I remember vividly the introduction to a piece I heard some time ago concerning the old Dublin trams. Picture the scene from Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” where the hero, Stephen Dedalus, waits for Davin outside Harcourt Street Station. Passengers are waiting at the platform watching for the bells of the tram; the dense network of electric wires looms overhead. What would Stephen think were he to repeat his encounter today? He’d think: what on earth happened – Harcourt Street Station closed? Only one, single-decked, tram…and it only goes as far as St. Stephen’s Green? Where am I?
A recent lunchtime conversation spurred this post. Its topic is something dear to many Dubliners’ hearts, although they may not know it. Talk had turned – as it increasingly does these days – to city planning, cars and public transport (specifically, their utter inadequacy). Nationalities around the table were Scottish, American and Irish and each has lived in Dublin for periods stretching from just six months to their entire lives. The topic of trams vs. buses arose and I chimed in, as I like to, with my party piece about how Dublin used to have trams – and if we’d only kept them, we’d be so happy!
I was surprised, however, that nobody else at the table was even aware that we had trams in the olden days. Not just any old trams, either – largely electrified by 1900, Dublin’s network was the envy of the British Isles and a model for all of Europe. Reflecting on this later, I realised that I wasn’t aware of it either until I “stumbled” across an enlightening article on the subject. I would love to provide a convenient link but, alas, the article in question appears in the spring 1960 edition of the Journal of the Irish Railway Record Society. Perhaps – if I can get permission – I’ll reproduce the (extremely lengthy and impressively comprehensive) text here. In the meantime, I’d like to convey the scope of the old tram network in terms of its somewhat surprising modern remains.
Now, how this network ever came to be dismantled is a shameful story and will serve as fodder for a number of future articles; how it came about and was operated is, similarly, a topic worthy of its own discussion. For now, I’ll simply say that the Dublin tram network had its origins in the 1870s, was privately owned by a number of competing companies and it had its unfortunate demise in the 1940s. This article will focus on the routes.
R.C. Flewitt’s article begins, rather amusingly, in much the same way as this one: with an explanation to a “modern” reader of how Dublin once had over 60 miles of integrated tram lines, extending (and inteconnecting) from Terenure to Glasnevin, Sandymount to Howth. Somewhat surprisingly, anybody familiar with comtemporary Dublin bus routes can quickly piece together what the old tram network looked like. This is because many of the older bus routes were originally tram routes. Here are very much abridged descriptions of the “surviving” routes; imagine a shiny silver Luas serving all these destinations:
- 1, 2, 3: Parnell Square-Sandymount, via Pearse Street and Ringsend Road
1 opening date unknown; 2 & 3 opened 1900; all closed by 1950.
Of personal interest to me was that Sandymount was connected to the city centre by tram, implying that Pearse Street, Grand Canal Bridge and the road tracing Sandymount Strand once carried a tram all the way to Nelson’s Pillar. This line intersected a half mile from Ringsend Road with the 4. Flewitt has much to say upon this route, mostly concerning various sidings with local industry, but the most amusing concerns an unlikely accident on the recently-rebuilt Grand Canal Bridge. Once a lifting bridge, a series of unlikely incidents once caused the bowsprit of a schooner to come in contact with a tram, smashing its windows and causing some damage (fortunately, however, nobody was injured).
- 4: Parnell Square-Sandymount, via Bath Avenue
Opened 1872; electrified 1901; closed 1932.
A single-deck route once electrified owing to the height of Beggar’s Bush bridge, in horse-drawn days passengers had to sit down on the upper deck to avoid their heads coming in contact with the low bridge. Today this route serves DCU.
- 7, 8: Parnell Square-Blackrock-Dun Laoghaire-Dalkey, via Merrion Square and Shelbourne Road
Opened 1872; extended to Blackrock 1879, Dun Laoghaire 1883 & Dalkey 1879; electrified 1896; closed 1949.
