Transport—Road, Canal, Rail

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Transport—Road, Canal, Rail

By the end of the twentieth century transport infrastructure in Ireland was proving entirely inadequate for the needs of a modern economy. The country's waterways had long ceased to carry much beyond the barges and boats of tourists; the rail service had been reduced to the extent that it connected only the major urban centers and such areas fortunate enough to fall in between; and the road network was unable to cope with the volume of cars attempting to travel on it. The sense of gridlock on the country's roads was heightened by extensive roadwork in every region—the result of unprecedented amounts of EU and public funding redressing many decades of underinvestment. Although funding was also extended to reforming the rail service, transport policy essentially focused on facilitating the journeys of private car users, and public transport initiatives ran a poor second.

The primacy of the road was intimately related to patterns of population and employment. Canals and railways enjoyed their own particular golden ages, but neither gathered a hold as firmly as the road, whose antiquity stretches back across the expanse of Irish history. By the early Christian period, Ireland had primitive roads paved with large stones, linking religious and other settlements. These roads included five major routes which held the Hill of Tara, seat of the high kings of Ireland, as their focal point. The increased internal commerce of the Viking and Norman eras reshaped the road network, and a statute passed by the Irish parliament in the early seventeenth century carried enduring significance by placing responsibility for the upkeep of roads on individual parishes. The pattern which emerged consisted of numerous small roads, varied in quality, maintenance, and scale. An act of 1729 established turnpikes that provided further funding for maintenance, with users paying a toll for their travel. By the nineteenth century turnpike roads were probably the best in the country and remained operational until their demise in 1857. Even at their peak, though, turnpikes were never as prominent as in England and comprised only a small percentage of the entire road mileage on the island, which was estimated at more than 8,000 by the closing decades of the eighteenth century.

By then, canals had also extended across the countryside. Partly financed by successive governments and by progressive landowners to increase industry and commerce, by 1830 almost 500 miles of canals had been constructed in Ireland. The first undertaken was the Newry navigation connecting Carlingford Lough with the River Bann, and was intended to facilitate the transportation to Dublin of coal deposits found in Tyrone. The first section opened in 1742 and was followed by completion in 1769 of the Newry ship canal, which was capable of taking ships up to 150 tons in weight. Further canals in Ulster linking collieries, mills, and other industrial ventures included the Lagan navigation, the Tyrone navigation, and the Ulster Canal, which reached from Belfast across to the River Shannon at a cost of more than £250,000.

The principal canals constructed in the south of Ireland were the Grand and Royal canals. The Royal ran from Dublin to Mullingar, with offshoots running to the Shannon at Cloondara and to Longford. It was bankrupted before its completion around 1817 and never proved as profitable as the Grand Canal, which linked Dublin to Shannon Harbour in 1805. Together with its offshoots to Ballinasloe and Kilbeggan, the Grand Canal stimulated commerce along its routes. As well as facilitating a string of hotels, it facilitated the development of breweries, distilleries, and other industries. Initially, canals provided for more efficient transport of goods and passengers than existing modes of transport. Later, this trade would be lost to the railways, but even at their peak, Irish canals struggled due to the lack of industry in the country. While Ulster was more suited to canal usage than the rest of the country, there was a general insufficiency of passengers, little coal, and few commodities. Ultimately, canals were unable to compete with the arrival of rail and an improving road network.

That improvement was partly related to the granting of power to grand juries in 1765 to raise money for the repair or provision of roads and bridges. This set in place the basis of a system which endured until late in the nineteenth century. Roads were now mandated for construction to a certain standard. A further important feature of the road networks from the early eighteenth century until the spread of the railways in the middle of the nineteenth century was the stagecoach. By 1750 there were regular services connecting Dublin with provincial towns and cities, and by 1800 there were more than a dozen centers linked to the capital by scheduled and advertised coaches serviced by teams of horses, staged at coaching inns along the route. Coaches could carry up to twenty people, as well as mail, and were escorted by armed guards to protect against highway robbery. The importance of mail is indicative of the growth of commerce in the country. Indeed, so important was the mail service to the growth of commerce that the Post Office was given extensive powers of road design in an act of 1805. By the 1840s the journey by coach to Belfast had been reduced to twelve hours, but the arrival of the railway soon undermined the viability of the service.

