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Journal 171

William Dargan

Great Railway Builder and Patriot


In a short paper, it is difficult to do justice to the achievements of William Dargan - the great 19th century builder of railways, canals and harbours, as well as many philanthropic projects throughout the island of Ireland. He was a pioneering developer driven by an ethic of hard work, duty and decency.

While still alive, he had the distinctive honour of having a statue of himself unveiled by the Lord Lieutenant in 1864. It marked the public’s gratitude to him for instilling national self-confidence in the country in the aftermath of the Great Famine and also for funding single-handed the Great Exhibition of Art & Industry in 1853 on the lawn of Leinster House Dublin, which led directly to the founding of the National Gallery of Ireland. Yet Dargan was a modest man who shunned many attempts to gentrify him. Even when Queen Victoria paid a most unusual visit to his home at Mount Anville near Dundrum, in August 1853 and wanted to make him a baronet, William Dargan politely declined the honour. By 1863 he had built over 1,000 miles of railways in Ireland and became known as the Founder of Irish Railways.

He was born near Carlow town on 28 February 1799, the eldest in a large family working as tenant-farmers on the estate of the Earl of Portarlington. It is believed he went to a local hedge-school in Graiguecullen near Carlow, where he excelled in mathematics and accounting. Afterwards he worked on his father’s 101-acres farm before starting in a surveyor’s office in Carlow. With the help of some influential patrons, especially John Alexander, a prominent miller in County Carlow and Sir Henry Parnell MP for Queen’s County, who then chaired the Parliamentary Commission for Improving the London-Holyhead Road, William Dargan secured a position with the renowned Scottish engineer of that project, Thomas Telford, at the Holyhead end of the road. It was there from 1819 to 1824 that he learned many of his building skills. At first he was an inspector of works and later resident engineer of the 1,300-yard embankment carrying the road, and later the railway, across the Stanley Sands sea inlet to Holy Island. That was William Dargan’s first engineering project. Thomas Telford was so impressed with his work that he asked him to survey and to supervise construction at the Irish end of the project, which was a new road with a seaward stone wall from Raheny to Sutton serving the then mail-packet station at Howth. When completed, this new road was described by Henry Parnell as ‘a model for other roads in the vicinity of Dublin’ and it earned for the young William Dargan a premium of £300 from the Treasury in London. This significant sum provided the basic capital for his future business as a major public works contractor.

During the 1820s, Dargan secured contracts for other works in the Dublin Region, including the North Circular Road and the Malahide turnpike, as well as the Carlow and Dunleer turnpikes. In 1824 he became superintendent of the Barrow Navigation. He also undertook many other construction works, including embankment works on the River Shannon at Limerick, the excavation of a large cut through the centre of Banbridge County Down to make it easier for mail-coaches to reach the top of the town, and the construction of the Kilbeggan branch of the Grand Canal. In the 1820s Dargan maintained his connection with Telford surveying the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal and then working as superintendent and contractor on the Middlewich branch canal. It is believed that he met his wife Jane in the English Midlands, but details of their marriage are unknown and the couple had no children.

William Dargan’s big breakthrough, however, came in 1831, when against six competitors he won the prestigious contract to build Ireland’s first railway from Dublin to Kingstown, now Dún Laoghaire. The engineer was another famous Telford pupil, Charles Vignoles. William Dargan began work in April 1833 when his men began ‘to cut down the cliffs at Salthill’. As was his practice, he made haste to get work going at a number of places along the line, but not without initial difficulties with landowners and labourers. Two landowners at Blackrock, Baron Cloncurry of Maretimo and the reverend Sir Harcourt Lees of Blackrock House, declared that they could not bear to have their estates desecrated by a railway. Lengthy negotiations were necessary to persuade them to allow the building of the line. Final agreement was only secured with an undertaking that the Dublin & Kingstown Railway would construct a tunnel, towers, piers, bridges and bathing places in the best Italian style and of finely worked granite along the seaward extremity of their lands. This gave Dargan a golden opportunity to demonstrate his construction skills.