The corner of Merrion Square was site of one of the worst Dublin tram accidents where a car, owing to faulty points, attempted to go both directions at once, overturned and killed one person. Further along the line, sidings served the RDS and, in Dun Laoghaire, Heiton’s coalyard.
- 10: Pheonix Park-Donnybrook, via St. Stephen’s Green
Opened 1906; suspended 1919-1928; closed 1940.
- 11: Clonskea-Parnell Street-Drumcondra Bridge-Whitehall
Opened 1899; extended to Drumcondra Bridge 1919; extended to Whitehall 1930; closed 1939.
- 13: Fairview-Westland Row
Opened 1916; extended to St. Lawrence Road and Rathmines 1918, closed 1918.
Perhaps the first route to be numbered and certainly the shortest-lived, closing just 32 days after its introduction owing to the war.
- 14: Darty Road-Parnell Square-Finglas Road-Glasnevin
Opened 1905; extended to Finglas Road 1922; extended to Glasnevin 1930; closed north of Parnell Street ~1939; closed altogether 1948.
- 15: Parnell Square-Terenure
Opened 1872; electrified 1899; closed 1948.
Flewitt calls this Dublin’s “first successful tramway”. Today it runs from College Green, as it originally did in horse-drawn carriage days.
- 16, 17: Whitehall-Terenure and Drumcondra-Rathfarnham, via Harold’s Cross
Opening date unknown; electrified 1899/1900; closed 1936.
Today’s non-express, non-premium airport bus, the 16, was originally, with the 17, one of the two “Harold’s Cross trams”. There was a connection to the Blessington Steam Tramway at Terenure.
- 18: Kenilworth Square-Lansdowne Road
Opening date unknown; electrified 1899; closed 1940.
“The Cross Tram”, as it shared or connected with no less than 14 other services, namely routes 5-17 and 22.
- 19/19A: Glasnevin-Dolphin’s Barn, via South Great George’s Street
Opening date unknown; electrified 1899; closed 1939.
“Washerwoman’s Hill” was the site of an accident in 1937 which saw a car losing control downhill, derail and overturn. Interestingly, it fell completely clear of the tracks and there was no interruption to service.
- 25, 26: O’Connell Bridge-Lucan and Chapelizod
Opened 1928; closed 1940.
- 29: Parnell Square-Fairview
This route survives as the night service, 29N.
- 31: Parnell Street-Howth
Opened 1900; closed 1940.
It’s not entirely clear to me but it seems that although this line crossed the Hill of Howth line at Sutton Cross, the two were not connected as such. It seems also to have crossed the Howth line (what is now the start of the DART line) at Howth station.
Flewitt describes a number of other lines, such as the 5 which connected Pheonix Park with Sandymount along with many other interesting facts, such as sidings which allowed “express trams” pass, notably on the lines to Howth and Dalkey (try to imagine express buses on modern roads). Also, observe how most lines were upgraded and electrified – quite impressive for 1900 (conversion to buses would be treated as simply another “improvement”).
However, beyond these details, what is most relevant is that the routes themselves were not lost. On the contrary; most of them were actually extended (for example, the 4 now serves DCU and the 16 runs out to the airport). What was lost was the regularity, frequency, reliability and the possibility to transfer. The freedom to negotiate our city in confidence and to have a large walkable city area extending all the way out to the suburbs was replaced with traffic-bound fume-belching buses of no discernible timetable and a sprawling mess of new low-density suburbs enabled by an unsustainable reliance on personal transport.
While Dublin was far from the only city to make these mistakes in the first half of the last century, it is notable for the glee with which its lines were torn up and for the paucity of genuinely new routes and connections. When the much-needed Transport 21 is complete – perhaps 15 years hence, if ever – we will have a transport network perhaps as connected and, crucially, useful as it was back in 1920.
What is most galling is that we had it and we threw it away. Perhaps Joyce was right to leave after all.