In the second part of an occasional series of articles on Ireland's Decade of Centenaries, we look at the history of science and engineering at Government Buildings, Merrion Street, in the 1920s; and the biographies of the two presidents of Engineers Ireland who held office from 1921-1923. 

Science and engineering at Government Buildings, Merrion Street: The 1920s

The disruption of scholarly life in the Royal College of Science for Ireland (RCScIRCScIRCScIRCScIthat began with the outbreak of war in 1914 continued for almost a decade. Frank Flood, a UCD engineering student who was registered for courses in the RCScI in the 1920-1921 academic year, was executed in March 1921 for leading an attempted ambush of Auxiliaries in Drumcondra in January of that year. He was 19 years of age.

The signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921 promised an end to political conflict and a return to peace in Ireland. The college, by now commonly referred to as the ‘College of Science’, found itself at the heart of the new state when the provisional government selected Merrion Street for its headquarters in preference to Dublin Castle. 

Students and staff protested at the delay in returning to Merrion Street after the end of the civil war. Photo: British Pathé

Political events in Ireland were reflected in changes within the college. A number of staff took up the option of retirement as a consequence of the change of government. Many students left the college, including 18 final-year students who transferred to engineering courses in England.

In September 1922, as the college council was planning the new academic year, the provisional government ordered the closing of the college to students ‘in consequence of the disturbed state of the country’.

Determined to carry on as much of the college work as was possible, the RCScI accepted UCD’s offer of accommodation. For the following two academic years, science and engineering lectures took place in the old Catholic University building on St Stephen’s Green.

Special arrangements were needed for the admission of students to the electrical engineering laboratories in Merrion Street – approval was conditional on the student obtaining ‘a guarantee of loyalty to the Free State from a senator, TD, or other responsible person’. 

Students in 1922 Photo: David Ring

Both students and staff protested at the interruption to the normal work of the college, especially at the delay in allowing the college to return to Merrion Street in 1923 following the effective end of the civil war in Ireland. 

However, UCD authorities were already in negotiation with the government about the future of the college and its assets. In 1925 Dáil Éireann took the first steps in transferring the RCScI to UCD, a decision embodied in the 1926 University Education (Agriculture and Dairy Science) Act.

The last council meeting of the Royal College of Science for Ireland was held in the council chambers of UCD on May 4, 1926, and the majority of the college staff were appointed as professors and lecturers of UCD from October 1926. 

Government Buildings, Merrion Street, Dublin 1

Engineers Ireland presidents: Joshua Hargrave 1921-22

Joshua Harrison Hargrave, eldest son of of Abraham Addison Hargrave of Cork and a great-grandson of Abraham Hargrave, was, according to the 1911 census, born in Cork city in1860 or 1861.

After obtaining the BA degree in 1879 and the BE degree in 1881 from the Royal University of Ireland, he was articled to Wells-Owen & Elwes of Westminster. From 1884 to 1889 he was on the engineering staff of the English Great Western Railway Co.

In 1889 he returned to Ireland to take up the post of chief assistant to William Hemingway Mills, engineer-in-chief of the Great Northern railway. He remained with the company until his death, chiefly occupied in bridge construction and in work on the Ardee and Castlewellan extensions. He was also involved in laying out the Howth electric tramway.

Hargrave was a keen yachtsman and was honorary secretary of the Dublin Bay Sailing Club and the Dun Laoghaire branch of the Lifeboat Institution. He died at home in Dun Laoghaire on January 25, 1924, after being in poor health for moere than a year. His wife, Louise, daughter of Dr Foster Newland, of Mount Haigh, Dun Laoghaire, whom he had married on June 12, 1897, and two children, Joshua and Ethel, survived him.

Registration of engineers

According to Called to serve. Presidents of the Institution of Civil Engineers of Ireland 1835-1968, by Ronald Cox and Dermot O’Dwyer, Joshua Hargrave, speaking in 1921, referred to the increased costs of commodities since the first world war, in particular newsprint and the resulting cost of newspapers. He noted that the institution’s heaviest expenditure was on the Transactions, but that, nevertheless, it had been found possible to maintain their publication throughout the war.

The question of registration of engineers was still very much on the agenda and Hargrave noted that the public were still inclined to regard the letters CE to have the same authority as MD John Purser Griffith, when president of the Institution of Civil Engineers had taken great interest in the matter of statutory protection of engineers and had proposed the use of the word 'chartered'.

Hargrave continued his address by alluding to the fact that there were currently some sixty different loading gauges in use in Europe and that this prevented continental wagons from running on British railways, a problem whenever a tunnel was to be constructed under the English Channel (although the unification of railway companies did much to eliminate the problem, basic residual differences had still to be resolved when the tunnel was eventually completed in 1994).

Referring to Ireland, he felt that the narrow-gauge lines could have been built at standard gauge for little extra cost. Any extra cost would have been confined to three items: extra width of earthworks, extra ballast, and larger sleepers. He cited the case of the narrow gauge extension to the Arigna colleries, which had resulted in the need for double handling of coal being transferred to the standard gauge network.

Hargrave suggested the use of home-produced concrete sleepers as an alternative to timber sleepers, but at the time they had not proved successful. It is only in more recent times that concrete sleepers of improved design have largely replaced timber.

As train loads increased, there was renewed debate as to the relationship between live and dead loads on bridges, in particular the effect of impact loading. It was generally accepted that, for design purposes, live load should be taken to be about twice the dead load.

Mechanical traction had come to stay and it was considered that many bridges were not capable of carrying the increased loads. Hargrave suggested that it is only by looking back that one can come to realise the progress that had been made.

