The Irish Road to South America
Nineteenth-Century Travel Patterns from Ireland to the River Plate

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Writers at the turn of the century had a particular fascination with some enclaves of the Royal Canal. ‘The Irish/Argentine William Bulfin, the intrepid traveller and editor of The Southern Cross approached Abbeyshrule [Co. Longford] by the line from Tenelick. He stopped to chat to a denizen of the locality and realised to his astonishment that he was in the famous Mill Lane of which he had heard many a time and oft far away on The Pampas in corral or chiquero when the sun-tanned exiles of Longford and Westmeath recalled some story of Abbeyshrule and its Mill Lane’ [McGoey 1996].

Baggage used by the emigrants would have been trunks and boxes for well-off travellers and simple bags for the poor emigrants. Kate Connolly in You'll Never Go Back mentions that her party’s baggage was a couple of trunks, and that Dick Delaney, the sign painter, 'painted our names on both. I remember how just the two boxes looked, standing on the kitchen floor before the dresser, with "The Misses Connolly – Buenos Ayres" on one, and "Miss Dwyer – Buenos Ayres" on the other. [...] Nancy had said she wanted to see her name on a trunk, no matter whose trunk it was, so we agreed, and she was wild with delight at the sight of it' [Nevin 1946: 12].


The Royal Canal. 
Scally's Bridge in Abbeyshrule, Co. Longford (2002)0

Timetable from 1807 (Clarke 1992)


In October 1848, heralding the decline of the importance of the Royal Canal, the Midland Great Western Railway Company (MGWR) reached Mullingar and in August, 1851, the line extended to Athlone. The railway age ‘signalled the demise of the canal. In 1845 the railway company purchased the entire canal for £298,059, principally to use the property to lay a new railway. It was legally obliged to continue the canal business, but inevitably traffic fell into decline. Passenger business ceased totally within a few years and by the 1880s the annual goods tally was down to 30,000 tons’ [O.P.W. Waterways 1996: 19].

By November 1855, the railway reached Longford. From 1848 onwards, the railway replaced the canal as the main mean of transport to Dublin. In the 1850s, emigrants travelling on the MGWR line had a choice of four trains daily to Dublin. The number of trains to the capital increased in the 1860s with the extension of the line to Galway and Sligo. Journey time to Dublin was around two hours. Those who travelled by third or fourth class would have had an uncomfortable journey: the 1850s fourth class carriages had neither heat nor sanitation, and were little better than cattle trucks, sometimes without seating.

In the Midland Great Western Railway line, the stations between Mullingar and Dublin were Killugan, Hill of Down, Moyvalley, Enfield, Ferns Lock, Kilcock, Maynooth, Leixlip, Luran, Clonsilla and Blanchardstown, with a total distance of 83 kilometres. A timetable sheet of December, 1853, includes six daily trains (arriving at Dublin 5.15 A.M., 9.45 A.M., 11.30 A.M, 2.00 P.M., 9.00 P.M., and 10 P.M.) and two Sunday trains (arriving at Dublin 5.15 A.M. and 10.00 P.M.). Fares were 8s (first class), 6s-6d (second), 4s-9d (third), and 3s (fourth). Most of the emigrants ‘would have purchased third of fourth class tickets to Dublin’ [Illingworth 2001].

(Ulster Folk and Transport Museum)

Those emigrants who lived at a distance from the railway would take a coach to reach the rail station. The village of Ballymore, which was the epicentre for the Midlands emigration to South America, is about twenty kilometres west of Mullingar on the now road to Athlone. The nearest railway stations ‘were Athlone and Mullingar, and stage coaches passed through Ballymore on the way to Mullingar and Dublin’ [Illingworth 2002]. By the late 1840s, Bianconi coaches, [5] each capable of carrying up to twenty passengers, provided the means by which emigrants could reach Longford, Mullingar and Athlone from the countryside, and from the small rural villages and townlands of Westmeath and Longford. Smaller stage coaches travelling directly from Athlone and Mullingar to Dublin were also used by emigrants up until the 1850s. Horse-drawn  
Mullingar Railway Station (2002)
stagecoaches moved at about twelve kilometres per hour, with frequent stops to rest both horses and passengers, ‘who sometimes needed it more after long bumpy rides over rough roads’ [O’Cleirigh 2002]. A traveller who went by coach from Strabane to Enniskillen in 1834 tells that:
At first it drove on at a rapid rate, carrying about twenty-eight passengers, ten inside and eighteen on the outside, noisy and inebriated fellows… My feet had got numb with cold… When we had arrived within two yards of Seein Bridge, between Strabane and Newtownstewart, the lofty vehicle was thrown into the ditch, within two yards of a dangerous and steep bridge. If the vehicle had advanced about three yards further we would have been dashed to death [O’Cleirigh 2002].

(Ulster Folk and Transport Museum)

The Bianconi’s ‘Car and Coach Lists’ of 1842 includes the timetable of the stagecoaches connected with the Royal Canal boats to Dublin, and intermediate stages. From Ballymahon, the coach departed 4.08 A.M. arriving at Mullingar at 6.11 A.M.

(Ulster Folk and Transport Museum)
  In the 1850s, William Mulvihill of Ballymahon, Co. Longford, was the agent for the River Plate Steamship Company in the Midlands. [6] Prospective emigrants would buy their tickets from Mulvihill’s grocery store. From Mullingar, the emigrants could book a direct rail plus boat ticket to Liverpool for £2-2s. ‘The fact that emigrants [to South America] were advised to bring a revolver as well as a saddle may not have deterred farmers who had been forced to protect their stocks from starving labourers’ [O’Brien 1999: 55]. This would indicate that some of the emigrants bound to Argentina – who were able to pay a high fare to South America – were also able to ride a horse, a skill that would be very useful for them in the Argentine pampas.

[5] Named after Charles Bianconi (the king of the Irish roads), who started the first Irish mail coach service in 1815, beginning from the Hearn’s hotel in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, to Thurles and Limerick. By 1825, Bianconi had 585 route miles and two decades later he had trebled. In 1836, long cars with twenty passengers capacity were added to the service. He had rivals but, where they often competed with the canal boats, Bianconi tended to run connecting feeder services, a move which enabled him to outstay many other operators.

[6] Under ‘Mulvihill, William’ there are two entries in Leahy 1996: 166 (County Longford Survivors of the Great Famine: a Complete Index to Griffith’s Primary Valuation of Co. Longford 1854), and one in Leahy 1990: 151 (County Longford and its People: an Index to the 1901 Census for County Longford).



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