RTE Television

Building Ireland

BUILDING IRELAND returns to explore and explain how Ireland's great building and engineering achievements came to be, and their impact on the development of our towns and cities. In the company of an enthusiastic team of experts, the series marries local heritage with construction technology and engineering. Architecture, geography and engineering are the disciplines brought to bear; each programme focuses on a prime example of Ireland's built heritage and recounts the fascinating story of its construction.


Episode 1

Our first episode delves into the history of Spike Island, a prime defensive location in the middle of the second largest natural harbour in the world. Geographer Susan Hegarty sets the scene.

"CORK HARBOUR has been a world-class naval base, an industrial hub, and, for millions of emigrants, the last sight of Ireland they would ever see. As a geographer, I'm interested in the islands that dot this harbour. And this might just be the most important of them all; Spike Island, sometimes known as Ireland's Alcatraz. I've come to this speck in the sea to see how this island had a role in defending an empire, and Building Ireland." Susan Hegarty

The island, less than a kilometre long and barely half a kilometre wide, was initially barren, wild, and rugged. Why was this tiny speck of land so important that the British would place a naval base on the site? Susan speaks to historian Tom O'Neill to find out.

"Internationally the Cork harbour is ideally positioned to become almost an outpost for security for the south western approaches for the west coast of England and Wales. In Europe the Napoleonic threat was the big one, and Ireland was always seen as a potential back door where an enemy would attempt to use it as a base with which to invade the western side of England." Tom O'Neill

Engineer Tim Joyce finds out exactly what kind of fortifications were built on the island, and how they functioned to defend from invaders.

"The fort was surrounded by a deep, dry moat, with a steep slope beyond. It's a type of artificial slope known as a glacis - just flat enough to tempt invaders, but too steep for them to climb at speed. With shot and shell raining down from these ramparts, it would have been a stiff task to get anywhere near the walls, let alone overrun them." Tim Joyce

Tim speaks with Commander Brian Fitzgerald of the Naval Service to learn more about Spike Island's strengths when it came to the defence of the British Empire.

"With the high ground to the west, high ground to the east and the island in the centre, the arcs of fire that you can deliver around Cork harbour in and of itself makes the harbour impenetrable." Commander Brian Fitzgerald

But the island wasn't always a military fortress; by the 1840's, Spike Island had become part of the Irish prison system, as Susan explains.

"Spike Island became a sort of penal colony, housing everyone from political prisoners to the homeless - victims of the vagrancy laws enacted at the height of the Famine." Susan Hegarty

Susan speaks to historian Cal McCarthy, and archaeologist Dr Barra Ó Donnabháin from University College Cork who is conducting excavations across the island to find out more about what life would have been like for the prisoners of Spike Island's prison.

"The wooden prison here was designed to take 200 men. But when it came here to Spike there was a problem with overcrowding and it ended up accommodating almost instantly, like the minute it opened, it had 400 men." Dr Barra Ó Donnabháin

"This was supposed to be a temporary convict depot, 36 years later it was still a temporary convict depot and the military always insisted that anything built by the convicts would be built to their standards in order that it could be used as part of a military base later on. Indeed in this punishment block you can see the domed roofs in the cells. These cells are bomb-proof." Cal McCarthy

"By 1850 we had about 2,500 men imprisoned here.

We're digging here in the graveyard because the historical sources that are available to us about Spike Island really tell us the story from the perspective of the authorities. What we're able to access here are the physical remains of the convicts themselves, and their physical remains, their skeletal remains contain information about their lives before they came into the prison system but also they give us information on the impact on their bodies of incarceration." Dr Barra Ó Donnabháin

"I think maybe what's unique about the island is this was once the home to the largest prison that has ever existed in Britain or Ireland." Cal McCarthy

The harsh prison regime here on Spike Island stood in stark contrast to the Victorian splendour of Cobh on the other side of Cork Harbour. Architect Orla Murphy takes a look at the residential architecture of Cobh - a prosperous seaside town that developed from the local maritime trade.

"The Cobh we see today is a legacy of the social and economic shifts that followed in the wake of the famine. As the economy began to recover, a new, prosperous middle class came to the fore, leaving the squalor of the cities behind for the fresh air of rural Ireland. And Cobh, with its Royal Navy connections, was in the perfect place to take advantage of that boom." Orla Murphy

Orla visits the most prominent example of this architecture, The Crescent, where she speaks to Mona Hallinan, the Architectural Conservation Officer for Cork County Council. The character of these houses is immediately evident.

