Tunnel vision: a plot to link Ireland and Britain ran deep
Various schemes were drafted in the 19th century to build a tunnel, but insurmountable obstacles scuppered each
Channel Tunnel: at its deepest point it is 76.2m underwater. The shortest proposed Irish tunnel route required traversing an underwater gulch about 274m deep. Photograph: Denis Charlet/AFP/Getty Images
Each year more than 10 million people travel between the UK and France via the Channel Tunnel. How this traffic will be affected by the vote to exit the EU remains to be seen. The tunnel operates under an Anglo-French treaty, and its operator, Eurotunnel, was quick to claim that nothing would change under Brexit.
The desire of the majority of British citizens for greater separation from Europe echoes some of the concerns voiced when the tunnel project was mooted seriously in the 1870s and 1880s. By the 1870s, tunnelling under water for long distances was becoming increasingly possible.
British engineers had led the way. The first such tunnel under the Thames finished in 1843. Writing shortly after the tunnel project had finally begun in earnest, historian Anthony Travel argued that the obstacles to a channel tunnel in the 19th century were not so much technological as political. British military experts feared the use of the tunnel by foreign invading forces. Engineers had even come up with a variety of ways to make the tunnel impassible should a foreign army seek to use it. The suggestions were to no avail, and while the tunnel project was discussed in the early 1900s and again after the second World War, it did not begin in earnest until the 1980s.
Various schemes were put forward at the close of the 19th century to link Ireland and Britain. Although an approach was made to the Irish government about a tunnel in 1998, no scheme has been seriously contemplated recently. In the 1880s and 1890s, however, Irish tunnel schemes were being promoted by engineers and politicians.
The technical problems presented by an Irish tunnel were considerable. The current Channel Tunnel runs underwater for 37.8km (23.5 miles), still the longest undersea tunnel in the world. At the deepest point it is 76.2m underwater. The shortest proposed Irish tunnel route, between Antrim and Scotland, required traversing an underwater gulch estimated to be about 274m deep. To avoid the gulch, a tunnel of almost 80.5km would be needed. Despite the optimism of some engineers, many others doubted that such a feat was possible.
The chief proponents of the tunnel were level-headed engineers. Luke Livingston Macassey was born in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim, in the year that the Thames tunnel was completed. He had a very successful career as a consultant engineer to the Belfast water commissioners and also became a barrister. He proposed a tunnel covering the shortest possible distance, from Cushendun in Antrim to the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland.
An alternative was proposed by James Barton, a railway and marine engineer from Dublin, who suggested a route between Islandmagee in Antrim and Stranraer in Scotland. Both thought the tunnel would have social and economic advantages, but both acknowledged that either scheme would be too expensive for private enterprise to attempt.
In 1897, after the Channel Tunnel project had collapsed, Belfast Chamber of Commerce promoted the Irish tunnel scheme for government consideration. Barton pushed for the tunnel, claiming in 1899 that it would “do more to bring English capital into this country than any other feasible project that has been brought forward during the last century”.
He envisioned a second tunnel connecting Dublin and Wales. Other newspapers claimed some politicians saw this as a potential solution to the “Irish Question”, suggesting a physical connection between the two islands would bring them closer in ways that legislation had failed. Although not exclusively touted as a unionist project, many of its strongest promoters had unionist sympathies.
When nothing came of the Irish tunnel scheme, it was reduced to the status of a joke, symbolic of the ridiculous lengths that some politicians would go to keep Ireland part of the United Kingdom. One journalist found it so laughable that he suggested one better: “Perhaps the next thing will be a proposal to establish a service of flying machines with the same object.” Who says we can’t predict the future?
Juliana Adelman lectures in history at Dublin City University