This day last week was as good as it gets. We had landed at Shannon Airport on the West Coast of Ireland http://daithaic.blogspot.com/2008/05/shannon-airport-ireland.html on the Thursday night and here we were on Friday on just the most beautiful summer’s day heading to the Doonbeg Peninsular which has the feel of a place apart bounded by the Mouth of the Shannon and the wild Atlantic Ocean on the west coast of Clare. You could taste the ozone in the salt sea air which had travelled 3,000 miles on the Gulf Stream – this is fresh air with a capital “F”! Our destination was Moyasta, the Clapham Junction of the West Clare Railway. Actually the Clapham Junction analogy may be bit of a stretcher as in its “Glory Days” this small triangular junction had maybe 3/4 trains a day and with 5 level crossings it did not count as a high speed junction! Indeed the West Clare Railway was built on the cheap and the original line from Moyasta to Kilrush went on a ford through a tidal river course, this was later replaced with a bridge.
with Jackie Whelan in front of the Percy French display
Today Moyasta Junction and Station House situated between Kilrush and Kilkee have come to life again as headquarters of the West Clare Railway Company Ltd (WCR). Efforts were made by a preservation society to recreate part of the original route. This group succeeded in acquiring Moyasta station, and 5 km (3 miles) of track bed. In 2008 a standard gauge ex-Irish Rail 001 class diesel loco, No.015 (formally A15), was acquired for static display. On 5 July 2009 No. 5 Slieve Callan was returned to the West Clare Railway at Moyasta Junction following restoration in England by Alan Keefe Ltd. The locomotive was steamed for the first time on July 14th marking the return of steam to the West Clare railway after an absence of over 57 years. Moyasta’s name is an Anglicisation of the Gaelic “Magh Sheasta” – A Little Stop or in other words, a halt.
The resurrection owes much to the remarkable character of Jackie Whelan who bears a passing resemblance to Captain Birdseye. But do not underestimate him for he is a Civil Engineer by profession but possessed of a certain single minded madness which has seen him persevere at reopening the line for almost 30 years. For the WCR is in his blood, his father worked on the original and the line passed through his family’s lands at Shragh 4 miles to the north. When the committee faltered at the rising cost Jackie stepped in and bankrolled the railway when it was still a pipe dream for he has a successful Quarry, Civil Engineering and Plant Hire businesses in Ireland, UK and Poland. Nearby he runs Europe’s biggest class recycling plant which makes pure sand from glass which is then used in filtration plants. So he had the combination of obsession, practicality and deep pockets not to mention the vision to see that this unique and storied railway must be reborn.
Now, 48 years after its closure, in a resurrection which would make Lazarus proud, a 2 mile section of the line was reopened on 5th July 2009 as the first stage of a restoration programme and remarkably it has one of the longer serving steam engines on the WCR, Locomotive No.5 “Slieve Callan” working the trains from Moyasta Junction. In 2000, she was sent away to England where she has undergone a major restoration and she returned to her native land on July 5th to be placed back on her original tracks at Moyasta where, once again, she is delighting visitors with the sights and sounds of a veteran locomotive in full steam working order – after a steam passenger traffic absence of 55 years.
Jackie showed me around what is now a virtual village at Moyasta Junction. There is a shop and cafe housed in former C.I.E. Braden wooden bodied carriages which are survivors of the disastrous Buttevant rail crash in 1980 which saw wooden bodied carriages (which collapsed in crashes) banned from Irish Railways. Jackie then brought me to the Moyasta Station House which is provides a wonderful home for a collection of West Clare memorabilia as well as a display on the great Irish song writer, balladeer, writer, painter and last but not least, engineer, Percy French whose song “Are you right there Michael” immortalised the WCR. Then onto the triangular platform where I met another two remarkable characters entwined with the railway.
