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The Work of Giants

Michael Barry

Ireland’s Civil Engineering Heritage, by Ronald Cox and Philip Donald, Collins Press, 288 pp, €19.99, ISBN 978-1848891708.

There is an apocryphal story that in the Golden Pages, when one looked at the classification “Boring”, it redirected you to “Civil Engineering”. If this new book on the subject is anything to go by, civil engineering is anything but boring. As set out here, it demonstrates that the subject can encompass artistic design, utility together with underlying and necessary strength.

This heritage has a history that extends back thousands of years, to the dawn of human existence. In Ireland, structures like Newgrange (curiously, only fleetingly mentioned in this book), for example, needed an innate engineering skill to construct them. Social cohesion, as well as basic engineering skills, were necessary to allow transportation of the large rocks over long distances. The accurate positioning of the passage which allows the winter solstice sun to shine in the chamber and the intricately corbelled roof of the central chamber attest to a huge degree of precision and skill having been present in those supposedly primitive times.

Much later, there is an example of engineering at the roadway, dating from 148 BC at Corlea in Co Longford. Now well displayed at a visitors centre, one can inspect in a temperature and humidity-controlled space the eighty metres of transverse oak planks, resting on longitudinal birch logs. Again, these elaborate roads needed a society with adequate resources, together with people who had the requisite engineering skills to implement the construction.

The crossing of rivers has always been a necessary element for communication. This need to cross the Liffey in Baile Atha Cliath was fulfilled by the eponymous “Ford of Hurdles”, completed before the Vikings showed up around AD 900. The focus in engineering in the early days was largely on military solutions as opposed to civil needs. In Ireland the Normans brought the high technology of the day by constructing solid stone castles, and when it came to fortifying the borderlands of the Pale, they employed the motte and bailey technique, which were rapid and easy to install, on these remote frontiers.

Engineering in the civil sense produces what can be termed societal infrastructure. Undoubtedly we need such things as roads and drainage for general wellbeing. We also need it for economic well-being: the Ireland of today needs all the focused infrastructure it can afford in the form of access to ports, motorways, high-quality public transport and serviced industrial land.

Much of this, however, is out of sight. The introduction of drinkable water and drainage from the second half of the nineteenth century resulted in one of the greatest advances in public health in human history (with resultant sharp falls in mortality). Yet much of this legacy is out of sight, buried in the ground. If you want to see heroic engineering, travel to the road overlooking the Vartry reservoir near Roundwood in Co Wicklow. As depicted on page 70 of this book, you can see and appreciate the great water intake, which projects out into the reservoir. Utilitarianism did not rule in 1867, here there are great castellated gothic stone structures, between which span the connecting bowed wrought-iron lattice bridge. From here, an 84-cm cast-iron pipe transported (and still does) clean Wicklow water through tunnels, in Gothic-style bridges over rivers, over fifty kilometres, to the thirsty citizens of Victorian Dublin.

Bridges, by contrast, including the great viaducts of the railways that were built in that period of epic engineering, the second half of the nineteenth century, are very much in the public view. They are essentially photogenic. In that period, they also paid great attention to the visual and appealing as part of their design, in many cases actually enhancing the landscape.  The Boyne viaduct in Drogheda, dating from 1855, is probably the finest feature on the city’s landscape (as well as being our most impressive railway bridge), and gives a defining stamp to the town. Engineers of the nineteenth century had an innate ability to add some kind of relieving detail to the structure in question, whether it is a bridge or gas-holder. It would never be a “bare-bones” design, just fulfilling its structural purpose; there would always be a relieving regard to the aesthetic, a decorative feature added, or the structure itself might be in the classical style. This book contains a collection of impressive full-colour photographs of these structures.

The first canal in Ireland was the Newry Canal, commenced in 1732. Over the next one hundred years, Ireland was to be criss-crossed by a network of canals, offering a radically improved way of carrying goods and people over long distances. They had reached their apogee when they were effectively superseded by the next great innovation, the railways. We are fortunate now to still have the great heritage of the canals, with their locks, dry docks and proportionate and delightful bridges. The book gives a comprehensive description of the canal system, together with photographs of the significant structures.

