Category Archives: Engineering and construction

Daniel O’Connell and the Night of the Big Wind

In Liberator: the life and death of Daniel O’Connell 1830–1847 [Gill & Macmillan, Dublin 2010], the second volume of his biography of O’Connell, Patrick M Geoghegan writes

On 5 January 1839 a scandal engulfed the [Precursor] society, and O’Connell suffered one of the greatest betrayals of his life. He had spent the day with [Peter] Purcell [the most important mail-coach operator in Ireland and later founder-chairman of the Great Southern & Western Railway] at the Corn Exchange, attending various committee meetings, and afterwards they walked arm-in-arm in friendly conversation back to O’Connell’s home at Merrion Square.

O’Connell begged Purcell to join him and his family for dinner, but Purcell excused himself and the two men ‘parted at the door as friends part, who expect to meet next day’. There was some time before dinner, so O’Connell entered his study, where he picked up that day’s Freeman’s Journal.  He began reading it and was astonished to find a letter from Purcell exposing financial irregularities in the Precursor Society and threatening to resign unless they were resolved.

Purcell had discovered that the funds of the society had been lodged in O’Connell’s name in the National Bank, and implied that O’Connell had turned a political movement to his own pecuniary advantage and had used ‘the garb of patriotism’ for his own ends. Demanding a full investigation, Purcell called for the money to be placed in the hands of publicly appointed treasurers.

The source cited is John O’Connell Recollections and experiences during a parliamentary career from 1833 to 1848 2 vols London 1849 (although O’Connell did not, as far as I could see, give a date for the incident.

In fact, the date given is wrong. The Freeman’s Journal for 5 January 1839 contains no letter from, or information attributed to, Peter Purcell. His letter was written on 5 January, a Saturday, but was published on the following Monday, 7 January 1839.

O’Connell’s account is seriously misleading. The affecting scene in which the Liberator walks home arm in arm, all unconscious that his companion has just betrayed him, and only discovers the betrayal on chancing to read a newspaper shortly afterwards, is utter nonsense. He might have walked home with Purcell (who lived on the north side of Dublin) on Saturday 5 January, but he could not have read the letter on that day. He could, clearly, have read the letter on 7 January, but I think it utterly impossible either that he and Purcell would have been working all that day at the Corn Exchange or that they would have strolled to Merrion Square afterwards.

That’s because Sunday 6 January 1839 was the Night of the Big Wind. Admittedly, by daylight on Monday, the storm had “sunk back into a steady and heavy gale from the SW” but it “continued throughout the remainder of the day” [Freeman’s Journal 8 January 1839]. The whole city was “a scene of general devastation, houses unroofed, and windows broken in every direction”. Chimneys fell into the street or into the buildings; some houses lost their front walls.

In Stephen’s-green, Merrion-square, and Fitzwilliam-square, there were few houses which escaped the general desolation. Those of the two former localities suffered in particular, stacks of chimnies [sic] being thrown down in every direction, and crushing the roofs beneath them, the streets below being literally covered with slates and brick. But it has as yet been impossible for us to ascertain the remotest approximation to the extent of the damages, or the innumerable injuries which must have been inflicted in the interior. […] The stately trees which ornamented the lawn in front of Leinster-house, in Merrion-square, were almost all torn from their roots, leaving but a few of the smaller ones standing, and that enchanting spot has lost its beauty for ever.

If Daniel O’Connell and Peter Purcell were strolling arm in arm through that lot, they were better men than I am, Gunga Din. In fact, unless O’Connell’s house escaped damage, I doubt if he would have been sitting quietly reading the paper in his study while waiting for dinner: I’m sure he’d have been up on the roof with a tarpaulin, a hammer and a bag of nails from B&Q.

But that is the less important, if more amusing, respect in which John O’Connell’s account is inaccurate. He entirely misrepresents the nature of Purcell’s letter. Purcell said nothing to suggest that he believed O’Connell to be guilty of “peculation under the garb of patriotism”; indeed he explicitly said the opposite:

[…] I consider so sacred a fund as that which has been collected from the hard earnings of a confiding peasantry should not only be secure (which I fully believe it to be in the hands of Mr O’Connell), but that it should be so placed as to be above suspicion, even in the minds of our political enemies.

I have placed here a PDF of the text of Purcell’s letter, transcribed from the Freeman’s Journal of 7 January 1839, with paragraphing and punctuation adjusted to suit my tastes.

It seems clear to me that Purcell did not accuse O’Connell of dishonesty. He was instead objecting to two things:

  • O’Connell’s blurring of the line between the personal and the organisational
  • O’Connell’s refusal to honour his own promises, promises which had led Purcell to mislead others about the future management of the funds.

