James Boyle’s first council job came in 1973, as an engineering student: He surveyed a route from Letterkenny General Hospital to the Oatfield Sweets factory that passed through two fields. Soon after, the council built DeValera Road there.
That road is as much a part of Letterkenny as the fields were to earlier families. That’s what a civil engineer does, leave his or her mark through projects that become a part of the way a place works, whether they are roads, or water schemes or other developments.
James retired recently as the council’s manager of roads maintenance. Recalling his work, he paused when he got to the Donegal Town bypass, which opened in 1999. “Hard to believe it’s been 13 years,” he said.
A lot has changed since James, age 60, got his first permanent job with the council in 1979. He joined after qualifying as an engineer at University College Galway and spending three years with Longford County Council. He was told he could join the water section of the Donegal council, and there would be an opening in roads in a couple of weeks.
It didn’t happen that quickly, but in 1987 he became the local area engineer in Dungloe, an area stretching from Falcarragh to Fintown and Gweebara. “When I got there, there was a serious problem with the roads in Dungloe,” James said. Local people drove to Lifford, circling the diamond in protest.
“Things were very hard in the county at the time,” James said, describing Ireland as in a state of “continuous recession”. Emigration and unemployment were high.
A “week on, week off” scheme allowed people to alternate a week of social welfare with a week of work with the roads section. In 1988-89, 120 workers were taken on in the Dungloe area alone. The extra staff were a great help and the work gave the men a sense of purpose, along with the craic that comes from work. “Men need sheds,” James said. “The shed was the road.”
He asked, “Is there anything we could take from that today?”
It’s another hard time for the council. There are just 180 people employed in council roads at the moment, he said. James said there has been talk nationally of the possibility of local authorities having to abandon some Class 3 roads – bog roads, or roads that serve two or three houses. “We just do not have the money,” James said.
Look at it this way, he said: The county council’s 2008 roads allocation was about €43 million. This year it is about €21 million. Councillors determine priorities and the local authority uses those decisions when they apply for funding, but they are constrained by spending decisions made in Dublin. James was very disappointed with the decision to delay state funding for the upgrade of the A5, Derry to Dublin road. “The loss of that scheme to the county is the biggest single issue of the last several years,” he said.
“Derry City is bigger than Galway, Limerick and Waterford, and yet there are motorways to Galway, Limerick and Waterford,” James said. “It leaves Donegal in a huge gap when it comes to infrastructure and tourism.”
Things turned around for the council by 1993, and they employed two new design teams. James headed up the team for the Clar-Barnesmore Gap Scheme (opened 2001), and became project engineer for the Donegal Town and Mountcharles bypasses (opened 2001). He was involved in the Letterkenny Business Park Road and last year helped secure funding for the purchase of land to extend the road.
“The question now, in the next 15 years, where will be the next bypass for Letterkenny?” James asked.
James and his wife, Grace, live in the Gartan home where James was born and raised and where James’ family has lived since the 1700s. They have five children.
His work history involved more than council projects. When he was 14, James lived and worked at Glenveagh Castle. It sounded like something out of “Downton Abbey”: James and the staff lived in the annex. They got up at 7.30 am and sat down to a cooked breakfast at 8am. James kept the central boiler lit, polished shoes and sometimes delivered vases of flowers to one room or another that Henry McIlhenny had arranged in the morning. Henry might host a dinner for 25; a member of staff collected the fish to be served from Burtonport or Downings.
James was too young for evening dances, “So sometimes I was completely on my own in the castle,” he said. Tales of headless spectres made for some scary nights, even though he never saw any. It was still some summer.
“I didn’t realise it at the time how big an experience it was,” he said.
After he completed his studies at St. Eunan’s College in 1970, James spent six years back and forth to Chicago, where he worked in construction. He earned good money – about $200, or £80 a week. “It was the best experience of my life,” he said.
He doesn’t know what’s next – “There are so many things” – but he wouldn’t want to go back into engineering: “There are so many young people unemployed that I wouldn’t want to be seen taking jobs from them.”