The River Liffey

The River Liffey (An Life / Liphe, originally referring to the plain through which the river ran, but eventually to the river itself) bisects Dublin City physically and psychologically into the South Side and the North Side before emptying into Dublin Bay.

The Ha’penny Bridge

The river was previously named An Ruirthech (“fast / strong / raging runner”). Since at least the C18th, the river has also been called Anna Liffey, immortalised by James Joyce as the muse Anna Livia Plurabelle. Although not a large river by the standards of the Thames or the Seine, the Liffey has always played a central role in the identity, prosperity, history, literature and culture of Dublin.

The river rises in the Liffey Head Bog between Sally Gap and Kippure in the northern Wicklow Mountains, and, descending to the plain via the Poulaphouca Rreservoir (Co. Wicklow), flows circuitously for much of its 125km / 78mi length through Co. Kildare (via Ballymore Eustace, Newbridge, Clane, Celbridge and Leixlip) and arrives in Co. Dublin at Lucan.

The river Camac / Camock joins the Liffey at Islandbridge, where the tidal estuary begins, with seawater substantially increasing the rivers volume twice a day as it makes its way between the Quays. The historic river Poddle, nowadays ignominiously confined to a culvert, joins it along this final metropolitan stretch towards the Docks, where it is met by the Grand and Royal Canals, and the River Dodder at Ringsend, before finally entering Dublin Bay on the Irish Sea.

The river’s width within the city has over time been considerably modified and narrowed by riverbank construction and land reclamation. Within the present Dublin City area the river generally widens between quay walls in the downstream direction from about 30m to over 300m at its mouth.

Even at its source, the Liffey is a curious brown colour, due to its peat bog origin. It is this pure spring water that gives Guinness its special flavour, they claim, although the hue of the river flowing past St James Gate brewery has never inspired confidence.

As Brendan Behan observed in Confessions of an Irish Rebel, “Somebody once said that ‘Joyce has made of this river the Ganges of the literary world,’ but sometimes the smell of the Ganges of the literary world is not all that literary.”

The lower Liffey was used for trade and industry for many centuries, with the result that boats of all sizes moved through the city on a stinking tide of pollution; within living memory, the waters were a most unappetising shade resembling tubercular sputum, with a revolting aroma to match.

Cleansed, the river no longer smells offensive, and although the water still has a rather dubious tinge, people falling into it have emerged little the worse for the experience, swimming races are occasionally organised, and best of all, salmon have been observed swimming upriver each year since 1990 after an absence of almost a century.fghj

The Bridges

Dublin’s 21 Liffey Bridges from west to east are: the West-Link Bridge, Farmleigh Bridge, Anna Livia Bridge, Liffey Railway Bridge,  Seán Heuston Bridge (formerly King’s Bridge), Frank Sherwin Bridge, Rory O’More Bridge. James Joyce Bridge,   Mellows Bridge, Fr. Mathew Bridge, O’Donovan Rossa Bridge, Grattan Bridge, Millennium Bridge, Ha’penny Bridge, O’Connell Bridge, Butt Bridge, Loopline Bridge, Talbot Memorial Bridge, Seán O’Casey Bridge,  Samuel Beckett Bridge and the East-Link Bridge.


The first recorded city bridge across the Liffey was built c.1014 at the original Ath Cliath (“Ford of the Hurdles”) crossing point that gave Dublin its official Irish language name; this basic wooden structure, near the point where the River Poddel joined the Liffey to form the Dubh Linn (“Black Pool”) was maintained and rebuilt over several centuries.

In 1428, the Dominicans of Ostmantown Friary built the first masonry bridge in Dublin at the same spot. Known as Dublin Bridge, Old Bridge, or simply The Bridge, this four arch structure had towers at either end, and shops, housing, an inn and a chapel were built on its supports. For much of its 390-year life span, The Bridge carried all pedestrian, livestock and horse-drawn traffic across the river, and (as late as 1762) its tolls and chapel were still in use.

