It was first proposed to soothe the “sickly horrors of the short sea passage” and speed up journey times between the two great Victorian economic powerhouses of Glasgow and Belfast.
Now more than 150 years since Luke Livingstone Macassey, an Irish water engineer and barrister, first proposed a channel tunnel to link the two cities, the idea of joining Scotland and Ireland has been revived once again.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ordered officials to come up with the costs and risks of building a bridge between Stranraer and Larne given the economic benefits. Some believe it would help to remove the sea border between the two countries.
In 1869, similar arguments were made. One account said: “Such a railway-led union would in turn tend to the consolidation of empire, so greatly desired by all lovers of order and prosperity.”
Others believed the channel tunnel would go some way to integrating the people of England, Scotland and Ireland.
“The distinction of races has been ever a curse to Ireland and no surer method exists for the complete amalgamation of the Saxon and Celt in the Briton, than easy and constant intercourse between the three countries,” another commentator said.
At today’s prices, the cost of Macassey’s tunnel would be somewhere in the region of £455 million. Mr Johnson claimed his bridge “would only cost around £15 billion”, with engineers deriding his claim as ‘bonkers’.
Mr Johnson’s optimism is perhaps like that felt by Victorian engineers who, buoyed by rapid railway expansion and mighty projects such as the Thames Embankment and Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, envisaged tunnelling mountains and crossing deep water against all the odds. Macassey found his challenge in spanning the North Channel, a stretch of water that plunges up to 275m at its deepest point at Beaufort’s Dyke – an underwater trench so big it became a Ministry of Defence dumping ground for unused explosives at the end of the Second World War.
Macassey’s tunnel would have crossed the shortest underwater route between the two countries – 14 miles – and would start and stop at Cushendun in Antrim and the Mull of Kintyre.
The journey time from Belfast to Glasgow – a distance of almost 174 miles – would have been halved to four-and-a-half hours, but the scheme was deemed financially impossible, with train companies unlikely to fund the project.
Macassey came back in 1890 to discuss seven schemes to link Scotland and Northern Ireland.
He wrote: “There is one thing in which time has made no change in the public mind and that is the dread of sea sickness. They would undergo the fatigue of a hundred miles’ trip by rail rather than risk the horrors of 20 miles in a rough sea.”
Support for the link remained high. A report in the Northern Whig in October 1890 noted “the strong hold the feasibility of running a railway under the arm of the sea that separates us from the Land of the Cakes has on the popular mind”. “A plan that possesses so much inherent vitality is not easily sunk into the limbo of oblivion,” the report said.
The same appears to be true some 150 years later. Indeed, it is almost as if Johnson could have spoken those very words.