William Dargan, pioneer of Irish rail
An Irishman’s Diary on a practical patriot
William Dargan: a man of exceptional ability and endless energy
Unless it’s in a dictatorship, it’s very unusual for a statue to be erected to someone still living. Indeed, when it happens in this part of the globe, as in the case of Alex Ferguson’s at Manchester United, it can evoke some derision from certain former footballers.
No such scorn was aroused in the year 1853 when the lord lieutenant unveiled a statue of William Dargan on the front lawn of what is now the National Gallery of Art on Merrion Square.
This farmer’s son from near Carlow played a towering role in transforming the lives of the population. He was known as the “Father of Irish Railways”. He introduced and built railway lines that enabled ordinary people to travel with relative speed and ease from place to place.
Railway carriages drawn by steam locomotives began to carry passengers to towns and cities that once seemed out of reach. Lines that linked the ports to the hinterland opened up opportunities for farmers, fishermen and merchants to transport and sell their produce in major markets. It made imported goods cheaper and easier to distribute.
Of singular importance to the political and social life of the country was the fact that the coming of the railways allowed the regular and widespread distribution of newspapers, some of great influence on the theme of national identity.
The network of railways did a great deal to end the fragmentation and isolation of much of the country.
A largely self-taught engineer, Dargan was a man of exceptional ability and endless energy. In 1833 he won the contract to construct this country’s first railway from Westland Row (Pearse Station) to Kingstown, as Dún Laoghaire was then known. The success of this, the world’s first commuter line, helped him win other rail projects.
Thirty years later he had laid over a thousand miles of railway lines. When we travel by train today it’s likely that at least some of the tracks will take us through cuttings and along embankments, as well as on impressive stone or brick viaducts over rivers and hallows, that were constructed by Dargan and his enormous workforce.
Among his achievements still is use today is the magnificent 18-arch viaduct just north of Newry on the Dublin to Belfast line. Another is the long tunnel into Cork railway station. The line that clings onto the cliffs at Bray Head, boring into the rock here and there, is another enduring example of his work. The stations at Carlow, Kilkenny, Thurles, Galway, Mullingar were part of the grid of lines that Dargan created.
Hundreds of skilled tradesmen, stonecutters, carpenters were employed. But this was an era of manual labour and most of the huge workforce of up to 50,000 hauled wheelbarrows, wielded shovels, picks, spades and crowbars.
At a time when labour was cheap and often exploited, Dargan was considered a fair employer, who paid promptly and rewarded effort. It is reckoned that he paid some £4 million to his workforce during the years 1845 to 1850.
He was fully absorbed in his projects. At one time he worked from a mobile office that followed the tracks as they were laid across difficult bogland. Dargan ate and slept there with his maps, tables and ledgers to hand. He was out and about to supervise the work during the day.
This modest man did a good deal more than build railways. He dredged the channels of the river Lagan that enabled Belfast to become a major port. Today the new city bridge over the river is named after him.
A practical patriot, he organised the Great Exhibition of Art and Industry in 1853. He constructed a magnificent glass and iron building on Leinster Lawn, now the Merrion Square entrance to the Dáil, to house the exhibits.
Dargan saw to it that works of art were on prominent display. This led to a public art collection that eventually resulted in the establishment of the National Gallery of Ireland.
His role in changing the face of the country has been given a lot less attention over the decades than that of some of the national figures of that and later eras. However, just recently his contribution to the betterment of the country has been highlighted by the publication of a full biography by Fergus Mulligan and by railway historian Brian Mac Aongusa.
The effects of a heavy fall from his horse and ill-health plagued his last years. William Dargan died at his house at Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin, on February 7th, 1867, aged 68.
His remains were buried in Glasnevin Cemetery after a huge public funeral.