Dargan was essentially a builder, not an assembler of other men’s products. The material of bridges, walls, embankments and even the railway sleepers, had to be fashioned by his own craftsmen. He had to provide a very large workforce and a great number of wheelbarrows, picks and shovels, so that many labourers might work together on the embankments. Stone-cutters were a big proportion of his employees. Granite from Dalkey quarries was brought down by the Harbour Tramway to Kingstown and then transported in small boats to wherever needed.  A piece of good fortune was the discovery of a bed of fine granite at Seapoint.

William Dargan’s intentions in relation to work practice caused initial difficulties and gave rise to a couple of short-lived strikes. Dargan paid his workers, each according to his ability, 10, 9 or 8 shillings a week. This scale did not satisfy all the men, some of whom talked their companions into a work stoppage, as reported by the Dublin Evening Post of 4 June 1833:-

On Saturday the infatuated workmen engaged in the Rail-road at Seapoint       objected to work unless paid ten shillings per week instead of nine……. One man called together several of the workmen and, whistling ‘Patrick’s Day’ and ‘Boyne Water’, led them through masses of labourers on the shore, encouraging them not to work unless they received higher salaries.

For a few days, no work was done and some rioting ensued. This led to the police being called, resulting in the leaders being put in jail. Their followers lost a week’s earnings and this caused the strike to lose much of its popularity. Dargan then announced he would pay by results and the men who took his offer found it to their advantage. Dargan’s new policy encouraged the strong and willing and differed from the custom of a flat rate for the week. The strike movement did not gain further support, as most men were favourable to Dargan appreciating that he paid higher wages to unskilled labourers than had been customary in Ireland. Vignoles reported favourably on Dargan to the directors of the Dublin & Kingstown Railway that ‘All materials were settled for in ready money by the Contractor and the workmen were paid their wages every Friday afternoon upon the Works in hard cash’. Money now circulating in the district was welcome, morale was improved and there was a marked decline in petty crime. The only local objections emerged during the summer months when some scandalised residents complained that Dargan’s workers were bathing during their lunch hour ‘in an indelicate state’.

The railway to Kingstown was built on a series of embankments between Merrion and Dún Laoghaire. These sea embankments, laid on the strand, comprise two parallel bunds consisting of clay/gravel filled in between with sea sand, topped with layers of gravel, and followed by the track ballast. The slopes are pitched with granite blocks and topped with heavy parapet walls. By July 1833 Dargan had 1,500 men working and by September that figure had risen to 1,800. By October work at the Dublin end was going on by day and night and Vignoles reported  that ‘the busy scene at the Canal Docks, by the light of coal and wood fires, blazing tar barrels, was extremely interesting and picturesque.’ However, progress was slowed by what was described as ‘the extreme inclemency of the weather’. Yet in spite of a flood in the River Dodder wrecking the new railway bridge at Ballsbridge and requiring a replacement to be built in October 1834, the Dublin & Kingstown Railway was finally opened to public traffic on 17 December 1834. There was no formal opening ceremony, but the directors treated themselves to a celebratory dinner in the Salthill Hotel.

The successful completion of Ireland’s first railway enormously enhanced William Dargan’s reputation and placed him in the front rank of Irish public works contractors. The Dublin & Kingstown Railway was described by its directors as ‘a triumph of engineering and constructive ability.’ Fine examples of Dargan’s work on the line have survived to this day in the embankments and sea walls from Merrion to Salthill. There is also the magnificent outer granite wall of the former Dublin & Kingstown Railway terminus opposite the present-day Stena Line terminal building in Dún Laoghaire.

