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Engineering Railway Architecture:

The Great Northern Railway (Ireland) at Dundalk




Siobhan Osgood accomplished a Master’s with Distinction in Art History at Trinity College Dublin in 2016. Her thesis, 'Railway Architecture: The Great Northern Railway at Dundalk' has been nominated for the UK’s Industrial Archaeology Association’s Dissertation Prize with an article due for publication in their journal. She has been active in Dundalk, campaigning for the protection of the GNRI’s engineering works’ buildings, published in local media and interviewed on radio. Siobhan hopes to continue her analysis of the GNRI's architecture across Ireland for her doctoral research starting in October 2018. Siobhan is a member of the IRRS and will give a guest lecture at the Irish Railway Record Society (IRRS) in London in December 2017.

“…the engineer has to design and construct very many others [buildings] in connection with railways. These will include large running-sheds for stabling working locomotives; sheds for housing carriages; workshops for building and repairing engines, carriages, and waggons; foundries; large stores for materials; offices; dwelling-houses; mess-rooms, etc.; many of them involving questions of difficult foundations, and nearly all of them requiring special strength and stability to meet the heavy weights and vibrations to which they are subjected.”

William Hemingway Mills, Railway Construction, 1898[1]

Polychromatic yellow, red and black brickwork created a visual identity for the railway architecture of the former Great Northern Railway (Ireland) (henceforth GNRI) network across Ireland. The use of accented colours to pick out frames, bonds, string courses and ocular pediments is repeated across a series of buildings including engineering sheds, offices, railway stations and private residences. These are most prominent in Dundalk, where the company had its central engineering works at the half-way point on the Enterprise train line between Dublin and Belfast, and where they remain standing today.

The buildings were each intricately designed by the GNRI’s first chief engineer, William Hemingway Mills, coinciding with the establishment of the GNRI in 1876. Apprenticed under the creator of St Pancras’ awesomely functional train shed, William Barlow, Mills was a second-generation railway engineer who merged the roles of architect and engineer, almost dismissing the need for architects in railway building altogether: “Engineers have brought railways to their present state of perfection” he said, “…the engineer has to stand alone.”[2] However, Mills used an amalgamation of architectural designs from his earlier career garnered during his employment at the Midland Railway in Derby, Morayshire Railway and Great North of Scotland Railway, Andalusian Railway in Spain, and finally the Mexican Railway Company. Mills thus created his own ‘Millsian’ style of functional eclecticism in architectural engineering design.

Mills’ role as chief engineer for the GNRI signalled the new beginning of the company and the establishment of its engineering works as a central hub for technology and locomotive engineering: “The GNR usually had a stud of about 200 locomotives and 500 carriages”[3]. A new ‘Workmen’s Village’[4] was created from 1880 to the east of Dundalk town: a self-sufficient site of engineering works included carriage shops, boiler shops, locomotive shops, smithies, and carpentry workshops concurrent to the construction of accommodation for its employees at Ardee and Brook Street Terraces. Each building was fundamentally designed for its purpose but each showcased a main body of red brick with yellow bricks used to accentuate the key features of pediments, ocular windows, quoins, rounded arches and fanlights, and semi-curved window frames.

The extant structures of the GNRI’s engineering works currently stand in a silent state of re-use and disrepair, proudly defiant of their once raucously industrious past. Two groups of buildings were first to be built. These were the engine workshops and carriage workshops built between 1880 and 1881 by the contractor, Collen Brothers, employing men from Dublin and Portadown rather than locally for their construction. Both sets of buildings were erected at right-angles to the track running north-south, and not directly connectable to it. An “ingenious device” known as a Traverser was installed for running engines along rails in between workshops. A later illustration of a similar device can be seen in the drawing ‘View of Carriage and Wagon Shop Showing Traverser’, dated June 1922.

The engine workshops had a line of rails which passed through internal arches to the outer yard and across into the carriage workshops. Combined in the complex of the engine workshops were, moving from north to south, three combined buildings of the erecting shop; fitting (later known as machine) shop; and smith shop. All were constructed using red brick, pediments with ocular windows, and yellow brick rounded arch windows and doorways, “lending that pleasant and familiar identity, which articulated Great Northern Railway architecture”[5].

A later addition to the engine shops complex was the boiler shop in 1885 when “heavy locomotive work [was centralised] at Dundalk”[6].  Jack McQuillan states the construction of the boiler shop signalled the intention “to build locomotives in the works, rather than import them from across the water”. Originally one pediment wide and built by contractors Messrs. Martin of Belfast, the boiler shop was built using the now familiar red brick and accented yellow hoods and was connected using another traverser system to the erecting shop[7]. The boiler shop was extended at the turn of the century as shown in the ‘Proposed Addition to Boiler Shop Dundalk’, signed by Mills on 12 April 1900, and ‘Boiler Shop Alterations and Extension, New Tube Store’ (undated) drawings. This extension demonstrates the success of locomotive construction started five years previously.

South of the engine workshops is a yard and three “large workshops for the building and repair of carriages and wagons”. These included a saw mill and timber sheds, adjoining carriage and wagon shop, and a larger separate shop where final painting, fitting and upholstering took place. The latter was joined across a yard by the traverser. Standing looking west, with the traverser in front, the building to the right is the carriage and wagon shop, to the left is the carriage fitting shop. The former mirrors the style of the fitting and smith shop, whilst the latter has a slightly higher pitched roof. This is not for the provision of fanlights but openings for “Kinnear” rolling shutters and an internal crane. The carriage and wagon shop’s northern side repeats the arched openings, with moulded eaves and linear orders of windows and entrance archways. Referred to on the 1914 plan as ‘Carriage and Wagon Shop’, by 1932 its use has changed to ‘Motor Repair Shop’[8], reflecting the GNRI’s response to the ever-emerging motor cars and buses in the early twentieth century. The carriage and wagon shop is now used as a mechanical workshop for Bus Éireann and where the central traverser stood, there are now two concrete sheds[9].