"Very elite, very very elite. I think the way these places are designed reflects that. I mean The Crescent itself can be seen from everywhere in Cobh, and it's overlooking the entire harbour. So while Cobh has fantastic views, not everybody had the views that you're getting here. And it's prominent, it's overlooking, it can be seen from everywhere in the town so. It gives an idea of the high status of the people that lived here." Mona Hallinan

Susan concludes with a reflection on how far Spike Island has come, from the fortress and prison, to what it is today.

"Today, the voices of Spike Island - the stories of its inmates, soldiers and sailors - are finally being heard. The ferry from Cobh brings curious visitors, not shackled prisoners bound for exile. But who knows what remains to be discovered, beneath the soil of Ireland's Alcatraz?"

Episode 2

Our second episode details the many shapes and forms Kilkenny Castle has taken over the years. Architect Orla Murphy travels to the medieval city to show us the hidden layers of the castle's history.

"Kilkenny Castle: Rock of Norman rule and home to the House of Ormonde for well over 500 years. From this magnificent building, the Ormondes shaped and influenced the history of this island and this city. Hewn from local limestone, the castle is an architectural wonder; but more than that, it's a story of eight centuries of Building Ireland." Orla Murphy

There were many prominent people who made their mark on the castle, and by extension the city of Kilkenny itself. Orla tells us about who they were, and why this site was so attractive to them.

"There's been a castle on this site ever since Richard de Clare - better known as Strongbow - built a wooden structure here in 1172. He built it with one priority in mind - defence. And this is an excellent defensive position, on high ground backing onto the River Nore." Orla Murphy

Many medieval buildings would have been covered with a lime render, which would have protected the walls from the Irish climate, but it also made for a striking image. Orla meets with Pat Tallis, an expert in conservation building techniques who works extensively with lime render. Orla takes part in a hands-on demonstration of what it was like to build using lime render.

"The lime is the binder, that's what keeps the granules, the sand and the cobbles and the other products together. There was lime kilns all over Ireland back in the 1300, 1400, 1500's. It was very much a sustainable product insofar as that Ireland is built on limestone." Pat Tallis

Geographer Susan Hegarty takes a look at the layout of Kilkenny city, and investigates the property of one of the most prominent merchant families of old:

"This is the Rothe House on Parliament Street, home to one of the wealthiest and most powerful merchants in late sixteenth-century Kilkenny." Susan Hegarty

Possibly the most fascinating aspect of the property is the reconstructed garden. By excavating the site of the old garden and orchard, archaeologists were able to discover exactly what plants and herbs would have been grown there, and restore the gardens to their 16th century splendour. Susan meets with Grace Fegan, the Executive Manager of Rothe House and Gardens, to learn more about the site.

"By analysing the soil, the pollen in the seeds, we were able to discover what kind of plants grew here, and that's what we were able to reconstruct. So what you're looking at is the garden that was opened in 2008, but right now particularly, 8 years on, it's maturing and it's looking as close as possible as we can get it to how the Rothes would have enjoyed it." Grace Fegan

The medieval nature of Kilkenny is evident in every street and every corner of the city.

"There are many of towns and cities in Ireland that have medieval origin but the layout has changed as a city has changed and grown. Kilkenny is different - not only has the medieval layout remained the same, but 12th century features are part of everyday life." Susan Hegarty

Engineer Tim Joyce investigates the great flood of 1763, which caused many bridges in Kilkenny City and county to be swept away, along with many others along the River Nore. The loss of these bridges led to engineers devising creative and robust solutions to re-unite the city and replace the lost bridges along the Nore.

"Even though they built this Green's Bridge in a hurry, what I love is that they did it with a flourish of style. The design copied the Palladian architecture of the Roman bridge at Rimini, but only on the city side. The other, has no carved stonework at all." Tim Joyce

One particular casualty of the great flood of 1763 was Inistioge Bridge, about 25 kilometres south of Kilkenny city. This was rebuilt by engineer George Smith in 1765, and is a very impressive structure.

"Inistioge Bridge is the last crossing point on the Nore. It's is the only bridge in Europe with ten arches of equal span" Tim Joyce

Tim meets with conservation engineer James Powell, to get a further insight into the history of the bridge and how it would have been constructed.

"The most likely way they would have built this would have been essentially to divide the river in two, build a wall essentially, a timber wall called a coffer dam. And then once they'd completed that side they would then divert the river through the other side and start again over there." James Powell

"What all these bridges demonstrate is the value of a piece of everyday engineering we take for granted, but which made our ancestors' lives a hell of a lot easier, and is still of absolute value today." Tim Joyce

Orla explores the various interiors of Kilkenny castle, from the Moorish staircase, to the 17th century tapestries room, to the long picture gallery. Her visit of the castle finishes in the magnificent Picture Gallery, where she meets Peter Kenny, who describes in detail the nature of the decorative flourishes.