The coming of the railways represented the greatest and most intense infusion of advanced technology to all parts of Ireland in the nineteenth century. The spread of railways was rapid - the extraordinary thing is that most principal towns and cities in Ireland had a railway connection by 1865. This book has it all ‑ the bridges, viaducts and embankments. There are also contemporary photographs ‑ one illustrating how a masonry arch viaduct was constructed in 1860.

Docks and harbours, lighthouses and tunnels are also covered, as are the great hydroelectric schemes such as Ardnacrusha. The aerial view of Dun Laoghaire harbour deftly shows the extent of that great scheme, which started in 1817, directed by the Scottish engineer John Rennie. It was constructed entirely of granite transported from the nearby Dalkey Hill. Designed for sailing ships, it provides the same protection from the sea to modern ships, including the giant high-speed catamaran ferry.

The nineteenth century civil engineers were heroic polymaths and directed great pioneering works. Many think of Brunel in Britain, but we in Ireland were fortunate too. There was Charles Blacker Vignoles (1793-1875), engineer on Ireland’s first railway (and the world’s first suburban railway) in 1834. Vignoles incidentally invented the now standard flat-bottomed rail, still known as the Vignoles rail on the Continent. Sir John Macneill (1793-1880) was a pioneer in long-span lattice girder bridges, utilising wrought iron. Macneill used this technique to span the river at the Boyne viaduct (1855). Alexander Nimmo constructed roads all over Connacht as well as the harbour at Clifden. In his Sarsfield Bridge over the Shannon at Limerick, he was influenced by the great French designers of Pont Neuilly over the Seine at Paris. These engineers fitted in with the mood of the times. In engineering and science this was a time of continuous improvement, of moving forward with progress and innovation.

By contrast, nowadays, the architectural profession, peacock-like, has sprung to the fore. Their works are likened to art, analysed and eulogised in the press. Some of it truly does deserve mention, but in general modern architecture in Ireland tends towards the workaday. Engineers (inadvertently or otherwise) “know their place”; they position themselves in the mundane and generally take the back seat. The unveiling of great engineering works (recently in Ireland, extra railway lines, new tunnels and roads) may be dutifully reported, but there is no mention of function design, or heaven help us, aesthetics.

There is a question to be asked about the engineer’s place in society. It has slipped down the rankings towards a more “technical” position. It has not been helped by the minimal training engineers receive in aesthetics. There seems to be an innate ability to churn out dull structures in concrete or other basic formats, though there has been a commendable attempt to put more thought into recent bridge designs. The cable-stayed bridge carrying the M1 motorway across the Boyne Valley near Drogheda is a commendable and successful exercise in combining the functional with the artistic.

We are lucky to have authors like Ronald Cox and Philip Donald. They have painstakingly and assiduously recorded Ireland’s engineering heritage. The photographs are in colour and good quality and do justice to the various elements of this heritage. The authors, engineers of long standing, know their stuff and write with insight into the elements of each structure or site. Ronald Cox is founder of the Centre for Civil Engineering Heritage and has been the main protagonist for remembering this great heritage in Ireland over recent decades. Donald brings insight into the heritage of Northern Ireland. The authors have the ability to give descriptions that are written in terms easily understood by the general reader. As one might expect from a book written by engineers, the work is set out efficiently and clearly. The chapters deal in turn with roads, bridges, railways and so on. There is a gazetteer, which lists the structures by province (also in Dublin and Belfast). As an aid to the non-technical reader, there is a glossary, just in case you didn’t know what a voussoir was. In conclusion, this is a comprehensive and enthralling description of an essential part of Ireland’s heritage that most people are not aware of.
9/09/2013

Michael Barry lives in Dublin and has written books on Ireland’s heritage and history. He spent much of his career with Ireland’s railways. His most recent book was Victorian Dublin Revealed.

 

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