Bridging the gap between engineering’s past and present
17 October 2013
The engineering secrets of Dublin city’s 23 bridges, from Lucan in the west to East-Link in the Docklands, are revealed on a new website launched by Dublin City Council (DCC).
BridgesOfDublin.ie – the brainchild of DCC’s city engineer and former Engineers Ireland president, Michael Phillips – is a comprehensive portal showcasing the capital city’s unique bridge infrastructure. The digital archive of information, which is a first for the city, was developed by DCC to bring the city bridges to life for both tourists and natives.
“I’ve spoken at past Engineers Weeks in Dublin’s Ilac Library about the bridges of Dublin and there was always a great turnout – some 50 people or more would typically turn up at each event,” said Phillips. “I realised that there was genuine interest in the subject and, from there, the idea developed of gathering all the information together on one website where people could find out more.”
Much of the historical information on the site was compiled by Annette Black, a teacher in St Killian’s German School in Clonskeagh, Dublin. Phillips had spotted an article written by Black in Ireland’s Own magazine, on the history of the iconic Ha’penny Bridge (1816), and the historian was duly invited to join the project. Work began on the site in May 2012.
“What many people don’t know is that in 1913, Dublin Corporation adopted plans to demolish the beloved Ha’penny Bridge and replace it with an art gallery over the river, proposed by Hugh Lane and designed by Edwin Lutyens – the plan was later dropped,” said Black. “About 30,000 people cross the bridge every day. It was the only pedestrian bridge over the river for 184 years until the completion of the Millennium Bridge.
“They’re the sort of details we wanted to pass on to Dubliners and visitors alike. We may not have examples like Sydney Harbour or San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, but there’s a lot of engineering innovation in Dublin’s bridges and a lot of history. The website is a story of bridges and their city, rather than the other way around.”
DUBLIN’S FIRST BRIDGES
Many makeshift bridges were undoubtedly built across the Liffey since its days as a Viking settlement. The first recorded crossing point, in the year 1000, was where the present-day Father Mathew Bridge was constructed at Church Street.
However, at the beginning of the 17th century, there was just one bridge spanning the river. A spate of bridges was then built with the arrival of James Butler, the Duke of Ormonde, as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1643 – he methodically directed the expansion of the city onto the north bank of the Liffey.
“In a 15-year period, four new bridges graced the Liffey – the architectural ancestors of Grattan, O’Donovan Rossa, Mellows and Rory O’More bridges,” said Phillips. “The oldest bridge that still stands is Mellows Bridge at Queen Street, which was completed in 1768. When bridges are built can be an indication of what the economy was like at the time. Why were all of these bridges built in 15 years, and then no bridges for 50 years?”
The new website is full of little-known facts and figures. For example, a statue of King George I, which featured atop a pier on the western side of the cantilevered Grattan Bridge, was removed in 1753 and is now located in Birmingham.
Contrary to popular folklore, O’Connell Bridge is not quite a perfect square – it is, in fact, five metres longer than it is wide. The keystones on the centre arches of the bridge represent Anna Livia, the personification of the River Liffey, looking westwards and the Atlantic gazing eastwards towards the sea. The Custom House was designed by star architect James Gandon to allow for a perfect view from O’Connell Bridge – but this view was later obscured by the Loopline Bridge.
“Architect Santiago Calatrava’s first bridge in the city, the James Joyce Bridge (2003), comes just after a ‘lookalike’ trio of bridges that share stone-cut, graceful arches and balustrade parapets – O’Donovan Rossa (1816), Mellows (1768) and Father Mathew (1818) bridges,” said Phillips. “It was difficult to create a modern bridge that complements these traditional structures, especially bearing in mind that Mellows Bridge is ‘the old man of the river’ – the oldest surviving bridge.
“What we did was adapt the principle of these bridges, putting the arches above the new bridge, rather than below it. In effect, we have a bridge of its time, which also respects and incorporates historical principles.”
