History of Irish railway construction synonymous with William Dargan

William Dargan: an honourable life 1799-1867

Fergus Mulligan

The Lilliput Press, €25

William Dargan was a man of immense achievement, the greatest railway contractor-cum-engineer and one of the leading industrialists and entrepreneurs of 19th century Ireland. He built 830 miles of railway in Ireland, not to mention sections of line in Lancashire and Yorkshire.

The present day Dart line from Pearse Station to Dun Laoghaire runs along the first public passenger railway built by Dargan from Dublin to Kingstown (1834).

When we travel on many Irish railways, we are travelling along lines built wholly or mainly by Dargan. Dargan was also a road (Howth to Dublin) and canal builder (Lough Neagh to Lough Erne). He transformed Bray from a poor fishing village into a thriving resort, was central in slobland reclamation on the Foyle and around Wexford harbour, and his philanthropy inspired the founding of the National Gallery.

In writing this first full length biography of Dargan, Fergus Mulligan has done a service. Dargan’s papers did not survive the death of his widow in London in 1894. The author was faced with a huge task to recreate in such detail the life and works of this dynamic and engaging individual. A vast body of often obscure documentation had to be found and trawled through.

His lengthy bibliography, itemising manuscript sources of a general nature as well as company minutes and letters, is testament to the industry and passion with which the author has addressed the problem of reconstruction.

Ninety illustrations are helpful in bringing the reader closer to the person, although a number of maps highlighting how Dargan reshaped so much of Ireland’s 19th century landscapes, would have been instructive.

Of comfortable farming stock, Dargan’s early life is elusive. It is still not clear, despite Mulligan’s best efforts, whether he was born in Co Carlow or Laois, whether he was born a Catholic or a Protestant and what level of formal education he acquired. What is clear is that from the beginning, Dargan benefited from many fruitful relationships which enhanced his life and career. Early support came from his landlord Lord Portarlington and from Charles Stewart Parnell’s uncle, Sir Henry Parnell MP. The latter identified the talents of young Dargan and found a job for him with the great Scots engineer Thomas Telford building the great road from London to Holyhead.

Mulligan utilises italicised inserts in the text to provide telling insights into Dargan’s progress as well as short biographies of key people he encountered, beginning with that ‘colossus of the roads’ Telford. He also deals with Sir John Benjamin MacNeill who worked with Dargan on many railway projects; Brunel, that eminent engineer involved in the challenge of building the cliff railway line from Bray to Greystones; Sir Charles Lanyon, the great architect of Belfast; John Skipton Mulvany, Dargan’s gifted architect; and Fr Peter Daly, the turbulent priest of Galway port.

The building of the railway lines into Munster and Connaught constituted the peak of Dargan’s career. Until the mid-1840s he had been involved in quite small if commercially significant projects. As the Great Southern and Western Railway Company struck southwards and westwards, Dargan assumed centre stage among Irish civil engineering contractors. In detailing this epic era, Mulligan develops a mastery of technical detail, producing detailed facts and figures.

Dargan’s labour policy involved acting fairly towards his men; he paid them well and had dedicated workforces. Mulligan shows Dargan’s impressive achievement during these Famine years; it is likely that the devastation he witnessed in the south and west was a further incentive in modernising Ireland’s economy. In 1856, in a rare public pronouncement, Dargan reflected that of the £18m invested in Irish railway enterprises only £3m was English capital: ‘since I was 10 years old I have been hearing that we are unable to do anything …. for our own prosperity ... that we must have English capital, English judgement, 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’.

Mulligan traces how Dargan’s promotion and generous funding of the (lossmaking) Dublin Industrial Exhibition in 1853 inspired the founding of the National Gallery. He makes good use of newspaper accounts and is careful to give attendance numbers and entrance fees to the exhibition.

While this information is of interest, some readers may find the account of Queen Victoria’s visits to the exhibition and to Dargan’s home, Mount Anville, more engaging. The shadowy figure of Jane Dargan, described in the Queen’s diary ‘as a very good natured woman’ can be glimpsed in this chapter. Dargan emerges as a hugely popular man, respectful of his workforce, thanking the 1,500 men who worked on the project and declining titles twice at this time.

The manufacturing section was less developed than the fine art section of the exhibition. Mulligan does not relate the roles of the two sections to Victorian philosophies of improvement or pay much attention to the fine art shown.

While Mulligan is successful in detailing the public life of Dargan, the private man is elusive. Ambiguity about his religious affiliation remains. When he married Anglican Jane Arkinstall he registered his home parish as St Thomas Church of Ireland parish, Marlborough Street, Dublin.

Dargan maintained business links with Quakers, successful negotiators of ‘the delicately balanced sectarianism of Dublin’s commercial life’. He avoided religious practice until close to death, when he consented to receive the last sacraments. Dargan became a heavy drinker. His restless lifestyle involved 18 house moves. How this lifestyle affected his childless marriage is not clear. After his death in 1867 Jane moved to London.

Sometimes the paragraph sequencing is surprising. A few photographs need better reproduction. The book cannot be faulted for elucidation of factual details but now and again one wished for more analysis.

William J Smyth is author of the prize winning Map-Making, Landscapes and Memory; A Geography of Colonial and Early Modern Ireland (Cork University Press 2006) and joint editor of Atlas of the Great Irish Famine (CUP 2012)


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