We should celebrate the visionaries who shape the landscape and places in which we live as much as much as we do our sportsmen, poets and military figures. A recent handsome book on the famous railway engineer William Dargan is a fitting reminder of this. The book entitled ‘William Dargan – An Honourable Life  1799-1867’ was written by Fergus Mulligan, a lifelong enthusiast of Dargan’s work, and published by the always interesting and reputable Lilliput Press in Dublin. I reviewed the book in August for the Irish Independent.


We get so many biographies of statesmen and rebels and politicians, that it is always pleasant change to get a study of somebody practical and non-political, in this case a man who built railways. But not just a few rail lines. William Dargan  was one of Ireland and Britain’s greatest railway engineers, who developing the railways that linked our towns and ports and changed the face of nineteenth-century Ireland. As in other European countries, and of course the westward expanding United States, the railways were the crucial circulatory system of an evolving nation State and its increasingly sociable population. But Dargan didn’t stop with railways. He went on to also build roads, railways, canals and reservoirs, as well as developing hotels and the seaside resort towns of Bray and Portrush, and laying out Belfast harbour. Indeed, there is hardly a town in Ireland untouched by William Dargan and his career and life is more than done just justice in this handsome book, the culmination of a life-long interest in Dargan by author Fergus Mulligan.

Many will be familiar with Dargan through his statue which stands in the front garden of the National Gallery, facing Merrion Square. The white stone statue, on a high pedestal, catches his quiet determination and vision. The statue commemorates Dargan’s contribution to the foundation of the nearby Gallery, where there is also a Dargan Wing in his name. In 1853, he funded and constructed a famous Art-Industry Exhibition on Dublin’s Merrion Square as a boost to a country attempting to recover from the ravaging effects of the Great Famine and the showpiece Gallery was a noble and ambitious development of that.


Above : Belfast harbour today

Dargan was a man of prodigious energy who also ran flax and thread mills and reclaimed vast tracts of farmland in Derry and Wexford. The son of a Carlow farmer, he began his career in Wales on the Holyhead Road, working under the famous Scottish engineer, Thomas Telford. He quickly showed the vision required by the ambitious industrial expansion of 19th century England and eventually he would be operating canal boats and cross-channel steamers and working on the construction of several railway lines, including Ireland’s first railway line from Dublin to Dun Laoghaire in 1834. The fact that so many of these railways, in both Ireland and UK, are now closed is, of course, an awful shame, but let us leave aside the blame game on that one. Before that, many of the canals were closed and in the early 1990’s I had the pleasure of working (in an official capacity, I stress) on the restoration of the Ballinamore – Ballyconnell canal, which was then being restored as flagship north-south project and soon renamed the Shannon Erne Waterway. It is here described during its formation.

Fergus Mulligan has spent many years researching Dargan life and works, visiting cemeteries and old railways and going through old archival papers and photos, many of which are here reproduced here in absorbing detail. It is a public service publication typical of small publishers, Lilliput. Indeed many of the images will be familiar to Irish readers, especially the delightful cut stone railway stations and iron bridges around the country. Or some of the sights along the busy Kingstown railway line, now the Bray Dart line, such as the Greek Temple folly by the sea near Blackrock. These were made obligatory by the construction of the coastal line, the description of which here is fascinating, not least the planning and reclamation of land.


The William Dargan bridge (above) in Dundrum, County Dublin

Indeed, it is through books such as this that we get the warp and woof of history, a sideways and revealing look at how people actually lived and worked. There is, for example, a description of the opening of the Liverpool railway at which the Prime Minister, Duke of Wellington may have inadvertently caused the death of his political foe, William Huskisson MP, by calling out to him while he was boarding a carraige. Just as a further side detail, Mulligan then describes how at Manchester station, Wellington was loudly booed by protestors demanding political reform and carrying placards about the ‘Peterloo massacre’ of workers. Such vignettes provide an antidote to the official imperial version of history.

Despite his many achievements Dargan was a modest man, and he repeatedly declined a peerage, a seat in parliament and even a baronetcy offered by Queen Victoria when she came to visit him at Mount Anville, the south Dublin mansion in which he spent some of his last years. This is an absorbing and illuminating book, which with its images, maps and archival photographs, gives us a very human portrait of a man whose energy and abilities laid the foundations for modern Ireland.

Further links:

Report on the opening by the Taoiseach in September of the new Dargan Centre for research at the Institute of  Technology in Carlow.