An Irishman's Diary

 

The village of Roundstone, Co Galway, is Shangri-La for many people in Ireland, if they daydream for a moment or two of the perfect getaway place, writes Hugh Oram

From the pinnacle of its steep main street, you can see across the harbour and the bay to the Maamturk mountains in the heart of Connemara.

The man responsible for creating Roundstone was a Scottish engineer, Alexander Nimmo, who also left us the harbour and lighthouse at Dunmore East, Co Waterford - and many other less celebrated works.

Born in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, in 1783, the son of a watchmaker, he excelled at school and went on to become a pupil of Thomas Telford, the leading engineer of the time. When he was a mere 19, Nimmo was appointed rector of Inverness Academy and during the holidays, he was employed by Telford to determine the boundaries of the Scottish counties - all of them.

When he was 25, work was just beginning on the Edinburgh Encylopaedia, which eventually ran to 32 volumes. The young engineer wrote hundreds of entries. By 29, he was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Then he discovered Ireland and in 1811 he began mapping the boglands of south Kerry and building new roads. His truly magnificent Kerry maps are in the National Library of Ireland; they were drawn years before the Ordnance Survey started work. In 1813 that Nimmo went to Connemara for the first time, beginning a lifelong devotion to the place. He started by examining in detail what he reckoned were the 560,000 acres of Connemara and looking at improvements.

Altogether, he built some 30 harbours and piers around the coast of Ireland and many of them were in Connemara. In the early 1820s he decided that what Roundstone needed was a brand new harbour, so he built one, with a daring cliff face at the back, rising up to the level of the road. For ever after, it was called the "New Harbour". Not content with that, he added to the few sparse buildings by constructing a whole new village, present-day Roundstone. Barna, too, was his creation, on the road from Galway to Spiddal.

The harbour and lighthouse at Dunmore East were completed around 1821. Costs rocketed during construction; what had begun as a £20,000 project ended up costing £108,000. It was designed for the mail boats that came from Milford Haven in South Wales, but within about 10 years it had silted up and the mail service was transferred to nearby Waterford. In recent decades, Dunmore East has been a major fishing port and it has another claim to fame. In 1980, Frances Glody became the first woman to be officially part of an RNLI lifeboat crew in Ireland and she is still part of the Dunmore East crew today.

Back in Connemara, Nimmo continued the good works, including new roads. He made one from Oughterard to Clifden and another from Roundstone to Clifden.

He also found time to be on good terms with the landed families of the West, including the Martins of Ballynahinch, in Recess. At their home, which is now an hotel, he instructed the teenage Mary Martin, the heiress to the family fortunes, in engineering and she became the first woman engineer in Co Galway and one of the very first in Ireland. Nimmo also built himself a house near Maam Cross.

Alexander Nimmo was self-taught in engineering, because this was years before any formal university education on the subject. He was proficient in Greek and Latin, as well as Dutch, French, German and Italian. He was also greatly interested in astronomy, chemistry and geography.His friends included William Wordsworth.

Nimmo did other bridge building in Ireland. The unique arch-shaped bridge at Poulaphouca, near Blessington, was his and the famous Spectacle Bridge in Co Clare was inspired by him, though he didn't design and build it. His most ambitious bridge was Sarsfield Bridge across the River Shannon in Limerick, which he modelled on the Pont de Neuilly in Paris. Again, he went way over budget, but fortunately for posterity, elegance overcame economy.

As a sideline, Nimmo also designed and built the docks in Limerick.

Quick in his work and visionary, he did all kinds of other things too, such as surveying Dublin Bay and then the whole coast of Ireland, writing a navigation book about the Irish Sea and making the initial plans for the first railway in Ireland, from Westland Row to what was then Kingstown.

For such a proficient engineer, little is known of Nimmo the person. J.W. de Courcy, an associate professor of civil engineering at UCD until his retirement in 1988, discovered that even though much is known about Nimmo's work, nothing much ever came to light about his private life. It is not even known whether he was married, although it seems unlikely.

He died at his town house, in the then fashionable Marlborough Street in Dublin, in 1832, aged just 49. It is believed that he was buried in what was then the Presbyterian graveyard in Roundstone, but again, no one is quite sure.

The man who left such a legacy in stone remains an enigma.