The first railway line had opened on 17 December 1834 when the Dublin city center station of Westland Row was linked to the coastal port of Kingstown (later renamed Dún Laoghaire), which, in turn, was served by ferry to Wales. The route was constructed and financed by William Dargan, who eventually built over 600 miles of railway before his death in 1867. Despite the success of the Dublin-to-Kingstown railway, there were merely thirty-one miles of track open or under construction in Ireland by 1842. By the end of the 1840s, that figure had risen to some 700 miles. By the end of World War I there were over 3,500 miles of railway in Ireland. This phenomenal growth was deeply influenced by a similar explosion in England, by substantial government and private funding, and by the availability of cheap land and labour. Journey times between Irish urban centers were greatly reduced, with the trip from Dublin to Belfast halved to under six hours. The landscape was transformed with the appearance of tunnels, bridges, and tracks in the most remote of areas. The effect on Irish business was mixed. In theory, Irish agriculture and industrial products could more readily access the British market, but British manufacturers were also able to send their goods more cheaply into the stores of provincial Ireland. This benefited the consumer but not the local producer who was not always able to compete. Farmers and industrialists consistently complained that transport costs were excessive, and it is unlikely that railways greatly assisted firms already hindered by their peripheral locality to increase their export earnings. The railways enjoyed a modest prosperity, however, and became one of the biggest employers in the country.

A mutually beneficial leisure industry also developed in tandem with the railways. As the expanding middle class adopted a culture of travel and daytripping, seaside resorts grew and race meetings were established, along with a whole host of other sporting events such as regattas and galas. Daily newspapers were now able to penetrate across the country, and in addition to the railways' industrial impact, they also influenced the standardization of time. The development of railway timetables lent greater urgency to the acceptance of Dublin Mean Time following an act in 1880. Previously, clocks in Cork were eleven minutes behind those of Dublin while those in Belfast were one minute and nineteen seconds ahead.

By 1916, when Greenwich Mean Time was extended to Ireland, the decline of the railway was underway. Ireland did not hold a large enough population in its urban centers nor produce enough industrial goods to sustain its railway network. Low population density and light traffic gave road transport a comparative advantage over rail. Railways had been planned for a population of more than seven million but served only half that number. Furthermore, by 1921, there were fortysix competing railway companies in operation. Following partition, attempts were made in both north and south to rationalize railways by merging the numerous companies. Many lines and stations were shut down, and by the 1980s there were merely 1,500 miles of rail on the island. Underfunded, nationalized rail companies in both jurisdictions lurched through a series of financial crises, but were largely unable to compete with their nemesis—the motor car.

The spread of private motor cars, of buses, and of haulage firms transformed Irish society. Since the First World War, and particularly since the Second World War, cars and buses have underpinned the growth of suburban Ireland. Commuters increasingly travel large distances to work, most usually from provincial towns to Dublin. The upgrading of roads to dual-carriageways and, by the last decades of the century, to motorways, has radically altered the countryside. Roads in the north have traditionally been of a higher standard than those in the south as a result of greater investment. In the south the establishment of the National Roads Authority in the 1990s signaled the pursuit of a hugely ambitious program of road building that, if completed, would transform the Irish road network. This was welcomed by the commercial interests of provincial Ireland, which has undoubtedly suffered through the overconcentration of industry in the Dublin area. Nonetheless, a growing movement opposes the building of roads as excessively damaging to the environment through its destruction of green-field sites and its attendant pollutants. For all the opposition, and despite the relatively high cost to buy and to run, car numbers in Ireland continue to grow. Patterns of settlement and public-transport policy suggest that this growth will continue unchecked for the foreseeable future.

SEE ALSO Agriculture: 1690 to 1845; Agriculture: 1845 to 1921; Agriculture: After World War I; Banking and Finance to 1921; Brewing and Distilling; Industrialization; Industry since 1920; Rural Industry; Shipbuilding; Sport and Leisure


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Paul Rouse

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Transport—Road, Canal, Rail

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