Bridging the gap. The Belfast-Dublin railway in the nineteenth century

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Dublin and Belfast were broadly considered peripheral cities in the United Kingdom during the nineteenth century. However, they had a central role in the Irish urban network and an increasingly engaged role in the British and transatlantic trade network. The transformation of Dublin and Belfast was complex and interdependent. Technological and infrastructural transformations were significant for the cultural and spatial transformations of both cities, and this was manifested in the fragmented construction of the railway between 1839 and 1855.
The spatial turn (Withers, 2009, Finnegan 2008) and material turn (Trentmann, 2009) in geography and history opens up a wider debate about the way that urban networks evolved in the nineteenth century. This approach especially influences how we understand those complex processes that align political and economic transformations with spatial, material and cultural ones. This shows that the construction of the railway had a strong impact not only on trade and economy of both cities but also on the way these infrastructures changed their spaces and material culture, transforming the way Dublin and Belfast were perceived and described. Railways radically transformed cities in the nineteenth century. The International Railway History Association, highlights that the relationship between railways and cities is complex and under researched, and emphasized that: “with a railway station, a city became part of a greater chain of production and consumption in a network without borders” (2010, pg.3). The recent revalorisation of railways in Europe in the quest for a more sustainable future refocuses attention on their history.
Dublin and Belfast were part of a complex historical relationship between Great Britain and Ireland. Early historians considered the nineteenth century one of decline for Dublin, attributed to the Act of Union of 1801, among other causes. On the other hand, Belfast was praised for its industrial development and growth in this period. Scholars now present a more nuanced picture for both cities. These new perspectives unveiled the fact that on the one hand, Dublin did not really fall into decline until the famine of the late 1840s, to soon recover and develop significantly; and on the other hand, despite the industrial development of Belfast, this city was not considered to have the socio-cultural transformations that were experienced in other British Victorian cities of similar industrialisation. These new perspectives can be also understood by the increasing exchange that was enabled with the introduction of the Dublin-Belfast railway. Historians have widely and deeply investigated different aspects of the history of both cities, their politics, their production, their built environment and their culture, but the role of the railways is under represented in the historiography of Belfast and Dublin.
This paper aims to reveal the process by which the railway line between Belfast and Dublin was established, providing a gateway to each city, thus creating a local network with repercussions in an international trade and transport network from the 1830s to the 1850s. It also opens a line of enquiry that investigates the links between infrastructural changes and the perception and narratives of both cities.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Urban Logistic Network
Subtitle of host publicationCities, transport and distribution in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Modern Times
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Publication statusPublished - 13 Dec 2019


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