The genius who put Ireland on rails
From railways to roads and canals, William Dargan revolutionised 19th-century Ireland
Take the train to Wexford, Waterford, Cork, Tralee, Limerick, Galway, Sligo, Belfast or Derry and you are travelling on lines built largely by William Dargan, the man who changed the face of 19th-century Ireland. He also built roads and canals, ran flax and thread mills, hotels, canal boats and cross-channel steamers and developed Bray and Portrush.
Dargan was the son of a strong farmer from Carlow (Laois claims him, too), and learned his trade under the Scottish engineer Thomas Telford. He had a reputation for reliability, honesty and fair dealing with the firms who engaged him and the thousands he employed.
He made a fortune yet was a modest man who refused Queen Victoria’s offer of a baronetcy when she took tea at his south Dublin house, Mount Anville. He was also a very human figure, “not quite sober of an evening”, as Prince Albert described him.
Three of Dargan’s achievements illustrate his extraordinary career. Dargan won the contract to improve Belfast harbour, laying the foundations for its future as an industrial and shipbuilding centre.
Low water, a dog-leg channel and inadequate quays made access to Belfast from the sea difficult. Dargan began work in 1839, digging a 2km cut in the Lagan sloblands to dredge the new channel. The spoil dumped on the east side of the river formed a 17-acre island. It became a public park popular for horse-riding events, boat races and exhibitions, with trees, lawns, a zoo, crystal palace and concert hall, and was known as Dargan’s Island.
Dargan began phase two in 1847. This was more difficult, being further out in the Lagan. Wheeling away spoil was not an option so his solution was to erect two 130-metre dams and, at low water, teams would fill boats with mud, which would then float off at high tide for emptying downstream. The Victoria Channel opened in 1849 with fireworks, gun salutes and a dinner for 250 on Dargan’s Island, by then renamed Queen’s Island. Sadly, by 1875 the Crystal Palace had burned down and the gardens were neglected.
Not long after, the island was joined to the mainland and two men, Edward Harland and Gustav Wolff, set up a shipyard there. So it was that RMS Titanic, built on Dargan’s Island, was launched in 1911 into the Lagan channel, engineered by William Dargan.
Dinner for labourers
Dargan also built railways in the north of England. He began work on the Liverpool and Bury Railway in 1846, marking the occasion with a dinner for the labourers in the Liverpool workhouse.
The company showed concern for their men, ordering Dargan to build accommodation huts and employed two scripture readers for their moral welfare.
A second English contract was part of the trans-Pennine Manchester and Leeds Railway, worth £412,000. Construction was challenging as Francis Whishaw observed in 1842: “The line is literally studded with engineering difficulties from end to end, and those of no ordinary magnitude.”
The navvies lived hard lives on their bleak worksite and had little time for social conventions: marrying might involve the couple jumping over a broom surrounded by revellers and being put to bed in the same room. However, Thomas Carlyle wrote that Irish navvies, many working for Dargan, regularly mailed home money drafts, whereas the English “eat twice as much beef, consume the residue in whisky, and do not trouble the postman”.
A journey today on the line reveals many twists and turns through multiple tunnels high above the valleys. Dargan must have been relieved when his section opened in 1850.
In the 19th century, the RDS, then based in Leinster House, held an agriculture and industry exhibition every three years. Dargan was a life member and offered to fund a greatly expanded exhibition of arts and industry with a donation of £20,000. If the event showed a profit, Dargan would receive that amount plus 5 per cent and, crucially, he would cover any loss.
The RDS welcomed the proposal since it risked nothing and made available the grounds of Leinster Lawn facing Merrion Square. Dargan built an elegant central hall of glass and iron under a main dome with two side halls, by which time his total investment was £88,000. The opening by the earl St Germans in May 1853 was full of pomp, with a heavy musical programme and many speeches. Afterwards, Dargan declined the earl’s offer of a knighthood.
Although there were 1.1 million paying visitors, Dargan lost almost £21,000. Calls for a testimonial to his generosity solidified into plans for a Dargan Gallery. In time, it opened as the National Gallery in 1864. The building has a large plaque on the outside wall recording Dargan’s “munificent liberality”, and a Dargan Wing. His statue looks out over Merrion Square.
Dargan died in 1867 at 2 Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin and is buried in Glasnevin cemetery.
Fergus Mulligan is the author of William Dargan: An Honourable Life 1799-1867, published this month by Lilliput Press