Dargan, William (1799–1867), engineer, was born 28 February 1799 in Co. Carlow. His parents were Patrick and Elizabeth Dargan, his father being a well-to-do farmer who was a tenant of Lord Portarlington. Much of William's early life is obscure. Likewise the exact place of birth is uncertain but may have been Ardristan near Tullow. When William was a boy the family moved to an area west of Carlow town in Queen's County (Laois), although he always referred to himself as a Carlowman and in later years bought a family homestead of 101 acres near Ballyhide. He had about eight siblings, four of whom died in infancy, while his brother James also became an engineer, and a sister, Selina, is named as a beneficiary in Dargan's will.
Dargan's education is slightly less obscure. It is believed he went to school in Graiguecullen, a suburb of Carlow town where he excelled at maths and accounting. After leaving school he worked on his father's land before starting work in a surveyor's office but failed to get a position with the Carlow grand jury, which was responsible for public buildings such as jails, courthouses, asylums and fever hospitals. Soon after this, two influential patrons took a hand in Dargan's career: John Alexander of the milling family based at Milford, Co. Carlow, and Sir Henry Parnell (qv), MP for Queen's County.
Parnell chaired a parliamentary commission to improve the London–Holyhead road, then the main communication artery between Ireland and Britain. The road was dangerously neglected in parts, especially through north Wales, and the great Scottish engineer Thomas Telford was engaged to rebuild it. Parnell secured a position for Dargan with Telford during the years 1819–24, when he learned many of his building skills. In 1836 Dargan told a commons committee he had been an inspector of works and later a resident engineer under Telford, and it is believed the 1,000-yard (914m) embankment carrying the road (and later the railway) across the Stanley Sands sea inlet to Holy Island is Dargan's work.
Telford then asked Dargan to survey the road from Dublin to the packet station at Howth (the Irish end of the London–Dublin route), which was also in poor condition and subject to frequent flooding. Dargan rebuilt the entire road with a stone wall to restrain the sea from Clontarf to Sutton. Parnell described it as ‘a model for other roads in the vicinity of Dublin' and the treasury awarded Dargan a special premium of £300 for this work, a substantial sum. In 1824 Dargan became superintendent of the Barrow navigation and resigned from Telford's firm. His mentor was sorry to lose him and said his conduct was always ‘perfectly satisfactory’. But Dargan maintained his connection with Telford for a while, surveying the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal and then acting as superintendent and contractor on the Middlewich Canal. While working on these projects Dargan met his wife-to-be, Jane Arkinstall, and the couple married in her home town at the anglican parish of St Michael and All Angels, Adbaston, Staffordshire, on 13 October 1828. Back in Ireland Dargan then took on a number of turnpike road contracts: these were with the Malahide, Carlow and Dunleer turnpikes, followed by improvement works on the Shannon at Limerick and excavation of a large cut through the centre of Banbridge, Co. Down.
Railway engineer 1833–1850s
Ireland's first railway line, the Dublin & Kingstown, opened in 1834 and Dargan was fortunate to win the contract to build it against six competitors. Working under another Telford pupil, Charles Vignoles (qv), as engineer, Dargan began work near Salthill in April 1833, and although he was six months late finishing the line (which opened on 17 December 1834) the penalty clauses in his detailed contract were not enforced. The successful completion of this line gave Dargan a springboard to winning a substantial share of Irish railway construction contracts on offer in the 1840s and 1850s.
Moving to Caledon, Co. Tyrone, Dargan built the Ulster Canal, connecting Lough Erne to Lough Neagh, and then ran canal steamers, as well as cross-channel vessels from Newry to Liverpool. From his Belfast office he completed major improvements to the harbour there (1839–49), followed by works at Solitude and the Bann reservoirs and a complex land reclamation project at Lough Foyle which brought him to the verge of ruin. Moving on to safer ground, he built all but a few miles of the line from Belfast to Armagh for the Ulster Railway and substantial parts of the Dublin & Drogheda Railway. The Dublin & Belfast Junction Railway, largely his, includes the magnificent Craigmore viaduct near Newry, his finest piece of work. He was lucky not to have got the contract to build the Boyne viaduct at Drogheda, which was so troublesome it bankrupted the contractor, William Evans from Cambridge. Less well known is Dargan's involvement in building railways in the north of England. In 1846 he and his partner William McCormick won the contract for the Liverpool & Bury Railway (opened 1848) and for parts of the difficult line of the Manchester & Leeds Railway.
