Once upon a time, not too long ago, there were 27 unique narrow gauge railways and tramways in Ireland. The last of these to close was the West Clare Railway in 1961, a line immortalised in song and remembered by railway enthusiasts as a special railway with more than its fair share of lore and colourful stories which ran from Ennis, the county town of Clare through a unique landscape to the wild Atlantic coast at Kilkee and Kilrush. There it stopped for the next station would have been America! Ireland in the 1960’s was in a grip of an urge to modernise and railways were just so yesterday as the pork barrel politicians concentrated on road and buses and turning Ireland’s Georgian Heritage into a quarry for the client builders and developers who contributed to their political coffers. The legacy of these short sighted and economically illiterate policies can be seen today in “Gridlock Ireland” and the over 90 Bn Euros of toxic property “assets” the state is having to nationalise to preserve the Irish banking system. The Celtic Tiger has gone to the great cattery in the sky and the hapless Irish taxpayer is left holding worthless “assets” in Dubai, Bulgaria, London and the States whilst property speculators bellow from their mansions at the end of half mile long driveways that their “family homes” are sacrosanct!
Even at the time the closure of the West Clare Railway was controversial; a small fortune had been spent on improving the line and converting to diesel traction, passenger numbers were good and County Clare was heading for a tourist boom due to the advent of trans-Atlantic jet travel through Shannon Airport.
The West Clare would have been a great tourist attraction through my favourite Irish county described so evocatively by the poet John Betjeman;
“Stony seaboard, far and foreign,
Stony hills poured over space,
Stony outcrop of the Burren,
Stones in every fertile place,
Little fields with boulders dotted,
Grey-stone shoulders saffron-spotted,
Stone-walled cabins thatched with reeds,
Where a Stone Age people breeds
The last of Europe’s Stone Age race,
Has it held, the June warm weather?
Draining shallow-seapools dry,
When we bicycled together
Down the bohreens fuchsia-high.
Till there rose, abrupt and lonely,
A ruined abbey, chancel only,
Soared the arches, splayed and splendid,
Romanesque against the sky …
IRELAND WITH EMILY; – Betjeman had fallen in love with the beautiful American wife of Lord Hemphill of Tulira Castle, the Victorian house built by Edward Martyn and immortalised in George Moore’s “Hail and Farewell”.
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.
The West Clare Railway was one of a network of 3ft gauge lines which mushroomed across rural Ireland in the wake of the 1883 Tramways Act. Opened throughout in 1892, it connected the market town of Ennis with the coastal settlements of Kilrush and Kilkee. Dogged by money problems from the outset, the Railway was propelled into the limelight in 1896 when the entertainer Percy French was prevented from fulfilling an engagement in Kilkee by the breakdown of his West Clare train – his poem ‘Are Ye Right There Michael’ and the resulting Court case ensuring a lasting worldwide fame for the Railway, although not in circumstances it would have chosen! Other hazards the West Clare had to face included the weather – no less than five trains were blown off the metals by ferocious Atlantic storms, eventually resulting in the installation of an ammeter at Quilty, and instructions that all trains should be halted when winds exceeded 80mph.
The West Clare Railway (WCR) operated in County Clare, Ireland between 1887 and 1961. This 914 mm (3 ft) gauge narrow gauge railway ran from the county town of Ennis, via numerous stopping-points along the West Clare coast to two termini, at Kilrush and Kilkee (the routes diverging at Moyasta Junction). The system was the last operating narrow gauge passenger system in Ireland and connected with the mainline rail system at Ennis, where a station still stands today for bus and train services to Limerick. A train connection to Galway will re-open in August 2009. Intermediate stops included Ennistymon, Lahinch and Miltown Malbay.
The 43.4 km (27 mi) West Clare Railway between Ennis and Miltown Malbay was built a few years’ earlier than the South Clare Railway. The first sod was cut on 26 January 1885 at Miltown Malbay by Charles Stewart Parnell, M.P., although actual work on the line had begun in November 1884. The line was opened on 2 July 1887.
The South Clare Railway built the extension from Miltown Malbay to Kilrush, Cappagh Pier (Kilrush Pier) and Kilrush docks with a branch to Kilkee from Moyasta, with work starting on the extension in October 1890 and opening on 11 May 1892. The extension was worked by the West Clare Railway and was initially dogged by poor service and time keeping, but this later improved.
