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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Thomas Steele, Engineer & Political Activist

Thomas (Tom) Steele, engineer and political activist, is born on November 3, 1788 at Derrymore, County Clare, the son of William Steele, gentleman, and Catherine Steele (née Bridgeman).

In July 1805 Steele enters Trinity College Dublin, graduating BA in the spring of 1810. He then studies at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he graduates MA in 1820, becoming an associate member of the Institution of Civil Engineers in the same year. In 1821 he inherits Cullane House, near Craggaunowen, County Clare, on the death of his uncle. Of an enthusiastic and adventurous nature, in 1823 he decides to support the cause of the liberals in Spain who had rebelled against the autocratic rule of Ferdinand VII in 1820. Mortgaging the house and lands at Cullane, he purchases a large quantity of arms and ships them to Spain on board the ship Iris. Commissioned in the Legion Estrenjera of the liberal army, he distinguishes himself in the Battle of Trocadero and the defence of Madrid. He later publishes an account of his experiences, Notes on the war in Spain (London, 1824).

Returning from Spain with his fortunes ruined, Steele begins experiments with underwater diving apparatus, patenting “Steele’s improved diving-bell” in 1825. In the same year he becomes a partner in the Vigo Bay Co., which attempts to recover gold and silver bullion from Spanish ships which sank in Vigo Bay in 1702. After extensive diving operations using Steele’s diving-bell, the company is wound up at an acrimonious meeting of shareholders in September 1826. Despite claims by some of the shareholders that bullion had been found, the scheme is a total failure.

Steele is involved in the Catholic Association and, a close friend of Daniel O’Connell, is active in the emancipation campaign although himself a protestant. In 1828 he seconds O’Connell’s nomination for Clare in the general election of that year. Appointed by O’Connell as ‘Head Pacificator,’ he tours the country collecting weapons and discouraging the rural population from engaging in faction fighting. There is a certain irony in this appointment, as Steele’s own volatile temper is well known. A noted duelist, he fights an inconclusive duel in 1829 with William Smith O’Brien, who had opposed O’Connell’s second candidature for County Clare. In 1828 he is a founder of the Limerick Independent Club.

An associate of the diving pioneers John and Charles Deane, Steele dives on the wreck of the Intrinsic, off the Clare coast in January 1836, using their new diving helmet. He then begins developing equipment to provide underwater illumination, and in 1840 dives with the Deane brothers off Plymouth on the wreck of Henry VIII‘s ship, the Mary Rose. Yet he is in serious financial difficulties, which are not helped by some of his more eccentric building projects. It is said of him that “he seemed utterly incapable of rationally estimating the value of money in his own case.” He begins renovating, at great expense, a ruined castle that stands on his land at Cullane. He also later has a large standing stone, known as the ‘Umbilicus Hiberniae’ (‘Navel of Ireland’), removed from Birr, King’s County (now County Offaly), and taken to his house. At Cullane it is set up as an altar and used for mass whenever O’Connell or members of the Catholic Association visit. It is not returned to Birr until 1974.

Known as “Honest Tom Steele,” Steele is deeply devoted to O’Connell, and is one of his key lieutenants during the repeal campaigns of the 1830s and 1840s. He takes his title and responsibilities as O’Connell’s “Head Pacificator” so seriously and generally expresses himself with such long-winded pomposity that he becomes something of a figure of fun for opponents of O’Connell and for many of the younger men in the Repeal Association. Tried on conspiracy charges after the prohibition of the Clontarf monster meeting, he is one of the six “traversers” imprisoned with O’Connell in Richmond jail from May to September 1844. Strongly supporting O’Connell’s repudiation of physical force, he chairs and takes a prominent part in the peace resolution debates of July 1846 in which the Young Ireland group walks out of the Repeal Association.

After the death of O’Connell on May 15, 1847, Steele falls into a deep depression and, financially ruined, jumps from Waterloo Bridge in London on April 19, 1848. Pulled from the river by a Thames boatman, he survives for a number of weeks. Former political opponents, including Lord Brougham, offer financial help but he refuses. He dies on June 15, 1848, and his remains are taken to Dublin, where he is waked at Conciliation Hall, the headquarters of the Repeal Association, on Burgh Quay. He is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, beside O’Connell’s tomb. He appears as one of the figures on the O’Connell memorial in O’Connell Street, Dublin.

