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Pre-Famine Ireland: Social Structure Copyright 2000 by Desmond Keenan Hard copy of book available from and

Chapter Four

                      Roads and Railways

Summary of chapter. This chapter deals with the transport system, in particular the roads and railways. The level of economic development of any region depends on the quality of its transport system. The construction of good and well-surfaced roads, and later of railways over the whole of Ireland. In Ireland as in America it was the railways which opened up the interior.

(i) The Tertiary Sector

(ii) Roads and Road Travel

(iii) Railways and the Electric Telegraph


(i) The Tertiary Sector 

The following four chapters deal with the tertiary sector. I deal with the tertiary sector before the other two because of the immense influence of developments in this sector on the development of agriculture and industry. 

The tertiary sector is more amorphous than the other two. As first understood it comprehended those activities that did not directly produce raw materials or manufactured goods, but assisted in their production and distribution. Such classically were transport, trade, and financial services. But the sector is now often taken to include all other economic activities such as personal services (medicine, education, etc.), remunerated cultural and leisure activities, and so on. In this section I have included chapters on trade, transport, and financial services only, and dealt with the others elsewhere as their economic aspects were of secondary importance. [Top] 

(ii) Roads and Road Travel 

Roads, at all times, provided the principal means for travel and transport. Canals and railways did not displace the horse, and the number of horses in use in England and America kept on increasing until the First World War. Horse-drawn traffic was used on roads especially for shorter journeys to and from railway stations. Roads complemented railways to large extent though between 1850 and 1900 there was no urgency about maintaining or developing long distance road routes. 

By a road is meant a passageway with a sufficiently hard and smooth surface and sufficiently wide to take wheeled-traffic easily. A bridle-path is not a road. As noted earlier, a pack-horse could carry an eighth of a ton on its back but could haul two tons on Macadamised roads. Even in England in the last quarter of the eighteenth century most of the wool used in the woollen-manufacturing districts of Yorkshire was carried on horseback. By mid-century, with improved roads, stronger horses, and the Scotch cart, it was feasible to cart farm produce up to fifty miles. An agriculturalist remarked that good roads and bridges were essential for improved agriculture. 

The Romans had a highly developed system of road construction but they never occupied Ireland. Accounts of the campaign of William III in Ireland at the end of the seventeenth century showed that his army with its guns and wagons had to confine its advance to the few poor, narrow roads that existed. In the eighteenth century the art of proper construction was re-discovered, notably by Telford and MacAdam. Roads were well drained at the sides to keep them dry, and were provided with a firmly compacted surface. Easy gradients were provided so that horses could easily haul loads. Sharp turns were avoided and obstructions jutting into the highway were removed. Bridges or paved fords were provided. The improvement of Irish roads began with the opening of a 28 mile toll-road from Dublin to Kilcullen in co. Kildare in 1729. Carts, wagons, and coaches however could not proceed on these roads faster than at a walking pace. 

In the Middle Ages in Ireland, as in England, the upkeep but not the construction of roads was a duty imposed on parish vestries. In Ireland, in the eighteenth century the construction and maintenance of roads were transferred to the county Grand Juries. Any gentleman of the county might present to the Grand Jury proposals for the construction of this road or that at public expense. Fiscal control by the Juries was minimal and there is little doubt that the system was abused. But the system also produced good results, and when Arthur Young travelled in Ireland in the last quarter of the eighteenth century he considered that in Irish counties the roads were better than in English counties where each piece of road was the responsibility of the parishes. There was an obvious drawback to the system. Roadmaking was not co-ordinated between the counties, and most Irish counties saw little profit in improving roads for the convenience of people from other counties travelling to Dublin. Still, with some patience it was possible in 1800 to travel by coach to all the county or assize towns in Ireland. 

For longer roads speculators could apply for an Act of Parliament to improve and maintain a road on the turnpike or tollbooth system between two towns or cities, and there were many Turnpike Acts passed in Ireland in the eighteenth century. The owners of the turnpike rights could operate stagecoaches or charge for the use of their road by other coach operators. Regular but slow coach services were introduced between Dublin and the principal towns of Leinster and even ran to Belfast and Limerick. Most of the tollroads were unprofitable. The roads remained poor in quality until the Irish Post Office determined to follow the example of the British Post Office and introduce fast stagecoaches with galloping horses on improved roads in place of the postboys on horseback. 

