Alexander Nimmo, the Scotsman whose ‘tolerable village’ became a favourite with travellers

Roundstone is one of more than 40 harbours and piers on Ireland’s west coast that Nimmo designed

Alexander Nimmo: his harbours and piers are dotted along the western seaboard from Sligo to Clare

The Latin inscription beneath the dome of Sir Christopher Wren’s magnificent St Paul’s Cathedral in London, “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice”, translates as: If you seek his monument, look around you.

A similar sentiment might serve as an epitaph for the Scottish engineer Alexander Nimmo in the Connemara village of Roundstone or on the lengthy stone pier bearing his name that juts out from the Claddagh district of Galway city.

Nimmo’s Pier, completed 200 years ago this year during 1823 to serve as a breakwater for the port of Galway and a shelter for the Claddagh fishing boat fleet, is still perfectly intact, while Roundstone Harbour withstood almost two centuries of fierce Atlantic storms.

Nimmo, who was born in Fife, designed Roundstone Harbour and he took a long lease on the land adjoining it to lay out the village. What he planned as “a tolerable fishing village” is now more often dubbed “Dublin 4 on tour” during the holiday months of July and August.

Roundstone is one of more than 40 harbours and piers on Ireland’s west coast that Nimmo designed and oversaw the construction of during the decades after the Act of Union. He came to Ireland in 1811 after graduating from university in Edinburgh and learning about engineering and cartography in Scotland where Ordnance Survey mapping began in the late 18th century.

Employed initially by the government to survey the bogs of Galway and Kerry, he subsequently surveyed much of Ireland’s coastline for the Fishery Board. His harbours and piers are dotted along the western seaboard from Sligo to Clare. In Galway alone there are 13, including Rossaveel, the embarkation port for ferries to the Aran Islands, and Rinville, homebase of the Galway Bay Sailing Club, as well as Clifden, Inverin, Spiddle, Furbo, Barna and Annaghdown.

“Nimmo’s work had laid a foundation for all future pier building in Co Galway, and places like Claddagh, Cleggan, Clifden, Roundstone and Burrin New Quay in Co Clare would remain pivotal sites for fishery and other maritime developments right to the present day”, wrote University of Galway Prof Noel P Wilkins in 2017.

Galway city’s Eglington Canal, completed in 1852, was constructed in response to Nimmo’s proposal almost 30 years earlier that Lough Corrib should be linked to the Atlantic Ocean. Among the more than 200 miles of roads that Nimmo outlined or improved between 1822 and 1831 are those between Galway and Clifden and between Kilcolgan and Kinvara, and the roads from Galway to Tuam and Headford. He also built the first stone bridge and hotel at Maam Cross.

Aside from his government work, Nimmo undertook private sector surveys of the harbours in Cork, Waterford, Sligo and Drogheda, and he designed Limerick’s five-arch Sarsfield Bridge (formerly Wellesley Bridge) and stone bridges in Pollaphuca, Wicklow, and Cahir in Tipperary.

He built his own home and main office on Marlborough Street in central Dublin. He died there in January 1832, after a lingering illness, aged 49 years.

A House of Commons commission report on the Industries of Ireland published more than 50 years after Nimmo’s death described him as “one of the ablest engineers we ever had in Ireland.”

Contemporary Galway newspapers were less circumspect. An identical report on Nimmo’s death in the Galway Weekly Advertiser and the twice-weekly Galway Independent Paper said that “the British empire in general has sustained an almost irreparable loss”. The report said that his membership of the Royal Irish Academy and the Royal Society of Edinburgh were “but as dust weighed in the balance when compared with the sterling talent and intrinsic merit of this excellent and lamented individual” and that “as a theorist and scientific member of his profession he has left no equal”.

It added: “Eulogism is unnecessary, as the word ‘Ireland’ alone will be both his most merited monument and suitable epitaph … the effects [of] his actual works will be felt long after the very remembrance of his name will have passed away”.

Later authoritative West of Ireland chroniclers agreed. The cartographer and writer Tim Robinson, who lived for decades in Roundstone village in a house he named Nimmo House, wrote that Nimmo “left his mark on every corner of the country”.

The archaeologist, surgeon and sometime Corribside resident Sir William Wilde wrote that Nimmo’s memory “should be revered in the West” where his projects and reports “can never be sufficiently appreciated”. And the pre-eminent 19th-century Galway historian James Hardiman wrote that Nimmo “did more towards the ultimate improvement of the place than any other man that ever lived”.

  • Had Boris Johnston’s daft idea to have a bridge built between Scotland and Ireland – probably from Kintyre to Ballycastle – ever come to fruition then the Irish diaspora would have been forever grateful to him, but we all know Boris says more than his prayers.  Many of the Irish in Scotland, now into fourth, fifth and sixth generation, still travel back to their homeplace each year for a holiday. To Dublin, Galway, Cork and Donegal. And to Connemara, which Ray Burke mentions kindly in this excellent article. Editor

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