Masters of literature, pubs and music, the hospitality of the Irish is the stuff of legend. Still, and this might surprise those who have preconceived notions about the isle, the Gaelic nation also has a gift for creating some of the finest engineering marvels. As St. Patrick's Day approaches, spare a thought for all the ingenious Irish men and women.

Regarding engineering, today’s Irish-focused article showcases the Celts’ finest successes. From soggy weather and power-converting hydroelectric dams to tunnels that carve their way through the country’s famous, green-tinted mountains, the Emerald Isle has more to offer than charming pubs and beautiful landscapes.

DeLoreans were built near Belfast, Northern Ireland. Source: George Sander/CC BY-NC 2.0DeLoreans were built near Belfast, Northern Ireland. Source: George Sander/CC BY-NC 2.0

Historical Irish architecture

There’s no need to rewind time all the way back to the days of saintly monks to find evidence of Irish architectural ingenuity. Located at The Rock of Cashel, a historical landmark in County Tipperary, is a collection of architecturally impressive structures. They date back to the 12th century, yet the Romanesque buildings still impress today’s engineers, probably due to Cormac’s Chapel, which incorporates a high-rise barrel vault capable of supporting huge loads.

Ha’penny Bridge, Dublin. Source: Public domainHa’penny Bridge, Dublin. Source: Public domain

Other historical engineering examples include the iconic Ha'penny Bridge in Dublin, a pedestrian bridge built in 1816, which dovetails perfectly with the 18th-century Grand Canal to underscore the Irish people’s natural inclination toward old infrastructural projects that just plain work, but also tend to look graceful and aesthetically pleasing.

From the towering Gothic spires of St. Patrick's Cathedral to the medieval fortifications that dot the countryside, Ireland's architecture exudes a timeless beauty. Still, it’s a beauty that’s backed by real engineering ingenuity.

The Irish and the Industrial Revolution

Despite a climate of political and economic uncertainty in Ireland around the time of the Industrial Revolution, big strides were made to secure the nation’s infrastructure. These include the development of facilities like the Belview Ironworks in County Waterford to produce much-needed tools and machinery, plus amazing steamships. Those machines went on to support important engineering projects, such as the 58 km long West Clary Railway, a track that still hugs the dramatic coastline of County Clare. Its construction posed significant challenges due to the rugged terrain and lack of existing infrastructure. Irish engineers employed innovative solutions, including building bridges and viaducts amidst treacherous cliffs and marshlands. Eventually overtaking the canals of the time, the railway became a vital transport link for the region, boosting tourism and economic activity.

Now, not many people may be familiar with the name John Philip Holland, as he died in poverty and obscurity, but this is the man who has been credited with the invention of the modern-day submarine. Famous artist Leonardo da Vinci had a similar idea to this way back in the early 16th century, but it was Mr. Holland who engineered a working model called the Fenian Ram in 1881, upon which all other nautical engineers took their cue.

Around this time, a certain William Parsons built something he called The Leviathon. This was a massive telescope; a tool for searching the night skies that once made Ireland the place to be for any 19th-century astronomer. Situated on the grounds of Birr Castle, County Offaly, the great telescope is made out of tin and copper alloys, and there are complex optics within the 72-inch reflector that once allowed Victorian folk to observe galaxies and nebulae in a way that few had ever seen before. The telescope has since been restored, so curious would-be astronomers can stop by Birr Castle for a guided tour if they’re ever in the area.

One featured visitor to The Leviathon was Thomas Romney Robinson, who was an astronomer by trade but is notable for his meteorological invention: the anemometer.

Modern contributions

Irish engineering contributions continued well into the 20th and 21st centuries, as well. This is particularly true for Irish women.

Lilian Bland may very well be the first female aviation engineer, as she designed and flew the first biplane in Ireland, Maylfy, in 1909. Alice Perry was one of the first women in Europe with an engineering degree (1906). Computer science is a field with many notable talents, such as Kay McNulty, Máire O'Neill and Jane Grimson. Ann Kelleher was the first Irish woman with a domestic microelectronics doctorate; Ann-Marie Holmes is a factory manager and VP, responsible for 65/90 nm wafer development; both have made a significant impact on the chip industry. Norah Patten, Fionnghuala O’Reilly and Naimh Shaw are among many notable aerospace talents, although their lasting legacies will be inspiring thousands more young Irish women to pursue STEM education.

Harry Ferguson is perhaps the most notable Irish man of recent history, despite his lack of formal schooling. Ferguson was narrowly ahead of Lilian Bland in the aviation field — he designed and flew his own airplane also in 1909. Ferguson later invented the hydraulic tractor, which exponentially optimized many agricultural tasks. Ferguson would also go on to build some of the earliest and fastest F1 racecars of the 1960s.

Belfast, Northern Ireland, became a hub for manufacturing in the early 20th century. Shipbuilding and engineering created massive seagoing vessels, which tamed the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. Or in the case of the Titanic, succumbed to its peril. Nearby Dunmurry, N.I., was the manufacturing site of the famous DeLorean sports car, which inspired moviegoers, auto fans and engineers alike for decades. Business troubles meant the DeLorean was only made available to U.S. markets.

Also worth mentioning are the numerous roadworks and railway projects which help connected a small island country with difficult terrain. Another infrastructure project, a vast hydroelectric project, one of the first of its kind, harnessed the power of the River Shannon in the 1920s. Cheap and sustainable electricity came to the country and it drew more than 250,000 tourists per year. In 2002, IEEE recognized its significance to engineering history.

Guinness brewery locomotives, No. 2, Hops, and No. 3, Malt. Source: Public domainGuinness brewery locomotives, No. 2, Hops, and No. 3, Malt. Source: Public domain

Even more culturally important to Ireland is the famous Guinness brewery, at St. James’ Gate, Dublin, which opened in 1759, and continues to export millions of pints of stout each year. The brewery has always been on the cutting edge of food and beverage manufacturing. It was one of the first factories to have on-site electricity generation. Carl von Linde was a German engineer who perfected mechanical refrigeration in 1894. That same year he installed mechanical refrigeration systems at the brewery. The brewery was also an early adopter of railways; it installed two railways, along with locomotives and rolling stock, to transport heavy materials around its brewery, beginning in 1873.


As St. Patrick’s Day nears, raise a glass — preferably of Guinness — to celebrate the engineers who have helped shape Ireland's infrastructure and harnessed its natural resources to drive global progress.