Halpin, George (1774×1779–1854), civil engineer and lighthouse designer, was probably born in Leinster. Little is known of his life before his appointment (1800) by the ballast board (Dublin's port authority, which replaced the ballast office in 1786) as its engineer or inspector of works. Halpin was a builder rather than a qualified engineer; his talent and innate genius recommended him to the board, which employed him until his death. He was associated closely with every important development in Dublin port during his lengthy tenure. His transformation of its facilities and the adjacent lower reaches of the River Liffey improved their safety, capacity, and appearance for generations to come. In addition, Halpin became inspector of lighthouses for Ireland after an act of 1810 vested all Irish marine lights and beacons in the ballast board, whose own achievements in that field contrasted with the dismal state of marine safety outside Dublin. He reported immediately on the condition and requirements of coastal lights (then numbering fourteen), which he subsequently revolutionised by designing and constructing dozens of new or improved lighthouses around the coast with staff accommodation. He was assisted from June 1830 by his son (also George), a qualified engineer who became the board's assistant inspector of works.
Halpin built a new lighthouse practically every year of his inspectorate, notably the Dublin lights at Howth Baily (1814) and the reconstructed Poolbeg (1820), and many famous examples as far apart as Inishtrahull and Tory Island, Co. Donegal (1813, 1832), Skellig Michael, Co. Kerry (1826), and possibly the most dramatically situated of all Irish lighthouses at Fastnet Rock (principally by the son), four miles (6.5 km) south-west of Cape Clear Island, Co. Cork (1854), completed seven months before he died (though redesigned c. 1900 by William Douglass). He placed many beacons (including the curious ‘metal man’ figures at Tramore, Sligo, and Dingle) at lesser sites. Halpin established a tradition of world-renowned Irish lighthouse pioneers of the nineteenth century, in particular John Tyndall (qv), scientific adviser to Trinity House, and John Wigham (qv).
Although never himself a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers of Ireland (established 1835), he had a formidable record of public works. In his primary role as engineer to the ballast board he redesigned the shape of Dublin port and the Liffey. His Great North Wall scheme (i.e. North Bull Wall, as suggested in Capt. William Bligh's port survey of 1801 and by Capt. Daniel Corneille in 1801–4) improved the Liffey approaches to the harbour of Dublin. Commencing about 1818, with proceeds of the recent sale of the Pigeon House at Ringsend, he intended his model to be the great breakwater at Plymouth (begun 1812). Discovering the expense to be too great, he revisited existing plans in Dublin, which the board enhanced by extending the survey upstream as far as Carlisle (latterly O'Connell) Bridge. Halpin and his contractors completed the North Bull Wall by 1824, marked by the new Bull Light, forming a narrow channel between it and the South Bull, at whose seaward end stood the Poolbeg lighthouse. His scheme both eradicated (by ‘tidal scour’) one notorious sandbar that had long obstructed shipping in Dublin Bay and consolidated another, which became North Bull Island, a modern wildlife sanctuary and public amenity opposite Clontarf Road.
Halpin built new quay walls on the Liffey from Carlisle Bridge (built by James Gandon (qv)) to Custom House Quay and George's Quay. By 1820 he had also rebuilt and enhanced those extending from Carlisle Bridge up to the official westward limit of the port jurisdiction at Bloody Bridge (Rory O'More Bridge), by the junction of Usher's Island and Watling St. He modernised Essex (Grattan) Bridge (1808–9) and Arran (Mellowes) Bridge (1816–18) with cast metal features. His new bridges included Richmond (O'Donovan Rossa) Bridge (opened 1816, replacing the flood-damaged Ormonde Bridge) and Whitworth (Father Mathew) Bridge, opened 1818, the last of a series built on the site since viking times. He had no responsibility for the iron ‘Ha'penny Bridge’ (1816), a private pedestrian toll bridge. Remarkably, Halpin failed to persuade the board to relieve the chronic traffic congestion on Carlisle Bridge itself, ultimately replaced by a wider structure (as O'Connell Bridge) as late as 1881 by Bindon Blood Stoney (qv). He acted, however, on the advice of the renowned British consultant engineer William Cubitt, who recommended in 1834 that the north and south quays of the lower Liffey be enlarged and strengthened to meet the increased volume of shipping. Restricted by cost, Halpin and his son undertook less expensive works, which in 1836 formed timber-piled wharves and embankments at the junction of the East and North Walls. The resulting North Wall Basin became generally known as Halpin's Pond (or Pool), subsequently named Alexandra Basin after Stoney's monumental extension of the Halpin project (1885). Halpin added similar wharves (1840–42) at the North Wall, adjacent to the Royal Canal Dock.
Not every Halpin project saw completion: up river he had the quay wall at the Four Courts on Inns Quay balustraded, but his plans were overruled on the opposite side at Merchant's Quay, thus leaving a unique decorative anomaly on the riverfront. Nor was his proposal (1839) for a new bridge at the lower end of the Liffey, past Gandon's Custom House, realised until 1978. He dredged the river channel after 1812 with a purpose-built steam-powered vessel, the Patrick, but was unable to deal up-river with the sewage, which caused the city's infamous Liffey stink (another problem unresolved until the 1970s).
In spite of some frustrations, Halpin usually achieved his ends. He successfully opposed the rerouting of the Dodder river from Grand Canal Dock to form a new basin at the South Bull (1846) and was frequently in a position to learn from leading British engineers and public works projects, where he was highly regarded notwithstanding his lack of formal qualifications. He installed new slipways and initiated the first permanent Dublin port graving (or dry) dock for servicing vessels, completed at Halpin's Pond in 1860 by William Dargan (qv). Although ably assisted by George junior, who succeeded him in office, the elder Halpin was undoubtedly under great strain to maintain his dynamic record of achievement at an advanced age, approaching 80 when he died suddenly (8 July 1854) while on lighthouse inspection duty. His headstone at Dublin's Mount Jerome cemetery records 75 years. If Halpin's exact age (like his personal life) was a mystery, the scale of his public presence was extraordinary by any standards, continuing through his son as official successor until his retirement in 1862 on health grounds, when Bindon Blood Stoney followed the Halpin legacy with one no less monumental in the development of modern Dublin.