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William Richard Le Fanu

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William Richard Le Fanu (1816-1894)


1895 Obituary [1]

WILLIAM RICHARD LE FARU, second son of the Very Rev. Thomas Philip Le Fanu, LL.D., Dean of Emly and Rector of Abington, in the county of Limerick, was born on the 24th of February, 1816, at the Royal Hibernian Military School, Dublin, to which institution Dr. Le Fanu was then Chaplain. The eldest son was the well-known novelist, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.

The subject of this notice was educated at home, and afterwards entered Trinity College, Dublin, graduating as B.A. of the University in 1839.

He then became a pupil of Mr. (afterwards Sir) John MacNeill, under whom he was engaged on extensive sea-reclamations, harbours, and other works. With the development of the railway system Mr. Le Fanu’s work took principally that direction. Sir John MacNeill was Engineer-in-Chief of most of the principal railways first constructed in Ireland: the Dublin and Drogheda, opened in 1844; the Dublin and Cashel, opened first to Carlow in 1846, then to Thurles in 1848, and finally completed to Cork under its present name of the Great Southern and Western Railway. During those years Mr. Le Fanu and Matthew Blakiston were Sir John MacNeill's principal assistants, the former having charge of all the Parliamentary and other work south of Dublin.

In 1846 he acted as Resident Engineer in charge of the completion of the Cork terminal section of the Great Southern and Western Railway, and went to live at Rathpeacon House, near Cork.

On the termination of Sir John MacNeill’s connection with the Great Southern and Western Railway, Mr. Le Fanu became the Consulting Engineer to that Company, and under his advice and superintendence the branches and extensions to Killarney (and afterwards to Tralee), to Tullamore (and afterwards to Athlone), to Roscrea (and afterwards to Parsonstown and Nenagh), and from Mallow to Fermoy, were carried out. He also designed and carried out railways for other companies : the Limerick and Foynes line ; the Bagnalstown and Ballywilliam; and the Dublin, Wicklow and Wexford Railway from Wicklow to Wexford.

He was Consulting Engineer of the Cork and Bandon Railway Company, and in 1856 designed the extensions of that line, which were not then sanctioned by Parliament, but have since been carried out. In 1861 he also became Consulting Engineer to the Board which had charge of the lighthouses round the coast of Ireland, then called the 'Ballast Board,' but now known as the 'Board of Irish Lights.' During the short time he was adviser to this Board no lighthouse work of any special character engaged his attention.

In July, 1863, Mr. Le Fanu accepted the position of Commissioner of Public Works, then vacant by the retirement of Sir Richard Griffith, Bart. The change from active professional work, with the uncertainties, not in themselves uninteresting, with which the result of new projects are attended, was not at first much to Mr. Le Fanu's taste; and he hesitated to give up the freedom of private practice, with its more remunerative prizes, for the harness of a high Government official. Friends, however, strongly pressed him, and he became Second Commissioner, Colonel Sir John McKerlie, K.C.B., becoming the Chairman of the Board. From the time he assumed these duties he devoted himself wholly and thoroughly to the work of the department.

The Board of Works for Ireland has entrusted to it business of a much wider nature than is indicated by the title of the department. Besides the charge of all Government and public buildings, it takes, in Ireland, the place of the Public Works Loan Commissioners, and to some extent that of the Inclosure Commissioners, in England. The Board is also charged with the maintenance of Inland Navigations, and the Commissioners are likewise members of the Board of Control for Lunatic Asylums, and Commissioners in charge of the harbours of Kingstown and Howth.

It was therefore no sinecure to which Mr. Le Fanu succeeded when he became a Commissioner of Public Works. All applications for Government loans for public works, landed property improvement, drainage of lands, erection of farmsteads, scutchmills, planting, improvement in navigation and water-power, came under his control. He had also to hold all meetings for making awards under the Arterial Drainage Acts for assessing charges for improvements, and to advise as to all matters in connection with inland navigation, harbours and piers, fisheries, and post roads, which came under the control of the Board. All loans, sanctioned by the Local Government Board, which sanitary authorities sought to borrow from the Treasury, came under his supervision. Except during his annual holiday or on inspections he was hardly ever a day absent from the Office of Public Works, and by making a rule of never allowing arrears to accumulate, he got through a vast amount of steady work year by year.

As a railway engineer Mr. Le Fanu carried out many large and important works, though none were of such novel or striking importance as to call for special description. It is authoritatively stated that, so carefully were estimates prepared by him, that in no case was the amount exceeded which he advised as the capital to be provided. He was a well-known figure in the Committee Rooms while in private practice, no session passing without his having Bills to support or oppose. He was retired from the post of Commissioner of Public Works in 1890, under the age regulation then for the first time applied to the whole Civil Service. In 1893 he published his well-known memoirs entitled 'Seventy Years of Irish Life.'

Mr. Le Fanu died on the 8th of September, 1894, at his residence, Summerhill, Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow, in the seventy-ninth year of his age. He was elected a Member of the Institution on the 24th of May, 1853.


Notes for Further Reading:

LE FANU, William Richard (1893) -Seventy Years of Irish Life : being anecdotes and reminiscences London: Edward Arnold, 1893, 1902, 1904 and 1907.


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