Steele never marries, but harbours an unrequited passion for a Miss Eileen Crowe of Ennis, County Clare, and is often to be seen standing on a large rock, which comes to be known as “Steele’s Rock,” on the banks of the River Fergus in Ennis as he tries to catch a glimpse of Miss Crowe, who lives across the river.

(From: “Steele, Thomas (Tom)” by David Murphy, Dictionary of Irish Biography, http://www.dib.ie | Pictured: (L to R) Thomas Steele, Daniel O’Connell and O’Gorman Mahon by Joseph Patrick Haverty)


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Birth of Sir John Purser Griffith, Civil Engineer & Politician

Sir John Purser Griffith, a Welsh-born Irish civil engineer and politician, is born at Holyhead, Wales, on October 5, 1848.

Griffith is educated at Trinity College Dublin, and gains a licence in civil engineering in 1868. He serves a two-year apprenticeship under Dr. Bindon Blood Stoney, the Engineer in Chief of the Dublin Port and Docks, before working as assistant to the county surveyor of County Antrim. He returns to Dublin in 1871 and works as Dr. Stoney’s assistant, becoming the Chief Engineer in 1898 before retiring in 1913.

Griffith serves as president of the Institution of Civil Engineers of Ireland between 1887 and 1889 and of the Institution of Civil Engineers between 1919 and 1920. He is elected Commissioner of Irish Lights in 1913 and is a member of the Royal Commission on Canals and Waterways between 1906 and 1911.

Griffith purchases and drains the bogland at Pollagh, part of the Bog of Allen. A peat fueled power station is built which drives an excavator and excess peat is taken via the Grand Canal for sale in Dublin. The site is sold to the Turf Development Board in 1936 who use it as a basis for all of their later peat fueled power stations. The area is now a nature reserve.

Griffith receives a knighthood in 1911 and becomes vice-president of the Royal Dublin Society in 1922. He serves as Honorary Professor of Harbour Engineering at Trinity College, his alma mater, and receives an honorary M.A.I. degree from the University of Dublin in 1914. From 1922 he is an elected member of the Seanad Éireann, the Irish Free State senate, until its abolition in 1936. In the 1930s he and Sarah Purser endow the Purser Griffith Travelling Scholarship and the Purser Griffith Prize to the two best performing students in European Art History at University College Dublin.

Griffith dies at Rathmines Castle in Dublin on October 21, 1938.


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Death of Sir John Purser Griffith, Civil Engineer & Politician

Sir John Purser Griffith, Irish civil engineer and politician, dies at Rathmines Castle in Dublin on October 21, 1938.

Griffith is born on October 5, 1848 in Holyhead, Wales. He is educated at Trinity College Dublin, and gains a license in civil engineering in 1868. He serves a two-year apprenticeship under Dr. Bindon Blood Stoney, the Engineer in Chief of the Dublin Port and Docks, before working as assistant to the county surveyor of County Antrim. He returns to Dublin in 1871 and works as Dr. Stoney’s assistant, becoming the Chief Engineer in 1898 before retiring in 1913.

Griffith serves as president of the Institution of Civil Engineers of Ireland between 1887 and 1889 and of the Institution of Civil Engineers between 1919 and 1920. He is elected Commissioner of Irish Lights in 1913 and is a member of the Royal Commission on Canals and Waterways between 1906 and 1911.

Griffith purchases and drains the bogland at Pollagh, part of the Bog of Allen. A peat fueled power station is built which drives an excavator, with excess peat being taken by the Grand Canal for sale in Dublin. The site is sold to the Turf Development Board in 1936 who uses it as a basis for all of their later peat fueled power stations. The area is now a nature reserve.

Griffith receives a knighthood in 1911 and becomes vice-president of the Royal Dublin Society in 1922. He serves as Honorary Professor of Harbour Engineering in Trinity College, his alma mater, and receives an honorary M.A.I. degree from the University of Dublin in 1914. From 1922 he is an elected member of the Seanad Éireann, the Irish senate, until its abolition in 1936. In the 1930s he and his niece, Sarah Purser, endow the Purser Griffith Travelling Scholarship and the Purser Griffith Prize to the two best performing students in European Art History at University College Dublin.