"It was designed to impress guests. You can only imagine what this room has seen through the centuries with the entertainment of state guests, there would have been royal banquets, and of course the annual New Year's Ball was a great social occasion within the city itself." Peter Kenny

The striking ceiling that can be seen today was built to replace the original flat room over the gallery. It is a hammer beam truss ceiling which is believed to be made from Norwegian pine. The ceiling was painted and decorated by a single artist, John Hungerford Pollen.

"He's borrowed from many different cultures. There's a Scandinavian flavour to this ceiling, there's bits of Anglo-Saxon, and very pertinently we can see Celtic design. And this, I believe, is a narrative on Irish history in design, as we have the three traditions.. It's a reflection of the whole history of the castle in decorative form." Peter Kenny

Kilkenny castle has become a space for everyone to revel in the beauty of the surroundings. Orla closes the episode with a description of how Kilkenny is enveloped by history.

"Kilkenny Castle is still very much the heart of this city. If you peel back the layers, you can reveal centuries of change, in architecture and society, in politics and culture. From a simple wooden fort on a hill, to the centre of a vibrant modern city. Its form may have changed, but its importance to Kilkenny is just the same as it's ever been." Orla Murphy

Episode 3

Our third episode explores the scheme that brought Ireland into the electric age - The Shannon Scheme and Ardnacrusha power station. Engineer Tim Joyce fulfills a life-long ambition to get up close and personal with Ardnacrusha power station and to explore the innovative engineering that made it the biggest hydroelectric project in the world when it opened in 1929.

"The River Shannon has been the lifeblood of Ireland for millennia. 360 Kilometres long, it slowly cleaves the island east/west, from Cavan in the north to Limerick in the south. If you could harness the force of this mighty river, you could power an entire state, and open the door to the future." Tim Joyce

The Shannon is divided between the old river and a 12 and a half kilometre long, man-made canal. It can run at up to 400 tons a second. This torrent of water is turned into electricity by a vast structure which took 5,000 men four years to build, using up 20% of the young Irish Free State's budget.

"You have to remember that Ardnacrusha was as much about nation-building as it was about engineering, and the fact that it was built by Siemens-Schuckert - a huge German company - is really significant. It was a symbol of the Free State emerging from the shadow of the British Empire, and reaching out to the wider world." Tim Joyce

Tim meets with Plant Manager Alan Bane, who details how the scheme turns water into electricity.

"The water comes down from the intake building, through the penstocks, rotates the turbines themselves, which then, the power is then transferred up the shaft to the generators, and the generator then makes the electricity." Alan Bane

By any standards, Ardnacrusha was a marvel of modern engineering. Within ten years of opening, it was generating 96% of the state's electricity

Geographer Susan Hegarty sets out to investigate why the engineers chose the Ardnacrusha site and to examine the River Shannon - an almost completely flat, slow-moving river.

"The River Shannon is the longest in these islands, the only problem is - the terrain the Shannon runs through is, by and large, flat as a pancake. Over most of its course, there's not nearly enough of a drop in the terrain to power the turbines and produce electricity. The basic idea is to dam the river where it drops and use the build-up of pressure of water to power the hydro station." Susan Hegarty

Susan speaks to Tom Hayes, Civil Engineering Manager at Ardnacrusha, about the challenges of diverting the river to create enough of the drop and provide sufficient water for the hydroelectric power station to function. She met Tom at the Parteen Weir, where the River Shannon is essentially divided in two.

"They built the structure here 5 or 6 kilometres downstream of Killaloe. And then from this structure they constructed the head race canal which is 12km long almost, and that further extended the water level in Lough Derg right down to Ardnacrusha."
Tom Hayes

Above the surface, Ardnacrusha is an impressive structure. Its weirs, sluice gates, and penstocks are instantly recognisable as icons of Irish engineering. However, the buildings themselves have their own unique character, as architect Orla Murphy explains.

"This is so much more than a functional, industrial building. It's where technology and engineering are put on a pedestal to be worshipped and admired. This is the Generating Hall, where these huge vertical windows flood the space with natural daylight. It's as if you are in a cathedral. And I suppose in a sense, you are; this is a cathedral of industry, built, not just to serve an engineering function, but also to celebrate it." Orla Murphy

Orla meets with Jan Frohburg of the University of Limerick, to discuss the stylistic features of the building and the different cultures which inspired them.

