Engineer, railway contractor, and entrepreneur. He was born 28 February 1799 in Co. Carlow, the son of a small tenant farmer. From an early age he displayed a talent for mathematics. He was educated in England and served an apprenticeship in a surveyor’s office. He was involved with George Stephenson’s pioneering ‘Rocket’ project. Dargan was recommended by his local MP, Henry Brooke Parnell (who later became Secretary of State for War in the British cabinet), to the Scottish-born contractor Thomas Telford (1757–1834). Dargan’s first job, though in Britain, was closely connected to Ireland. He helped Telford design and build the Holyhead Road (1820), which gave a better service to Dublin by allowing ships to dock in Holyhead Harbour rather than at Parkgate near Chester, a port subject to contrary winds. Dargan’s intelligence and work so impressed Telford that when the new mail coach road was to be built from Dublin to Howth harbour, he entrusted the work to Dargan. On the successful completion of this road, the Treasury granted Dargan a gratuity of £300 in addition to his salary.
With his increased capital Dargan began his career as a contractor. He was awarded the contract for the embankment on the river Shannon, near Limerick. His first railway project in Ireland was the Dublin to Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire) line. Construction began in 1831. This was the first passenger railway line in Ireland and the third in the United Kingdom. It was opened on 17 December 1838. Dargan was a far-sighted businessman and was involved in the construction of part of the Ulster railway line, the Dalkey line, the Thurles-Cork section of the main line from Dublin, the Mullingar-Galway section of the Midland railway, the Belfast and Ballymena railway, the first sections of the Belfast and Co. Down system, part of the main Dublin-Belfast line between Dundalk and Portadown, and the line from Newry to Warrenpoint. The Ulster Railway opened in August 1839, and the Great Southern and Western Railway in 1843–50. By 1853 he had constructed over 600 miles of railway, valued at £2 million, and he had contracts for a further 200 miles.
Dargan was also responsible for the construction of the Ulster Canal (1841), an ambitious project, connecting Lough Erne and Belfast. Built at a cost of £231,000, he leased it for £400 a year. Dargan was involved in the improvements of the Belfast docks. He was employed in the initial construction of what became the Harland and Wolff shipbuilding yards. The area first named Dargan’s Island later became known as Queen’s Island.
During this time successful railways made a great deal of money, because there was no real competition except from canals. He paid the highest wages and had a vast amount of credit at his disposal. It is estimated that he had paid out £4 million in wages between 1845 and 1850. Dargan’s wealth increased substantially, but his subsequent business ventures outside of engineering projects did not prosper.
By the year 1849 Dargan began to consider how best he could use his fortune in the national interest. He made a generous donation towards the building of the National Gallery of Ireland and a statue in his memory still stands in front of the Gallery. Another major project was the introduction of flax into the south of Ireland. Flax was a crop grown in Northern Ireland and had notably profitable returns from cultivation. He established mills in the Dublin area. He bought a large farm near Kildinan, some ten miles from Cork, on which he experimented in flax cultivation. He offered to supply all the farmers in the locality with flax seed at his own expense, and to purchase their crops from them at the current Belfast price. Unfortunately, very few farmers accepted his offer because many feared that flax would exhaust the soil. As a result, this expensive experiment was a disaster
To draw attention to railways and their benefits to industry, Dargan organised and sponsored the Dublin Industrial Exhibition, which took place at the Royal Dublin Society, Ballsbridge, in 1853. Queen Victoria officially opened the exhibition. Dargan provided the organisers with nearly £100,000, a fifth of which he lost. His important contribution to engineering and the development of the railways was remarked upon by Queen Victoria. She later visited him at his house, Mount Anville, Dundrum, Dublin, on 29 August 1853, to offer him a baronetcy. He declined.
His next project was the establishment of a great thread factory at Chapelizod, near Dublin, where he purchased and expanded large mill premises. This undertaking was another financial disaster. After several more financial misadventures, Dargan returned to railways. He became chairman of the Dublin, Wicklow and Wexford Railway, in which he invested nearly all his fortune. In connection with this line he spent large sums on the improvement of Bray, Co. Wicklow. He built the Turkish baths at the cost of £8,000 and provided first-class hotel accommodation in the town. This expense, though large, would not have damaged him financially had the railway proved as successful as he had hoped. However, the depression in railway property, which had begun at this time, so lowered the value of all his investments that for a time they were of little value.
Dargan had always controlled all his affairs himself—he did not believe in employing managers—and when he fell from his horse in 1866 and was badly injured there was no one able to manage his many business interests. His affairs became disordered and his health and spirits were undermined as a result. He had to sell his splendid mansion in Dundrum but he kept his town house at 2 Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin. He died here at the age of 68 on 7 February 1867. His widow was awarded a pension of £100 a year on 18 June 1870. He is buried in Glasnevin cemetery where his tomb, like his statue at the National Gallery, carries the single word DARGAN.
Life & Studies. F. C. Wallace-Healy, William Dargan, originator of the first Dublin Exhibition: a memoir (Dublin 1882). John Marshall, A biographical dictionary of railway engineers (Newton Abbot 1978). Kevin O’Connor, Ironing the land: the coming of the railway to Ireland (Dublin 1999).