Saturday 17 March 2018

Transport back to the future

Fergus Cassidy on an era when horses were slowly being overtaken by cars and trains

A horse and cart driving along the bustling Dame Street in Dublin. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
A horse and cart driving along the bustling Dame Street in Dublin. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
Steam-powered barges carrying barrels of stout in Dublin. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
British troops guarding the signal box at North Wall during the Irish railway strike.

No planes. Just trains and automobiles. And ships, bicycles, and horses. All 560,916 of them, as recorded by the Department of Agriculture for Ireland in 1915. Along with 28,923 mules and 227,422 asses. Whether pulling freight barges on canals, or hitched up to carts and carriages, horsepower moved people and goods. Jaunting cars had room for four passengers, seated back to back on top of two wheels. A Charabanc long car had wooden benches and four wheels, and a Phaeton was a sporty, four-wheel open carriage.

In 1915 Dublin had 529 Cabriolets, a light, single-horse, two-wheeled carriage with a folding hood. In rural areas, horse transport provided links to the rail network, which became the dominant form of transport from the 1850s.

There were 65 miles of rail track in 1845, 1,000 in 1857, 2,000 in 1872, and 3,500 in 1914. Between 1873 and 1902 the number of ticketed passengers doubled to more than 20 million. 1897 saw the start of a four-hour service from Dublin to Killarney, and a second storey was added to Kingsbridge (now Heuston) station in 1911.

With the arrival of electricity generation, initially for street lighting, horse-drawn trams in Belfast, Cork, Galway, Derry and Dublin were gradually replaced. But not without opposition, as the Lord Mayor of Dublin protested about the consequences for oat growing and horse breeding. By 1915 there were 270 tram cars in Dublin, running on 60 miles of lines, the experience captured by James Joyce in Dubliners: "His head was full of the noises of tram-gongs and swishing trolleys and his nose already sniffed the curling fumes punch".

As with train engines, steam provided power to the ships transiting from the main ports of Belfast, Dublin and Cork, essential for mail, goods and passenger travel. The total value of imports and exports increased from £108m in 1905 to £148m in 1913. In 1906 a new route was opened between Fishguard in Wales and Rosslare in Wexford. By 1918 at least 38 shipping companies operated across the Irish Sea. An indicator of the increasing power of ships was the Lusitania, whose engines were rated at 65,000 horsepower.

Change was also coming with the rise of the internal combustion engine. The first car imported to Ireland, a Benz Velo, arrived in 1898. The Motor Car Act of 1903 raised the speed limit to 20mph and introduced compulsory registration. In 1904 there were 38 registered motor vehicles, 5,058 by 1911 and 19,554 in 1914.

The number of licensed petrol dealers doubled from 1901 to 1914. In July of that year, there was an experimental run of eight motor buses from O'Connell Bridge to the North Quay docks in Dublin. However, motor vehicles were very expensive. One newspaper advertisement in 1916 invited a trial run of a 35 horsepower Overlands 83, costing £275 plus £6.6s road tax (in comparison, a policeman's annual salary was £65 and a sergeant earned up to £101).

The use of the roads by different types of traffic can be seen in the 110 fatalities during 1914: 49 by horse-drawn; 53 by motor vehicles; and eight involving bicycles.

Although the world's first cycle factory opened in Dublin in 1888, and 25 cycle companies launched on the Dublin Stock Exchange thereafter, bicycles were also expensive. With the average Dublin wage less than £1 a week in 1915, a Model de Luxe bike was out of range for most people at £4.10s. Appealing to aesthetics, an advert claimed: "To ride a Triumph Cycle is to be in fashion, and to possess a mount which can thoroughly be relied on..." And it was relied on during the Rising.

The mobilisation order for the Irish Volunteers, Dublin Brigade read: "Cycle scouts to be mounted, and ALL men having cycles or motor cycles to bring them". James Cullen, an Irish Volunteer, recounted that "...Commandant Gilligan, who had gone to Dublin on Good Friday, arrived back in Enniscorthy late on Wednesday night. He had cycled all the way from Dublin".

Margaret Skinnider, an Irish Citizen Army member based in St Stephen's Green, wrote: "As I rode along on my bicycle, I had my first taste of the risks of street-fighting. Soldiers on top of the Hotel Shelbourne aimed their machine-gun directly at me. Bullets struck the wooden rim of my bicycle wheels, puncturing it; others rattled on the metal rim or among the spokes. I knew one might strike me at any moment, so I rode as fast as I could. My speed saved my life, and I was soon out of range around a corner".

Irish Independent

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