In 1788 the Irish Post Office agreed terms with a Scottish contractor named John Anderson. He secured a turnpike monopoly of the road between Dublin and Limerick, improved the road, procured horses and coaches, and began the mail coach service, the first in Ireland in 1790. Tests resulted in broken wheels and axles. Because the new mail contractors had to improve and maintain the roads their charges were higher than those of the former contractors. Anderson's example was soon followed by other mail-contractors. The quality of the Irish roads, and consequently the speed of the coaches, never quite reached the standards of England, and at first, to get the service started, the Post Office set quite low standards. In the year 1800 the Dublin to Cork coach was still making two overnight stops, one in Kilkenny and one in Fermoy, but by 1810 the journeys to Cork and Limerick were being made non-stop in under twenty four hours. (Before 1790 the journey from Cork to Dublin might take three or four days, or even a week, and a journey by sea was often easier and quicker.) By 1815 the Belfast to Dublin coach on a route of over a hundred miles was achieving an end-to-end speed of eight miles an hour. The skill of the coachmen must have been impressive. The candle or oil lamps carried by the coach served to indicate the presence of the coach to others, not to illuminate the road ahead. On the mail routes average coach speeds end-to-end were between four and five miles an hour. The British Post Office contractors succeeded in getting an average speed of seven and a half miles per hour over 38 hours on the run from London to Holyhead on the Welsh coast. 

In the 1820's the Irish Government, seeing the advantages roadbuilding had brought to the Highlands of Scotland began to construct roads in places where county Grand Juries were unable to afford them. In some cases long-term loans were given to the counties, but in Mayo the Government paid nine tenths of the cost. The engineer Alexander Nimmo was in charge of construction in the West and South. His first road was built into Iveragh, in Co. Kerry, and both he and Daniel O Connell described the prosperity he brought to the area. The roads he built into the western parts of Galway and Mayo were less successful in developing the region, and commercial agriculture did not properly develop until the coming of the railways. 

From the end of the eighteenth century the authorities in cities, towns, and liberties, following the example of English towns, began to pave the streets with granite setts, and reserve raised pavements for pedestrians. The setts were of a hard stone, shaped like a brick, and set on their ends firmly in sand. 

The development of another road must be mentioned, though it was in Britain, for it was closely connected with Irish interests and was pushed forward chiefly by an Irish MP, Sir Henry Parnell. This was the Holyhead Road. It was the first trunk road developed in the British Isles since the time of the Romans. 

In the eighteenth century the route from London to Ireland largely followed the Roman road from London to the legionary camp at Chester, and Parkgate on the estuary of the Dee was the sailing point for Ireland. Later in the century a port was developed at Holyhead, on the extremity of the Welsh coast and it was reached from Chester by a wild and precipitous route along the seacoast. The estuary of the Conway river and the Menai Straits had to be crossed by ferry. Early in the nineteenth century the English Post Office switched to a shorter route through Shrewsbury and Capel Curig in the centre of north Wales. One problem was that along large stretches tolls were insufficient to cover maintenance costs. Another was that, especially in southern England, the parish authorities would not bother to maintain the road. Sir Henry Parnell year after year chaired parliamentary committees on the subject and gradually overcame all obstacles. Thomas Telford was commissioned to survey the route, repair or reconstruct the road, and build bridges over the Conway estuary and Menai Straits. For the Straits Telford adopted the recently invented suspension principle because the Admiralty required that the bridge be high enough for a ship-of-the-line to pass under it at full tide. Telford and Sir Henry were present at the cutting of the first sod at the bridge in 1819 and at the opening ceremony in 1826. Telford's marvellous bridge continues in use, and the Holyhead Road is now the A5. 