The construction of Ireland’s second railway - the Ulster railway from Belfast to Lisburn - had progressed more slowly, reaching Lisburn five years later in 1839. Requiring more rapid progress, the directors of the Ulster Railway contracted Dargan to extend their line to Portadown and later to Armagh. William Dargan now based himself in Belfast and over the next decade worked on a variety of projects in the north of Ireland. These included the construction of the Ulster Canal to connect Lough Erne with Lough Neagh and the operation of passenger and goods boats between Newry, Enniskillen, Belfast and all points on Loughs Neagh and Erne and attached navigations. Dargan also operated regular cargo services with his own sea-going vessels between Newry and Liverpool and even lent a vessel to operate summer services on the lower Shannon between Foynes and Kilrush. Among other projects in the north of Ireland were the reclamation of extensive mud flats along the southern shore of Lough Foyle, the building of two artificial lakes for mill-owners in County Down, and the creation of a deep shipping channel and shipping berths at the mouth of the River Lagan in Belfast. The latter was achieved by excavating considerable quantities of mud which were then deposited on the County Down side of the Lagan and became known as Dargan’s Island. When Queen Victoria visited Belfast in 1849, it was renamed Queen’s Island and developed as a public park. Later on, it became the famous Harland & Wolff shipyards. 

Modern Belfast has recently honoured Dargan by naming the new cross-city viaduct over the River Lagan the William Dargan Bridge. During the ‘railway mania’ that developed in the 1840s, Dargan was very much in demand by newly-established companies planning to build railways to other parts of Ireland. At that time it was the practice for such companies to divide a contract for the first segment of their planned line among different contractors so as to identify the best among them. Invariably, the section given to William Dargan proved to be the best constructed and companies tended to ask him to take charge of building the remainder of the line without engaging other contractors. In this way, he became known as the great builder of railways in Ireland. By 1853 he had already constructed over 600 miles of railways, under contracts totalling some £2,000,000, had other contracts for a further 200 miles and employed a workforce of more than 50,000 men. It has been estimated that between 1845 and 1850 Dargan paid out some £4,000,000 in wages to his workers.

William Dargan became involved in building most of Ireland’s mainlines, including Dublin to Carlow and Kilkenny; Dublin to Wicklow and Enniscorthy; Thurles to Cork, including the 1,355-yard Cork tunnel; Mallow to Fermoy and Tralee; Mullingar to Galway and Tuam; Malahide to Balbriggan; Drogheda to Portadown and Banbridge; Lisburn to Armagh; Belfast to Ballymena, Randalstown and Portrush; and Belfast to Holywood and Newtownards. Among the other railways Dargan constructed were Cork to Passage; Waterford to Tramore; Waterford to Limerick; Mullingar to Longford and Cavan; Newry to Warrenpoint; Dundalk to Castleblaney; Limerick to Foynes; Limerick to Ennis; Howth Junction to Howth and the atmospheric-operated extension of the Dublin & Kingstown Railway to Dalkey. It is quite remarkable that Dargan succeeded in carrying out so many simultaneous contracts in various parts of the country at a time when travel and communication was only possible on horseback, in horse-drawn vehicles or by boat. He had carefully to choose competent and trustworthy people to manage many contracts during lengthy periods of his absence. Clearly William Dargan must have been an excellent judge of men on whose integrity and skill he could rely, because in executing major construction contracts he made few, if any, mistakes. It is also significant in this regard that many of those whom he trained and trusted with senior responsibility during his absences - such as Killeen, Moore or Edwards - subsequently became eminent railway builders later in the 19th century. 

Dargan’s construction works have enhanced our railway system throughout Ireland and a cursory glance of some examples of these will help to illustrate his achievements. First, some evidence of the short-lived atmospheric line to Dalkey that opened in 1844 may still be seen directly south of the present-day station in Dún Laoghaire. Next, the magnificent ‘Nine Arches’ granite viaduct still used to this day by the LUAS at Milltown and the first intended terminus of the Dublin Dundrum & Rathfarnham Railway beside the modern LUAS stop at Dundrum, both of which were built by Dargan. Although currently in a vandalised condition, this historic building at Dundrum is to be restored by the RPA.

