Written by Barry Lally (Originally Published in Apr/May 2015 issue of Ballinasloe Life Magazine)
A ruined coach-house in Birchgrove is locally the only identifiable memento of a man who was the nineteenth-century counterpart of Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary in as much as he introduced and operated a cut-price, no-frills transport system in the Ireland of this day.
That man was Carlo Bianconi, born in Northern Italy in 1786, small in physical stature but great in business acumen. His family was well-to-do and Carlo was intended for the priesthood. At the age of 16, however, he abandoned formal education and became apprenticed to Andrea Faroni, a dealer in prints.
In 1802, Bianconi and his master arrived in Dublin where they set up shop selling cheap religious images and topical prints. Eventually Faroni returned to Italy, leaving Bianconi behind to travel about the country peddling his wares.
Deciding that the life of an itinerant salesman was not for him, in 1806 he opened for business in Carrick-on-Suir as a carver and gilder, later moving to Waterford and finally establishing himself in Clonmel, which was to remain his home and the hub of his transport empire for over half a century. Having tried his hand at the bullion trade, the buying of gold to pay the armies engaged in the last phases of the struggle against Napoleon, in July 1815 Bianconi launched the enterprise that would make his name and fortune.
Tramping the roads of Ireland, he had noticed that the country lacked an inexpensive and reliable passenger service linking rural towns, since most of the public transport that existed was Dublin oriented. The times were auspicious for the venture he had in mind: highway robbery, the bane of the eighteenth-century travellers, had at least been stamped out; a new carriage tax threw many side-cars on the market; and the ending of the Napoleonic wars made available a great number of first-rate, ex-army horses at cheap prices.
The initial route he operated was between Clonmel and Cahir with a one-horse, two-wheeled car. Business prospered, and by 1825 his cars were covering over 1,000 miles of roads each day, linking the principal towns of south Leinster and east Munster. By 1831, his cars were running to Ballinasloe, calling daily on weekdays at Gill’s (now Hayden’s) Hotel on Dunlo Street. Horses were changed in the Mail Coach Yard at the back of Main Street, accessed through Iver’s Lane beside John Wood’s.
Bianconi’s two-wheelers were known as ‘’Massey Dawsons’’, but the vehicle most associated with his name was the long car of ‘’Finn McCool’’, colloquially referred to as a ‘’Bian’’. This was basically a four-wheeled, elongated side-car drawn by a team of four horses. Passengers sat back-to-back on horsehair cushions facing the hedgerows. Since the cars were open to the elements, a lengthy journey in the cold and rain cannot have been a pleasant experience, though in wet weather a car was never allowed to go more than two stages without changing the cushions, and passengers were also able to protect themselves to some extent with heavy waterproof aprons which could be drawn up to the chin.
Although Bianconi was in time to operate some coaches on his routes, his open cars remained the main basis of his business, and he eventually had 100 vehicles travelling 3,800 miles a day calling at 120 towns, and 140 stations for changing horses.
Bianconi took great care of his horses but never overpaid his drivers, who received no more than the basic rate irrespective of length of service. He knew, of course, that they supplemented their income with tips from passengers and by charging fees for luggage which they pocketed themselves.
The advent of the railways did not, as might be thought, immediately sound the death knell of his business, for he turned the railways to his advantage by restructuring his route system to operate at right angles to the stations served by the trains. He thus complemented the railways by carrying passengers to and from those stations.
Nine years before Carlo Bianconi’s death in 1875, he decided to break up his coaching business and sell it on favourable terms to his agents and employees.