O’Connellites successfully defended their leader against an accusation that Purcell had not made: they showed that he had not helped himself to the money and pretended that there was therefore nothing to worry about.

Afterwards, O’Connell and his supporters, especially the increasingly insane Thomas Steele, constantly attacked and insulted Purcell. However, Purcell achieved far more in the remaining few years of his life [he died in 1846] than O’Connell did [he died in 1847], and I suggest that the incident of the Freeman’s Journal letter shows why.

O’Connell was a tribal chief, requiring loyalty to himself and seeking to build a dynasty rather than an organisation. In his last years he alienated many who might have made alliances with him, even if they would not have supported him, and when his country’s need was greatest, in the Famine, he had no influence that he could wield to help it.

Purcell, on the other hand, was a modern business man: he had built a huge and successful operation (and ran several ancillary businesses too) and, when he lost his mail-coach business, he built another and even more enduring organisation, the Great Southern and Western Railway. It was the most successful railway in Ireland and its descendant, CIÉ, is still with us. Getting it off the ground (as it were) required cooperation with people of very different backgrounds and views, balancing the advice of a range of technical experts, seeing off competitors and opponents and managing extremely large amounts of money.

O’Connell by 1840 had made himself into a single-issue, single-constituency chief; Purcell was (to echo Brian Farrell’s terminology) a supremely competent chairman. Had O’Connell listened to Purcell in late 1838 and early 1839, they might have built a powerful and lasting organisation that united rather than divided Irish interest groups. But that prospect had blown away before the Night of the Big Wind.

 

 

 

Dromineer

Not that many pubs, surely.

The good old English plan

Browsing the Dublin Morning Register of 1 August 1828, I came across this item, taken from the Waterford Mirror:

On Tuesday, John Purcell Fitzgerald, of London, Esq, entertained his numerous tenantry of this neighbourhood at dinner, at his ancient castle at the Little Island, in the river Suir, about two miles below Waterford, on the good old English plan, a plan which we would by no means be sorry to see in more general imitation in Ireland. About five hundred sat to table.

Here is Little Island in the Suir estuary below Waterford:

Waterford Castle (OSI 6″ ~1840)

 

 

It is now a hotel with activities (shooting, archery, croquet and the unmentionable (which involves mashie-niblicks, joggers and cleeks)).

Waterford Castle car ferry (some years ago: I think there may be a new one now)

John Purcell Fitzgerald was born John Purcell, son of a Dublin doctor; he became a Fitzgerald when his already-wealthy wife became even wealthier on inheriting her father’s estates. His main achievement was fathering Edward Fitzgerald, translator of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

Neither of them, though, was half as important as John’s brother Peter, the greatest mail-coach operator in Ireland, hotelier, coachbuilder, promoter of agricultural improvement, lobbyist for Catholic emancipation and against slavery, supporter of innumerable charities and first chairman of the Great Southern and Western Railway. He was one of a generation of supremely capable Irish transport entrepreneurs who managed the transition to steam power on land and water.

This is how the Dublin Weekly Nation of 30 May 1846 announced Purcell’s death:

DEATH OF PETER PURCELL ESQ

We regret to announce the death of this gentleman, which took place at his house, 3, Rutland-square, on Friday morning. He was a man of kind and generous nature; a good landlord, a liberal and considerate employer, and a practical philanthropist. His enterprise did nearly as much as that of Mr Bianconi in supplying facilities of intercourse on a great scale to this country.

He was the greatest coach proprietor, and one of the largest railway shareholders, in Ireland. The Agricultural Society, the Testimonial to Father Mathew, and other national projects in which he was engaged, and the liberal spirit in which he sustained similar movements, are evidences that he had a real and unselfish interest in the prosperity of Ireland.

He was an active member of the Precursor Society till his unhappy quarrel with O’Connell, to which this is not a moment to allude further. In the estimation of his fellow-citizens he occupied a creditable place, and the grief for his death is deep and general.

The Mail of last night, generously oblivious of the political differences between it and Mr Purcell, says:

“As a man of business, whether as a government contractor, or as a proprietor and cultivator of land, he bore the character of a man of energy, enterprise, and honesty; punctual in his engagements — liberal in his expenditure — judicious in his management — a great employer of labour — a charitable benefactor of poverty and distress.

“In the private relations of friendship and family affections, he won all hearts by the homeliness and sincerity of his manner — the unaffected simplicity of his tastes — the hospitality of his table — and the genuine kindliness of his domestic dispositions.

