Skip to primary navigation Skip to content Skip to footer
Back to Blog

Hibernian Railroads: A Little Green Trivia

As we prepare to mark this year’s edition of that most joyous day when we all discover just a wee bit of our heritage hails from the Emerald Isle, allow me to provide you with a few new bits of trivia to toss about over your pints. My Irish friends, take the word of Bobby O’Lettenberger, these little gems will at least raise an eyebrow, maybe some laughter, and—if Irish luck is with you—even a wee bit of the creature in your honor.

We are, of course, speaking of Hibernian railroads. But wait! You thought we would be discussing the railroads of Ireland. Well, we are! We start with a small language lesson. The term Hibernia or Hibernian is derived from Latin for Ireland or Irish. While some sources label the words arcane, they do appear regularly throughout the country and can even be found in the name of a very luxurious land-cruise train which traverses the lush Irish countryside. If you are up for a rail tour of Ireland, where no expense is spared, investigate the Belmond Grand Hibernian.

The roots of Irish railroads are not quite as grand as the train just mentioned. In fact, railroading on the Emerald Isle started with what appears to be a good kiss of the legendary Blarney Stone.

Irish railways trace their beginnings to the 1830s. Three different railways started laying rail on the island: the Dublin & Kingstown, the Ulster Railway and the Dublin & Drogheda. In a move to be less than cooperative with each other, the three lines all built their tracks to a different gauge. Gauge is the distance between the rails. Thus, equipment from one railroad could not be interchanged with any of the other. Passengers and freight moving from one road’s territory to another would have to change trains — an annoying, time-consuming effort at best.

Historical accounts indicate that it was the Ulster Railway and Dublin & Drogheda that chartered the ill will by deliberately setting their track gauges to different measures. Interestingly, both chose a broad gauge: 6 ft. 2 in for the Ulster, 5 ft. 3 in. for the D&D. The Dublin & Kingstown, the first to actually lay rails, set their gauge at the prevailing British standard: 4 ft. 8 ½ in. This is considered standard gauge in most countries, including the U.S.

A Royal Commission was set up to sort out the muddle. The result was the Regulating the Gauge of Railways Act 1846, which fixed the width of the Irish gauge at 5 ft. 3 in. The track for both the Ulster and the D&D were altered to meet the new standard at a cost of £38,000 or about $4.5 million U.S. today. Interestingly, Ireland still uses the 5 ft. 3 in. broad gauge today.


The Great Potato Famine: A Migration West
Between 1845 and 1849, Ireland suffered the Great Potato Famine (also known as the Great Hunger or Great Famine). The country’s population fell by an estimated 25 percent due to starvation and people fleeing the bleak situation. Many of those who immigrated came to the United States. A decade later, many Irish-American men took up arms to fight for their adopted homeland during the U.S. Civil War. Despite their willingness to fight for the Union, the Irish were met with a wave of racial discrimination. In larger eastern cities like New York and Philadelphia, a strong anti-Irish sentiment arose. When jobs were available, one could often find the employment announcement posted in the newspaper with a statement that “No Irish Need Apply.” There were even a few popular tunes of the time that carried this sentiment into music.  The music often had lines wishing the Irish would turn tail and head back across the Atlantic.

There was, however, one industry that welcomed the Irish with open arms: the railroads. Here was a source of good, strong, hard-working backs to help pioneer railroading in America. Thus, Irish men put their shoulders, arms, backs, and legs to the task of constructing some of the greatest railroads in the United States. The Union Pacific started out with some 3,000 Irishmen laying track west from Omaha, Nebraska, as it began the first Transcontinental Railroad. Although the Irish were paid more than their African American freed slave counterparts, the wages earned by both of these groups were still below other Caucasian workers completing the same tasks.

On the Transcontinental Railroad, the biggest contest for bragging rights rested squarely on the shoulders of eight Irishmen. As Union Pacific (U.P.) and Central Pacific (C.P.) neared Promontory, Utah in late April 1869, pressure to lay more track than the competition was clearly in evidence. Normally one to three miles per day was the goal. U.P. shattered all records by completing six miles in a day. C.P. responded with a seven-mile day. Not be outdone, U.P. bested the new record by a half mile. However, C.P. would have the last laugh.

Here’s how C.P. bested U.P. once and for all: The meeting point of Promontory had been selected and neither railroad could build past it. C.P. waited until U.P. was within seven to eight miles of the end. They had slowed their work leaving a little over 12 miles to finish. On April 28, 1869, in a carefully orchestrated symphony of men, tools, and iron, the C.P. track crew put down ten miles—56 feet of new track—toppling U.P’s record and leaving them no room for retaliation.

The eight Irishmen comprised the rail handling gang. These men took the rails off a flat car and set them in place where Chinese workers spiked them down. In the record, 12-hour effort, the Irishmen handled 3,520 pieces of rail weighing an estimated total of 1,000 tons or 125 tons per man. The eight names are recorded in a preserved time book kept by C.P. foreman George Coley.


A Tale of the Pint and the Train
Finally, after you have forked through the corned beef and cabbage and are settling in for a pint of Arthur Guinness’ smooth and dry stout, we have to tell the tale of the little railroad that worked his massive brewery.


By the 1870s, the St. James Gate complex in Dublin, Ireland had grown large enough that a more efficient means of transporting materials between buildings was required. The answer came in a railway with just 1 foot, 10 inches between the rails. Locomotives and cars were only five feet wide and stood no more than six feet tall. The little tracks served all parts of the brewery. The micro trains hauled 8,000 casks of finished brew per day to a transfer point where they were loaded into larger, broad-gauge cars for shipment. Malt and hops were received by the little trains and taken to the brew house. They would also haul the spent grains away from the brew house. Special passenger cars were used to move tour guests around the plant.

As the brewery expanded, St. James Street split the property in two. The new expansion was 50 feet lower than the original section of the brewery. In order to expand the tiny railroad, Guinness engineers developed a spiral or corkscrew shaped tunnel, allowing the tiny trains to navigate the vertical distance between old and new. In 2 2/3 turns, a train would find itself up in the old or down in the new. The last train ran on the little brewery railroad in August 1975.

There you have it: a wee bit of Irish railroad trivia to enliven your St. Patty’s Day conversation! A final word of advice from Uncle O’ Lettenberger, should the luck of the Irish be with you as we celebrate the fest of this legendary saint and you find yourself on the Emerald Isle itself, remember Irish commuter trains will be running on an expanded schedule this day to accommodate all of the revelers. And, in a recent announcement, consumption of alcohol aboard most Irish trains is now banned. An Irish rail spokeswoman said the prohibition was in response to “persistent complaints from customers about regular instances of anti-social behavior connected to excessive alcohol consumption on-board.” Keep it in the pub and have a very happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Skip to toolbar