Our new County Council offices at Aras An Chontae in Roscommon town provide office accommodation for 250 staff, a council chamber and support facilities for elected members. It really is a futuristic building embracing the present and future needs of the people of Roscommon town and its environs.
On a recent visit there, my eyes fell apon a magnificent steamroller taking pride of place in the immense foyer. I recalled one that had stood for a long time outside of the courthouse building (which then housed the Council HQ) and always wondered where its final resting place would be. Would it go to the scrapyard among other forgotten machinery, its life now over like an old pair of boots that had tread on too many roads? Happily, not so.
A visit to Senior Engineer John O’Rourke at his office in the new building, took me down a long and exciting road, introducing me for the first time to steamrollers.
John provided me with the history of the machine: “The Aveling and Porter Steam Roller 7601 was restored by KG Engineering, Stradbally, County Laois, now exhibited in the front foyer of Aras an Chontae, under the lightwell which is between Housing and Planning.
“It was manufactured in Rochester, Kent, England in 1912 and the manufacturers gave its number as 7601, together with a name plate ‘Invicta’ on the front. From 1912 to the early 1960s, the 12 tonne Aveling and Porter Steam Roller was used for road construction within the county of Roscommon. Often the steam roller towed a ‘living van’, largely made from timber and used by the driver for living quarters. In later years, they were used as on-site canteen. It was last driven by our colleague, Mr. Brian Derwin (RIP) on St. Patrick’s Day between the years 2000-2002.
“The Aveling and Porter’s logo features a gold (polished brass) rearing horse (before Ferrari used a similar trademark!) and the Latin motto ‘Invicta’ meaning unvanquished – and indeed such was the quality of the design, materials used and workmanship employed that many of them have survived for over 100 years and indeed have been restored to full working order. The most famous perhaps being ‘Betsy’, a similar one with the Serial No 7632 restored by steam enthusiast, Fred Dibnah, presenter of the popular BBC TV Series ‘Made in Britain’. A high quality restoration, it was a frequent winner at many steam rallies throughout Britain. With attractive paint schemes and quality fittings made from brass, which is polished up like gold, the steamroller is a work of art as well as a fascinating piece of technology.”
I also spoke to John Connor from Agatharn, Tooreen, Co. Mayo, who worked for Mayo County Council during the 1950s and he was happy to share his memories of the steamrollers.
John said: “I started on roadworks in 1958 and in 1959 on a job where there was a steamroller. On road construction at that time we used 2-3 inch broken stone to construct the road. This stone was spread by men with shovels and would be put in layers of 6-8 inches. Each layer would be rolled and compacted by the steamroller. This would be topped off with dust and tar and chippings would be put over that and all rolled and compacted by steamroller.
“The steamroller weighed 8 tons but heavier when it was filled with water and fuel – it was
fuelled by coal and water. There had to be a fire in the roller to heat the water and the steam from the water had to reach 180psi pressure before the roller would move, so the driver had to get up at 5 am every morning to put on the fire in the roller so that it would be ready to start work at 8 am, which was the starting time for road works.”
John offered further details about the driver of the steamroller, his work pattern and conditions.
“The driver of the steamroller had a caravan-type van that he towed behind the roller and he parked this on the side of the road. It had a coal fired stove and a bed which allowed him to cook and sleep there for the week.
“When he finished work at 1 pm on a Saturday, which was normal time for finishing in those days (5 and a half day week), he would travel home to wherever he lived, usually on his bicycle. This journey could be 20 or 30 miles and he would cycle back to his van on a Sunday evening in order to be up at 5 am on Monday morning.
“Usually, the driver was very black in the face from filling coal into the fire, several times a day. In those days the coal was very dusty. It was a similar operation to what a fireman had to do on the steam train, but not as often. In some parts of the country, the steamroller was used until the mid-60s when it was replaced by the diesel roller.”
John began working for the County Council at the very young age of 15, quickly learning the job, moving on to be a ‘ganger’ at 18, foreman at 24 and an overseer at 31, becoming the youngest man ever to hold all the positions with Mayo County Council. In his position of overseer he was responsible for the guidance and completion of numerous projects.
He spoke about retiring from Mayo County Council almost nine years ago. He said: “I retired on the 21st of December 2008, having completed 50 years of unbroken service and I never had a day off sick!”
He has travelled many roads throughout Mayo in his working capacity. Now, with his wife Teresa by his side, he is travelling over land and sea to many countries in Europe, having visited parts of Australia of the Australian Outback, including Ayers Rock and the Great Barrier Reef.
“We toured New Zealand, both the north and south islands. Returning from Australia and the New Zealand trip we had travelled 28,500 miles. We have been to China and climbed some of the Great Wall and rode on the bullet train at 310kmph. We have been to the United States on several trips and have now visited 30 of the states,” he said.
It seems that John has left the ‘steamroller’ days behind and is now on a rollercoaster of his own!