Thursday, November 10, 2016


Looking South West over Aillebaun Headland from Blakes (Gentian) Hill

Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355 CE) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian, Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years. 


This Rihla is about dreams, and delusions and the deep blue sea. 


Returning home with the dogs across the sandy beach that runs off the Aillebaun headland I found myself having to quicken my pace before the incoming sea prevented me from crossing the river that cascades through the barna gap of Rusheen Bay, a river which can disappear very quickly beneath a flooding tide. Despite my hurrying I still had to, once across the river, remove my Wellington boots to empty out the water of a miscalculated transit and sit on a rock to wring out my socks. From my sodden vantage point the grey-blue waters of Galway Bay were still, as they had been for the previous week, untroubled by Atlantic swell or squall and in the distance, to the south-west, the purple shadows of the Aran Islands lay at anchor on the horizon, gently lapping against the sky.

Imaginary Train coming in from proposed East Pier of
1911 Barna Deep-Water Transatlantic Port

As I day-dreamed on the notion of anchorage I realised that given a different history, a different outcome of dreams, that instead of being perched on a glacial discard, I could have been sitting on the hewn quayside of Barna’s deep-water Transatlantic Port watching the bustle and groans of a busy modern harbour winding down for the day. To my left a train would have been making its way behind me with containers from the cargo terminal on Pier 1 while to my right its companion engine would have been entering the tunnel beneath Aillebaun brining tourists from the ocean liner docked at Pier 2 back from their day in the city, in time for dinner.

Rusheen Bay

A chilling of the air brought me back to reality and the imaginary trains suddenly derailed. The sun was setting fast and at this time of year the sunset is sometimes sudden, brutal almost, the sky mutating from a brilliant amber to a dirty grey in an instant: a rapid shift from daydreams to the stuff of nights. Beyond Inis Meáin and the other Aran Islands on the horizon, are the depths of the ocean, and in the chill of twilight I know that yet another storm will soon form, and once again the waters and sky of Galway Bay will churn with its ferocity and darkness.

As early as the 9th century Latin chroniclers and Arab geographers began referring to the Atlantic Ocean beyond the Straits of Gibraltar as the Mare Tenebrosum or Bahr al-Zulamat, both meaning “The Sea of Darkness”. 1 As the Arab geographers would have it, where the Atlantic was concerned, the “depth of darkness” below the ocean waves was matched by the “depth of darkness” above those waves in the shape of billowing, foreboding, storm-laden clouds coming rapidly over the horizon.

Whether it was 900 CE or 1900CE the Atlantic always seemed to have associated with it a sense of adventure, but more often as not an equal ignorance of its dangers…. and its vortex of shattered dreams.


In 1830 the Galway Docks and Canal Bill was passed with two aims in mind: to establish and maintain a navigable canal between Lough Corrib and the sea, and to improve and develop Galway Harbour to “facilitate and augment the Trade of the Town and Neighbourhood.” The entire project was meant to have been the responsibility of the Galway Harbour Commissioners but problems with managing both the contract and the finance of the key inner harbour wet dock, caused a dispute between the Harbour Commissioners and the Board of Works. The dock was not completed until 1843 by which time the Board of Works had appointed a receiver to collect the tolls instead of the Harbour Commissioners.

These problems with completing the inner dock also held up progressing the canal element envisaged in the 1830 Bill. Work eventually began in 1848 on the canal, which was ¾ mile long and whose construction included dredging the Corrib, building a second wet dock at the Claddagh, five swivel bridges, two quays and one very large lock. Managed entirely by the Board of Works, by that time primarily as a famine relief scheme, the Eglinton Canal  and its associated works were completed and opened without much in the way of any fanfare in August 1852. 2

Claddagh Basin 1870 
Terminus of Eglinton Canal

As early as 1830, Galway was identified as a possible location by the Admiralty as a site for the main Packet Station connecting the British Isles and North America, but any moves in this direction would not be possible unless first, Galway was connected by rail to Holyhead on the East Coast and secondly, development of the outer harbour as a safe refuge for ships took place. Despite the completion of the Midland Great Western Railway into Galway,3 five months ahead of schedule by the contractor William Dargan on the 20th July 1851, progress on developing an outer harbour, suitable for handling the transatlantic steamships, was constantly mired in vested-interest local, national and British Isles politics, as thick as that of the mud that first had to be dredged and as solid as the ship-breaking rocky bar or ledge right in front of the new inner wet-dock gates which the contractor had failed to remove.

