The Founding of the Presentation Brothers’ Schools at Birr in 1877; recollections of 1927 from J. Deering.
[Birr Historical Society meets again on Monday 4 December 2023 after a break of three…
As evidence of the climate crisis increases across the world, the need to find alternative forms of energy to fossil fuels has intensified. According to the Sustainable Energy Authority, Ireland imports a little over 70% of the energy used with the EU average, being 58%. Ireland’s. Transport accounts for the most demand, with over 95% of transport energy coming from fossil fuels. Other than environmental factors, being dependent on importation of fossil fuels has led to concern about energy security due to the geo-political climate, specifically today, the Russian Ukraine War.
As a country without its own oil and a limited supply of gas and coal, peat has historically been an important fossil fuel for Ireland, providing it with some energy self-sufficiency.(Geological Survey Ireland) In recent decades, however, there is growing recognition that burning peat for fuel is not sustainable as not only is it a highly carbon inefficient fuel, intact peatlands are an efficient carbon sink, whereas damaged peatlands are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. “. . . Ireland has more than half the European Union’s remaining area of a type of peatland known as raised bog, one of the world’s rarest habitats and, scientists say, the most effective land form on earth for sequestering carbon . . (New York Times 4 October 2022)
As a significant user of imported fossil fuel today, the history of transport in Ireland is interwoven with the history of its energy supply. Offaly and the surrounding area have born witness to much of the development in transport during the last two hundred years. Located in the centre of the country, land, river and canal routes have criss-crossed the county. It has three significant bogs that are ‘raised’, the most threatened type of bog with only 1% of their original extent now remaining intact (National Parks and Wildlife Service, online). The raised bogs are now designated as National Parks. Clara bog is one of the largest relatively intact such bogs in Ireland. It lies between the villages of Ballycumber and Clara. Two smaller raised bogs are Raheenmore Bog Nature Reserve near Daingean, also State owned and Mongan Bog Nature Reserve near Clonmacnoise are owned by the An Taisce, the National Trust for Ireland. These now unworked bogs have a quiet beauty with a proliferation of flora and fauna. (Irish Peatland Conservation Council)
The boardwalk at Clara Bog
During the 19th century, Ireland had largely remained an agricultural economy, lacking sufficient resources of the coal and iron required for heavy industrialisation on a scale of its British neighbour. However, there were pockets of industry throughout the country powered by wind, water, horse power and fire from peat. Ship building was the dominant industry in the port cities of Dublin, Cork and Limerick, relying mainly on manpower. Examples of industry in Offaly include the flour and textile mills in Clara owned by the Goodbody family in powered by water and the brewing and distilling industries of Birr and Tullamore which used peat in the drying and heating processes. (Bielenberg, 2014)
The use of horse, water and manpower were the means by which a country-wide system of transport developing from the early 18th century. The introduction by the General Post Office of mail coaches pulled by horses on the main routes between towns was further developed by the introduction of private coach companies. Horse car services were established by Charles Bianconi in the south of the country in 1815. (Irish Times, 4 July 2015)
During the early 18th century, inland navigation developed and in 1779 the first 19 km section of the Grand Canal was opened. By 1798 it linked Tullamore to Dublin. The addition of the Royal Canal and river navigation, particularly on the River Shannon meant that freight could be transported more easily. The location of the photograph below is recognisable in the Tullamore of today opposite Bury Quay.
The Grand Canal and barge at Tullamore about 1910.
Until the end of the 19th century most barges were largely towed along canals by horse power. Apart from freight, the canals also offered barge-like ‘passage boat’ and ‘fly-boat’ passenger services. The journey from Dublin to Tullamore could be done in less than 9 hours by 1834 in a fly-boat, an average of 7 miles an hour which was faster than most coaches and offered a more comfortable journey They were long ‘narrowboats’ with covered seating for passengers. They were usually towed by two horses and had precedence over other boats, which had to release their towlines to let the fly-boat pass. They could also go to the front if there was a queue of boats at lock gates.(Waterways Ireland, 4 May 2023)
The Steam Engine was one of the most important inventions of the Industrial Revolution and was used in all sorts of applications including factories, mines, railways and ships. Steam engines used steam from water, usually heated by burning coal, to drive a piston (or pistons) back and forth. The movement of the piston was then used to power a machine or turn a wheel. A number of inventors made steam engines from the late 17th century but it was the one made by James Watt in 1778 that was more usable as it was small and efficient compared to previous models and used less coal. Canal boats began to use them but a large amount of the cargo space was taken up with the engine, boiler and coal required for the journey, and the high number of crew required. (Science Museum, London online)
The canals had a very short lifespan as they were overtaken by railways. The first passenger railway opened in Ireland in 1834 between Dublin and Dun Laoghaire. It did not use steam but atmospheric pressure which propelled the train rather than being pulled by a steam engine. However, a poor economic climate in the late 1830s and the Great Famine of the 1840s slowed railway growth for several years. In 1848 there were only 360 miles of track, however this had extended to approximately 3,750 miles by 1920. In January 1925 the majority of the railway companies in the Republic were brought together to form one company, the Great Southern Railways (GSR). The trains were powered by steam engines run on coal that was mainly imported. (Casino Model Railway Museum, online and Railways Preservation Society, Ireland, online)
The German inventor Nicklaus Otto developed the first internal combustion four-stroke engine in 1876. This could not be developed until kerosene, diesel and petrol were used in place of coal. It operates by the combustion of fuel within a confined space, such as a cylinder, which pushes a piston, creating motion. Karl Benz then developed the world’s first car using Otto’s design. The first petrol fuelled car was brought to Ireland in 1898 but car ownership was only possible for the wealthy few. Only 38 motor vehicles were registered in 1904. This number had risen to 5,058 by 1911 and 19,554 in 1914. This led to an increase in the number of petrol dealers in the country, which doubled between 1901-1914. In 1917 Henry Ford established Henry Ford & Son Ltd. It began as a private venture and later became a division of the Ford Motor Company. Ford had over 7000 employees in Cork by 1930 and continued manufacturing vehicles in Cork until 1984. (RTE When Ford Motors came to Cork, online)
Motorised road transport developed alongside rail transport using the road infrastructure of the mail coaches. In 1926, the Irish Omnibus Company was founded to develop a nationwide network of bus services under contract to Great Southern Railways that had come into existence in 1925 . The GSR operated rail, bus and lorry services. It had come into existence in 1925 when all the railway companies lying wholly within the Free State were amalgamated into one concern. (Railway Preservation Society, Ireland , online)
Rail and bus services provided both rail and transport services and must have been comparatively cheap as they were used by my family who had little money to spare. Amongst the many postcards I have of the time, the majority relate to transport arrangements. The example below is written by my aunt and relates to her travelling with her aunt Poll who lived in Clara to visit her aunt Maggie in Geashill, Poll’s sister. It was sent in the late 1920s.
