William Dargan, Railway Magnate

When Queen Victoria came to tea in the home of Ireland’s greatest railway magnate she had for him a very special gift.

It was 1853 and William Dargan, the son of a tenant farmer and a true entrepreneurial risk taker, was at the height of his powers and a national hero. Having studied as an engineer and worked under the great Thomas Telford on the London to Holyhead road, he had won the contract to build Ireland’s first ever railway line, from Dublin to Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) in 1831 and the line, a profitable concern, opened in 1834. Progress in Ireland was slower than on the rail network in Britain, the country being considerably poorer and the industrial revolution having somewhat passed it by. Then came the disaster of the Great Famine in 1845.

While men, women and children died inexorable deaths of starvation and disease, the parliament in London dithered. Dargan, swung into action, initiating a phase of railway expansion which provided much needed employment across the country. 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.

In 1845 there were less than 160 kilometre of railway in Ireland, by 1855 there was 1,600. Kingsbridge Station was built in 1846, initially with a link to Carlow - home territory for Dargan! By 1853, he employed 50,000 men. Dargan could not single handedly beat the famine, but for many thousands he was the difference between life and death. And he did not stop there. 

Inspired by Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition in London in the summer of 1851, he decided Ireland would have her own Great Exhibition, her own Crystal Palace, showcasing the best of Irish goods - and Prince Albert could come too! Dargan would provide all the financial backing, after all, he said, ‘a spoonful of honey will catch more flies than a gallon of vinegar’.

And so it happened - an enormous iron, timber and glass building with a grand centre hall, side halls, domed roofs, galleries and promenades was erected in just one year on the front lawn of Leinster House. Though there was not much in the way of native manufacturing, 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. Later, the Queen and Prince Albert struck out in their carriage for Dargan’s suburban house in Mount Anville. Her gift was the offer of a baronetcy. He politely declined it. Lord Dargan was not to be, whatever he did, he did for the people.

by Annette Black, Wicklow
Published on 17th September 2013