Coach operators had to supply their own coaches and horses, unlike in England where local innkeepers provided the changes of horses. Therefore in Ireland the contractor had to supply road agents at each stage, responsible for receipts, for horses, fodder, and stables. Contracts to carry the mails were given for seven years at a time. If the contractor did not own the turnpike rights he, and not the Post Office, had to pay the tolls. After 1815 Peter Purcell replaced John Anderson as the leading Irish coaching contractor. 

Most of the vehicles, apart from stagecoaches, on Irish roads at the beginning of the century were jingles, two-wheeled sprung carts with a cover, carrying six to eight persons. They were privately owned and plied on all roads not covered by stagecoaches. Around 1830 it was estimated that there were several hundred jingle-car owners plying for hire between Dublin and Kingstown. Gradually the jungle was replaced by the sidecar or long car, on which the passengers sat back-to-back facing towards the sides. The only obvious advantage seems to have been that if an accident threatened the passengers could jump clear. A four-wheeled 'omnibus' began running in London in 1830 but the Irish car owners managed to keep it out of their cities until after mid-century. If no regular coach or car service was available it was usually possible to hire a chaise (two-seater coach) if its owner was willing to let the traveller have it. After 1815 an Italian immigrant named Charles Bianconi established a popular widespread network of sidecar routes between towns in Munster and Connaught not connected by stagecoaches. He was a Catholic and a nationalist so his name was better remembered. 

The bicycle or velocipede appeared on Irish roads as early as 1819 but cycling could never become comfortable or popular until after the art of vulcanising rubber was discovered about mid-century. Steam enthusiasts like Richard Gurney in England and Sir James Anderson (son of John) experimented with steam cars. The advocates of railways and other interests succeeded in getting the Road Traffic Act (1831) passed which held up the development of road transport for fifty years. (It was argued that a virtual monopoly of transport was required by a railway to recover the high initial costs in a reasonable time. It was also claimed that heavy, unsprung or badly-sprung steam lorries or trucks with iron wheels would destroy road surfaces and bridges. On the other hand, the bridges had to be strengthened eventually, and wide iron wheels would probably have compacted the roads better.) 

In the eighteenth century and up to the beginning of the century Irish hotels had a very poor reputation. The Belfast Newsletter (2 March 1802) described them as being filthy and unswept, the rooms smelly, the furniture broken, the curtains ragged and unwashed, fleas abounding, knives blunt and greasy, spoons sticky, and glasses dirty. The filth in the yards and stables was indescribable. The guests were usually drunken, dirty, and sick. Food and prices were no worse than in England, and the red wines were better. Sir Jonah Barrington described the food at that time as 'a composition of slovenliness, bad meat, worse cooking, and few vegetables (save the royal Irish potato), but plenty of fine eggs, smoked bacon, often excellent chickens...They generally had excellent claret.' 

By mid-century the best hotels in Dublin, that of Mr Gresham and the Shelburne especially, were considered the equal of any hotels in the world. The major hotels were the starting and stopping places for the coaches, and the Queen's Arms Royal Hibernian in Dawson St. Dublin, was a favourite with coaching contractors. [Top] 

(iii) Railways and the Electric Telegraph 

This deals chiefly with the construction of the railways for they had no appreciable effect on the economy before mid-century. 

Interest in railways originated in Ireland at the same time as it did in England. The first railway laid down in Ireland was for the building of the harbour at Howth in 1807. A similar line was laid down between the quarries at Dalkey and the new harbour at Dunleary in 1817. Various experiments were being undertaken in England at this time to construct a small light steam engine on wheels that could haul trucks or carriages along the rails and George Stephenson's Locomotion No.1 on the Stockton and Darlington line in 1825 is generally considered the first really successful railway engine. The first commercial passenger line was the Liverpool to Manchester Railway opened in 1830. 

