On track – Norman Freeman on the men who built the railways

An Irishman’s Diary

Railways being laid down in the early to mid-19th century Ireland were places of feverish activity. Hundreds of men with picks, shovels and wheelbarrows were toiling to prepare wide paths across the countryside in many counties.

To the sounds of steady digging and the shouted orders of the gangers, these men had the gruelling job of preparing the ground so that barrow-loads of gravel could be unloaded into the open earth. The task was to lay down a solid foundation to carry the railway tracks and the trains that would run along them.

The labour-intensive undertaking often involved the difficult task of cutting through rising ground. It was done to provide a reasonably level path that avoided putting a a strain on the steam engines that pulled the trains. Then there were long stretches of soft or boggy ground where men had to build up a sturdy embankment to carry the line safely over areas of subsidence and flooding.

The success of the first railway from Dublin to Dún Laoghaire, opened in 1834, created an impetus to connect the cities and larger towns of the country with a network of railway lines.


Most of this all-embracing national enterprise took place over the next 30 years, almost entirely under the direction of William Dargan, rightly called the Father of Irish Railways.

Before any work began, Dargan and his surveyors and engineers walked the land or went on horseback, looking ahead to decide the best route for the railway over the undulating Irish countryside.

They assessed the state of the ground, noted where bridges would need to be constructed to carry the tracks over rivers and estuaries, where tunnels might be needed and difficult stretches of land avoided.

Then contractors hired hundreds of local men as labourers. In addition, there were teams of experienced men from outside the area who would act as gangers and supervisors. They had a reputation of being tough and hard taskmasters but they had experience of setting railbeds, handling iron rails and wooden sleepers, using stone at bridges and culverts.

At the start of this massive undertaking, heavy lifting was done using simple hoisting methods like hand-chains and jacks. Later on, steam-powered cranes came on the scene that lifted small working engines and wagons onto the lines and also began to be used for excavation work. One of the most challenging jobs of work was lifting a heavy rail onto a wagon. Twelve, 20 or 30 men were needed, depending on the weight of the rail. This muscular routine required a well-practised drill under the command of a supervisor .

Railways were being built during the devastation of the Great Famine and desperate men sought work on the sites. Sadly, most were so feeble and malnourished that they were not able for the heavy labour required. Dargan claimed that during that appalling event he had provided work and a living for some 50,000 men. The jobs brought steady and good employment to parts of the country where there had only been occasional and meagre income from agricultural work.

Dargan came from a small farm in Carlow and understood how hard it was for ordinary people to exist. He gained a reputation as a decent man who was fair with the men, paid reasonably well and on time. This inspired the steadfast fidelity of the workforce and was a major factor in the completion of hundreds of miles of railway in good time.

The introduction of the railway system totally transformed the way people travelled. It opened up the country to commerce, to exporting and importing goods and products. Building them may have involved a good deal of manual labour but they carried a new technology that required attention to technical and organisational expertise. After their completion they provided employment for those who were required to man the trains, to work in the stations and level crossings and, importantly, to see that tracks were maintained in a condition that allowed trains to run safely and on time.

By the 1920s the country was covered by a webwork of railway lines, some reaching the most remote parts. However, over the following decades, the dominance of the internal combustion engine, with the consequent growth in the number of motor cars, buses and trucks on better roadways, meant the railway system began to be pared down to key routes. Yet the very growth of heavy road traffic in recent years has given new life to passenger travel over the same railbeds so laboriously laid down all those years ago.