and there through the story of Dublin and her bridges, peppercorns of information spice the historical scene. Through the 14th to the 18th century records there are many mentions of frequent and destructive Liffey floods, of the rebuilding of bridges, the loss of life and the problems caused by the accumulations of sand and mud carried lodged in their wake. Then, by the 19th century, as the quays walled her completely in, the Liffey flowed more languidly through the city, but still unleashed her powers from time to time.

The final taming of the Liffey came with the construction of three dams at Leixlip, Golden Falls and Poulaphouca - the largest and most important. To Pholl an Phouca, a place of stunning natural beauty, 19th century Dublin daytrippers flocked, hauled to the waterfall first by horse drawn tram and later by steam. A hotel opened for business, lovers danced in a most romantic ballroom, ladies sought refreshment in the tearooms, artists came to sketch, cyclists toured, Joyce sent Bloom on a school picnic and at night the Pooka claimed the glen for his devilish revels.

Image of The Liffey and Dublin

Poulaphouca Dam, Wicklow

© Courtesy of Johnny Ghia (Flickr)

But the power of the Liffey waters caught the attentions of the scientific community too. In 1919 Sir John Griffin, later a member of Seanad Éireann, proposed harnessing the Liffey at Poulaphouca to generate electricity and with tremendous foresight and patriotism in 1926 he made the government of the newly independent state custodian of all his plans, confident that one day they would be put to good use. The Electricity Supply Board was founded in 1927 and in 1936 the Liffey Reservoir Act provided the legal framework for Dublin Corporation and the E.S.B. to work together for the provision of electricity and water. In 1940 the valley, denuded of timber, dwellings and bodies from churchyards, was flooded. Electricity first flowed in 1943. Smaller dams were later completed: Golden Falls, 2 kilometres downstream of Poulaphouca, aids the work of the larger reservoir and 56 kilometres away the reservoir at Leixlip supplements Dublin’s water supply. Vindication of these early policies of Dublin Corporation and its partners came in August 1986 when Hurricane Charley hit Ireland and the Liffey catchment area escaped the worst effects of the storm. Later, a simulation of what might have been without the Liffey dams, confirmed that the Dublin suburbs would have suffered extensive flooding.

Still from a dark, broody, moorland pool, the Liffey tumbles down Kippure mountain, curves through the plains of Kildare and turns for Dublin as she ever did. In times past she unleashed sudden and violent powers upon the city and suburbs but Liffey floods no longer threaten - now the citizens and river are in harmony.

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Today’s Liffey

As 1999 turned to 2000, the renaissance of the Dublin docklands had begun in earnest - probably the most startling change of quayscape since James Butler, Duke of Ormonde grew the city onto the north banks of the Liffey in the late 1600s.

Where tenements and back streets had sullied the scene and rendered the quays east of the city unwelcoming and sometimes dangerous places to live or visit, now glass and steel monuments to a modern city began to rise. The tide had turned on the streams of people who had travelled only one way along the quays to depart from Ireland in millions, now they were coming back and bringing their contemporaries from Europe, America and beyond.

Travel writers and tourists flocked to Dublin and gazed upon the Liffey not to ponder the barely clad urchin children or the armies of beggars who were so often the focus of the first travelogues, but to wonder at a city full of youth and promise. Never had so many people criss-crossed the Liffey. It was time, once more, to begin building bridges and the industrious tone of the 20th century Liffey crossings was no longer an option. While ever increasing greater Dublin traffic was granted a second West-Link Bridge in 2002, within the city itself pedestrians and environmentally friendly transport options became the focus, and signature bridges, with names which would echo worldwide, were deserved.

First an old favourite, the Ha’penny Bridge, reopened in December 2001 having been restored to its former glory. Calatrava’s first collaboration with the city of Dublin, the James Joyce Bridge, opened on Bloomsday, June 16th 2003, accommodating vehicular traffic but with special consideration for the pedestrian and places to sit for the weary. The Seán O’Casey Bridge of 2005 is for pedestrians only and the new Marlborough Street Bridge will accommodate both pedestrians and public transport. That special signature bridge, Calatrava’s marine gateway to Dublin sailed high upon the Liffey and into the city in May 2009 and opened in December that year. Not only a signature, but a statement of confidence in a city, its river and its people.

Image of The Liffey and Dublin

Samuel Beckett Bridge prior to opening 2009

© Dublin City Council

Enjoy being a Dubliner if only for a few hours. Weave back and across, up and down the river. Dodge low flying gulls, stroll on and off the boardwalks, admire the eclectic mix of quayside architecture - whether Victorian brick, 21st century steel and plate, ecclesiastical or industrial, spanking new or a tumble down reminder of times past. Glance down side streets and into vibrant communities, search out the old ferry steps cut into the quays, gasp at the gleaming cruise ships, watch the dancing cranes of a city at work near the river’s end and pay homage at the statuary of the famous or to the sculptural installations recalling the Great Famine.

Salute each bridge as you cross for they are not merely passages across a great river, but architectural gems, keepers of history and a destination of note - the Bridges of Dublin.

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