Back in Ireland Dargan came to dominate railway construction in the 1850s. After successfully completing small sections for the Great Southern & Western Railway he then swept his competitors aside by winning the eighty-mile (128 km) section from Thurles to Cork for the astonishing sum of £600,000. At this time a labourer did well to earn 1s. 6d. (£0.075) a day and a good-quality loaf cost 8d. (£0.033). After this came the line from Mullingar to Galway, Longford, and Cavan for the Midland Great Western Railway (MGWR), the precarious Waterford & Limerick Railway, the Belfast & Ballymena, the Belfast & Co. Down to Bangor, and the Banbridge Junction Railway. There were few railway projects in which he was not involved as contractor and/or financier. At one time Dargan said he had 50,000 men working for him; even allowing for sub-contractors, this makes him a key influence in the economy of nineteenth-century Ireland.
Dargan funded and put up the building for the Art Industry Exhibition held in Dublin in 1853 and is linked to the subsequent foundation of the National Gallery of Ireland. He approached the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) to say he would like to develop its usual exhibition, all at his own expense and guaranteeing against any loss, making it a national event along the lines of the highly successful one held in London's Hyde Park in 1851. Dargan built the glass and iron-framed building on Leinster Lawn, facing Merrion Square, which opened from May to October 1853. The exhibition was primarily a celebration of art, there being few examples of Irish industry, but it was a major personal achievement for Dargan and a much needed expression of national self-confidence. It attracted over a million visitors including ‘Mr Punch’, who praised Dargan's generosity and named the exhibition ‘the Darganeum’. Another prominent visitor was Queen Victoria (August 1853). One of her first outings was to visit Dargan at Mount Anville, his house outside the city. It was rare for a monarch to visit a commoner, and her diary notes that she wanted to make Dargan a baronet but he declined the honour, as he did many other attempts to gentrify him. In fact the only honour he ever accepted was the nominal one of deputy lieutenant of Dublin.
Dargan lost almost £21,000 on the exhibition, a serious blow even for such a wealthy man. A testimonial subscription followed and there was a plan to establish an art gallery to be known as the Dargan Institute, but it was eventually named the National Gallery of Ireland. At its opening (30 January 1864) the lord lieutenant unveiled a statue of Dargan by Thomas Farrell (qv), standing 3.3m high at the front of the building. Erecting a statue while the subject is still alive is a rare occurrence, and a plaque on the front of the Gallery records Dargan's generosity. One section was later renamed the Dargan Wing and has a portrait by Catterson Smith (qv) painted in 1862. A magnificent portrait by George Mulvany (qv) hangs in the boardroom at Heuston station.
Later railway and business projects
Continuing his railway contract activities, Dargan went on to build a number of other railways: the lines between Mallow and Tralee, from Limerick to Foynes and Ennis, the Athenry & Tuam Junction Railway, and the Waterford & Tramore Railway are all his. He also completed improvements to Glenstal Castle, Co. Limerick, and built the troublesome graving dock in Dublin, which proved so acrimonious an undertaking that William Cubitt became involved in a lengthy arbitration, eventually finding in Dargan's favour.
The railway most associated with Dargan was the Dublin & Wicklow (D&WR); he built most of its routeing from Harcourt Street to Wicklow and was successively contractor, investor, board member, and finally (1864) chairman. The demands this company made on his time and resources were enormous, putting some strain on both, as evidenced by the number of loans he took out from several banks, mainly the Bank of Ireland. Dargan negotiated the lease of the pioneer Dublin & Kingstown to the D&WR, accepting debentures and bonds by way of payment for construction; thereafter his fortunes were inextricably linked with the D&WR, which almost single-handed he kept afloat. In February 1856 Dargan joined the board and thus no longer took construction contracts but closely supervised the works on the extension towards Wexford.
Dargan is credited with the development of Bray, which before the arrival of the railway (1853) was a small fishing village. He built the seafront esplanade as well as a group of six houses on Quinsboro Road, known as Dargan Terrace, and the famed Turkish baths. He laid out a common, a fair-green, and a market place, and helped install gas lights in the town. He was a major investor in the four-storey, 130-room International Hotel near the seafront, as well as the Royal Marine Hotel in Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire) and the Grand Hotel, Malahide.
In the west the MGWR promoted transatlantic steamers from Galway to the US and Canada, and for a time Dargan also invested in these. His other business interests included a flax mill at Kildinan, Co. Cork, a distillery at Belturbet, Co. Cavan, a sugar factory at Mountmellick, and substantial slobland reclamation around Wexford harbour. At Chapelizod, Co. Dublin, Dargan ran a large thread mill which at one time employed 900 people and was known as Dargan & Haughton mills. In the summer of 1860 Dargan took 700 of his employees on a pleasure trip to Bray, where they dined and danced before taking the train back to Harcourt Street.