It was replaced in 1818 by the present stone structure, designed by George Knowles, named Whitworth Bridge in honour of the Lord Lieutenant at the time, and renamed in 1938 for Father Theobald Mathew.

Island Bridge is so named because of the island formed here at the junction of the Camac and Liffey rivers. In 1577 Queen Elizabeth I‘s Lord Deputy Sir Henry Sidney had an arched stone bridge constructed here to replace an earlier structure at Kilmainham. This bridge was swept away by a flood in 1787, and the current structure was built in 1794. The first stone was laid by the then Lord Lieutenant’s wife, the Countess of Westmoreland, and named Sarah’s Bridge in her honour, but renamed in 1922.

The Anna Livia Bridge, formerly Chapelizod Bridge, was built c.1665 and renamed in 1982 to mark the centenary of James Joyce‘s birth. (The bridge is mentioned in Joyce’s Dubliners, as one of his “Dubliners”, James Duffy, lives in Chapelizod. Anna Livia is the personification of the River Liffey, and a principal character in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake ). Joining the Lucan Road to Chapelizod Road, it claims to be the oldest and best-built masonry bridge of its kind in Ireland. Due to an increase in heavy traffic, cycle lanes and an eternal pedestrian footbridge were added in 2011.

Barrack Bridge, a timber structure built in 1670, became known locally as Bloody Bridge following violence resulting in several deaths after the arrest of ferrymen who attempted to destroy it in an ill-fated attempt to protect their livelihoods. It was replaced by a stone bridge in 1704, replaced in turn by the present cast iron structure, opened as the Victoria & Albert / Queen Victoria Bridge in 1859 and renamed in 1939 for Rory O’More.

Arran Bridge, named in honour of the Duke of Ormonde‘s second son, Richard, Earl of Arran, was erected in 1683 by landowner Sir Charles Ellis, and swept away by flooding in 1760; it was replaced in 1763 by the oldest of the current city centre structures,  linking Arran Quay and Queen Street, designed by military engineer Charles Valency and named Queen’s Bridge (in honour of King George III`s consort Charlotte of Mecklenburg). Renamed in 1923 for the legendary Queen Maeve, it has commemorated rebel hero Liam Mellows since 1942. It is commonly referred to locally by a variety of names: Queen’s Bridge, Queen’s Street Bridge, Bridewell Bridge, Ellis Bridge, Queen Maeve Bridge, Mellow’s Bridge and Mellowes’ Bridge.

Ormonde Bridge (1684), swept away during a severe storm in December 1802, was replaced in 1816 by Richmond Bridge, designed by George Knowles, and renamed for Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in 1923. The sculpted heads on the keystones represent Plenty, the Liffey, and Industry on one side, and Commerce, Hibernia and Peace on the other.

An arched stone structure with 7 piers, partly constructed from the ruined masonry of nearby St. Mary’s Abbey, was erected by the late C17th property developer Sir Humphrey Jervis and named for Lord Lieutenant Arthur Capell, 1st Earl of Essex. It was rebuilt by George Semple in 1750 and remodelled on London’s Westminster Bridge in 1872, when it was renamed after Henry Grattan. As is tradition among Dubliners, the names used locally vary, from Capel Street Bridge to Grattan Bridge to the original Essex Bridge. It is adorned with creatures that are half horse, half fish, based on the mythological Hippocampus that drew Poseidon’s sea chariot. In 2003/2004 the Dublin City Council erected several kiosks (prefabricated in Spain), supposed to create “a contemporary version of an inhabited bridge, such as the Ponte Vecchio in Florence“, briefly occupied by an art gallery, a florist and other vendors; these have since been removed.

O’Connell Bridge, originally named Carlisle Bridge after the then Viceroy, was designed and built by James Gandon in 1794-98, widened in 1880 to its present size, and renamed in 1882 when the statue of the Liberator was unveiled. It is unusual in that it is almost as wide as it is long, making it the only square traffic bridge in Europe. (There are actually two O’Connell Bridges in Dublin; the other spans the pond in St. Stephen’s Green).

