William Dargan – the engineer who rejuvenated a nation on its knees
20 September 2016
Engineer William Dargan's statue outside the National Gallery of Ireland
In 1867, a great Irishman was laid to rest. An honour guard of 700 rail-workers and a funeral cortege of 230 carriages mournfully processed to Glasnevin Cemetery and his mortal remains were reverentially placed beside that of another great Irishman, the ‘Great Emancipator’ himself, Daniel O’Connell.
But who was this man who was so greatly honoured? An important man obviously, a great industrialist certainly, but many an important employer has died without being laid to rest in such pride. William Dargan was all these but what many have forgotten is that he helped to save thousands of lives and rejuvenate a country on the brink of total collapse.
Born into a tenant farming family in 1799 in Killeshin on the Laois/Carlow border, William Dargan showed promise in maths and accounting at the local hedge school. While working in a local surveyor’s office, his talent was noticed by businessman John Alexander. As a result, he and local MP Henry Parnell wrangled Dargan a position with renowned Scottish engineer Thomas Telford.
It was here that he spent his apprenticeship, firstly as a works inspector, then engineering ancillary projects such as embankments and finally to sections of railway. He impressed Telford so much that in 1824, he asked Dargan to survey and construct a road in Dublin between Raheny and Sutton. When it was completed it was described as “a model for other roads” and established his reputation as a major public-works contractor.
Over the next few years, Dargan began to specialise in canals, completing sections of the Grand Canal and the Ulster Canal. With these, Dargan gained a reputation as a versatile civil engineer able to overcome any obstacle; it was railways, however, that would make the man.
In 1831, he won the prestigious contract to build Irelands’ first railway, travelling from Dublin to Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire). This coastal route faced stiff opposition from landowners, mostly on aesthetic grounds. Dargan turned this into an opportunity, however, showcasing his talent by building Italian-style ornate and finely finished granite towers, piers, bridges, bathing places and tunnels.
Improving pay and conditions for employees
Dargan paid the best but he also expected the best from his employees, paying more for better quality work and increased productivity, as opposed from the normal flat rate. This new policy caused some strikes initially, but was eventually accepted.
In addition, his 1,800 employees were paid in hard cash and not ‘in kind’ (food and alcohol). This upped morale, the money circulated locally and the local economy took a boost. The only other issue that materialised was objections to workers bathing naked in the sea on their breaks!
The Dublin-Kingstown railway line was finally opened in December 1834, becoming the world’s first dedicated commuter railway and being described as “a triumph of engineering and constructive ability”. After this resounding success, Dargan was the obvious choice when the building of Ireland’s second railway, running from Belfast to Lisburn, experienced long delays and its owners lost trust in its engineer.
Dargan was contracted to extend this line to Portadown and subsequently Armagh, which he did successfully. Based in the north-east of Ireland for this and other projects, Dargan used his accumulating wealth to branch out into the shipping industry, running ships between Newry, Enniskillen, Belfast, Loughs Neagh and Erne and cargo ships to Liverpool.
To facilitate these, he excavated deep shipping channels in Belfast, enabling it to become a major port, using the soil deposits to build an island on which the Harland & Wolff shipyards are now situated.
Dargan’s mobile office, the ‘Dargan Saloon’, became a familiar site to many as it travelled the railways en route to his projects. Like most great businessmen, Dargan surrounded himself with talented people who were as equally competent and dedicated as he was; this enabled him to delegate and supervise multiple jobs simultaneously. These men subsequently forged their own reputations and the names of Killeen, Moore, Edwards and, most famously, Sir John MacNeill can still be seen on many of Ireland’s civil-engineering projects.
With such a talented team behind him, multiple railway contracts followed; the Dublin to Drogheda line, the Great Southern and Western Line and the Midland Great Western Line were all built by Dargan, making him the largest railway constructor in Ireland with a reputation of hitting deadlines, producing quality work and paying the best wages to his employees.
Humanitarian work during the Great Famine
Dargan lived during the biggest disaster in Irish history, the Great Famine (1845-’52), in which a combination of potato blight and British Government inaction resulted in one million people starving to death and another million emigrating. It was during this period that Dargan established himself as a humanitarian.
Money and resources were scarce, even to Dargan, but he managed to keep his multiple projects going by getting credit from those suppliers who trusted him and paying them with bonds and shares in lieu of cash. This did not stop him handing out hard cash to his employees, however. Indeed, on occasion, he gave new workers a week’s advance wages with the instructions to turn up for work when they got their strength back.