"We're looking at a time when German design tried to transport a craft sensibility into an era of mass production and to make sure that quality wasn't lost and I recognise many details in things like door handles and the panelling in the lobby downstairs, and I think one can read that care and that level of attention in all those little, little things. Looking at the steeped pitched roof for instance, renders it a more classical building almost. It surely uses a recourse to classical language to tame the disorder of modernization, to make this new technology less threatening in a way, more homely." Jan Frohburg

"When it was finished, Ardnacrusha was the biggest hydroelectric power station in the world. Ireland, as a new State, was positioning itself at the cutting edge of scientific progress, embracing both tradition and modernity." Orla Murphy

Tim looks at the head race of the Shannon Scheme, which is a 100 metre wide and 12.5 kilometre long canal. It feeds water from the weir at Parteen to the turbines in the Ardnacrusha station. Tim speaks to Professor Tom Cosgrave to find out what it took to construct these huge man-made canals.

"16 million tonnes of clay and sand and rock had to be excavated and piled as embankments. So to do this all of the plant and machinery had to be brought in from Germany. The infrastructure even to get the plant and machinery from its point of delivery, Limerick docks for the most part, had to be put in place. An entire railway line had to be built, all the way from Limerick to Ardnacrusha, railway network had to be built all along the site.This is a gargantuan undertaking in a land that was completely lacking in infrastructure, skilled labour, power, industry of any kind." Professor Tom Cosgrave

The scheme was formally completed on the 22nd of July, 1929. By that stage, 700 tonnes of explosives had been used to blast away 1.2 million cubic metres of rock - and Ireland had changed forever. Tim concludes the episode by describing the value of Ardnacrusha as a national institution.

"Dr. Thomas McLoughlin, the young engineer who gave Ireland a glimpse of what was possible under independence, went on to become the first Executive Director of the Electricity Supply Board. The greatest legacy of Ardnacrusha is that it reminds us of a time when an impoverished State sought radical, ambitious world-leading solutions to its infrastructural problems. Over the coming decades, the light of modernity would spread into every corner of every province." Tim Joyce

Episode 4

Our fourth episode centres around the world-famous tourist town of Killarney, which attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, from all around the globe. Geographer Susan Hegarty investigates what made this area such a prime target for the burgeoning tourism industry in the 18th century.

"The beauty is natural but its status as a haven for tourists is entirely manmade. Killarney is often cited as the birthplace of Irish tourism - an industry which has served as a cornerstone of Building Ireland." Susan Hegarty.

The history of modern Killarney begins as a tale of two families - the Herberts and the Brownes.

"Thomas Browne, the fourth Viscount of Kenmare, had an idea. He realised that the wealth of Killarney wasn't buried beneath the landscape - it was the landscape. And with that brainwave, the Irish tourism industry was born." Susan Hegarty.

Susan meets with local tourism expert Conor Doolan at the newly restored Killarney house, to discuss the relationship between the Browne family and the development of tourism in Killarney.

"It was in their own self-interest to develop not only industries like milling and mining and the linen industry, but he also had to develop the tourist industry to run such a vast estate. The estate itself is about 6 times the size of the present-day Killarney National Park." Conor Doolan

"There would have been an entrance fee into the estate. They would have kept coaches here in the stables where we're standing today. Lord Kenmare also controlled the boats on the lakes in the area so if you wanted to take the boats you were essentially paying Lord Kenmare for a boat journey around Killarney lakes." Conor Doolan

With the birth of the Romantic Movement, tourism became less about gallivanting through the great cities of Europe, and more about seeking solitude of nature - with a degree of comfort, of course. Kerry had the scenery but was almost completely inaccessible. A technological revolution was about to change all that.

"From the 1830's, the railways started to spread across Ireland like an iron rash. In 1853, Lord Kenmare persuaded the Great Southern and Western Railway to extend their line down to here. And Killarney has never been the same." Susan Hegarty.

Architect Orla Murphy investigates how the Railway hotel, possibly the first hotel built by a railway company in Europe, established a model of comfort and convenience that would be copied the world over.

"Architect Frederick Darley designed the hotel in the style of a great country house; but this wasn't just a bed for the night - it was itself part of the once great spectacle of Killarney - designed, inside and out, to take the visitors' breath away." Orla Murphy.

Orla meets with Frank Corr, who has written a history of the Great Southern Hotel, and who describes why the hotel was designed and run in such a grand fashion.