The emblematic pedestrian bridge now known as the Ha’penny Bridge, originally called the Wellington Bridge (after Arthur Wellesley) and later officially renamed the Liffey Bridge, was built in 1816 with turnstiles at either end; the initial toll of ½d (a halfpenny) was raised several times, reaching 1¼d (a penny farthing) before it was dropped in 1919. It underwent major restoration in 2001 – 03.

A cast iron structure originally designed by George Papworth to carry horsedrawn traffic, King’s Bridge was constructed in 1828 to commemorate an 1821 visit by King George IV. In 1923 it was renamed Sarsfield Bridge, and in 1941 it was renamed in honour of Seán Heuston. The bridge was restored in 2003 and now carries Luas trams. Older and more absentminded citizens still refer to the bridge (and the neighbouring Heuston Station) as King’s Bridge.

Isaac Butt was honoured upon his death in 1879 by a structural steel swing / horizontal rotation bridge built that year to the design of the Port Engineer, Bindon B Stoney, with a massive swivel section mechanism powered by a steam engine, that allowed boats to pass and berth upstream. This was decommissioned in 1888 and replaced with a reinforced concrete structure in 1932.

The Loopline Bridge / Liffey Viaduct was the subject of almost 30 years of opposition and controversy because the structure blocks the view down river to the Custom House. However, the bridge was deemed absolutely necessary as a rail link between north and south Dublin, and to facilitate the movement of transatlantic mail coming from Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire) and Queenstown (Cobh); designed by J Chaloner Smith, it was built in 1891, It consists of wrought iron lattice girders on a double row of piers with five spans. Two pair of cylindrical cast iron piers support the bridge across the river; these piers were used as caissons, sunk and dowelled into rock. The viaduct section, held in place by ornate white limestone piers, is located approximately 6m above street level, and supports two lines of sharply curved ballast track.

The Liffey Railway Bridge is a wrought iron box truss structure near Heuston railway station and joins lines to Connolly Station through the Phoenix Park Tunnel. It is used regularly for freight traffic, and by certain limited special passenger services on match days to carry GAA fans from southern lines to Croke Park.

The Farmleigh Bridge, long disused, crosses the Liffey and the Lower Lucan Road near the Strawberry Beds in a single steel box truss span with stone and masonry supports, then disappears through an elaborate stone gateway into a tunnel. It was built c.1880 to carry electricity lines from the mill race turbine to nearby Farmleigh House, then the principal residence of the Guinness family, and was used by staff who lived on south side of river as a short-cut.

The Talbot Memorial Bridge was the most easterly and least interesting of all the bridges when completed in 1978. It is named for Matt Talbot, a statue of whom stands at the south end of the bridge.

Frank Sherwin Bridge is a reinforced concrete structure opened in 1981 to remove traffic from the much older and narrower Sean Heuston Bridge. It was named after a local politician.

The East Link Bridge, spanning 210 m (690 ft), between East Wall road and Ringsend, was opened in October 1984. It is the lowest bridge on the Liffey, west of where  the river enters Dublin Port and then Dublin Bay. Currently 22,000 vehicles per day cross the bridge. As of 2007, trucks and cars pay, either in cash or using electronic tokens, and cycles and motorbikes cross for free It has a lifting section to allow river traffic to pass upriver, raised on average three times per day. The Dublin Port Tunnel is immediately to the north.

The West-Link Bridge crosses the Liffey at a point west of Dublin City known as the Strawberry Beds. The toll bridge was opened to vehicular traffic in 1990, and currently handles 98,000 vehicles per day. Originally a single span structure, it had a second span added in 2003. The bridge is 385m long, and its highest elevation above the valley it traverses is 41.5m.

The Millennium Bridge is a pedestrian bridge between the Ha’penny Bridge and Grattan Bridge, and has been described  as a portal frame structure made up of a slender steel truss and resting on reinforced concrete haunches. Installed in November 1999, the span was actually prefabricated in Co. Carlow, transported 90km and, despite weighing 60t, placed in position by a single crane.