Griffith dies at Rathmines Castle in Dublin on October 21, 1938, having rightly earned the epithet ‘Grand Old Man of Irish engineering.’ A portrait in oils by his niece Sarah Purser, RHA, hangs in the Museum Building in Trinity College Dublin.


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Opening of Ireland’s First Passenger Railway

Ireland’s first passenger railway, the Dublin and Kingstown Railway (D&KR), opens on October 9, 1834. It links Westland Row in Dublin with Kingstown Harbour (Dún Laoghaire) in County Dublin. The D&KR is also notable for a number of other achievements besides being Ireland’s first passenger railway. It operates an atmospheric railway for ten years, claims the first use of a passenger tank engine and is the first railway company to build its own locomotives.

Construction begins on a new harbour at Dunleary village in 1817 that soon begins to attract traffic due to silting problems elsewhere around Dublin Bay. Proposals for canal or rail infrastructure links to Dublin are variously proposed through to the 1830s. James Pim takes the initiative and commissions a plan by Alexander Nimmo which is presented as a petition to the House of Commons on February 28, 1831 for a rail line from near Trinity College Dublin to the west pier at the Royal Harbour of Kingstown under a company to be known as the D&KR. A bill is presented and is progressing but is scuppered by a prorogation of parliament and an election. A fresh bill receives Royal assent on September 6, 1831.

A meeting of D&KR subscribers on November 25, 1831 at the Dublin Chamber of Commerce includes the submission of a long report which indicates that Westland Row is to be the Dublin terminus and that the enterprise is initially to focus on passenger traffic with a high train frequency.

The construction contract is awarded to William Dargan, with Charles Blacker Vignoles as engineer. The construction contract is signed on May 7, 1833 and is completed in about 18 months. The railway proves expensive to build with the final cost being a little under £60,000 per mile. Thomas Grierson, the Dublin, Wicklow and Wexford Railway (DW&WR) chief engineer comments in a presentation to the Institution of Civil Engineers of Ireland in 1887 that speed of construction is remarkably short and leads to “many failures in masonry, bridges, etc.”

On October 4, 1834 the first recorded train with invited passengers is hauled by the engine Vauxhall and runs as far as the Williamstown Martello Tower at what is now Blackrock Park before returning. The engine Hibernia on October 9, 1834 hauls another train of invited passengers composed of eight carriages the entire length of the line and back. Plans are made to introduce a service on October 22, 1834 but storms and flooding damage the line including wrecking the bridge over the River Dodder and this leads to delays for repairs. A timetabled regular service is introduced from January 1835.

On June 30, 1856 the Dublin and Wicklow Railway (D&WR) takes over operation of the line from the D&KR with the D&KR continuing to lease out the line. The D&WR had formerly been known as the Waterford, Wicklow, Wexford and Dublin Railway (WWW&DR or 3WS). It changes its name to the Dublin Wicklow and Wexford Railway (DW&WR) in May 1860 and is ultimately renamed the Dublin and South Eastern Railway (D&SER) in 1907, a name which is retained until the amalgamation of the D&KR and D&SER with the Great Southern Railways on January 1, 1925. As of 1974, its independent existence of over 90 years by a railway company is only exceeded in the British Isles by the Great Western Railway and the Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway.

(Pictured: Sketch of Second Class Carriage on the Dublin and Kingstown Railway by E. Heyden, with Patent Spiral spring Buffer, as invented by T.F. Bergin)


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Death of Inventor Alexander Mitchell

alexander-mitchellAlexander Mitchell, Irish engineer who from 1802 is blind, dies on June 25, 1868. He is known as the inventor of the screw-pile lighthouse.

Mitchell is born in Dublin on April 13, 1780. His family moves to Belfast while he is a child. He receives his formal education at Belfast Academy where he excels in mathematics. He begins to notice that his eyesight is failing. By the age of 16 he can no longer read and by the age of 22 he is completely blind.

Undeterred, Mitchell borrows £100 and starts up a successful business making bricks in the Ballymacarrett area of Belfast. This enables him to start building his own houses and he completes approximately twenty in the city. It is during this period that his talent for inventing comes to the fore and he fabricates several machines for use in brick-making and the building trade.