Petitions were presented to Parliament in 1825 for the construction of lines between Dublin and Kingstown and Dublin and Belfast. Many in Ireland, including Daniel O Connell felt that Ireland should develop it canals first. In 1831 construction on the first line, that of the Dublin and Kingstown Railway began. Alexander Nimmo had drawn the plans, but he died, and the Wexford engineer, Charles Vignoles, took his place. Thomas Dargan of Carlow was chief contractor. Locomotives were ordered from various firms in England, and the English 'standard gauge' (with track four feet eight and a half inches apart) was adopted. The rails were of wrought iron set in cast iron shoes fastened to granite blocks. It was several years before it was discovered that wooden sleepers placed transversely gave a greater springiness and lessened damage to wheels and tracks. At first engines were unreliable, the firetubes particularly being liable to burn out, so each company kept several engines in reserve. 

Ireland had no Board of Trade to approve railways and supervise their running, so a Board of Railway Commissioners was appointed by the Lord Lieutenant for these purposes. They had to inspect all new lines and give a certificate saying that the permanent works and running arrangements were safe for the transport of passengers. The story is often told, and may even be true, that Col. Pasley, the chief of the commissioners, settled the question of the railway gauge in Ireland by taking the three different gauges on the first three lines in operation, adding them together and dividing by three. The result was an Irish gauge of 5 feet 3 inches. Another question to be settled was whether Ireland should have a centrally-planned system of railways as in Belgium or whether free competition should decide. The Railway Commissioners set up a wide-ranging enquiry, and its Report favoured a planned system, with no railways where there were already canals. There was strong objections to this Report, and the Government concluded that investors should have free choice. When the 'railway mania' finally reached Ireland in the 1840's many competing schemes were proposed over the same or slightly different routes. The claims were sorted out and the railways built, and nearly all of them were moderately profitable in the second half of the century. 

The building of the railways was immensely helped by the re-organisation of the banking system that had allowed joint-stock banks. Irish firms using Irish labour carried out the works, only the locomotives having initially to be imported. 

The directors of the Dublin and Kingstown Railway tried to leapfrog over their rivals by introducing the 'atmospheric principle' for the extension of their line to Dalkey. In this system no engines were used on the track, which consequently could be made lighter and more cheaply. The absence of smoke made for cleanliness especially within stations. Steam boilers were constructed at intervals along the track, and a pipe with a slit in the top was positioned alongside the track. From the leading carriage an arm with a piston at its end reached down to the pipe. The piston was drawn along the pipe by using steam pumps to exhaust the atmosphere from the pipe. A flexible leather strip ran along the top of the pipe to keep it sealed before and after the passage of the piston. The system actually worked successfully in Ireland, but was soon abandoned elsewhere. The Dalkey Extension was converted to normal locomotives in 1854 (Hadfield). 

Along with the railways, and along the railways came the electric telegraph. Semaphore telegraphs had been erected in Ireland during the War, but had been abandoned. (The principle was maintained in railway signals). Signalling by means of an electric current passed along wires had been developed by Charles Wheatstone in the 1830's, but later the simpler system of Samuel Morse was adopted. The telegraph could be used by railways to send information about the movements of trains, but from the start it was also used for commercial purposes, to give information regarding the prices of shares or commodities in London. 

By 1848 the wires had reached Holyhead, and preparations were made for laying a cable under the Irish Sea. Irish railways rushed to erect telegraphic lines along their tracks as they were being built. Not only would they help in managing the line, but also they would be an additional source of revenue. There were also two particular prizes to be aimed at. It was expected that a transatlantic liner terminal would have to be set up somewhere along the west coast of Ireland, and the Midland Great Western Railway whose line ran from Dublin to Galway hoped to get a contract for transmitting the first messages from the ships as they berthed. More immediately, it was not certain which route would be adopted for the cable under the Irish Sea. The Belfast and County Down Railway put up wires along its tracks to Donaghadee on the coast of Co. Down, hoping the cable would come ashore there. 

The first electric telegraph in Ireland to operate was that on the Dalkey Extension, as it was necessary to send a message to the other end whenever a train was dispatched. The undersea cable from Holyhead reached Kingstown, and the first message was passed under the Irish Sea on 1 June 1852. The Dublin Evening Post noted that without it businessmen in Dublin would be twenty four hours behind the markets in London. Only fifty years earlier they could have been weeks behind. With the telegraph came the telegram that was to remain the medium for swift communication for another fifty years. 



Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.