By 1853, he employed over 50,000 men, paying out over £4 million in wages. Almost single handedly, he was revitalising the Irish economy.
Later in life, Dargan’s focus was not just on building Irelands infrastructure, he was determined to drag Ireland into the industrial age and make it self-sufficient. Using his influence within the Royal Dublin Society, he proposed and organised the Great Exhibition of Art & Industry exhibition in Dublin in 1853.
A large building of iron and glass was constructed on the front lawn of Leinster House, which showcased the best of Irish industry and art. Dargan contributed a lot of his own wealth into the exhibition and also solicited contributions from French, Belgian, Dutch and Prussian royalty. Over a million people visited it, many travelling to it via the newly completed Dublin-Belfast railway.
With this, he gave confidence to a nation still suffering after the Great Famine. In 1864, at that spot, a statue of him was unveiled, a token from a grateful nation to which he had helped restore hope.
The exhibition lay the groundwork for a permanent exhibition of Irish art at that spot. Indeed, behind Dargan’s statue, the National Gallery of Ireland was established. The Dargan Wing within the Gallery (right) honours the great man.
Other enterprises and town development
Dargan decided to expand into other enterprises, such as establishing a flax industry in Cork, but he was unsuccessful. He had better luck with a flax-thread mill he acquired in Chapelizod in Dublin, employing 900 people and winning an award for its quality product at the 1855 Paris Exhibition.
Other enterprises were a distillery in Belturbet, Co Cavan; a sugar-beet plant at Mountmellick, Co Laois; reclaiming wetlands in Wexford and Derry; and several farms. Despite these other enterprises, it was still the railways that attracted him most and he returned to them with the construction and directorship of the Dublin, Wicklow and Wexford Railway in 1856.
It was thus to his financial advantage to develop the small fishing-village of Bray into a seaside resort town. Building hotels, Turkish baths, greens and a streetscape, he remodelled the town. In a similar fashion, he would transform Portrush in Northern Island. For over a century, both towns would become popular holiday destinations for Irish people
As a nationalist, Dargan resisted all attempts to gentrify him by the British establishment, firstly turning down a knighthood and then a baronet from Queen Victoria when she visited him at his home in Mount Anville, Dublin, in 1853. His political views were no doubt moulded by the Famine and by the lack of investment in Ireland – a case in point being that out of the £18 million invested in Irish rail infrastructure, only £3 million came from the British administration.
He wanted to prove that Ireland could stand on its own two feet, saying: “Since I was ten years old, I have been hearing that we are unable to do anything …. for our own prosperity … that we must have English capital, English judgment, English enterprise. English everything. Why I bring this forward is with the knowledge that there is one great interest in which that doctrine is disproved.”
This was a rare statement by Dargan, as he preferred to keep his politics and religious beliefs intensely private, perhaps knowing that his Catholic faith, his mixed-faith marriage (his wife Jane was Anglican) and his political views would make him unpopular with his mainly Unionist and Protestant backers.
A fall from his horse in 1865 ignited a period of ill health from which he would never recover, dying two years later aged 68 years. The nation mourned the loss of one of its greatest sons. Dargan’s accomplishments were unprecedented; he had constructed over 1,300km of railway throughout Ireland, linking it up like never before. His reputation would be enhanced by his patriotism, philanthropy, fairness and decency to his employees.
Dargan’s legacy can still today be seen the length and breadth of Ireland. Few people in ireland have not crossed a bridge, walked along a canal or travelled a railway line built by him. Be it Cork’s railway tunnel, Newry’s viaduct, the train to Galway, Belfast port or the DART along Dublin’s coast, William Dargan is part of the DNA of this island.
He has been honoured in many ways: bridges in Belfast and Dublin (right) are named after him, and the aforementioned statue and wing in the National Gallery are testaments to his greatness. The Institute of Technology Carlow’s enterprise and research centre, which opened in 2013, is also called the Dargan Centre after its local hero.
Perhaps his greatest legacy, however, is that employment by Dargan put food on tables when people needed it most. There are a lot of people alive today because he employed their ancestors during the Famine.
My own ancestors helped build the railways and canals. I am here, writing this, because of William Dargan. He gave this country much-needed hope and a belief that it could one day stand up for itself as a nation. William Dargan was not just one of Ireland’s greatest engineers; he was one of Ireland’s greatest.
Dedicated to my friend Philip Preston, Tallaght Person of the Year and another great Irishman. RIP.