Any development in these years had to be seen in the light of the devastating effects of the Great Famine, caused by potato blight, between 1845 and 1852. In 1848 there were food riots in Galway. Between 1847 & 1848 11,000 people died in the city’s workhouse. In 1841 the population of Connaught was approximately 1,418,859 but by 1851 it has been estimated that 239,529 (16.9%) men, women and children had died and 245,624 (17.3%) had emigrated. 4

As a consequence of the Famine the emigrant trade became a significant part of Galway’s daily life and commerce. In 1851 alone 18,000 people from the town and county left and between 1846-51, on just one of the emigrant routes from Galway, 69 ships left for New York alone. A renewed effort was therefore made to position Galway as a Transatlantic Port in the early 1850s. Much of this effort pivoted on the personality and bravado of a Rev Peter Daly, who in addition to being a parish priest was also one time Chairman of the Town Commissioners, Chairman of the Harbour Commissioners, a board member of the Midland Great Western Railway (MGWR)company and founder of the Royal Atlantic Steam Navigation Company (The Galway Line) with J.O. Lever in 1858. 5 As part of his mercantile association with the Galway Line he proposed building a new, and very elaborate, deep water Transatlantic Port off Furbo.

In 1852 the Rev Daly, as Chairman of the Galway Harbour Commissioners, had also made submissions on behalf of the Harbour Commissioners to the Admiralty Committee inquiring into the Suitability of Ports of Galway and Shannon as Transatlantic Packet Station. This enquiry re-ignited the centuries old – and still persisting if recent pronouncements on the building of a liner port in either Foynes or Galway is noted – rivalry and mercantile jealousy between Limerick and Galway when as early as 1377, the magistrates of Galway were ordered not to extract customs duties from Limerick merchants, an arrangement which was not operative in the reverse.6 The three Naval officers commissioned to write a report for the committee felt that neither Galway or the proposed ports on the Shannon estuary, with their current infrastructure, were suitable as transatlantic ports but in November 1852 the Admiralty  recommended Galway to the Board of Trade as the packet station for transatlantic communication.7

Admiralty Pier Dover Built c1850s

A further report on the development of Galway Harbour as a Refuge Harbour, was commissioned by the Admiralty in 1859, and three separate designs were submitted for consideration. 8 A new Harbour Bill to finally propel the development of an outer harbour incorporating the Mutton Island causeway was passed in the Commons in 1861 but the clause looking to impose a levy on the County of Galway to help pay for the development was rejected by the House of Lords, despite the pleas of the Marquis of Clanricarde ( a deBurgo descendent). The Board of Trade had approved the Galway Pier Junction Railway Bill authorising the MGMR to build a branch line from Lough Atalia over the Corrib and then down through the Claddagh to the Mutton Island causeway at Fair Hill.

Building a Pier

As had been the case to date nothing really happened! The Rev Peter Daly despite his industry was losing friends fast, at a religious, political, media, landlord and mercantile level. Around the same time that the new Harbour Bill languished, the main shipping line servicing the port and requiring a suitable outer harbour to be built was in trouble. The Galway Line which had been subsidised by the Royal Mail to the tune of £3,000 per annum to carry mail to Newfoundland, became as Tim Collins has put it, “a heroic failure” due to shipping disasters and scheduling deficits. Under pressure from the Cunard and Inman Lines who started calling at Cork, and the development of transatlantic cables, the Royal Mail contract for the direct Galway-North America service was withdrawn in May 1861. In addition to this the Rev Peter Daly died in 1868 and much of the local energy driving the development of an outer harbour dissipated, or foundered like the Galway Line’s ship the Indian Empire on the Margaretta shoal.

Approaching Galway Inner Dock 1872

In 1885 there was a further effort made to get the Harbour at Mutton Island built but this time using convict labour. It was estimated that it would take 450 convicts 20-25 years to complete the project. 9 Again in 1895 there was yet another attempt made but the projected cost had risen from £155,000 (€21,266,000 in 2016 values) in 1852 (when the cost of laying down a railway line was £4011 [€553,000] per mile) to £670,000 (€79,560,600 ) in 1895.


