The History of Dublin’s Trams: A Rail-Life Story

O’Connell Street (then Sackville Street) around the turn of the century.

Peter McNamara

Dublin City was once home to one of the most advanced and extensive tram networks in Europe. At the turn of the 20th century, Dublin United Tramways could boast of being one of the finest services on the continent, and the seventh largest system, with 330 tram cars. They were regarded as efficient and clean and, according to History Ireland, the courtesy of the staff was “legendary.” The proud men in their uniforms, motorman and conductor, were captain and crew of their street vessels as they glided along serving the citizens of Dublin.
Up until the 1920s the main mode of public transportation around the city was its tramways. The service came into existence in 1865 and, according to Moving Through Modernity: Space and Geography in Modernism, was considered “one of the most impressive in the world” by 1904. On the old system, Dublin had pretty comprehensive coverage.
Examples of some of the routes in service at the time included: Phoenix Park to Ballsbridge, O’Connell Street to Dalkey, O’Connell Street to Howth, and Rathfarnham to Drumcondra via Harold’s Cross.. Line-laying commenced in 1871, and trams began service in 1872. Established by a number of companies, the majority of the system was eventually operated by forms of the Dublin United Tramways Company (DUTC), dominated for many years by William Martin Murphy. On that note, the tram system was also central to the Dublin Lockout, which caused major distress within the city, and despair for workers and their families.
Ireland actually came remarkably early to the city tram concept. The tram arrived in this country in the early years of railway development, and the first related projects concerned attempts to link major city train stations with a light railway. And, although some might be familiar with the celebrated his
Originally hauled by steam, this means of propulsion was soon deemed unsafe and unacceptable. Stevenson’s horse-drawn solution became the first of its kind in the world, running from Prince Street to 14th Street and providing a fifteen minute service over a four mile route The tram weighed two-and-a-half tons, could carry thirty passengers, and had all the appearance of an elongated stagecoach. Despite other experiments elsewhere in the world, John Stevenson’s effort was the first lasting tramway format.
At its peak, the Dublin tram system boasted over 97 km of active line – it was heavily used, profitable and advanced in technology and passenger facilities. Most of the services ran within the city centre and near suburbs. Additionally, there were two longer-range services, one reaching to Poulaphouca Falls, and two services concerning Howth. As per Stevenson’s example, the first Dublin trams were horse drawn, but near-full electrification was completed by 1901. The system had a reputation for technical innovation, and was described in 1904 reportage as “one of the most impressive in the world” – so much so that representatives of other cities would come to inspect it..
The massive balcony bogey cars with open front parts on the upper deck had canvas screens to prevent down-draughts. Combined with the gleaming polished brass ware, the varnished mahogany and flapping canvas, History Ireland recalls that they soon won the poetic nickname of “galleons of the streets” as they “gently swayed from side to side, and lurched fore and aft.”
On Dublin trams, the driver always remained in a standing position with legs and arms held well apart to manage the controls. The left hand was on the controller, managing the speed by raising a scale of notches. Trams could reach the dizzy speed of 40mph on straight routes. The right hand was held on the handbrake column to aid slowing down at corners, coming to a halt or holding the car on an incline. Trams also had powerful air brakes which gave out the hissing sound – common with today’s articulated trucks along with magnetic brakes usually reserved for emergencies. The motorman’s feet were also busy, clanging gongs to warn of the tram’s approach and clicking home a foot-operated ratchet to lock on the hand
brake, and even to tap a pedal to release sand onto the track for wheel-grip in wet conditions. Although more rarely used – thankfully – the foot was also the means to drop a safety screen or lifeguard to scoop up a fallen body if within braking distance. So with hands and legs on the go, the motorman went through what History Ireland describes as “a rather ritualistic dance” as he propelled his tram along.
As much as the tramways made life easier for ordinary Dubliners, carting them to work, to the shopping districts, or to other social and personal joys, the history of the Dublin Tramways Company is not without blemish.
Under the leadership of William Martin Murphy, owner of the Irish Independent and controller of the DTC, over 400 employers combined in the Dublin Employers’ Federation – a union of sorts – to deny the city’s underprivileged those very same rights of working together as a single group. The employers’ aim was to remove the threat of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) and its message of discontent so marvellously articulated by James “Jim” Larkin, in his powerful street oratory.
The crunch moment came on 15th August, 1913, when Murphy offered the workers in the Irish Independent’s dispatch department the choice of Union or job. When their loyalty to the Union resulted in dismissal, prompt solidarity action saw the dispute escalate with further dismissals in Eason’s and on the trams. The now-confident employers issued the infamous lockout document: physically locking out from their place of employment any worker that refused to sign a pledge to disown the ITGWU. By the end of September over 20,000 were locked out – and beginning to starve.