“Strong good sense and natural good humour were his distinguishing qualities in his intercourse with the world. Many a good joke we have run upon him as a public man, in this journal; and we must do him justice to say, they were taken by him, as meant by us, as effusions of a tolerant spirit, which, while it must condemn the exertions of opponent parties, is still willing to soften the acerbities of political strife by as much good humour as can be thrown into the political cauldron.

“We wish we had many such to deal with as Peter Purcell — was.

“We write the word with sorrow. He departed this life — we trust for a better — at an early hour this morning, at his residence in Rutland-square.”

And a few lines from the Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent of the same day:

From Mr Purcell we differed in political opinion, and we have frequently in this journal felt it our duty to comment with freedom on his public conduct, but we never did, and never could deny that he was a fair, straightforward, honorable, and manly opponent, to whose personal character no exception could be taken, and whose sincerity in whatever views he advocated was unquestionable.

Purcell — who worked for Catholic Emancipation but did not want the Act of Union to be repealed — was, for a few years, active in local politics in Dublin. His quarrel with Daniel O’Connell came when he found that the funds of the Precursor Society were lodged in O’Connell’s own bank account. O’Connell promised Purcell several times that he would put them under the control of the society’s trustees but did not honour his promise. Purcell eventually felt that he had no option but to resign and to make public his reasons for doing so.

There is a memorial to Peter Purcell (by John Hogan) in the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin.

Woodman, don’t spare that tree

I have updated my recent post about the overgrowth of trees on the Shannon–Erne Waterway to welcome today’s news that “tree trimming and hedge cutting will be carried out at various locations on the Shannon-Erne Waterway” between September 2018 and February 2019.

I hope that “trimming” is a polite understatement and that the trees will be cut right back to, or beyond, the edge of the waterway.

 

Imperial measure

Rule for ascertaining the weight of hay stacks

Measure the length and breadth of the stack; then take its height from the ground to the eaves, and add to this last one-third of the height from the eaves to the top. Multiply the length by the breadth, and the product by the height, all expressed in feet; divide the amount by 27, to find the cubic yards, which multiply by the number of stones supposed to be in a cubic yard (viz in a stack of new hay, six stones; if the stack has stood a considerable time, eight stones; and if old hay, nine stones), and you have the weight in stones.

For example, suppose a stack to be 60 feet in length, 30 in breadth, 12 in height from the ground to the eaves, and 9 (the third of which is 3) from the eaves to the top; then 60 X 30 X 15 = 27000; 27000 ÷ 27 = 1000; and 1000 X 9 = 9000 stones of old hay.

Samuel Salt Statistics and Calculations essentially necessary to Persons connected with Railways or Canals; containing a variety of information not to be found elsewhere 2nd ed Effingham Wilson, London 1846

You too can possess a copy of this invaluable book, which has much useful information about railways and canals

The mysterious capitalist

In 1847 George Lewis Smyth wrote [in Ireland: Historical and Statistical Vol II Whittaker and Co, London 1847 Chapter 14]

Another favourite object of praise and assistance is the Dublin and Kingstown Railway. The large sums lent to this railway and to the Ulster Canal are represented in certain circles in Dublin to have been matters of personal obligation. A capitalist holding a considerable interest in both undertakings is familiarly described as always carrying a commissioner in his breeches pocket.

Who was the capitalist in question? One possibility is Peirce [or Pierce] Mahony, solicitor to both the Dublin and Kingstown Railway and the Ulster Canal Company, but perhaps “capitalist” in not quite the mot juste for him. Another is James Perry, quondam director of the railway and Managing Director of the Ulster Canal Steam Carrying Company, which was owned (from 1843) by William Dargan, the contractor who built the Dublin and Kingstown Railway.

Perry had fingers in many other pies, including the Ringsend Iron Works which, in 1842, built an iron steamer for the use of the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company on the Shannon. The steamer was named the Lady Burgoyne.

 

Useless information about a railway

The Irish Times has a piece about the numbers of people travelling on some or all of a railway line from Limerick to Galway. But the article is entirely useless in enabling assessment of whether the line should be kept open. It tells us nothing about the costs of running the line, the cost of the £110 million of capital spent on it or the income generated by the passengers. Furthermore, it does not discuss the alternatives (buses) and their costs, whether to the user or to the taxpayer.

I can’t find information about individual lines either in the CIE annual report for 2017 [PDF] or in the most recent annual report for Iarnród Éireann (which runs the railways), which is for 2015.

I suspect, therefore (but am of course open to correction), that this is fake news, marketing or PR: a partial account of the line’s operations, intended to give the impression that it is a Good Thing. And because the important information is omitted, I suspect that it is not favourable to those arguing for ever-larger train sets whereon they may play with the choo-choos.