One hundred years ago (1820s) there had been no steamers, no trains, no gas-lighting, no telegraph, and that, within the lifetime of many in the audience, have been invented and brought into use electric lighting, electric traction, the telephone, wireless telegraphy, the motor car and the aeroplane.

He felt that it seemed almost impossible that similar progress could be made during the next century, but that in all probability it will be accomplished. He concluded by summising, "I can quite imagine our descendants looking back to this period and wondering how we existed without so many appliances which they will have come to regard as actual necessities". 

Pierce Francis Purcell: 1922-23 

Pierce Purcell, the only son of Thomas P Purcell, chief of the Dublin Fire Brigade, was born in Kilkenny on October 6, 1881. After attending Castleknock College he entered the School of Engineering of Trinity College Dublin, in 1899, gaining first place with honours and the BAI degree in 1902; the Senior Moderatorship and Gold Medal in experimental physics and chemistry in 1903; and the degrees of MA and MAI in 1908.

From 1904 until 1910 he was an assistant engineer with London County Council; during this period he was engaged in the construction of Kingsway and Aldwych and in drainage schemes in south London. In October 1909 he was appointed professor of Civil Engineering at University College Dublin and returned to Ireland take up his new post in 1910.

Purcell held the UCD professorship for 41 years. He became a member of the college's governing body and of the Senate of the National University.

In addition to his university commitments, he ran a private engineering consultancy from his house and was involved in the construction of bridges, waterworks and drainage schemes.

He was secretary to the Irish Peat Enquiry Board in 1917-18 and Peat Investigation Officer to the Fuel Research Board from 1919-1931. He was also chairman of the Alliance and Dublin Consumers' Gas Company. Golf and swimming were his principal recreations.

Purcell retired from UCD in 1951. He died at Jervis Street hospital, Dublin, on January 17, 1968, and was buried in Deansgrange cemetery. He had married Amy Austral (d. 1940), daughter of GH Oatway of Highgate, London, and Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1910 and had four sons, one of whom, Pierce Michael Oatway Purcell (d.1959 or 1960), was also an engineer. A long-time resident of Killiney, he was a member – and for some time chairman – of Killiney Urban District Council.

Third of members graduates of various engineering schools

According to Cox and O'Dwyer's Called to serve, in 1922, when Pierce Francis Purcell delivered his presidential address, about one-third of members were graduates of the various engineering schools. During the period of the first world war, the rising and the civil war, the work of the institution was carried on under great difficulties, but it had been found possible to keep the Transactions going.

Purcell referred to the first paper read by Robert Mallet on November 12, 1844, on “the artificial preparation of turf, independently of season or weather” and noted that there was still no sign of a solution to the problem.

Purcell had been a member of the Irish Peat Enquiry Committee in 1918 and later was to be involved with a burgeoning peat industry. From Chaloner Smith’s paper in the ICEI Transactions on Flows in the Shannon Purcell also highlighted the importance of the Transactions as having recorded the work of Robert Manning in the development of a formula for the determination of the flow of water in open channels and pipes, an empirical formula still in use today for open channel flow calculations.

Purcell noted that the research on the strength of columns and struts carried out by Dr Lilly at Trinity College Dublin with totally inadequate funds and equipment had established many points of fundamental importance.

In Volume 45 of the Transactions, Chaloner Smith had set down what proved to be invaluable data on the average volume of flow from large catchment areas in Ireland. The data was available to McLaughlin and Siemens Schukertwerke when planning the Shannon Scheme.

Reference was also made to two important papers published in 1898 by Purser Griffith on 'Portland Cement'. These dealt in detail with the properties and testing of cement, and were considered to contain ideas far in advance of those then held in Britain.

Purcell noted that, in the previous 50 years, there had been few civil engineering works of 41 importance executed in Ireland outside of waterworks and sanitation. Noting that reinforced concrete design was mostly carried out in London, often employing patented systems of reinforcement, he saw no reason why the design could not be carried out in Ireland without being bound to any particular system.

On the matter of registration of engineers, the ICEI Council had set up a committee to consider the issues. Purcell felt that there should be no grandfather clause allowing persons to be registered who were presently holding office, but who were not properly qualified.

He urged the employment of Irish engineers where possible, rather than relying on overseas consultants, and remarked that ‘nothing can be more mischievous from the National standpoint, or more discouraging to the members of the profession, than the absolute handing over of works to outside firms of engineers’.

On the vexed question of pupilage, he held the view that the best-qualified men from the engineering schools were worthy of their places in the engineer’s office without fee and should be self-supporting.

At a time when the country had been entrusted to the people of Ireland, Purcell was naturally expected to devote some attention to the question of the increased development of its natural resources.

Purcell perceived that the need of the moment was to get the country back to normal conditions and to provide work rather than unemployment and dole queues.

Apart from the task of repairing roads and bridges damaged during the civil war, there was a need to invest in arterial drainage and to develop the hydropower potential of the country and to utilise the vast reserves of peat fuel.

It was reckoned that coal mined in Ireland amounted to around 100,000 tons per annum, as against some 4.5 million tons imported, representing some 55% of Ireland’s heat requirements. It was estimated that deposits of peat had the potential to produce 4,000 million tons of air-dried peat.

The 1918 report of the Irish Peat Engineering Committee and the experiments with the machine winning of peat, especially at Turraun, had laid the foundations for a prosperous peat industry, but it was not until 1934 that the Turf Development Board was set up, morphing into Bord na Mona in 1945.