02 Oct 2022

Trip Through Time: What happened the Dundalk steam roller?

Looking back at Dundalk's past, with former Democrat editor Peter Kavanagh

Trip Through Time: What happened the Dundalk steam roller?

It was purely by co-incidence that I included the question about the old steam roller called 'The Cuchullain' once owned by the Dundalk Urban Distrct Council, in my Question Time a couple of weeks ago, that the documentary about steam rollers and steam traction engines was broadcast on television last week.

The particular programme was part of the excellent 'Age of Steam' series by Fred Dibnah.

This particular programme brought back childhood memories of the old roller trundling along the tar and stone covered street of Dundalk three-quarters of a century ago.

It also reminded me about the autumn days around town when similar steam driven engines would arrive at local farms to drive belts which operated harvesting machines producing both grain and straw bales.

Other memories were the wonder of seeing steam engines driving dynamos producing electricity to power roundabouts at fairs in the old Athletic Grounds!

Children of today who are so involved with electronic games might scarce understand the magic of seeing a huge streamroller moving along the roads with a hiss of steam and noise of stones being crushed.

I can assure them, however, that even adults used to rush out of their homes when they heard the rumbling of a steam roller approaching and even the fear of slipping under that large rollers at the front which was often the subject of comedy films which thrived of the agony of some poor cartoon character being flattened by such a machine!

Something like this thrill might be replicated in the sight of young children getting very excited when brought to the local railway station to witness a large stream locomotive pulling into the platform and then leaving in a cloud of smoke!

For me at any rate, these monster steam engines do not quite compare with my memories of seeing steam engines lumbering along the highways and by-ways of the Town.

When I mentioned these memories to a friend of mine, he had quite another memory of the Urban Council steam roller which I had quite forgotten about!

It was one of 'The Cuchullain' being used to carry out repairs at the old railway bridge over the Greenore line at St. Alphonsus Road.

He also recalled that the engine had been left at the side of the bridge at night when the local children would crowd around to examine 'The wonder of the day'!

He could also remember that the Council had left a watchman to guard the mighty machine at night-time and could still see him warming himself at a brazier on a cold night which had been left beside a small, galvanised tin hut where he could sit when he was not chasing the children away!

My friend had yet another memory which alluded me and that was the fact that the driver of the steam roller which was working at the bridge repairs was none other that Jack Rooney who had been so tragically killed by the loyalist car bomb in Crowe Street just after he had signed off work for the Christmas holidays in December 1975!

Other forgotten memories that the television programme reminded me of were features of the old steam roller that I had forgotten about.

One was of the large round fly-wheel spinning round at the side of the driver which one imagined could fly off at any time.

The most intriguing memory was of the rod coming up at its side with three small brass balls at the top which would spread out as the wheel moved faster.

This part of the equipment was explained to me by a friend who worked at the old Railway Works where the G.N.R. sometimes used their own stream roller.

He said this device was called a 'Governor' which controlled the speed of the piston engine.

Apparently it indicated if the machine was moving too fast, so that he could reduce the steam pressure to slow it down; otherwise, it seems, this could cause the boiler to explode with a devastating effect.

Another feature which had puzzled me long ago was the reason the heavy roller at the front was in two parts?

It seem that this was to make it easier to steer the machine, to allow the two parts to move at different speeds when turning around; otherwise it might lock the steering or even topple the machine.

What happened the Dundalk steam roller?

My own interest in fate of 'The Cuchullain' was piqued by information I was given by the late Canice O'Mahony, former Dundalk Town Surveyor who was just about entering the Local Government service when steam engines were being decommissioned and being replaced by diesel driven machines.

About twenty year ago he informed me about the purchase of the old steam roller by a man called Stuart Harris living in Porchester, England.

Canice said that the steamroller had been purchased by the local Council from the Aveling and Porter company of Strood, Kent, I think as new, in 1925, for just £760 sterling.

The Dundalk steamroller had a prancing horse symbol on the front of the boiler which was the symbol of that company.

I do not know if the Dundalk Council had owned a previous steamroller or had just hired one when they were road making?

Canice told me that the machine was converted to being fired by oil at the start of the Wartime Emergency and had a water tank fitted to the roof.

Prior to that time the boiler was fired by coal and wood, sometimes, but coal was difficult obtain during the War and turf might not cause enough heat to produce steam.

Canice did not tell me how much the Dundalk Council got for the steam roller at the Public Auction but I understand that, many years later, Mr. Harris bought it for scrap at small price.

He probably paid quite a bit on its renovation but, according to Canice, its value about twenty years ago was estimated at between £40,000 and £50,000 sterling!

I do not know if Mr. Harris is still around and owns the Cuchullain but, if he does, it certainly has not decreased in value since then.

Fred Dibnah's programme revealed that the interest in collecting these type of steam driven engines has greatly increased in recent times and that there were now over 4,000 of them in working order in the U.K.

He estimate a steamroller similar to the Cuchullain to be worth several hundreds of thousands of pounds!

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