Incidentally, the number of passengers is about one quarter of that achieved by the Dublin & Kingstown Railway in its first year of operation in the 1830s.

 

The Shannon–Erne Waterway

The Shannon–Erne Waterway, a mix of canal, river and small lake, links the Shannon (at Leitrim) to the Erne (near Belturbet). Formerly the Ballinamore & Ballyconnell Canal, and originally the Junction Canal in the Ballinamore and Ballyconnell Drainage District (or some such combination of elements), it was rebuilt in the early 1990s with automated (boater-operated) locks, service blocks, a logo, marketing and other such new-fangled extras that had not engaged the attention of the Office of Public Works.

I have not been able to find a proper cost-benefit analysis, but my impression is that Irish taxpayers paid relatively little of the cost, so that it was a good investment for them. It has been used as an example of the regenerative power of restored waterways, although (unlike, say, the River Suck or the proposed Clones Sheugh) it was a link between two busy boating areas, rather than a dead-end canal. Even so, several of the businesses that were started in the early years have since vanished, although there are some new ones like Ballinamore Marina.

On a recent visit (from Leitrim to Haughton’s Shore and return), though, I felt that the waterway had an air of neglect. This view may have been formed by two nights (one on the outward, one on the return journey) at Keshcarrigan in the rain. Some improvement work was started at the harbour some time ago, but it seems to have been suspended or abandoned: fencing, equipment and materials were left on site. Given that Keshcarrigan was one of the areas afflicted by post-Celtic-Tiger ghost estates, the state of the harbour does not encourage visitors, despite the pleasure of staring at what appear to be the resident boats (one of which, sporting a “For sale” notice, was occupying one of the few long spaces and monopolising one of the few shore-power sockets).

Ballinamore, however, was much more cheerful, especially with a festival going on (the rain drowned the nighttime noise of the funfair), and Haughton’s Shore was peaceful, with not even one dancing van.

But the infrastructure seems to need attention. The paint on many of the navigation markers had faded, although admittedly that rarely caused a navigation problem.

The waterway seemed to me to have become shallower in places (we were told that we would meet even shallower bits if we went on to Ballyconnell), even making allowances for a dry summer. It felt as though there were bars of sand or clay underneath when coming out of locks (going down), but even on some of the stretches between locks the water felt shallower than it should be. This is of course only a series of impressions, but I would be interested to know whether the waterway’s profile has changed since it was rebuilt. It would not be surprising to find that it had: the passage of boats, and especially of those travelling fast, may have undermined the banks. I do not know what programme of dredging Waterways Ireland carries out.

The worst feature is the trees, which don’t seem to have been cut back for some time. They need a large amount of serious industrial-scale equipment to be applied to them for weeks or months.

In some places, large branches had fallen in and not been removed. In others, there was less than the width of the boat between the trees stretching from the two sides. They seriously impeded the ability to see the lines of bends, to judge the approaches to bridges or even to spot oncoming boats: for most of those we met, we had very little time to react (so it was just as well that, except for the lake sections, we didn’t get above tickover speed for the entire journey). Had there been kayaks or other small craft using the waterway, I suspect we wouldn’t have seen them until the last moment.

In some places the trees stretched out so far that it was hard to stay in the (presumably) deep water in the centre of the channel. But the really challenging part was when trees impeded the approach to a bridge, making it impossible to line up properly. Several of the bridges are on sharp bends and, with a large boat, the trees caused severe problems.

The extent of the overgrowth is such that it requires a major commitment to tree-cutting. I can imagine that that would be hard to organise: the bird-fanciers have limited the cutting season to the more unpleasant months of the year, when days are short; getting to and from the cutting site takes several hours out of the limited working day; removal of cuttings would be a major undertaking. But something will have to be done: it’s already bad enough that I won’t return unless I know that the trees have been cut, and if they’re left for another year or two even smaller vessels will have problems.

Update 26 September 2018

Waterways Ireland’s Marine Notice 99 of 2018 says that “tree trimming and hedge cutting will be carried out at various locations on the Shannon-Erne Waterway” between September 2018 and February 2019.

This is good news; I hope that the shrubbery will be given a thorough cutting.

Fans of recreated recreational waterways might consider that they need serious amounts spent on maintenance. It is not clear that all proposed recreations could generate the traffic to justify the expenditure.

 

Paint

Shannon–Erne Waterway marker August 2018

One side of the marker is intended to be white, the other red. But which is which?

 

Swiss army knife

Ten years ago this site used the term “Swiss army knife” to describe Waterways Ireland’s Watermaster “amphibious multipurpose dredger“. Carlow Live says that Waterways Ireland now use the term themselves.