Irish Railway History

A Rail Irish Portrait

In honour of St. Patrick’s Day, we thought we’d celebrate by looking into a little Irish railway history. What we discovered was very interesting and so we thought to focus on one man’s ideals and genius to celebrate our railway ties!

A Saviour in the Making

William Dargan born February 28th, 1799, came from humble beginnings as the son of a tenant farmer near Carlow, Ireland.

There’s very little known or written about Dargan’s early years. But it has been noted that he had an incredible aptitude for math and accounting while attending the local school in Graiguecullen. After working on his father’s 101-acre farm he secured a position working in a surveyor’s office in the local town of Carlow. With the support and introductions by two prominent local men, a 20 year old Dargan began working with the Scottish engineer Thomas Telford. For five years (1819 – 1824) Dargan began earning a rather large income for his work on a road Telford had him constructing. You might say the road from Raheny to Sutton was the road to Dargan’s future.

Ireland’s Lines of the Future

By 1831 Dargan was awarded the Dublin and Kingstown contract to build what was later to be known as the world’s first commuter rail line. It took 3 years from start to finish, resulting in 10 km (6 miles) of track. Delays from various landowners, with absurd demands made this project a tough one to complete. But by October 9th, in 1834 the world’s first commuter railway made it’s first journey. However, growth in Ireland was considerably slower as the industrial revolution seemed to have skipped it. A year later, the Great Famine of 1845 hit Ireland.

A Man of the People

As parliament in London seemed to be “dithering” in the face of Ireland’s great famine, with many of its people facing unescapable death from starvation and disease, one man stepped up to save his people and his country. Dargan was disgusted that countless lives were being lost when they could have been saved.

“In truth, he was angered by the sight of so much food, charitably donated from abroad, lying, wasted, in the ports with little means of transporting it to famine victims wandering the byways of Ireland in search of something to eat.”

Dargan’s answer was the saving grace. His entrepreneurial spirit had him begin railway expansions, providing employment across the country. In 1845 there was less than 160 km of railway in Ireland. Ten years later, in 1855 there was approximately 1,600 km of railway. Dargan employed roughly 50,000 men. While this didn’t solve the entire problem of the famine, it made a significant difference for thousands of families that might have perished. Dargan was noted as paying the highest wages which resulted in delivering the “greatest punctuality”. Dargan at that time was the “largest railway projector in Ireland and one of its greatest capitalists.” Since financing in those years was sometimes difficult, he financed a lot of the construction through his own funds.

Dargan’s efforts did not stop there. In the summer of 1851 he financed Ireland’s Great Exhibition that would showcase the best of Irish goods in the way of, “linen, lace, fisheries, glassware, carriages and more were exhibited amid heraldic banners and 1,000 works of fine art. An equestrian statue of Queen Victoria dominated the Great Hall and indeed the lady herself did visit the exhibition, with Prince Albert in tow.”

One Man’s Patriotism

Dargan had done numerous projects that also included canals and roadways as well as the railway lines in much of Ireland at that time. While many labourers were paid in kind, Dargon knew that the best way to have loyal employees that would go above and beyond was to pay them in hard cold cash. Aside from the fact that his contracts always came in on time with the highest quality of workmanship, that hard cold cash flowed back into the local economy. In his obituary it was said, 'that he did more to elevate the character of the labourer of his country than perhaps any individual of his time.'

The British Viceroy offered Dargan knighthood, but it was not fame that he wanted. He truly loved Ireland. He was a man with vision and passion for his fellowman and his country.

On a visit to Dargan’s home in Mount Anville, Queen Victoria thought to gift him a baronetcy. But there would be no Lord Dargan. He declined that offer as well. His belief was that whatever he did, he did it for the people of Ireland.

In 1866 Dargan was thrown from a horse from which he never quite recovered from. He died February 7th, 1867. Although he was married, he and his wife were not blessed with children of their own. To this day, to Ireland, Dargan is known as the father of Irish railways.

No matter what country we come from, we all owe our present to the past and the railways. At Aspen Crossing, we’re about celebrating our railway ties.

Join us aboard the Aspen Crossing Railway and embrace the journey through some of Canada’s most expansive landscapes!


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