Energy Institute

The story of transport in Ireland

Traditionally people moved by foot or on horseback in Ireland with rivers and seas supporting the movement of people and goods over long distances. In the 1800s, public transport expanded in the form of stage coaches, canal barges, and commuter railways. This was gradually replaced by private and public motor transport in the 1900s to the point where almost 2 million cars were registered in Ireland in 2014. The evolution of transport infrastructure is ongoing. With the completion of a national motorway system the emphasis has shifted to the provision of local infrastructure to manage congestion and air quality. EU energy policy has driven higher obligations on manufacturers to meet increasing emissions standards and set a 10% target for renewable transport by 2020. Renewable options being pursued include electric vehicles and motorbikes, biofuels, compressed natural gas (CGN), and biogas, as well as initiatives to transition towards alternative approaches to travelling, such as through the cycle to work scheme and city bikes.

Transport in modern Ireland is the means by which we provide for the movement of people, goods and services.  It is also a service in its own right; a private or public service, an individual or a shared service and the technology involved ranges from none at all through the simple bicycle to jet plane. Until the 19th Century most land journeys were by foot or on horseback with rivers and seas supporting the movement of people and goods by river barge or ship over long distances.

Early transport services facilitated the collective movements of people by coach, in boats on inland waterways or on larger ships sailing to foreign lands.  Eventually even greater volumes of collective passenger and goods transportation was made possible by the creation of canals, the invention of railways, trams, buses, and private cars.  Goods were moved on canals, or railways, in sea going ships and, with the advent of the internal combustion engine, goods transport by truck and smaller commercial vehicles became the norm in Ireland.

The energy to power in the different modes of transport came from wind (sailing ships), humans (walking, rowing, pedal-power), horsepower (pulling canal barges, coaches, and trams), wood, coal, diesel and electricity (as energy for railway locomotives), and petrol, diesel, LPG and renewable biofuels in internal combustion engines in cars and lorries.  Modern ships run on marine diesel.  In the future they may be required to use cleaner fuels such as LNG (liquefied natural gas) in response to concerns of air pollution from ships visiting certain ports in Europe and USA.  A large proportion of sea transportation of goods is now by container shipping.

After Roman roads and the transport of essentials like water in aqueducts ships and ports were the first elements of transport infrastructure; the need to trade local produce via rivers, then canals, railways, roads and eventually air caused successive waves of infrastructure investment that continues today with the proposed new runway for Dublin airport.

The mobility over longer distances was firstly undertaken by merchants and traders, then administrators.  At the time of the Roman Empire the need for sea transport grew rapidly to provide the logistical support to conquer and then control remote lands.  The many ships and crews were initially sourced by Rome from Greece and Egypt.

Technical developments placed a range of new transport options using horsepower (literally), ships powered by wind, human rowers and eventually coal fired steam ships. Developments such as the railways allowed the wealthy initially and then the general populace to travel including for leisure activities.  This led to the growth of seaside resort towns connected by rail to urban centres.  The possibility of holidaying and commuting for work was facilitated by those early infrastructure investments.

An early form of zero carbon transport came on stream with the invention of the bicycle.  By the turn of the 20th century these were expensive and were limited to those who could afford them.  They were more competitive over short distances than the horse drawn, steam or emerging internal combustion options (the bicycle was invented 1817, patented in 1860 and 1870, first popular models were placed on the market in 1895).

Today it is possible to source goods or travel to places that at one time would have consumed so much time and resources that they remained out of reach for all but the most adventurous of travellers. Ireland like most of the world lived off locally produced food and resources where the most valuable were traded to secure rare essentials like sugar, salt, spices and textiles. The mobility of people, passengers, goods and services we enjoy today is facilitated by a combination of technology, energy and infrastructure developments. The great projects of the last two centuries have involved the construction of canals, railways, tramways in towns as well as ports and airports alongside the modernisation and extension of the road system.

