Memory of West Cork Railway lives on

SIXTY-ONE year-old Maurice McCarthy grew up loving the hooting and chug-chugging of engines as they neared the west Cork town of Clonakilty.

He remembers long summer evenings racing around in his back garden playing ‘cowboys and indians’, with his favourite audioscape in the background as the engines neared the station up on the hill in the town.

It was a love affair that never died as on the 50th anniversary of the West Cork Railway’s closure Maurice McCarthy is considered the foremost local authority on the railway and its rich history.

Mr McCarthy was therefore a key figure in the development of the new audiovisual and interpretive centre at the West Cork Model Railway Village which recounts its history and dying days. The last train left Clonakilty on Good Friday, March 31, 1961 as the Government had decided that it wasn’t economical. Such was the level of public anger that the last train had to have a garda escort leaving Cork city; they were appalled that they were being denied public transport by Dublin. The planned closure had been fought with all their might, with locals accruing 30,000 signatures which were brought to Government and then CIE chairman, Dr Todd Andrews, who was seen to be spearheading the closure.

“The way I see it now the railway didn’t close, it died as people gave up using it as there were lorries for the freight, more cars on the roads and lorries. People loved the idea of cars as they weren’t stuck to the train timetable. Back then, though, I think there would have been just one car to every 10 houses though,” he smiles.

According to Maurice, the advent of lorries had major implications for the viability of the railway. “Take if you had 10 tonne of coal and you were trying to deliver it to west Cork by train: you needed men to handle it on either side, then somebody else to go and collect it and deliver it to customers. The coal lorry changed all that, bringing it from the coal yard straight to the customer. Lorries were much, much cheaper for business”.

According to Bantry native and Cambridge scholar, Richard Butler, the “the mistake made by Andrews and others was not in stopping passenger services but in taking up the line itself and, most crucially of all, selling the permanent way to the nearby landowners” so it could never be reopened. There were 500 sleepers to every mile of the West Cork Railway and they were supposedly sold on for a shilling each, many ending up on railways in Nigeria.

Butler believes it’s a great pity that the railway wasn’t kept going into the mid-1960s when it could have proved an economic force by transporting metal, tools and workers to the oil terminal under construction at Whiddy Island.

There’s a well-known story around west Cork about how the ‘jackeens’ in Dublin ridiculed the west Corkonians when they took their campaign to Dublin.

“People say that the men arrived in and they were greeted by the officials and Dr Andrews who introduced themselves, made pleasantries and then casually asked ‘how did you all come up today?’. The group then supposedly responded ‘by car’, and sure that was the meeting effectively finished,” said Mr McCarthy.

“The story wasn’t that simple though as, yes, they had travelled by train from Cork, but couldn’t get the West Cork train up to Albert Quay in Cork as the timetable didn’t suit them all. They needed to be in Dublin by 3 or 4 o’clock and wouldn’t have made it. They weren’t so stupid as to have chosen the car over the train. They had had no choice, but the Dublin boys were said to have painted it as disastrous strategy.”

The Cork and Bandon Railway Company was first established in 1884, the first sod turned by Lord Carbery. It became the Great Southern Railway in 1925 before it was taken over by CIE in 1945. A 61.75 mile railway track ran from Albert Quay, the site of the Elysian Tower, to Baltimore in west Cork, the most southerly station in Ireland,

The railway also ran 57.5 miles to Bantry and to Kinsale, Courtmacsherry and a narrow gauge line from Skibbereen to Schull. While freight was the mainstay of the railway, sugar beat, sand, seaweed, coal and other lifestock were moved from the corners of west Cork to Cork, Dublin and beyond using the train: it was loved by city folk for the dayexcursions its offered.

“The annual pilgrimage to Knock would have been a major event in the life of the city and county then and the day trips to Inchydoney and Courtmacsherry. The locals used to call them the ‘fresh air trains’ as people arrived down first thing in the morning and piled back on that evening after a day at the beach,” he says.

Further information on the West Cork Railway can be obtained by visiting the West Cork Model Railway Village at Clonakilty (http://www.modelvillage.ie/) or by attending one of Maurice McCarthy’s regular lectures on the railway.

He is due to speak at the GAA Pavilion as part of the Clonakilty Show this Friday at 9pm.

More in this section