The Seán O’Casey Bridge (2005), otherwise known as ‘the Quiver in the River’ due to the apparent bounce felt by pedestrians as they saunter over it, weighs over 320 tonnes and sits on two Chinese granite piers. “Located in the heart of the city’s financial district, you have to wonder what O’Casey would make of that, considering that he struggled for money throughout his life,” said Black.
She added that Dublin’s latest bridge, the Calatrava-designed Samuel Beckett Bridge (2009), “captured people’s imagination like never before”. “People followed the progress of the bridge on social media, from its construction in Rotterdam to its shipping to Dublin and, finally, to its installation here. It’s pretty spectacular – the force on the back cables is equivalent to a people load of over 80,000. That’s the equivalent of a full house at Croke Park, yet two front cable stays can be fully removed for maintenance purposes.
“A series of tunnels, some large enough for a person to walk through, facilitate internal maintenance. In fact, it’s possible to reach as deep down as the river bed while inside the Samuel Beckett Bridge.”
BridgesOfDublin.ie contains a massive archive of photos from the modern to the historical, featuring over 900 photos and videos, and over 85,000 words. Each of the current 23 bridges (the Rosie Hackett Bridge currently being constructed will bring it to 24) has design and engineering information, a history, the origins of the name and interesting facts and statistics.
In addition, there are sections covering famous Irish and world bridges, designers and the materials from which the bridges are made. The ‘Historical Dublin’ section recreates photos from the same position and angle as featured in a ‘Then & Now’ section, along with providing maps of Dublin dating back to 840.
By far the largest section on the site is the gallery. Over 900 images have been collected from archives including the Dublin City Archive, National Library of Ireland, National Gallery and RTE, some of which are being seen for the first time. The most spectacular images are also offered in high quality, so that users can zoom in on small details like people rubbernecking on the construction of O’Connell Bridge in 1880.
The website is responsive, meaning that it was designed for devices like phones and tablets, ensuring that mobile users can browse all of the content on the go. It is the first responsive design on this scale for a local government agency in Ireland.
“The project was led by DCC’s specialist web unit within Culture, Recreation and Amenity, assisted by the Roads & Traffic Department,” said Phillips. “With a bridge history extending back hundreds of years, the team has compiled and edited vast quantities of information into what’s an easy-to-use, responsive website. We encourage the public to contribute their stories and photos to the site, too – it has a facility called ‘Send Us Your Story’ and we hope to gather a social history of the bridges.”
The idea for this section came from the city engineer’s neighbour who, at his 80th birthday party, recounted that his father had worked on the building of the Victorian cast-iron behemoth that is the Loopline Bridge. This bridge was completed in 1891 and connects the rail services of the north and south city near the Custom House, with the River Liffey being the natural frontier between the two.
“I thought it would be a shame for this kind of history to be lost so, while it’s still in living memory, we wanted to capture it. That’s why the site invites people to tell their own, personal stories relating to the city’s bridges.”
ENDURING APPEAL OF BRIDGES
“I think people are interested in bridges because they are both technical and symbolic,” according to Phillips. “When you’re suspended across open water, you can both look back to where you’ve come from and you can also ponder where you’re going. It’s also a sign of our evolution – we’ve come a long way from fords and ferries to building solid structures across rivers that allow for greater mobility and save lives.”
Phillips and Black share a favourite among Dublin’s bridges – Island Bridge (1792), which crosses Conyngham Road to the South Circular Road and which has been compared to Venice’s Rialto Bridge. “It was first called Sarah Bridge after Sarah Fane, who was wife of the Lord Lieutenant John Fane and Ireland’s most eminent lady,” explained Black. “She eloped with the then-penniless John against her father’s wishes and moved to Ireland. She laid the foundation stone for the bridge herself in 1791, but died before it was completed a year later. In 1922, it was renamed Island Bridge.”
The single-span, elliptical-arched bridge and pushed the limits of technology at the time. “In fact, we load tested it in 2000 to measure the deflections and it’s still as functional as it ever was. That’s a real testament to Irish engineering,” concluded Phillips.
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