Moving to the Cork mainline, Mallow station built by Dargan is still recognisable from a drawing of the first train on the GS&WR mainline arriving there from Dublin on 17 March 1849. Just south of Mallow station Dargan constructed a magnificent 10-arched cut-stone viaduct over the River Blackwater, but sadly it was blown up by anti-Treaty forces during the Civil War in August 1922 and replaced by a steel girder viaduct in 1923. Further south is the Kilnap viaduct shown under construction by Dargan in 1849. It is still in use today, as is the 8-arched viaduct at Monard near Rathpeacon outside Cork. In the southern suburbs of Cork near Blackrock is a surviving Dargan overbridge on the Cork, Blackrock & Passage Railway which opened as early as 1850. Finally in the south, an impressive 3-span viaduct built by Dargan in 1852 for the Waterford & Limerick Railway to span the River Suir at Cahir, County Tipperary, is still in use. It consists of wrought-iron box girders spanning 150 feet between thick limestone masonry abutments and two 52 feet spans from limestone masonry river piers.

Moving to the Belfast mainline, we find the 11-arched Balbriggan viaduct built by Dargan in 1843/44 for the Dublin & Drogheda Railway and further north at Craigmore near Newry is Dargan’s most magnificent construction of 1851/52 for the Dublin & Belfast Junction Railway. It is the highest and longest viaduct in Ireland, built on a curving incline of 1: 130 and consisting of 18 arches of local Newry grano-diorite stone rising 137 feet above the Camlough River, making it the tallest railway bridge in Ireland. The viaduct is still in use today after 157 years. North of Belfast, as part of the original Belfast & Ballymena Railway, may still be found the 8-arched viaduct built by Dargan at Randalstown, which carried the former Cookstown branch over the River Main north of Lough Neagh.

Much of William Dargan’s achievements must be viewed against the background of the misery and poverty that resulted from the greatest social disaster to have hit Ireland in recent times, namely, the Great Famine that extended from 1845 to 1850. Most of the railway projects had been floated with much optimism in pre-Famine times, but after the black years of 1847/48 when up to 1,000,000 people died of hunger, the financial state of many railway companies approached near-ruin. In spite of this, Dargan succeeded in keeping a surprising number of works going through a system of credit under which he agreed to accept bonds or shares in the railway companies instead of cash payments. Many schemes and workers’ jobs at that time were saved from extinction by the special credit arrangements agreed to and put in place by William Dargan.

In these modern times, it seems strange that an astute man of Dargan’s standing should not have insisted on being paid properly for his work. The reason I believe he was prepared to risk so much of his fortune in supporting the building of railways during very depressed times was his determination that never again would his country have to experience the horrors he had seen during those Famine years. Food, as is well-known, was sent to Ireland from charities abroad but what is less well-known is that most of it lay at the ports because of the lack of transport to carry it to those dying of hunger. Thanks to Dargan’s determination to continue to finance the building of railways throughout the Famine period and its aftermath, many an Irish family survived to bless the great William Dargan fondly known in the west of Ireland as An Fear Traenach. It is recorded that, when recruiting workers for his schemes in those terrible years, Dargan would pay those selected a full week’s wages in advance and tell them he did not expect any work until they had got some nourishment and their strength back.

A striking example of Dargan’s great humanity may be found in a report of his action following the formal ceremony of turning the first sod of the Waterford & Limerick Railway by the Earl of Clare in a field near Boher on 15 October 1846:-

Dargan distributed a large sum of money to the several country people present and £5 to James McCormack, tenant of the field, so that he might entertain his neighbours. The dignitaries then returned to Limerick for a splendid dinner in Cruise’s Hotel, the party numbering 40.

This was probably why the press of the day, when writing about William Dargan, frequently referred to him as The Man with his Hand in his Pocket. But when Dargan himself referred to such instances or to his generous dealings with his workers, he was quoted by a contemporary railway engineer William Le Fanu as frequently saying ‘A spoonful of honey will catch more flies than a gallon of vinegar.’