The James Joyce Bridge, designed by renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, was opened on Bloomsday / 16th June 2003. Joyce’s short story “The Dead” is set in Number 15 Usher’s Island, the house facing the bridge on the south side.

The Seán O’Casey Bridge is another pedestrian bridge, opened in July 2005, linking the Grand Canal Docks area to North Wall Quay as part of a large-scale urban renewal scheme under the Dublin Docklands Development Authority. The bridge has two balanced cantilever arms that swing open to allow boats to pass upriver.

The Samuel Beckett Bridge, aka the Harp, a new road bridge also designed by Santiago Calatrava, was opened on 10th December 2009  between the Talbot Memorial Bridge and the East-Link Bridge to link Guild Street north of the Quays with Sir John Rogerson’s Quay on the south. As the river at this point is used by seagoing vessels, the he bridge can rotate through an angle of 90º to facilitate maritime traffic.

A new bridge builtto carry the Luas light railway from Marlborough Street at Eden Quay to Hawkins Street at Burgh Quay, between O’Connell Bridge and Butt Bridge is (it has finally been decided after a rather tedious stream of suggestions to The Irish Times over many months) to be named in honour of the trade union activist and 1913 Lock Out heroine Rosie Hackett. The bridge, which is costing an estimated €13 million, is due to open in February 2014, long in advance of the Luas Cross City line, which is not due to open until 2017.

The Quays

The Liffey quays were built over the years for a variety of purposes, and present an interesting hodgepodge of styles and states of preservation. Dublin should be eternally grateful to King Charles II’s Lord Lieutenant, the Duke of Ormonde, who was the individual most responsible for the modern layout of the city, for insisting that houses built on  the quays should face the river.

The south quays include Britain Quay, Burgh Quay, Crampton Quay, Essex Quay, George’s Quay, Merchant’s Quay, Sir John Rogerson’s Quay, Usher’s Quay, Victoria Quay, Wellington Quay, and Wood Quay.

The north quays include Arran Quay, Aston Quay, Bachelor’s Walk, Custom House Quay, Eden Quay, Ellis Quay, Inns Quay, North Wall Quay, Ormond Quay (Upper and Lower), and Wolfe Tone Quay.

It was proposed in 2006 to change the names of at least two on the list to those of famous Irish writers.

James Joyce refers to the “bowsies on the quay“.

Recent years have seen much development on the Quays, with the addition of linear parks and overhanging boardwalks with pleasant continental-style coffee kiosks that give the riverbanks a cosmopolitan air,  even if at night this mainly takes the form of comatose drunks, junkies, glue sniffers and ragged rent boys.

A well-known sight for much of the C20th, the Lady Patricia, Lady Gwendolyn and Miranda Guinness were ships with special collapsible funnels to pass under the low Liffey Bridges at very specific times between low and high tides, used to export Guinness across the Irish Sea.

Nowadays, the only regular traffic on the river within the city is the Liffey Voyage water tour bus service, which runs guided tours through Dublin City centre. Departing from the boardwalk downstream of the Ha’penny Bridge, the Spirit of the Docklands runs under O’Connell Bridge, Butt Bridge and the Talbot Memorial Bridge on a journey downstream, passing the Custom House before turning at the Grand Canal Basin and proceeding back up the river. Built by Westers Mekaniska in Sweden, this 50-passenger water taxi has variable ballast tanks (not unlike a submarine) and an exceptionally low air draught so that at low tide it can float high, but at high tide it can ride low and pass below the bridges.

Downstream of the East-Link Bridge, the river is still mainly used for commercial and ferry traffic, with some recreational use as well. High-speed trips out the mouth of the Liffey are also available by way of Sea Safari.

Upstream, between Heuston Bridge and Chapelizod, the river is used by both university and Garda rowing clubs. The Liffey Descent canoeing event, held each year since 1960, covers a 27km / 17mi course from Straffan to Islandbridge.

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