After a decent interval to allow Davy Jones fully claim the restless soul of the Rev. Peter Daly, spurred on by a pamphlet written by Richard J. Kelly, the owner of the Tuam Herald newspaper, a new evangelist contractor appeared on the scene, ready to promote and develop a transatlantic deep-water port: Robert Shaw Worthington.

Worthington was a Dublin-based railway construction contractor who first came to attention as the contractor on Sallins-Blessington and Blessington-Tullow connection for the Great Southern & Western Railway Company, which were completed in 1885 and 1886 respectively, at the same time that he completed the huge Robert Street Malt Store for the Guinness company. He then went on to build the Cork and Muskerry Light Railway on time and on budget in 1887-1888, the Loughrea & Atymon Light Railway for the Midland and Great Western Railway Company(MGWRC) in 1890, and the Ballinrobe & Clarmorris Light Railway, again for the MGWRC in 1892.

In early 1891 Worthington was also contracted by the MGWRC to do the preliminary surface work over the extensive boglands for the proposed Galway – Clifden railway line, but he ran into conflict with both his workers, whom he underpaid and who went on strike, and the MGWRC engineers. His foreman at the time attributed the problem to the local Connemara men not being used to using the short but wide “Navvie” shovel! In any event Worthington was not offered the contract to build the railway proper and retreated for time back to Dublin. However the even worse performance of Charles Braddock, who was awarded the contract instead, managed to portray Worthington in a more favourable light and in 1893 was contracted by the MGWRC to build the Achill extension of the Westport line. This was completed in 1895.

With the completed Achill, Clifden and Galway Extensions
of the Midland & Great Western Railway Tourism began in the
West of Ireland. Poster c.1900

Worthington by this stage had developed grandiose ambitions, in trying to match William Dargan, the doyen of the Irish Railway construction engineers. He had developed a number of close personal and influential friendships with the likes of the Prime Minister of Newfoundland Sir Edward Patrick Morris and the barrister-owner of the Tuam Herald Richard J. Kelly. Both Morris and Kelly strongly supported the development of a deep-water harbour in Galway to serve in particular the shortest sail-time “Red-Route” across the North Atlantic to Newfoundland.   Armed with this support and with start-up funding for a necessary Parliamentary Bill from the Chairman of the Midland and Great Western Railway to the tune of £5,000 (€658,000) Robert Worthington returned to Galway in 1909 with a very solid proposal to build and service a Transatlantic Port at Barna. He was welcomed with open arms.

Galway's Deep Harbour Plans in Library of NUIG

Worthington was astute. He knew that the first item on the agenda, if a Parliamentary Bill was to be successful, was to identify and get onside the owners of the land that might be required, as well as the local mercantile community. He formed the Galway Transatlantic Port Committee in 1910 and induced the Bishop of Galway, Lord Killanin, the aforementioned Richard J. Kelly, and Marcus Lynch of Barna, who was chairman of the Galway Harbour Commissioners, to become part of that committee. The Committee also included Dublin and Galway town commissioners as well as a representative from the MGWRC and was chaired by Lord Killanin. The Committee went about submitting a required Bill for Parliament’s consideration as well as contacting relevant bodies such as the county councils in Ireland and the Prime Ministers of New Zealand and Newfoundland to get their specific support for the proposal.10

The Committee also engaged the services of Arthur D. Hurtzig of the distinguished engineering firm Baker & Hurtzig, who had, as engineering consultants, just completed the Aswan Dam across the Nile. Hurtzig visited Galway in May 1911, was met by Marcus Lynch and Col Courtney and subsequently submitted a design proposal. Unfortunately the proposal appears to have stopped there. Despite their efforts Parliamentary support for the scheme was not forthcoming, and having been left on “the Table” for consideration it languished there for 2-3 years before being finally abandoned when the Midland and Great Western Railway withdrew their support in early 1913. Worthington was livid, and in a letter to the MGWRC Board in July 1913, pleaded for financial help in supporting the Parliamentary process and not the construction. He stated that he had the construction costs of €1,500,000 (€200,000,000), pending Parliament passing the Bill, available. 11

Although there is little documentation to back this contention I also suspect the direct support of Marcus Lynch of Barna to the project was essential. In 1870 the Lynches of Barna owned 4,100 acres of land in Galway and by 1905 still controlled most of the land where the servicing and building works area for the projected port and west pier were to be located. Had the proposed port proceeded it would have proved to have been an interesting set of negotiations to free up the part of Lynch’s land required for the development.