Dargan also had a great understanding of the real concerns of the country through which he was building railways. Our own Society member, John O’Meara, reported in his 1989 paper on the Athenry & Tuam Railway that in 1860 Father Duggan, a local curate who later became Bishop of Clonfert, had tried in vain to stop plans being implemented for the new line to be built on a level route close to the village of  Ballinastack between Ballyglunin and Tuam. This route had been welcomed by the local landlord as it not only ran through his own lands, but would have given him legal reason to get rid of his tenants. Father Duggan appealed on behalf of these tenants to the contractor William Dargan, who consented to meet him. The curate told Dargan that if the line were built as planned, the curse of every man, woman and child would be upon him. Dargan, by nature a genial person, replied that he had no wish to have anyone’s curse cast upon him. Following discussion, he agreed to alter the plans and, even though it would involve extra cost, he would construct the railway over a new route through a rock cutting and over marshy and hilly terrain, so as to avoid having the tenants evicted.

Another example of Dargan’s humanitarian approach may be found in Westmeath Independent reports in early 1850. Trouble broke out near Moate among unemployed labourers in the district who were complaining that Dargan was giving undue preference to strangers crowding into the area to get work on building the Midland Great Western Railway mainline to Galway. Dargan explained to them that men acquainted with preparing land for a railway would be employed by him initially, together with paupers from the workhouse in Mullingar. Dargan said he hoped to have an abundance of employment for the local people later, but his explanations were not well received and the police had to be called to restore peace.

It is interesting that the directors of the M&GWR decided to give William Dargan the contract for the entire section from Mullingar to Galway because they feared awkward delays might arise from the usual method of contracting. The line to Galway was a task requiring a great quantity of plant and many men capable of carrying out the bold plans prepared by W B Hemans, Chief Engineer of the M&GWR, to throw the new mainline across the wet and pulpy boglands by a system of virtual rafts of timber and heather sods. The directors knew they could rely on Dargan’s skill, commitment and good human relations to have the line completed by the required opening date. The workers proved all that he could desire and, when the M&GWR directors offered him a premium if he could complete the work ahead of schedule, Dargan managed the remarkable feat of having the line ready for opening five months ahead of contract-time.

A fascinating insight to the work ethic of William Dargan may be gleaned from his approach to extending the M&GWR mainline from Mullingar to Galway between 1849 and 1851. The Company had been successful in June 1849 in obtaining a government loan of £500,000 for the Galway extension on the ground that it would save the people of the western counties from starvation by creating employment on the railway. The directors lost no time in entering into a contract with Dargan and he tackled his challenging task with great dedication. By mid-August he had some 600 men employed on the works and, in spite of the initial labour troubles near Moate and Athlone, his workforce had reached 6,000 by the following April and topped 9,000 by September 1850. The entire line was completed by mid-July 1851, five months in advance of the time specified in the Galway Extension Act. To achieve this remarkable goal, Dargan involved himself totally in his work by living, sleeping and operating on site from a mobile office that was propelled along the new railway as it was extending westwards. This office, which became known as the Dargan Saloon, was a 6-wheeled saloon No 47 with a domed roof and rounded at both ends with curved glass in the windows. Just over 31 feet long, it was originally built in 1844 by John Dawson of Phibsborough, Dublin for the Dublin & Drogheda Railway.  Dargan purchased it as a mobile office and, on completion of the line to Galway, he presented it to the MGWR who subsequently used it for many years as a Directors Saloon and also as a State Carriage. Today, Dargan’s former mobile office may still be seen preserved in the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum at Cultra, County Down.

By the early 1850s, when William Dargan had begun to amass a substantial fortune from his numerous contracts, his one ambition was to use it to develop the resources of his own country. As one example, Dargan had noted in the north of Ireland that flax was grown as a very profitable crop and he planned to extend its benefits to farmers in the south of Ireland. He bought a 2,000 acre farm near Rathcormac in County Cork, where he experimented in flax cultivation, and built a number of flax mills. He offered to supply flax seed to all farmers in the locality at his own expense and to purchase their crops from them at the current Belfast prices. However, very few Cork farmers accepted his offer, either because of their inveterate dislike of trying any new experiment or their fear that flax would exhaust their soil. Consequently, this well-intentioned but expensive experiment was a disaster. When asked what punitive action he would take in the light of this failed experiment, Dargan was reported as saying ‘Never show your teeth unless you can bite.’