The rise of aviation as a means of passenger transport, both within Ireland and internationally, was also inexorable.  In 1949 there were 213,000 passengers.  Dublin Airport expects to handle 27 million passengers in 2016.  Ryanair carried over 100 million passengers for the first time in 2015.  In 2014 there were 1.95 million private cars in Ireland travelling on average 16,131 kms per car.

The evolution of new transport modes is ongoing.  The use of biofuels to reduce the CO2 impact of combustion engines is now established.  Research is ongoing into electric vehicles (EVs) including the non-plug technology for charging them.  Electric assisted bicycles are now available as are electric motor bikes. The potential future use of renewable gas from anaerobic digestion (e.g. of grasses and other biomass) is being researched in Ireland.  This is examining the feasibility and economics of distributing cleaned methane gas through the existing natural gas transmission system to fuel internal combustion engines in towns and cities on the grid.  Research into driver-less vehicles is proceeding apace with one manufacturer planning to market them within 4 years. One of the biggest revolutions in energy use in urban transport may be brought about, not by climate change, but by health concerns from vehicle exhaust pollution of particulates and NOx from internal combustion engines in large cities such as London and Paris where citizens have resorted to litigation in protest.

The great hope of working from home as a means of reducing the need for work related transport has yet to be realised on a scale that would reduce peak travel, possibly due to the need for social interaction which the work environment provides.  

Aer Lingus plane

Dublin airport, 1950

Horsepower– from ancient times to 1901

Up until the 18th century, inland transport in Ireland would have been by foot, on horseback or by horsedrawn carriages or carts. In some areas donkeys were used to pull carts.

Alternative transport infrastructure was slow to develop in Ireland. The building of the canals from Dublin to the River Shannon brought improvements, providing horse drawn services for passengers and goods along 1,365km of waterways from the end of the 18th Century.

From around 1815 onward, at a time preceding railways, Bianconi founded the first public transportation network in Ireland using horse-drawn carriage services known as Bianconi coaches. The first service connected Clonmel to Cahir and reduced the time from five to eight hours by boat to only two hours by carriage. Travel on a Bain cost one penny farthing a mile.

Passenger canal transport disappeared in the 1850s with the advent of cross-country horse powered road coaches.

Horse drawn trams were popular in cities in the 19th Century, with 137 tramcars operating in Dublin by 1881. The first electric tram operated from Haddington Road to Dalkey in 1896. Over the next few years the electrification of tramways grew and the end of horse drawn cars was announced in 1901.

Horsedrawn Omnibus

Westmoreland Street, Dublin

Rail transport – 1847 to present

The first railway to open in Ireland was the Dublin to Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) railway in 1834. Only 65-70 miles of railway were used in Ireland in 1845, but by 1920 there was over 3,400 miles of track on which coal and steam powered engines ran.

Railways came under severe pressure from road transport from the early 1920s onward. By 1916 there were over 5,632 kms of railways on the island with 964 train stations but a tribunal proposed to close down almost half of the system. The situation was temporarily relieved by the outbreak of the war. Reduction in fuel supplies diverted both passengers and goods in the private transport sector over to public transport.

After the Second World War, closures of uneconomic routes were inevitable on the railways. By 1970 there were only 1,935 miles in service compared to 3,675 miles in 1949. The rail network had reduced to 1,758 miles by 1997. The LUAS and the DART service of modern times saw the use of electricity as the energy source from diesel engine trains to electric trains and the on-street trams (LUAS).

Shipping – from ancient times to the present

Ships were another early form of transportation in Ireland and in Europe. Greek and Egyptian shipbuilders were active as well as the Carthaginian fleets. This mode of transport, used for warfare in the Mediterranean, was later to be adopted by the Roman Empire as a means of extending its power across the Mediterranean which they called Mare Nostrum (our sea).

Early international trade by ships from Ireland was also very active. Ireland's reputation as a shipping and trading hub was part of the reason why the sea faring Vikings invaded in 800 BC.

