Do you have an old ha’penny? You can swap it for a book
International Literature Festival Dublin has come up with a mint way to celebrate its 21st-anniversary
The Ha’penny Bridge in Dublin will host an unusual swap on Wednesday. File photograph: The Irish Times
For booklovers bursting to spend a penny (or half of one), it’s worth raiding your jars of miscellaneous coins and sticking your hand deep down the back of the couch to see if you have an old Irish ha’penny lying around.
To celebrate International Literature Festival Dublin’s 21st-anniversary, it says people crossing the city’s Ha’penny Bridge at 11am on Wednesday, April 11th, with an old Irish ha’penny in their hand can swap it for a book.
Crossing the bridge from south to north, participants will see a member of the ILFDublin team. The first 20 people to offer up the toll on the spot will get a book written by one of the authors taking part in this year’s festival.
The books themselves are a bit of a mystery at this stage, because festival organisers are tight-lipped about who’s lined up “to debate, provoke, delight and enthral” at this year’s festival before its launch on Wednesday evening.
It generally attracts Irish and international literary talent, as well as local and international visitors; this year it runs from May 19th-27th and will include readings, discussions, debates, workshops, performances and screenings, involving a mix of poets, fiction and non-fiction writers, lyricists, playwrights and screenwriters.
For the Ha’penny Bridge bookswap, the bridge will be temporarily decorated with books, which is likely to be a relief to some, following the furore over the “Up the Dubs” football banners hung on it.
The pedestrian cast-iron Ha’penny Bridge, which is seen as a symbol of the city, is actually officially called the Liffey Bridge – but if you asked for that no one would know what you were talking about. It was originally called the Wellington Bridge (after the Dublin-born duke), and was known for a while as the Penny Ha’penny Bridge (when the toll went up – don’t they all).
Before the Ha’penny Bridge was built in 1816 there were seven ferries over the Liffey operated by a William Walsh. The ferries were in bits and Walsh was told to fix them or build a bridge.
After choosing to do the latter, he was allowed to extract for 100 years a ha’penny toll (matching the ferry charges) from anyone crossing it.
A condition of construction specified that if the citizens of Dublin found the bridge and toll to be “objectionable” within the first year it was to be removed at no cost to the city. It seems to have been accepted as it stuck about for a while. (The toll was eventually dropped in 1919.)
The Ha’penny Bridge toll is not to be confused with spending a penny, the quaint euphemism for using a public toilet, and which referred to coin-operated locks on those loos. The locks were first introduced at a public toilet outside the Royal Exchange, London, in the 1850s, and they were mostly for women’s loos because men’s urinals were free.
However, the writing was on the wall for this phrase from 1977, when the Daily Telegraph ran an article titled: “2p to spend a penny.”
But before you rush off with your wee coin inhand, it is worth noting that, according to the O’Brien Coin Price Guide, an Irish decimal halfpenny could be worth between face value and a whopping €450, depending on its condition, whether it was circulated and the year it was minted (1985 halfpennies seem particularly valuable).
So if the ha’penny you found down the back of the couch is from 1985, check it out before swapping it for a book, as you might be able to use it to buy tickets for all the festival events instead, plus a load of books.