The first of these characters was called “Slieve Callan” locomotive No 5 was built to the order of the South Clare Railways by Dubs and Co. of Glasgow, Scotland, in 1892. Costing the magnificent sum of £1,750, she was their first locomotive but the fifth to work on the entire West Clare Railway, as it eventually became. She was delivered by sea to Kilrush in March 1892 and proved to be the longest serving of all the railway’s locomotives – not being withdrawn until 1958. She had also carried the last steam passenger train in 1955 and had starred in the John Ford film, “A Minute’s Wait”, filmed at Kilkee in 1956. Between 1959 and 1996, she remained a memorial to the railway at Ennis Station where she sat on a plinth as the sole remaining item of rolling stock preserved from the old railway.
When one of Jackie’s 60 ton cranes lifted this venerable piece of oxidised metal off the plinth at Ennis Station in 1996 local protested and had a sit in on the engine as it was lifted in the air. Maybe if they had won their fight Jackie would have thanked them for the restoration ended up costing the incredible figure of 690,000 Euros. But Slieve Callan makes for an incredible sight, a 117 year old locomotive in pristine order working a railway today. I was in awe as I shared the footplate with the second remarkable character, Locoman Richard L. Gair, for you will travel far and wide to see a Loco under steam in better condition, let alone one of such antiquity. The quality and detail of what have must been a very difficult rebuild is remarkable, even the nuts on the circular windows are perfectly aligned. The Loco is in beautiful condition due to the gentle ministrations of Richard who migrated to Ireland 9 years ago after a varied career in industry in the UK and experience on The North Norfolk Railway at Sheringham. The railway runs footplate days so you can learn about Loco operations and Richard has produced a delightful and instructive “Steam Locoman’s Handbook” which is designed to fit into an overall pocket.
And so it was into the reconstructed WCR carriages for a gentle trip up and down the two mile restored stretch of track. These reproductions of the original rather bare carriages have wooden seats and I contemplated how passengers would have felt on these have taken the timetabled over 4 hours to cover the 48 miles of the West Clare from Ennis to Kilrush when the line was open until 1961. The track has been reinstated using standard section bullhead rails (it originally would have had lighter rail sections) and shorter sleepers cut to a permanent way profile to fit the unique Irish 3 foot narrow gauge. The very uniqueness of the gauge means that there are no track laying, alignment and tamping machines available so it is all done manually. Inevitably this means the track telemetry is not ideal but as the train does not exceed 15 mph on its short trip this is not an issue. In 2008 a standard gauge ex-Irish Rail 001 class diesel loco, No.015 (formally A15), was acquired for static display and this is displayed on the far side of the N67 towards Kilrush where next year a further stretch of the line will reopen incorporating a level crossing and a bridge crossing where the original line ran through the shallow river.
Back at Moyasta I noticed that despite the WCR’s antiquity the site and carriages were fully accessible – if only the rest of the rail industry showed such decency towards its customers? The atmosphere and enthusiasm at Moyasta is both wonderful and contagious and the reopening of this historic line is an incredible achievement against the odds and official indifference and obstruction. No attempt has been made by the authorities even to preserve the line of route of this unique National Treasure and C.I.E. started dismantling the track the very day after the closure. Great tribute and credit has to be paid to the team who kept the dream of the WCR alive and in particular to the remarkable Jackie Whelan, his son Stephen and Locoman First Class Richard L. Gair. But even they would concede that the real Star of West Clare is that remarkable lady, who is 117 years young, the beautiful Dubs & Co. 0-6-2T “Slieve Callan.” Long may she steam and inspire volunteer and visitor alike.
For a full history of the West Clare Railway and its glorious resurrection see;
Directions: On the N67 between Kilrush and Kilkee.
Fully wheelchair accessible
Open all year round. October – March 10.00hrs – 16.00hrs daily. March – October 10.00hrs – 18.00hrs Monday – Saturday. Sunday 12.00hrs – 18.00hrs.
Parking on-site for aprox. 50 cars plus 2 buses.
In the dining carriage tea / coffee and snacks are served. Also a mineral bar. Seating capacity 40 persons.
Steam Locoman’s Handbook by Richard L. Gair, B.Sc. DMS, Wharfside Productions, Stoke Bruerne, Northamptonshire, 2008. Available from the WCR shop at 10Euros.
Enquiries to email@example.com