He enjoyed a greater measure of success with a philanthropic project at Chapelizod near Dublin. William Dargan took over an old-established flax-thread mill and spent large sums on renovations and extensions. For years he operated this plant known as the Dargan & Haughton Mills and employed up to 900 people producing a very good product, which won an award for quality at a Paris exhibition in 1855. William Dargan was always regarded at the mills as a good employer and in July 1860 he took 700 employees by a sixteen-coach special train from Harcourt Street station in Dublin to Bray, where they dined and danced at his expense before returning to Dublin by train in the evening. The following extract from an article describing the outing to Bray in Saunder’s Newsletter of 30 July 1860 is interesting:-

Saturday was a gala day to the numerous persons - men, women, boys and girls - amounting in all to upwards of 700 employed in Mr Dargan’s extensive linen, flax and thread mills at Chapelizod, Co Dublin. At an early hour they were all marshalled in holiday attire and walked in procession, headed by the private band of the factory, under the able direction of Mr Bell………An auxiliary band of drums and fifes took up the inspiring strain to cheer the joyful party on their march to Harcourt Street Terminus; and special train was in waiting, and at a quarter before ten o’clock, sixteen carriages were filled with the happy crowd, anxious to see sights they never before saw, and many never expected to see.

……….The appearance of the females was in the highest degree creditable. They were neat and tidy in dress, most becoming and orderly in their behaviour………

At half-past seven (in the evening) this gratified crowd left by special train in the same order in which they arrived, blessing the name of their good employer, William Dargan, who afforded them such a day’s pleasure unalloyed in every sense, except by the unfortunate state of the weather.

Dargan became involved in many other philanthropic projects aimed at encouraging development in the post-Famine period. Among his other projects were a distillery at Belturbet, County Cavan, a sugar-beet plant at Mountmellick, County Laois, and the substantial reclamation of sloblands near Wexford town. At various places in Ireland, including Raheny near Dublin, he bought areas of farmland, grew sugar-beet and applied modern methods and large capital sums to their improvement. At agricultural shows in Ireland and in England he won many prizes for growing sugar-beet and many varieties of vegetables. He bought a beautiful residence, known as Dargan Villa at Mount Anville near Dundrum, County Dublin, added a campanella viewing tower to it and reared fine breeds of sheep and cattle in the surrounding grounds. The flowers from his gardens and greenhouses were famous at exhibitions throughout Dublin.

William Dargan was an able and constant advocate of Ireland and Irish enterprise and was untiring in his efforts to develop his native land. After the successful Crystal Palace Exhibition in London in 1851, Dargan proposed and financed single-handed the Great Exhibition of Art & Industry in Dublin from May to October 1853. His objective was to showcase the best of Irish art and industry to help counter the negative image of the country in the wake of the Famine. He constructed an extensive iron and glass building on the RDS-owned Leinster Lawn facing Merrion Square to house the Exhibition, which was more a celebration of art than a display of Irish industry or engineering. Exhibits of railway interest included a 2-2-0WT engine built by Sharp Stewart for the Londonderry & Coleraine Railway. The Exhibition proved a triumph for William Dargan as an important expression of national self-confidence. It also attracted valuable contributions from abroad that included, according to the Catalogue of the Exhibition, the Emperor of the French, the King of the Belgians, The King of Holland and the King of Prussia. No less than 1,100,000 visitors from Ireland and abroad came to Dublin for the Exhibition, including many from the north of Ireland who were able to travel by rail to Dublin for the first time thanks to the reinforcing of the great wooden scaffolding surrounding the Boyne Viaduct, then under construction, so that trains might pass over it.  In August 1853, Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the two young Princes travelled to Dublin and honoured the Exhibition with a Royal visit.