The West Clare Railway was the topic of Percy French’s song written in 1902, “Are Ye Right There Michael, are ye right?”, deriding the poor time keeping and poor track quality of the time. Though amusing, some complained that this jesting nevertheless did little to further the cause for keeping the line open. However it is still the most famous railway song extant and was the subject of an unsuccessful libel action by the Railway Directors against Percy French. Because of a slow train and the decision of the driver to stop for no apparent reason while en route in Corofin, French, though having left Sligo in the early morning, arrived so late for an 8 PM recital, which he was due to give that the audience had left. The ballad caused considerable embarrassment for the rail company, who were mocked in music halls throughout Ireland and Britain because of the song. It led to an unsuccessful libel action against French.
It is said that French arrived late for the libel hearing at the court, and when questioned by the judge on his lateness, he responded “Your honour, I travelled by the West Clare Railway”, resulting in the case being thrown out.
“Are Ye Right There Michael” by Percy French (1902)
You may talk of Columbus’s sailing
Across the Atlantical sea,
But he never tried to go railing
From Ennis as far as Kilkee.
You run for the train in the morning,
The excursion train starting at eight.
You’re there when the guard gives the warning,
And there for an hour you’ll wait.
And while you’re waiting in the train,
You’ll hear the guard sing this refrain:
Are ye right there, Michael, are ye right?
Do you think that we’ll be home before the night?
Ye’ve been so long in startin’,
That ye couldn’t say for certain’
Still ye might now, Michael,
So ye might!
They find out where the engine’s been hiding,
And it drags you to sweet Corofin;
Says the guard: Back her down on the siding,
There’s a goods from Kilrush comin’ in.
Perhaps it comes in two hours,
Perhaps it breaks down on the way;
If it does, says the guard, be the powers,
We’re here for the rest of the day!
And while you sit and curse your luck,
The train backs down into a truck.
Are ye right there, Michael, are ye right?
Have ye got the parcel there for Mrs. White?
Ye haven’t, oh begorra,
Say it’s comin’ down tomorra –
And well it might now, Michael,
So it might!
At Lahinch the sea shines like a jewel,
With joy you are ready to shout,
When the stoker cries out: There’s no fuel,
And the fire is teetotally out.
But hand up that bit of a log there –
I’ll soon have ye out of the fix;
There’s fine clamp of turf in the bog there.
And the rest can go gatherin’ sticks
And while you’re breakin’ bits off trees,
You hear some wise remarks like these:
Are ye right there, Michael? Are ye right?
Do ye think that you can get the fire to light?
Oh, an hour you’ll require,
For the turf it might be drier,
Well it might now, Michael,
So it might!
Kilkee! Oh, ye’ll never get near it,
You’re in luck if the train brings you back.
For the permanent way is so queer, it
Spends most of its time off the track.
Uphill the oul’ engine is climbing,
As the passengers push with a will.
You’re in luck when you reach Ennistimon,
For all the way home is downhill.
And as you’re wobbling through the dark,
You’ll hear someone make this remark:
Are ye right there, Michael? Are ye right?
Do you think that we’ll be there before it’s light?
Oh, it’s all depending whether,
The oul’ engine holds together,
But it might now, Michael,
So it might!
Despite the dieselisation of passenger services in 1952 and freight in 1953 the system was still closed. On 27 September 1960, CIÉ gave notice of its intending closure with effect from 1 February 1961. CIÉ said that the West Clare was losing £23,000 (€1.2M 2006 equivalent) per year, despite the considerable traffic handled. In December it was announced that the line would close completely on 1 January 1961. Eventually the line closed on 31 January 1961 with CIÉ starting work on dismantling the line the day after closure on 1 February 1961.
By the time of its closure the West Clare Railway was the last narrow gauge railway in Ireland offering a passenger service; various lines operated by Bord na Móna continue to operate in connection with the peat industry. The railway employed about 70 people in Ennis alone. It continued to run quite successfully up until World War II, when the pressure of improving roads finally began to tell and in 1948 the Irish National Railway (CIE) decided to close the line, but instead they replaced the steam engines with diesel engines. In 1952 four new diesel engines were supplied and in 1953 CIE bought three more. The last steam passenger train left Ennis on March 15, 1952.
