A history of the railway in Ireland

I love trains. I think they are beautiful. They seem to both rumble and ghost across the countryside. Travel is both luxurious and communal.

They echo with the spirit of an earlier time; a time when rail was the only way to get people and goods around,¬† a time when travel was sacred and special and new, a time when people moved less and lived at home more. I’m not romanticising it and believe me, Id take the excitement and possibility of travel today over the highly questionable romance of a circumscribed provincial life any day and yet and yet…

I get on a train and a part of me tells me this is the way travel ought to be and I cant help but sink slightly into the romance of the past.

And the railroads are a romance. They hail from the great romantic age itself when composers wrote symphonies for nature, novelists gave us great epic tales of love, adventure and exploration and artists gave us extravagant views of the self and the possibilities of art, romance and nationalism to lift us out of the ordinary and the mundane. Art as an answer.

And perhaps in a way, railways were a question. The landscape opened up, industry and capitalism were made possible. The horizon of the individual ( or at least the middle class individual) broadened considerably. What was humanity to make of this new world ?The artists were pushed into the secular, material world of possibility and opportunity like everyone else. Thus Berlioz was entranced by the spectacle of Shakespearean theatre and Mendelssohn wrote a symphony inspired by the Scottish highlands.

To my mind railways retain more than a hint of this romantic age which of course remains embedded in out culture under both the wonder and disillusion of the twentieth and early twenty-first century.

And the train can take you a little of the way there.

The railway in Ireland has a chequered history. Where once trains served countless small towns and even villages now only a skeletal service remains. In the end we have to admit that since the foundation of the state the railways have been very much neglected. We, or at least the government fell in love with cars and roads.

In part, of course, this was in accordance with the mood and economics of the time but in my view it also reflected a deeper association of railways with Britishness. The railways were built by the British and the Irish state choose to focus on roads. But we also need to consider what cars and roads do.

First and foremost, they empower the car owner. Other members of the community and/or family become dependent on these individuals. The wealthy and eventually even the comparatively wealthy were empowered. And for a long time of course, it was only men who owned cars. To this day they privatise and atomise travel.

In almost every sense cars are anti social while trains are social.

The first railway in Ireland opened in 1834 and linked Dublin and what is now Dun Laoighire ( then Kingstown) and by 1865 there were 2000 miles of track in the country linking all the major industrial, if not agricultural regions).

The roll out of rail, however, was much slower than in England. By 1845 for example there were 1,700 miles of track in England and still only 70 in Ireland.

This, of course, was the time of the potato famine and in the development of rail we see that the famine of the 1840’s was both a cause of and a result of British neglect of Ireland at this time. But that is another story.

However the following years saw a huge amount of railway construction in Ireland and this investment in rail continued right up to the end of British dominion in Ireland (1920) by which time there were over 3500 miles of rail in Ireland and the rail network stretched into remote areas such as Connemara, West Cork  and Donegal, often by way of generous government subsidy. Interestingly, most of the trains were passenger trains. This was in contrast with a predominance of goods trains in Britain. This was because Ireland had neither the mining or manufacturing that Britain had and its major industrial regions were all close to the sea.

It is hard to understand why the Irish government neglected these rural rail networks but neglect them they did and most of the rural lines were closed in the 1960’s.

The West Cork rail service serves as a good microcosm of the wider story. Built in the later years of the nineteenth century and early 20th century it connected all the major towns even as far as Schull. Schull feels very rural and isolated to me when I visit now and it is hard to imagine a rail link now and it is, of course, up to the imagination what a rail link would have meant to the area from a psychological, social and economic perspective.

When the lines did close in the 1960’s it was against the background of huge protest and indeed the last train had to leave under police escort. The history of the railway is commemorated at the Clonakilty model railway village. The main Bandon to Cork road is traversed by this beautifull viaduct also.

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It is a reminder of what once was and what might have been.

Not only did the authorities close the rail lines but they often dismantled the rail lines and sold the land back to local farmers. This meant that the lines could never be opened again. Where the tracks remain they are often being converted into greenways and provide a wonderful opportunity to cycle and walk in the countryside. Examples include Westport to Achill, Dungarvan to Waterford and Mullingar to Athlone. All these deserve their own posts and hopefully I’ll get to them soon !

They are beautiful examples of the creative and imaginative use of the old infrastructure. Here’s to more such projects in the future !