Despite its great success, Dargan’s expenditure of over £100,000 in making the Exhibition possible was not fully recouped and he lost about £20,000 on the venture, which was a setback even for such a wealthy man. But such was the impact and perceived success of the great event, which displayed over a thousand works of fine art included at the insistence of William Dargan himself, that a testimonial subscription was formed in July 1853 to establish a permanent public art collection as a fitting monument to Dargan’s vision and munificence. This led to the founding of the National Gallery of Ireland in 1854 on the Exhibition site and to the unveiling ten years later by the Lord Lieutenant of a fine bronze statue of Dargan by Thomas Farrell which still stands today outside the National Gallery.

In those times, it was rare for a monarch to visit a commoner in his home, but Queen Victoria immediately after her arrival in Ireland in August 1853 journeyed from Kingstown to the home of William Dargan and his wife Jane at Mount Anville in Goatstown, near Dundrum.  The Royal party were brought up to the campanella tower to get a 360-degree view, which was described by them as being ‘unequalled in Ireland’. The Queen’s diary of the visit records she wished to bestow on Dargan a baronetcy in recognition of his considerable achievements, but he politely declined the honour without any reason being recorded. However, it is said that William Dargan always maintained he worked for the development of his own country which he believed was being largely ignored by the British establishment.

With the revival of hope in Ireland after 1853, William Dargan built the large No.1 graving dock at Dublin Port, measuring 410 feet by 70 feet, to accommodate the Holyhead paddle steamers. It was described by the contemporary media as ‘one of the most excellent specimens of material and workmanship’. Dargan also returned to railway construction, particularly the Dublin & Wicklow Railway which reached Bray in 1854 and was completed to Wicklow in 1855. Some 500 men were employed on this last section, which involved difficult tunnelling through very hard Precambrian rock under Bray Head. In those depressed post-Famine years, Dargan once again agreed to accept payment in bonds, which later were exchanged for shares in the railway company. His very large holding led to his selection as a director of the Dublin & Wicklow Railway in 1856 and later in1864 he was elected Chairman of the Company. By this time, William Dargan had been involved in building over 1,000 miles of railways in Ireland.  

When Dargan joined the board of the Dublin & Wicklow Railway in 1856 he no longer took construction contracts, but closely supervised the further extension of the railway to Enniscorthy. Henceforth, his fortunes became inextricably linked with that Company, which became the Dublin Wicklow & Wexford Railway in 1860.  It was now Dargan’s ambition to develop a seaside resort at Bray that had only been a small fishing village on the arrival of the railway. Dargan devoted considerable energy to having the projected resort modelled on Brighton in south-east England in order to provide a pleasant watering place for the people of Dublin within easy reach of the city by train. He laid out a seafront esplanade, built fashionable Turkish baths and a substantial terrace of houses, developed wide roads, a fair green, a market, and helped to install gas lights in the new town. He was also a major investor in a modern 130-bedroom International Hotel near the railway station. Because of his substantial investment in Bray, William Dargan was elected one of its Town Commissioners in 1860. He was hailed as The Friend of Ireland and was credited with the transformation of the former one-street town into a developed seaside resort that has since attracted thousands of visitors each year.

On 1 May 1865 tragedy struck William Dargan. While riding along the Stillorgan Road a woman shaking out a white sheet from a house window frightened his horse throwing him heavily on the ground. He was concussed and badly injured and never fully recovered. A few months later Dargan sold Mount Anville to an order of nuns that still operate a girls’ secondary school there.  Subsequently, he had a further fall and his business interests suffered due to his inability to devote his full attention to them. In 1866 the financial crisis in Britain and the collapse of bankers Overend & Gurney caused railway shares to plummet and Dargan appointed trustees to run his business. This move alarmed his creditors and caused a further decline in his fortunes. His health deteriorated due to a malignant liver disease and he made his will in January 1867. Not long afterwards, on 7 February 1867, he died in his Dublin townhouse at 2 Fitzwilliam Square aged 68 years.

