Monday 20 May 2019

William Dargan: The engineer who built Ireland's railways – and much more

We get so many biographies of statesmen and politicians that it is a pleasant change to find one of somebody practical and non-political, in this case a man who built railways. But not just a few rail lines. William Dargan was one of Ireland's greatest railway engineers, developing the railways that linked our towns and ports and changed the face of 19th-century Ireland.

As in other European countries and the westward expanding United States, the railways here were the crucial circulatory system at the time. But Dargan didn't stop with railways.

He went on to build roads, canals and reservoirs, as well as developing the seaside resort towns of Bray and Portrush, and laying out Belfast harbour. Indeed, there is hardly a town in Ireland untouched by Dargan and his achievements are more than done just justice in this handsome book, the culmination of a life-long interest by author Fergus Mulligan.

Many will be familiar with Dargan through his statue in the front garden of the National Gallery, facing Merrion Square. The white stone statue, on a high pedestal, catches his quiet determination and vision.

It commemorates his contribution to the foundation of the nearby gallery, where there is also a Dargan Wing in his name. In 1853, he funded and constructed a famous Art-Industry Exhibition on Dublin's Merrion Square as a boost to a country attempting to recover from the ravages of the Famine and the showpiece gallery was an ambitious development of that.

Dargan was a man of prodigious energy who also ran flax mills and reclaimed vast tracts of farmland in Derry and Wexford. The son of a Carlow farmer, he began his career in Wales on the Holyhead Road, working under the famous Scottish engineer Thomas Telford. He quickly showed the vision required by the ambitious industrial expansion of 19th-century England and eventually he would be operating canal boats and cross-channel steamers and working on the construction of several railway lines, including Ireland's first railway line from Dublin to Dún Laoghaire in 1834.

The fact that so many of these railways, in both Ireland and the UK, are now closed is, of course, an awful shame, but let us leave aside the blame game on that one.

Before that, many of the canals were closed and in the early 1990s I had the pleasure of working (in an official capacity!) on the restoration of the Ballinamore-Ballyconnell canal, which was then being restored as a flagship north-south project and was renamed the Shannon Erne Waterway. It is described here during its formation.

Fergus Mulligan has spent many years researching Dargan's life and works, visiting cemeteries and old railways and going through old archival papers and photos, many of which are reproduced here in absorbing detail. It is a public service publication typical of small publishers Lilliput.

Indeed many of the images will be familiar to Irish readers, especially the delightful cut-stone railway stations and iron bridges around the country.

Or some of the sights along the busy Kingstown railway line, now the Bray Dart line, such as the Greek Temple folly by the sea near Blackrock. These were made obligatory by the construction of the coastal line, the description of which here is fascinating, not least the planning and the reclamation of land.

Despite his many achievements Dargan was a modest man, and he repeatedly declined a peerage, a seat in parliament and even a baronetcy offered by Queen Victoria when she came to visit him at Mount Anville, the south Dublin mansion in which he spent some of his last years.

This is an absorbing and illuminating book, which with its images, maps and archival photographs gives us a very human portrait of a man whose energy and abilities laid the foundations for modern Ireland.

Eamon Delaney

Irish Independent

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