Fishing depended on inshore vessels initially. Navigation on inland rivers was also important. Brian Boru is reported to have had a fleet of ships to navigate the Shannon north from his base on the estuary in Clare, from where he used to make forays northwards up the Shannon.

Until the arrival of air travel in the 20th Century, ships were the only method of transporting people and goods to and from the outside world and with the coming of the railways most of the major ports were connected by railways. The infamous famine ships transported many people from Ireland to the USA, Canada and Britain.


An early form of zero carbon transport came on stream with the invention of the bicycle. By the turn of the 20th century these were expensive and were limited to those who could afford them. They were more competitive over short distances than the competing horse drawn, steam or emerging internal combustion options (the bicycle was invented 1817, patented in 1860 and 1870, first popular models were placed on the market in 1895). From its invention in Germany about 1817, it was 80 years before a practical but still expensive bicycle became generally available.

Cycling is a popular mode of transport in Continental European cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen. In Ireland the development of bicycle lanes has been promoted by Local Authorities. The Dublin Bike scheme where residents and visitors can rent a bike for short journeys has proved a success. The scheme marked a milestone recently with the announcement that over 10 million journeys have now been taken on the public hire bike scheme. The scheme, which is provided by JCDecaux on behalf of Dublin City Council, launched as Dublin Bikes in September 2009.

The success of the Dublin bikes scheme has led to further roll-out in other urban centres, such as Cork, Limerick and Galway. A recent development in the area of pedal cycles is the marketing of a range of battery powered electric bikes. Most of these have detachable batteries for charging inside the owners home.

Trams and bicycles


Horse drawn trams remained popular at the end of the 19th century with a fleet of 300 in Dublin by 1911. The Dublin United Tramways company opened its first bus route in 1925 powered by internal combustion engines. Buses progressively replaced the trams over the first half of the 20th century. The Royal Commission on Transport, 1930, actively advised for the replacement of trams with buses due to the extension of the suburbs and easier access to new housing developments, the growing competition and duplication between buses and tram routes, lower investment costs, and their avid popularity with the public. The closure of the last tram route from Dublin city to Dalkey was in 1949. According to then Minister for Justice Seán Mac Eoin, "a force of 60 guards, including 2 superintendents, 1 inspector, 8 sergeants and 3 motor-cyclists" were unable to protect the last tram from damage by souvenir hunters.

After much delay a central bus station named Árus Mhic Dhiarmuida commonly referred to as Busárus and designed by Architect Michael Scott opened its door to the travelling public in Dublin in October 1953. It remains an important national transport hub to this day being close to Connolly Station and served by LUAS, DART and Dublin Bus services. This piece of transport infrastructure took 15 years to complete from its inception.

The automobile

The first car was exhibited in Ireland in 1896, after which time motoring gained in popularity. The total number of cars in Ireland in 1915 was 9,850, one third of which were in Dublin. Car ownership increased in the 1920s and 1930s. However, with the onset of the Second World War, rationing of petrol began in 1939, limited to priority cases such as doctors, clergymen, the military and government and by 1944 petrol rations that were supplied to doctors were eliminated completely. Acute fuel shortages during this time resulted in few new cars being registered during and shortly after the war although by 1947 a recovery was well underway.

The number of new cars registered in 1945 was only 261; four years later it rose to over 15,000. By 1968 the number of private cars had increased to 348,000 and in 1996 it reached one million. New private cars licensed initially peaked in 1973 at 75,000 but there was a surge in 1978, 1981, 1996 and 1998.

By 2014 there were 1.95 million private cars in Ireland travelling on average 16,131 kms per car. These are fuelled in the main by petrol and diesel fuels (with a percentage of renewable biofuels), a small number are fuelled by LPG and the uptake of electric vehicles is being promoted by Government by means of capital grants, low road tax and the roll out of charging infrastructure.