Initial houses were those at Ardee and Brook Street Terraces; two parallel rows of twenty terraced houses adjacent to the engineering works. Constructed simultaneously were two larger end-of-terrace semi-detached houses overlooking the works’ entrance, Brooklyn and Brook Ville. Plans signed by Mills dated 28 August 1880 show a proposed street layout with square outlines for the houses, backyards and WC units; an additional row is included south of Brook Street Terrace, but was not constructed as the land was ‘liable to flooding’ and became the ‘scrap yard’ of the works[10]. Both terraces are red-brick, two-storey with flat frontages, moulded coping and bonded window frames in yellow brick, also used on the rounded door hoods’ fanlights.

Although Brooklyn and Brook Ville correlate in feature and material to the terraces, they are on a grander scale. With bay windows to north and south, the flat frontage faces the entrance to the works. Quoins are pronounced in yellow brick, mirroring those at the works’ offices opposite, and adding to their sense of prominence. Door and window hoodings use this same brick, with the mixed use of bonded arches and rounded hoods. The contrast between the terraces and the semi-detached houses demonstrates the contrast between hierarchical positions within the company: an on-going battle between “Protestant employer and Catholic employee”[11].

The thematic Millsian brickwork continued with the construction of the new Dundalk train station in 1892 (opened 1894), where Mills exploited GNRI brick-branding with the striking reversal of red and yellow architectural accents: yellow bricks formed the main structures, with red and black bricks now highlighting the structures’ features. (Perhaps the role of the architect was not completely obsolete from Mills’ engineering architectural designs after all). The station does demonstrate explicitly Mills’ engineering nous; the still operational lattice-girder footbridge’s original sketch shows an intricacy in construction, with instructions, and a nifty piece of architectural engineering also lies within the load-bearing pillars for the platform’s glass-roof: rainwater gathers in the upper gutter which feeds into an internal pipe running from the roof, down through the pillars and platform and directly onto the tracks. This ensures the passenger remains as dry as possible when boarding and alighting trains in Ireland’s “inclement weather”[12].

Concurrent with the creation of the new train station, an additional row of railway employees’ housing was erected parallel to the tracks at Demesne Terrace in 1901[13]. Echoing but not copying the earlier residential style, they demonstrate the culmination of design being built of red-brick, using yellow bonded windows to echo those seen at the station and Ardee and Brook Street Terraces. The door hoods are not rounded like the earlier terraces, but rather arched to match the windows of the new station. This architectural correlation is enhanced further by similar linear string coursing.

Alongside the physical remains of the GNRI, the social impacts on the urbanisation of the town, its population and its industrial legacy, as well as the visual and material cultures associated with the GNRI, remain. Indeed, across the GNRI’s now mostly closed and abandoned route, examples of Millsian design can be discovered at Ballyhaise[14] and Navan[15], amongst many others, in varying states of reappropriated use and derelict disrepair. These seemingly randomly sporadic remains of railway architecture provide clues to Mills’ legacy, Ireland’s railway revolution, its evolution and its ultimate decline. The author hopes to continue to research the architecture of the GNRI across Ireland, and in particular the legacy of William Hemingway Mills; a Yorkshireman who became one of the forefathers of Irish railway engineering and architectural design.  

[1] Mills, William Hemingway, Railway Construction, first ed. Longmans, Green and Co.: London, 1898, this ed. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform: Luxembourg, 2016, p. 300.

[2] Mills, W. H., pp. 371-372.

[3] Arnold, R. M., The Golden Years of the Great Northern Railway, Blackstaff Press: Belfast, first published 1976, this edition 1979, p. viii.

[4] McQuillan, Jack, The Railway Town, The Story of the Great Northern Railway Works and Dundalk, Dundalgan Press (W. Tempest) Ltd: Dundalk, 1993. p. 25.

[5] McQuillan, J., pp. 19-20, 40. 

[6] Patterson, Edward, Great Northern Railway (Ireland), The Oakwood Press: Usk, first edition 1962, this edition 2003, p. 137.

[7] McQuillan, J., p. 25.

[8] McQuillan, J., pp. 20-21, 102.

[9]National Inventory of Architectural Heritage (NIAH): Bus Éireann Garage: http://www.buildingsofireland.ie/niah/search.jsp?type=record&county=LH&regno=13900711. Accessed 05/07/2016

[10] “Known as ‘The Bog’”: McQuillan, J., p. 21. OS map of 1938.

[11] McQuillan, J., p. 37. 

[12] Mills, W. H., p. 281.

[13] NIAH gives a construction date of c.1870. However, the original ‘Design for Four Room Two-Storey Dwelling House’ was signed by Mills on 5 November 1901. The drawing also gives instructions for these houses to be constructed at Drogheda. These can be found in two terraces of three houses to the western end of Railway Terrace. The original buildings are not protected structures; perhaps their significance and link to Mills and the GNRI were heretofore unknown.

[15] NIAH: Navan Station. http://www.buildingsofireland.ie/niah/search.jsp?type=record&county=ME&regno=14012079 Accessed 02 04 2017. Incorrectly attributed to ‘N. A. Mills’


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Revised: February 15, 2018 .