Later years 1865–7
On 1 May 1865 Dargan had a serious accident when his horse was startled near Booterstown and he was thrown to the ground. Suffering from concussion, he was brought unconscious to Mount Anville. He recovered sufficiently to attend a royal commission on railways in London a few weeks later and made a significant and lengthy presentation on the current state and future prospects of Irish railways. However, the accident took its toll and Dargan was by this time in some business difficulties. A few months later he sold Mount Anville to the Sisters of the Sacred Heart and moved permanently to 2 Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin, a four-storey-over-basement house with courtyard and coach-house. The financial crisis in Britain and the collapse of bankers Overend Gurney in May 1866 caused the value of railway shares to plummet, a serious blow for Dargan. At the end of the year he appointed two trustees to run his businesses, Valentine O'Brien O'Connor (1811–73) and Richard Martin (1831–1901). The move caused some alarm among his creditors and in particular among his fellow directors of the Dublin, Wicklow & Wexford Railway (as the D&WR had become), who decided the only way to save the company was to offer their personal security against the loans Dargan had negotiated.
In January 1867 Dargan made his will, with Alexander Boyle as executor, leaving his wife, Jane, a legacy of £3,000 and an annuity of £600. Other beneficiaries were Boyle, who received £2,000; Louisa Haslam (Jane's niece), £1,000; and his sister, Selina Dargan, £500. Although there was some question as to Dargan's religious affiliations he received the last rites of the catholic church from Fr John Boland and died, three weeks short of his sixty-eighth birthday, on 7 February 1867, the cause of death being malignant liver disease. Lengthy tributes appeared in the press all over Ireland and Britain and the funeral took place on 11 February. Estimates of the number of carriages varied from 150 to 250, but all agreed it was one of the largest funerals in Dublin for many years. Several hundred Dublin, Wicklow and Wexford Railway (DW&WR) men led the procession from Fitzwilliam Square to Glasnevin cemetery, and after a funeral service in the mortuary chapel Dargan was buried close to the O'Connell circle, a position of some status in the mortality league. The plot was a gift from the cemetery authorities and the elegant tomb is almost certainly the work of the talented architect John Skipton Mulvany (qv). Some months later an unpleasant sectarian dispute broke out over whether to use the King James version of John 3:36 for an inscription on the grave as Jane Dargan wanted, or the Douai version as the cemetery committee insisted. The argument rumbled on for some weeks, involving Cardinal Cullen (qv), till finally Jane Dargan decided to omit the biblical text altogether. The inscription on the grave thus appears as ‘William Dargan, died 7 February 1867, aged 68 years’.
Jane Dargan wrote to a number of distinguished people asking for financial help after her husband's death, and two years later Dargan's property, mainly reclaimed sloblands in Wexford and a number of houses in Bray, was sold. His trustees did an excellent job and far from his dying bankrupt, as has been suggested, Dargan's solicitor, Croker Barrington, told Jane in 1875 that when all debts had been met there was a healthy surplus of £30,000. Soon after, Jane Dargan left Ireland and moved to Glenmore, 21 Anerley Park, Penge, south London. It is quite a large house with a tall cypress tree in the front garden, like those in Mount Anville. She died there on 22 June 1894, aged ninety-one, of diabetes asthenia. The couple had no children.
Many aspects of Dargan's personal life are tantalisingly obscure. He had a phenomenal capacity for work, managing several major projects simultaneously at opposite ends of the country. Some suggested he enjoyed hunting, and the couple entertained quite often at Mount Anville. It is clear Dargan drank quite a lot but what interests and pastimes he had are unknown. The RDS and Royal St George Yacht Club both elected him a member, but he was not active in either.
William Le Fanu (qv), an engineering colleague of Dargan, knew him well, and the personal description in his whimsical memoirs has the ring of authenticity rather than Victorian hyperbole: ‘I have settled as engineer for different companies many of his accounts, involving many hundred thousand pounds. His thorough honesty, his willingness to concede a disputed point, and his wonderful rapidity of decision, rendered it a pleasure, instead of a trouble, as it generally is, to settle these accounts; indeed in my life I have never met a man more quick in intelligence, more clear sighted and more thoroughly honourable’ (W. R. Le Fanu, Seventy years of Irish life (London, 1893), 208).