"If you were building a hotel aiming at that particular market, you had to exceed their expectations. You had to have it even more grand if you could than their homes - so a dining room like this with its beautiful bordered ceiling, its elaborate plasterwork; they would admire the marble pillars. They would admire the gold leaf that was everywhere." Frank Corr

"They wanted the hotel to look a bit like the grand houses they would be used to in England. They wanted comfortable beds and they particularly wanted servers. They wanted staff to be at their beck and call." Frank Corr

The Great Southern Hotel was home to luxury and indulgence, an entirely new concept in personal leisure. But the hotel business was just one of the industries that sprang up in Killarney as visitors flocked here in the 19th century. At a time of poverty and suffering throughout Ireland, tourism kept Killarney afloat. Susan meets with Mike O'Connor to discuss what life was like in the town, with the industries being so seasonal.

"People lived in real poverty and in I suppose maybe, some might even say squalor. There was no indoor plumbing as we would say now, and they would have reared pigs in the back yard. You can imagine the stench and all that good stuff. They would have collected the slops from the hotels to feed the pigs." Mike O'Connor

"They would be employed during the summer because, as you know, the hotels in the Victorian times put together the package for the visitors. So you had boatmen, you had hotel porters, you had guides - all had to live and survive during the winter. And they would have lived down these lanes here in Killarney where we walk now."
Mike O'Connor

Killarney was closer and cheaper than the continental spa towns, and it gained a reputation for cleansing body and mind. And with the coming of the railways, this remote corner of Ireland suddenly became accessible and desirable. All of Kerry knew that the railway was the path to the future, and engineer Tim Joyce is discovering that meant laying down tracks in some of the most inhospitable terrain in Ireland.

"The mountains in this part of Kerry presented a serious engineering challenge. Shale rock and solid limestone were the physical challenges and the sheer inaccessibility of this remote peninsula meant heavy and cumbersome steam machinery couldn't be used to excavate, drill, or bore. There was only one option - the line would have to hug the coast. It took three years and almost a quarter of a million pounds before the job was done. By the end, what they'd created wasn't just a practical coastal railway - it was one of the most scenic journeys in Europe." Tim Joyce

Tim meets with local railway enthusiast Pat Kavanagh, to discuss the impressively curved Gleesk Viaduct.

"There's no straight line in this railway line from Farranfore to Valentia. There were 1,200 men, of which 272 were skilled labourers and the skilled labour was men working with stonework. The feats of engineering in the work of stone was second to none, the stream, the culverts that were put in, the bridges that were build, the stone piers that were put in right through the area were huge, and without any machinery whatsoever. 100% manual labour throughout the project." Pat Kavanagh

"The line is long gone, but its legacy lives on in tourist trails like the Ring of Kerry and Wild Atlantic Way. Not bad, for a little narrow gauge railway." Tim Joyce.

On the 26th of August 1861, the train from Dublin delivered a very distinguished guest to Killarney - Queen Victoria herself, accompanied by Prince Albert and other members of the Royal Family.

"The tourist experience hasn't changed much since Victoria's time. This isn't the old story of tourism selling local traditions - in Killarney, tourism is the local tradition." Susan Hegarty

"Being driven around these wild surroundings, it's easy to imagine yourself as the lord or lady of the manor - as long as you ignored a couple of others that were thinking the same thing!" Susan Hegarty

Susan talks to Jerry O'Grady, to discuss the impact Queen Victoria's visit had on the area.

"Her visit gave us the platform to expose internationally what we had to offer. And now we had access through the railway, which was critical as well. We now had a vehicle. I'd be wary of calling Queen Victoria a 'vehicle' but that's essentially what she was for our industry. And it enabled us to put abroad every one of the features that she visited - every step she made, every conversation literally that she had, everybody she met. They were all covered in great detail in media like the London Illustrated Times. And it became the routine itinerary for groups and for individuals after that." Jerry O'Grady

Susan concludes the episode by summing up Killarney as a location, past and present.

"For the Victorians, Killarney meant refuge, peace, sanctuary. For modern visitors, it's everything from a health retreat to a social experience. Killarney is as much a concept as a physical place - and for that, we can thank some very modern thinking over 200 years ago." Susan Hegarty


Tim Joyce is a practising Civil Engineer with a passionate interest in the way our predecessors got things done with limited resources and technology. He will investigate WHAT did they do and HOW did they do it?

Dr Susan Hegarty is a Physical Geographer with a fascination for the interaction of people with the landscape. She will explore WHERE did they do it and WHY?

Orla Murphy is an award-winning architect with an expert knowledge of civic buildings and industrial archaeology who can't stop telling people about it. She will discover WHO did it and WHEN?