In 1906 Marcus Lynch had leased the land to the east of Barna Woods to Galway Golf Club – of which Lord Killanin was President and Colonel Courtney, Captain – to establish their second home. The need for this arose when Sebastian Nolan had evicted the Club from the original course that Nolan and Lt. Col H.F.N. Jourdain of the Connaught Rangers had designed and built on Blake’s (Gentian) Hill. 12 Nolan had bought the Blake’s Hill headland from the Alliance Assurance Company of London in 1895 for about £680 (€99,176). The Allied Assurance Company had been established in 1824 by Nathan Mayer Rothschild, the English banking scion of the Rothschild family and had come to control the mortgages on large amounts of land in Connaught.

The land required for the projected east pier of Barna Transatlantic Port off Blake’s Hill would have required acquiring Sebastian Nolan’s former lands from the Church. Nolan had died playing golf on the Hill in April 1907 and probate of his estate of £40,469 12s (€5,405,400) was granted to the Most Rev John Heally, the Archbishop of Tuam. No doubt the presence of the Bishop of Galway on the Transatlantic Port Committee would have smoothed the “reasonable” sale of the required lands. Worthington, and perhaps Marcus Lynch in the background, seemed to have thought of every eventuality in their detailed planning.

Despite his family’s history and previous wealth Lynch appeared to be in serious economic straits by 1910 and would have welcomed the opportunity to extract himself with the sale of his land to the proposed Transatlantic Port. However, as with all other Galway Outer Harbour efforts over the previous 60 years the Barna Transatlantic Port was not to be and by the time Lynch died in November 1916 the scheme had been completely shelved. Marcus Lynch left probate of his surprisingly small estate of £2,048 16s 0d (€175,420) to his sister Margaret.

Robert Worthington was also left a good deal poorer by his involvement but this did not deter him from marrying three times and fathering eight children. He died in 1922 at the age of 80.


Proposed Galway Port 2015

The 180 year-old dreams of a Transatlantic Port for Galway have not gone away. 13 I have no doubt that any day soon Fr Peter Daly and Robert Worthington in Rip Van-Winkle mode will arise and meet each other’s ghost! In order to service the increasingly lucrative ocean liner tourism a plan has been put in place by the Harbour Board and now all efforts are being made to get national and European funding to get the project started. Interestingly as it has been for nearly 700 years this aspiration has pitted mercantile Limerick against Galway again, with Limerick vying for the same funds to develop an ocean liner port at Foynes on the Shannon estuary.

Galway Inner Dock 2016

1.Lunde P. Pillars of Hercules. 1992 Aramco World 43, 3
2.Woodman K. ‘safe and commodious’ – The Annals of the Galway Harbour Commissioners 1830-1991, 2000, Galway Harbour Company
3.Hurley MJ The Galway Train 2016 Lackagh Museum & Community Development Association.
4.Ó Gráda C, O’Rourke KH Migration as disaster Relief: lessons from the Great Irish Famine. 1997 European Review of Economic History, 1 (1): 3-25
5.Collins T. Transatlantic Triumph and Heroic Failure: The Galway Line 2003 Collins Press, Cork.
6.Hardiman T. History of the Town and County of the Town of Galway. 1820 Folds & Sons, Dublin, p.60
7.British Parliamentary Papers HC1859 (257) Session I XVII
8.Report to Admiralty by Capt. Washington R.N., Captain Vetch R.E. and Mr Barry Gibbons C.E., on the Capabilities and Requirements of the Port and Harbour of Galway. House of Commons. 2nd March 1859
9.Kelly RJ. Galway as a Transatlantic Port. 1903 Pamphlet, McDougall & Brown, Galway. p 24
10.Ocean Mail Services, (Additional Papers), Houses of the General Assembly, Session II, 1912, New Zealand; Papers 256 & 257, p. 76
11.Worthington RS, Galway as a Transatlantic Port, 1913 The Railway Times, p.80
12.Derham RJ. Galway – Guano, Golf, and Gethsemane: June 26, 2015 Available at:

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