Patrick McGovern the millionaire contractor born in Blacklion.

Patrick McGovern: A Contractor who excavated tunnels in Boston, Philadelphia, and NYC

The latest Times Past column recalls the millionaire contractor Patrick McGovern from Glan who employed 4,000 workers to excavate tunnels in America for subways and water systems.

Recently while watching a repeat of a 1980s’ programme The Equalizer with its lead hero battling the hardened underworld, I was then reminded of the tunnel builder Patrick McGovern when the opening scenes moved to the New York subway. For a moment, I wondered if the master tunnel builder Patrick ‘the Contractor’ McGovern had built that. Britain can rave about its famed excavating engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, but Cavan firmly lays claim to Patrick McGovern, whose name will forever be associated with the warren of tunnels he burrowed beneath the boroughs of Boston, Philadelphia and New York.

In 1932, a homecoming celebration for ‘the Contractor’ was a cause of great excitement for the people of Glangevlin. His reputation for tunnelling is today cemented in folklore and McGovern was said to have attributed his hard working attitude to his upbringing on a Cavan farm where he learned the meaning of physical graft. Perhaps, his underground career was inspired by the rabbit holes he observed on the Glan landscape. One-day, I hope that a fuller study of his life will be written, which would tell a tale like no other.


On a Friday night, September 1932 a ‘monster reception’ was organised at the Parochial Hall, Glangevlin, at which every homestead in the Kingdom of Glan turned up to mark the heroic homecoming of the man whose work projects in the States were legendary. McGovern had returned to Ireland for the Eucharistic Congress and, as a person of deep religious faith, he had made donations to many causes, including a building fund for Doobally Church and Parochial house, as well as providing ‘large sums’ towards other religious projects in Cavan and Leitrim. Word of his efforts reached the Vatican and, in 1923, Pope Pius XI conferred the Grand Cross of St Gregory on Patrick for his good works.

This newspaper reported that at the reunion ‘the contractor and his brother Bartley McGovern, Blacklion, were seated’ with members of the welcoming committee who included chairman Rev James McCabe, PP; James De Lacy T; M.J. McGovern, Cavan County Council; James McGovern (cousin), Bush Hotel.

The Rev Chairman began by telling the assembled locals, ‘my dear people of Glan, on a former occasion we were assembled here to welcome a distinguished child of our parish, Senator McGovern, of the US Senate, who told us how proud he was of Contractor McGovern, and that should he, the contractor, come home to Glan, we were to give him a right royal welcome in which the Senator wished to be associated.’

The same said Senator McGovern would become Mayor of Hartford, Connecticut.

Glan had indeed many ‘famous children’ who took their place at the helm of US society such as Senator McGovern; Dr McGovern of Massachusetts, said to be born ‘in the mists and snow of Cuilcagh’; Mr Tumulty, private secretary to President Wilson; and the aforementioned subway excavator who was the recipient of the evening’s welcome.

Master builder

Patrick McGovern was born on August 15, 1872, the son of Patrick and Mary McGovern who lived in Blacklion, Co Cavan. Mary was from Benkeeragh, Swanlinbar, and as a child she was baptised in Swanlinbar church where, in 1866, at the tender age of 20, she married Patrick McGovern. When their son reached 18 years of age, he upped sticks and emigrated to Boston and begun as a labourer for a daily wage of $1.75. He was a good worker and, within three years, he set up his own company, Patrick McGovern Inc whose offices he later transferred to New York where business was booming, and opportunity was there for the taking.

At the height of his career, McGovern employed 4,000 workers on major engineering projects in New York. The ‘New York American’ reported on a final major project undertaken by McGovern Inc in 1928 and an extract from the article makes interesting reading.

It stated: ‘Patrick McGovern of Patrick McGovern Inc watched the myriad lights of Manhattan blink in the gathering twilight yesterday, and his gaze inadvertently sought the first excavation of a skyscraper, some twenty storeys below. Across the way a stenographer was adjusting her hat… the rising skyscraper reminding one of Mr McGovern. If the moment found him somewhat expansive it was but proper, and no interpretation of his emotions is needed here. Mr McGovern had just affixed his signature to a 42,692,587 dollar contract for the new city water system.’

It was the first time that such a huge contract was awarded in New York and the publication called it a high point in McGovern’s ‘spectacular career’. McGovern assigned 3,000 workers to the project, which required them to scoop out a twenty-mile long tunnel, requiring them to bore through sheer granite, making a hole measuring twenty feet in diameter, and running all the way from Yonkers to Brooklyn. To achieve this extraordinary task, his teams worked night and day shifts.

McGovern himself was no dozer and often was known to appear on the worksite at 3am in the morning to ensure his instructions were carried out correctly. Another notable achievement was his construction of the Philadelphia subway.

Former employee

In November 1979, it was reported that a person named Herbert Smith, a former employee of Patrick McGovern Inc had died at the age of 71 years. Smith was described as coming from one of the oldest families in the village of Blacklion whose career began in England before going to work for Contractor McGovern on the construction of a tunnel beneath the Hudson River. Later, returning to Ireland, Smith, a qualified mechanic, drove a bus for CIE.

For extra reading on Patrick McGovern, his life and work, checkout Andrew Flach’s account on


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