Mitchell patents the screw-pile in 1833, for which he later gains some fame. The screw-pile is used for the erection of lighthouses and other structures on mudbanks and shifting sands, including bridges and piers. His designs and methods are employed all over the world from the Portland, Maine breakwater to bridges in Bombay. Initially it is used for the construction of lighthouses on Maplin Sands in the Thames Estuary in 1838, at Fleetwood Lancashire (UK) Morecambe Bay in 1839 and at Belfast Lough where his lighthouse is finished in July 1844.

In 1848 Mitchell is elected member of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) and receives the Telford Medal the following year for a paper on his invention.

In May 1851 Mitchell moves to Cobh to lay the foundation for the Spit Bank Lighthouse. The success of these undertakings leads to the use of his invention on the breakwater at Portland, the viaduct and bridges on the Bombay, Baroda and Central India Railway and a broad system of Indian telegraphs.

Mitchell becomes friendly with astronomer John Thomas Romney Robinson and mathematician George Boole.

Alexander Mitchell dies at Glen Devis near Belfast on June 25, 1868 and is buried in the old Clifton graveyard in Belfast. His wife and daughter predecease him.


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Death of Robert Mallet, the Father of Seismology

robert-malletRobert Mallet, geophysicist, civil engineer, and inventor who distinguishes himself in research on earthquakes and is sometimes called the Father of Seismology, dies on November 5, 1881.

Mallet is born in Dublin on June 3, 1810, the son of factory owner John Mallet. He is educated at Trinity College, Dublin, entering it at the age of 16 and graduating in science and mathematics in 1830 at the age of 20.

Following his graduation, he joins his father’s iron foundry business and helps build the firm into one of the most important engineering works in Ireland, supplying ironwork for railway companies, the Fastnet Rock lighthouse, and a swing bridge over the River Shannon at Athlone. He also helps manufacture the characteristic iron railings that surround Trinity College and which bear his family name at the base.

Mallet is elected to the Royal Irish Academy in 1832 at the early age of 22. He also enrolls in the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1835 which helps finance much of his research in seismology.

In 1838 he becomes a life member of the Royal Geological Society of Ireland, and serves as its President from 1846–1848. From 1848–1849 he constructs the Fastnet Rock lighthouse, southwest of Cape Clear.

On February 9, 1846 he presents to the Royal Irish Academy his paper On the Dynamics of Earthquakes, which is considered to be one of the foundations of modern seismology. He is also credited with coining the word “seismology” and other related words which he uses in his research. He also coins the term epicentre.

From 1852 to 1858, he is engaged in the preparation of his work, The Earthquake Catalogue of the British Association (1858), and carries out blasting experiments to determine the speed of seismic propagation in sand and solid rock.

On December 16, 1857, the area around Padula, Italy is devastated by the Great Neapolitan earthquake which causes 11,000 deaths. At the time it is the third largest known earthquake in the world and has been estimated to have been of magnitude 6.9 on the Richter Scale. Mallet, with letters of support from Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin, petitions the Royal Society of London and receives a grant of £150 to go to Padula and record at first hand the devastation. The resulting report is presented to the Royal Society as the Report on the Great Neapolitan Earthquake of 1857. It is a major scientific work and makes great use of the then new research tool of photography to record the devastation caused by the earthquake. In 1862, he publishes the Great Neapolitan Earthquake of 1857: The First Principles of Observational Seismology in two volumes. He brings forward evidence to show that the depth below the Earth’s surface, from where the impulse of the Neapolitan earthquake originated, is about 8–9 geographical miles.

One of Mallet’s papers is Volcanic Energy: an Attempt to develop its True Origin and Cosmical Relations, in which he seeks to show that volcanic heat may be attributed to the effects of crushing, contortion, and other disturbances in the crust of the earth. The disturbances leading to the formation of lines of fracture, more or less vertical, down which water would find its way, and if the temperature generated be sufficient volcanic eruptions of steam or lava would follow.

Mallet is elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1854, and in 1861 moves to London, where he becomes a consulting engineer and edits The Practical Mechanic’s Journal. He is awarded the Telford Medal by the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1859, followed by the Cunningham Medal of the Royal Irish Academy for his research into the theory of earthquakes in 1862, and the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society of London in 1877, the Geological Society’s highest award.

Blind for the last seven years of his life, Robert Mallet dies at Stockwell, London, on November 5, 1881 and is buried at West Norwood Cemetery.