In 1955, the West Clare was the only diesel run, narrow gauge railway in Britain and Ireland. It continued to run at a loss and finally all services were closed down on February 1961. The Ennis station house built around 1860 served as the terminus of the West Clare Railway. Many of the old railway bridges, piers, banks and other such works are still standing.
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.
The 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.
In a report in the Irish Times Jackie Whelan remembers loading turf on a wagon to supply the West Clare Railway as a nine-year-old in 1948. It was an important part of the local economy before it became the last of Ireland’s narrow gauge railways to close in 1961. “A wagon of turf from Shragh where we came from was £5 and that £5 would buy you 10 stone of flour, which was talked about as a half-sack of flour. You’d make 140 griddle cakes out of that. It would do a good household with six or seven in the family for two months. And then, when you had the flour out of the bag you’d have a sheet made for the bed out of the bag or two pillow cases,” he said. Now he is the owner of the revived steam railway, which is based at Moyasta Junction as a tourist venture.
In brilliant sunshine, the last steam locomotive to run on the line between Ennis and Kilrush via Lahinch took delighted passengers in two third-class replica carriages on a short trip at 15mph, before Whelan opened a magnum of champagne to mark the relaunch of the West Clare Railway 124 years after Charles Stewart Parnell turned the sod on the original project in 1885.
The Slieve Callan, named after west Clare’s modestly high peak of 391m (1,283ft), has been refurbished and refitted with a new boiler and tanks with a capacity of 1,000 litres. For the moment, it is taking passengers on a 4km trip on narrow gauge track, but Whelan hopes to run the train to Kilrush again over the next few years. Of the 19 steam locomotives that served the railway, the Slieve Callan is the sole survivor. It is wonderful to see the revival of this most atmospheric of railways in one of Ireland’s loveliest counties which as well a beautiful and primeval scenery on the wild Atlantic coast boasts a plethora of attractions for visitors and natives alike. Let us wish this wonderful project well and hope we never have to sing the refrain other than in jest;
“Are ye right there, Michael, are ye right?”
I leave the last word to Edmund Lenihan in his “In the tracks of the West Clare Railway” (see below)
“To the men who closed the West Clare branch of CIE in 1961 it must have appeared their decision was a sensible one …………..
But one thing they did not reckon on; that thirty years later it would not have died. Rather it would be remembered larger than life, whereas they, if they were remembered at all, would not be seen as men who did the country a service but rather as a short sighted cabal of bunglers who tried to destroy a legend – and failed.”
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.
West Clare Resources;
West Clare Garden Railway – This is truly remarkable! A railway enthusiast who has recreated sections of the WCR in his garden in New Jersey. Even more remarkably there is a link to the New Jersey Museum of Transportation which has a full loco and train set from the Tralee and Dingle Railway.
IRRS (Irish Railway Record Society) – As a member of the London Area for many years I attended many an interesting evening in a draughty hall in Drummond St. just by Euston Station. They maintain a great archive of Irish Railway history and photographs. In a fine example of division of labour the RPIS (Railway Preservation Society of Ireland) restores and maintains the rolling stock in Northern Ireland and runs the annual Rail tour over 3 – 4 days each summer.
The West Clare Railway. Patrick Taylor. Plateway Press ISBN 1-871980-16X (1994). A comprehensive history from a man who lived all his life by the line; contains lots of background information, stock drawings, timetables etc.
In the Tracks of the West Clare Railway. Edmund Linehan. The Mercier Press ISBN 0-85342-909-X. Description of a walking journey over the remains of the line almost thirty years after closure by a well known amateur local historian.
Johnson’s Atlas & Gazetteer of the Railways of Ireland. SM Johnson. Midland Publishing Ltd, Leicester (1997) ISBN 1-85780-044-3. Highly detailed route maps of all Irish Railways.
Irish Narrow Gauge Vol.1: From Cork to Cavan (Chapter 6) T Ferris. Midland Publishing Ltd, Leicester (1993) ISBN 1-85780-010-9. Brief description of the railway and it’s history. Ordnance Survey Maps. Some good clear photographs of stock. Particular favourite of mine as I bought a signed copy off Tom when he generously gave a presentation to IRRS members in London.