Getting to Geashill or Clara by train was not an issue.
Coal powered electricity was used first for public lighting around 1880 when, the Dublin Electric Light Company was formed. By 1882, the Dublin Electric Light Company operated three coal-fired generation stations in the city. Dublin Corporation constructed a coal-fired power station at the Pigeon House in Ringsend in 1904 using imported coal as fuel. This was eventually acquired by the Electricity Supply Board (ESB).(Ireland 2050, online)
Water was used to power the production of electricity in the hydroelectric scheme at Ardnacrusha on the Shannon River which opened in 1929. The transmission line to Dublin was the spine from which the national electricity grid was to develop. However, it was not until 1946 that Rural Electrification Scheme started having been deferred since 1939 due to WW2. (Ireland 2050, online)
The issue of dependency on imported coal arose in 1939 due to World War Two (WW2) as Britain could not spare coal for neutral Ireland. An article entitled ‘Future of Irish railways’, in the Irish Independent 24th November concerned a speech bySeán Lemass, Taoiseach at the time, highlighted the role of the government in managing transport and what we would now come to know as ‘energy security’.
Transport was becoming more and more the major difficulty of the emergency; not merely had road transport already contracted to a quarter of its pre-war dimensions, but it was now possible almost to count in weeks the period within which the cumulative difficulties of fuel and tyre shortage would produce a complete, or almost complete, stoppage
The concern about reliance on imports continued following WW2 and peat harvested in the Midlands was used to fuel a power station at Portalington built in 1950. In 1956, a coal-fired generation station was built at Arigna in Co Leitrim, fuelled by indigenous coal. Between 1950 and 1967, sod peat and milled peat stations were built. These included a number in the western part of Ireland to support a peat industry there. (Ireland 2050, online)
As with many other countries, an energy security issue hit Ireland in 1956 when President Nassar of Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal that had been owned by mainly British and French shareholders. It caused a significant military and political crisis. One side effect was the rationing of petrol in Europe as exports of oil from the Middle East could not get through the blocked canal. Further geo-political events occurred in 1973 and 1979 leading to rises in oil prices and reduced production. However, such crises did lead to interest in indigenous sources of power and additional peat-fired power stations were constructed. Of the ten built, Bellacorick, Lanesborough, Portarlington, Shannonbridge, Ferbane, Rhode and Portarlington, have closed and three remain, Edenderry, Lough Ree and West Offaly. The economies of Offaly and have been affected by these closures and are receiving government support (Irish Times, November 4th 2021)
Gas was found off the west coast of Ireland in the late 1990. Gas Networks Ireland reported in its 2023 Summer Outlook that in the summer period 2022, indigenous gas supplies made up 26% of Ireland’ supply. At the Dail Eireann Debate on 29th June this year, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment confirmed that natural gas would continue to play a role in energy in the medium term as the transition to renewable energy is made.
Data from Eurostat, an official website of the European Union identified that in 2022 Ireland emitted 13 tonnes of greenhouse gases per person each year, the third-highest in the European Union. Clearly significant changes need to be made if Ireland is to reach the country’s target to halve emissions in the transport sector by 2030. The OECD document Redesigning Ireland’s Transport for Net Zero (2022) states that Current mobility patterns in Ireland are incompatible with the country’s target to halve emissions in the transport sector by 2030. While important, electrification and fuel efficiency improvements in vehicles are insufficient to meet Ireland’s ambitious target: large behavioural change in the direction of sustainable modes and travel reductions are needed. Such changes will only be possible if policies can shift Irish transport systems away from car dependency.
In rural counties like Offaly, moving away from the car presents particular challenges with limited alternative transport. The Offaly County Council Sustainable Transport Strategy acknowledges these concerns with plans to develop the current rail and bus services. Tow paths along the canals are being repurposed as Greenways to enable walking and cycling routes to be made more accessible. The Renewable Energy Hub has been founded by the management of Birr Technology Centre to create a cluster of local and international renewable energy companies located at the centre. The hub is in the centre´s Enterprise Building which is receiving a deep energy retrofit and is being upgraded to renewable sources of energy. (Offaly Independent, 11 August 2023)
As stated by the OECD report, new initiatives will require behavioural change. However, research by Aviva (June 2021) identified that most Irish people are concerned about climate change and are willing to do more, but are looking for definitive guidance from Government in the form of clearer rules. This is clearly a good indicator of how transport can make the transition to sustainability successfully.
Sylvia Turner, September 2023