Lengthy tributes to William Dargan, The Workman’s Friend, appeared in the press both in Ireland and in England and his funeral on 11 February was the largest seen in Dublin since that of Daniel O’Connell some twenty years earlier. The cortege which travelled from Fitzwilliam Square to Glasnevin Cemetery was led by some 700 railway workers from various companies with whom Dargan was associated. The hearse, drawn by four horses, was followed by three mourning coaches, the Lord Mayor’s State Chariot and a long line of over 250 carriages carrying a wide spectrum of people from many parts of the country. Dargan was laid to rest in a vault among the great in the O’Connell Circle at Glasnevin Cemetery. His elegant tomb is almost certainly the work of the architect John Skipton Mulvany, who designed Broadstone, Blackrock and Kingstown railway stations.

This remarkable funeral was clearly a powerful public recognition of William Dargan’s endeavours to raise the status of his country and give hope to its people in deeply distressing times. As Providence had denied him the gift of children, he seemed to have adopted Ireland as his child and used all the benefits of his education and experience to try to raise the standard of Irish life and business. This is the only feasible explanation for his investment of huge sums of money in so many unprofitable enterprises. It was indeed fitting that in 2004, when the new LUAS Green Line was opened, the magnificent cable-stayed bridge at Dundrum was formally named the William J Dargan Bridge in the presence of a direct descendent, Father Daniel Dargan S J.

The Catalogue of the 1853 Great Exhibition of Art & Industry contains a Memoir of William Dargan designed to attract subscriptions to the Dargan Testimonial Committee. It is very illuminating in its description of him:-

‘He still exhibits the cordiality, unaffected manner, and straightforward character which secured for him hosts of friends in times past, and which, at the present day, obtain for him the respect of all classes of his countrymen - we say advisedly, of all classes. A personal enemy he could scarcely have and we know that a political enemy he could not have at all; in so much as in a country        distracted by political and party strife, he had at all times the good sense to avoid allying himself with any class of politician, and has hence become a universal favourite.”

Perhaps the most revealing insight to the character of the man may be found in a book of reminiscences Seventy Years of Irish Life by a contemporary railway engineer William  Le Fanu, who describes his business dealings with William Dargan as follows:-

‘I have settled as engineer for different companies many of his accounts, involving many hundreds of thousand pounds. His thorough honesty, his willingness to yield a disputed point and his wonderful rapidity of decision, rendered it a pleasure, instead of a trouble as it generally is, to settle these accounts. Indeed in my life I have never met a man more quick in intelligence, more clear-sighted and more thoroughly honourable.’

William Dargan was a man removed from the turmoil of party politics, but nevertheless was an inspiration to his countrymen. The news that he had consented to taking shares in a downcast company was the signal for an instant revival of hope which, in almost all cases, proved to be justified. He was variously referred to in his own lifetime as ‘The Man with his Hand in his Pocket’; ‘An Fear Traenach’; ‘The Workman’s Friend’ and ‘The Friend of Ireland’. These extraordinary public endorsements, together with his undoubted skill, integrity, humanity and an enormous capacity for hard work on behalf of his own people, made William Dargan, in my view, a practical and truly outstanding patriot in 19th century Ireland.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge the assistance of the following people who helped to guide my research into particular areas of Willliam Dargan’s life :

The late Kevin A Murray, former Chairman, Irish Railway Record Society;

 Fergus Mulligan, contributor to Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineering;

 Tim Moriarty, Honorary Librarian, Irish Railway Record Society;

 Tom Wall, researcher and member, Irish Railway Record Society;

 John Callinan, Librarian, The Institution of Engineers of Ireland.

To each of them and to all of you - Go raibh céad míle maith agaibh go léir.


The remainder of this article appears in IRRS Journal number 171, published February 2010.

Copyright © 2010 by Irish Railway Record Society Limited
Revised: March 04, 2010

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