It is so much part of our everyday lives now that we barely give the cars on our roads a second thought, but back in 1896 when the first vehicle appeared on this island reactions were mixed, with some people even seeing them as the work of the devil, writes Leanne Blaney.


The first motorcar was imported into Ireland in March 1896. John Brown, a scientist who lived on the outskirts of Belfast, had spent the previous summer travelling through France where he became acquainted with a steam-powered Serpollet motorcar. Having travelled over 200 miles on it during his trip, he became enamoured by the novelty and opportunity which this form of transport offered.

He convinced the owner to sell him the vehicle, which was delivered to his Dunmurray home during the following spring.

Legislation of the 1896 Locomotive on Highways Act in November of 1896 removed the strict rules imposed by MP’s who had been reluctant for the transport monopoly enjoyed by British railways to be challenged by the popularity of motorised vehicles on roads in the UK and Ireland.

These rules, including the obligation for an individual to walk in front of the vehicle waving a red flag as a warning for other road users, had been hotly contested by many would-be motorists. They accused MP’s of being self-interested in preserving their stocks and shares in the rail industry.

By the 1890s with growing numbers of motorcars appearing on the roads across Europe, politicians in Westminster had been forced to capitulate. Now the opportunity presented itself for many others to follow in Brown’s footsteps and officially become Irish motorists. Unfortunately for Brown and his fellow motorists, he quickly discovered that steam powered motorcars were badly suited to both Ireland’s climate and roads. Belfast’s damp weather made it difficult for him to power the car’s steam engine.

When he did manage to power the vehicle enough to take it for a drive, he then had to encounter the problem of driving along Irish roads which were often unsurfaced, full of potholes and crowded by horses, animals and pedestrians unfamiliar with motorcars.

Greater success was enjoyed by John Malcolm Gillies, editor of the Irish daily newspaper The Freeman’s Journal. Gillies had purchased and imported a German Benz motorcar only a matter of weeks after the importation of Brown’s Serpollet. Better suited to the Irish climate and the somewhat more suitable road conditions which the capital city offered, Gillies’ Benz soon became a familiar sight to many as he motored through the streets of Dublin.

Reports of Irish people’s reactions when they encountered these early cars for the first time are fascinating and revealing. Some people mistook the heavy metal framework to be parts of trains which had broken off and somehow had ended up being found on the roads.

Others who encountered the noisy and often smelly vehicles emerging out of the darkness of an evening along a quiet road being driven by faceless individuals – early motorists frequently wore goggles and head coverings to keep the smoke from the car’s engine and road dust from irritating their eyes and noses – thought them to be the work of the Devil and would bless themselves before running off so as to escape.

Those involved in the Irish cycling industry, which had taken off during the 1880’s ‘Bicycle Boom’ – following the reinvention of the rubber pneumatic wheel by John Boyd Dunlop, a Scottish vet who practised in Belfast – were much more positive of the motorcar.

Men such as Richard ‘J’ Mecready, (‘Arjay’ to his friends), editor of the Irish cycling magazine The Irish Cyclist, recognised the opportunities such vehicles could offer to the Irish public. This included the ability to cover greater distances in less time than had previously been possible on bicycles or horse-powered transport.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own