Aviation progressed at the start of the 20th century with the first non-stop transatlantic flight in 1919 from Newfoundland ending in Clifden in Connemara. Despite the initiation of civil air transport in 1919 it was only in 1933 that the first air service to and from Ireland was launched, operating Dublin-Belfast and Liverpool-Dublin routes. Aerlingus operated the first Irish-owned services in May 1936 from Dublin to Bristol.

Civil air transport grew during the first half of the 20th century. Aer Lingus launched its first transatlantic service in 1948. In 1949 there were 17,000 flights in and out of Dublin with 213,000 passengers compared to 162,000 flights in 1998 and over 10 million passengers. Dublin Airport exceeded 25 million passenger movements in 2015 and the second terminal which was opened in 2010 is now a very active transport hub serving many long haul carriers. The next infrastructural development is the provision of an additional runway to cater for current and expected demand.

One of the key developments in Irish aviation was the founding of Ryanair, a major Irish corporate success story – now the largest carrier in Europe flying in excess of 100 million passengers in 2015. This company has revolutionised low cost air travel and has a major benefit to Irish people living in Europe (including recent emigrants) as well as the importance of low cost fares in attracting inward tourism.

21st Century

By 2006 about 34% of Irelands primary energy demand was for transport. Final energy use in transport had grown 167% since 1990. Energy for transport was almost totally dependent on imported oil products both in the form of refined product or refined at Ireland only oil refinery at Whitegate in Cork Harbour. Road transport accounted for 63% of the total fuel consumption in the transport sector; private car usage was responsible for 46%. Since 2005 there has been more than one car for every two adults in Ireland.

Until 2007 Ireland enjoyed high levels of economic growth which led to the expansion of the car stock. Transport energy use fell with the recession; jet kerosene consumption decreased and the total number of private cars licensed for the first time fell by 49%. Despite the reduction in the transport sectors' final energy consumption, the overall trend since 1990 has been of exceptionally high growth. Energy use in the transport sector in 2013 was 97.5% dependent on oil products at an estimated cost of 3.5 billion Euro, just over half the estimated total cost of fuel imports. The biggest shift has been from petrol to diesel. While the overall consumption of both fuels has increased since 1990, consumption of diesel increased by almost 230% and its overall market share has grown from 33% in 1990 to 53% in 2012.

Since the early 2000s EU energy policy has driven changes in the transport sector. Changes to the taxation of private cars introduced in 2008 together with obligations on car manufacturers to improve the efficiency of their new car fleets have contributed to a profound change in the purchasing patterns of new cars. A carbon tax in 2010 applied to road transport petrol and diesel from December 2009 and was later extended to other fuel types. The average specific CO2 emissions of all new cars was 120.7gCO2/km compared to the 2007 the average of 164 gCO2/km. Setting emissions standards performances are part of a European wide drive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

With the introduction of the Biofuels Obligation Scheme in 2010 the share of biofuels as a percentage of petrol and diesel energy use was 4.8% in 2013. The initial target was increased to 6.383% in 2013. The 2009 Renewable Energy Directive set individually binding targets for each Member State. Ireland has to get 16% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, and the target for the transport sector is 10%. The National Renewable Energy Action Plan set out goals for Electric Vehicles and biofuels as part of this. At the end of 2013 there were 420 Electric Vehicles in Ireland, including 251 private cars. This is less than 1% of the revised target for 2020 of 50,000 vehicles despite increases in the numbers registered. Other transport schemes include taxsaver commuter tickets and the cycle to work scheme.

The Irish road network is over 100,000 km of road of all types. There are 24,422 buses in operation, 66 trams and 2,384 km of railway with 142 passenger stations. The canals and rivers are used for leisure and recreation. In 2014, some 217,125 flights passed through airports in the Republic of Ireland carrying 26.5 million passengers and 139,000 tonnes of freight. With more than 1 million tonnes of freight handled at six ports, freight carried by rail has fallen while road freight has resumed growth. Ireland's car dependence is in line with the EU average while Ireland has a comparatively lower share for train but a higher share for bus. Transport energy demand fell between 2007 and 2012 but has picked up since in line with increased transport use.