A View from King John’s Bridge (1385)

King John granted a new stone bridge to Dublin in 1214, at a time when the river was free to ebb, flow and swell upon the land unconstrained by quay walls and had but this one bridge across it.

Find some shelter from the driving rain - beneath the overhang of a house out of reach of any foul smelling, chamber pot effluent that might be discarded through a window, but not too close to the stone parapet walls of the bridge which are forever in need of repair. Nightfall is heralded by bell drums, horns from the towers and the recitation of Ave Maria by the devout. The watchman curses as he opens the bridge gate to let the last peasants and pedlars out across the bridge and back to their miserable shelters.

You give the wall to the citizen rushing back to the city, his servant leading the way with a blazing torch. He curses you, while raising his saintly amulet to ward off your evil night spirit -  it is no time to be abroad if your business is honest. But you are an uncommon man, a thinker and a philosopher, with desire to experience the night and all it brings. And where better to do it from than The Bridge?

Dim lights puncture the deepening darkness - torches on the castle ramparts, fires in the homes of the merchants and rush lights in the hovels of the poor, stacked against the city walls. One by one shutters slam shut, their bells tinkling urgently in warning to any would be robbers. Safely inside families find amusement in cards and games of chance before bedtime. The bridge ale house empties the last of its drunkards into the night. The company of carousing young men and maidservants sing tunelessly and raucously as they stagger past. What rich pickings you would be if they should get their greasy hands on you! 

The white of a face can give a man away so you’ve blackened your face as the common criminal does. The dead of night is most silent. The decent await cockcrow before moving about for there is much to fear. Grave robbers are known to steal across the bridge to the burying grounds beyond to scavenge the bodies of dead babes for candle fat. The severed heads of traitors staked upon the bridge gibbets may fleetingly reunite with their tortured and torn bodies for one last earthly visit. A weighty groan followed by a splash tells you that some man has one less enemy in this city. A secret that will be safe with Anna Liffey for she grows more swollen with flood waters every passing minute. 

Will this, the year of our Lord, 1385, see the bridge swept away as has been threatened so many times before?

by Annette Black, Wicklow
Published on 28th August 2013