On Sunday, 31 August, the police attacked a crowd gathered to hear Larkin address them in O’Connell Street. The meeting had been banned by the authorities – the then-ruling British government. Scores were injured in the baton charge and British public opinion was shocked at the scenes. As a result of injuries received in the furore and the subsequent violence, James Nolan, James Byrne and Alice Brady paid the full measure of devotion to the cause of the workers and the underprivileged: all three were killed. Questions were raised in the House of Commons and the issue was debated at the British Trades Union Congress.
International support soon came on foot of the distress. But Larkin’s “Fiery Cross” crusade in Britain only won food and material support rather than sympathetic industrial action. Both sides settled for a long attritional war through the winter, with the bosses relying on starvation and the workers on the simple message of “each for all and all for each.”
In the face of uneven odds eventually Lock-Out began to crumble in January 1914. Some good came of the suffering. The Building Labourers’ Union returned to work – with many others following soon afterwards – without signing the offending document.
A number of factors combined in the decline of Dublin’s tram system. The DUTC opened its first bus route in 1925, running from Killester via Clontarf to the city centre. These vehicles were more nimble and mobile, and the large-scale competition meant that buses often ran the same routes as the trams and would jump in front to “grab” customers. Moreover, buses were able to move into Dublin’s expanding hinterland quicker
and at less cost than the trams. Alongside this, many customers began to believe that trams were outdated and old technology.
Meanwhile, the DUTC’s takeover of many bus operators left the DUTC with a large number of buses which were used and expanded to areas of Dublin with no tram service, and buses eventually became the DUTC’s core business. There was a belief that buses were cheaper to run than trams and that the system was in a poor state of repair Following the Transport Act 1944, control of the DUTC was vested in the newly formed Córas Iompair Éireann (CIÉ). At the time the DUTC had 113 trams remaining. The Hill of Howth Tramway was transferred to CIÉ in 1958 and closed on 31 May 1959. It was the last tram to run in Ireland until the Luas tram system opened in 2004.
Around the city it is still possible to see buildings associated with the system, such as the Blackrock Depot, Dartry Depot, Clonskeagh Depot, Donnybrook Depot (now part of Donnybrook Bus Garage), Dalkey Yard (some track still in-situ), the Sandymount Depot, the Marlborough Street Depot which still features the lettering DUTC – or the Power House in Ringsend.
The idea for a new tram or light rail system for the city of Dublin was first suggested in 1981, by a Dublin Transportation Initiative (DTI) report. Following this, CIÉ was asked to study the different options. The Transport Act, 1996 created a legal
framework for CIÉ to build a tram system and in May 1997 the company applied for a Light Railway Order to construct the
first phase. The responsibility for developing Luas was transferred from CIÉ to the Railway Procurement Agency (RPA), a separate government agency created in December 2001.
Construction began in March 2001 on the Tallaght to Connolly line, as well as the Sandyford to St Stephen’s Green section of the second line. The development of the Luas Red Line was facilitated by European Union funding of €82.5 million under the European Regional Development Fund, and part of the cost of some line extensions
(e.g. over 50% of Line B1 to
Cherrywood) was raised though levies on development in areas close to the projected route..
The original launch date for Luas was to be 2003, but delays in construction saw this date pushed back by a year. An advertising campaign took place to inform the public of the development of the system, while construction was taking place. Construction finished in February 2004 and a period of testing and driver training began. 30 June 2004 was decided on as the official launch date of the Green Line. The first tram went into service for the general public at 3 p.m. Several days of free travel and a family fun weekend took place to
launch the system. The red line opened on 26 September 2004, with six days of free travel for the general public.
Around 90,000 Luas trips are made each day. Before Luas was launched, a Safety Awareness Day was held in Dublin city centre. Thousands of reflective armbands were distributed to pedestrians and cyclists, in order to ensure their visibility for tram drivers. This policy seems to have worked as Luas has been described as “one of the safest transport systems in the world.” It seems Dublin is something of a world leader yet again.
Although not quite galleons of the streets, the sleek purple-hued Daniel-Day has proved to be a cleaner, more reliable and perhaps less controversial mode of transportation for Dubliners than the trams of old. Gone are the liveries, the brass, the canvas. Here to stay are burly ticket inspectors and robotic travel announcements. We can only guess at what Larkin would have made of the Luas strike. And let’s not talk about the Dublin Metro!