Pádraig Pearse’s first visit to Connemara was in 1903, when he was 24 years of age. He was sent there by Conrad na Gaeilge, a nation-wide Irish language movement, then gaining momentum year after year, to examine a group of young teachers from the Ros Muc area, to see if they were fit to teach Irish. When this young romantic man, already with an image of an ‘Irish Ireland’ in his mind, stepped from the train at Maam Cross station, he had a life-changing realisation that this was ‘a little Gaelic kingdom of its own’.
Between 1903 and 1916 Pearse spent as much time as he could salvage from the press of affairs in Dublin in the west; and from 1907 staying at his cottage at Ros Muc. His friend Desmond Ryan later wrote of how Pearse’s enthusiasm grew as the train left Oughterard, and went deeper into Connemara: ‘The Twelve Pins came in sight and Pearse waved his hand here and there over the land, naming lake, mountain and district away to the Joyce country under its purple mist.’
Although a train has not travelled on this line since 1934, through the magic of video I have been travelling by rail into that ‘little Gaelic Kingdom’ several times this week.
Efforts are well underway to revive an 8km stretch on the old Clifden railway line from Maam Cross station. Jim Deegan, a life-long railway enthusiast, and founder of Rail Tours Ireland, is convinced that the real-life experience of a steam-train journey through the heart of Connemara will be a popular family event.
Apart from the practical uses for passengers and cargo, the original Galway-Clifden line was brilliantly marketed as a tourist special. For a time a ‘Connemara Express’ ran from Dublin’s Broadstairs Station, painted in blue and cream livery, attracting the rich and famous to shoot over the wet landscape, and to fish the dark, trout lakes of the region. They came in their hundreds, catered for by new hotels, and willing householders offering accommodation. “Railways were the genesis of tourism in Ireland”, says Jim, “and haven’t lost their appeal today.”
Even if it was only for its value as a vehicle for tourism we would still lament the closing of the Galway-Clifden line in 1934. It was a great deal more than a tourist amenity. It also provided a visual vote of confidence to the people living on the mountainside that they were part of a new world after the devastation and neglect of the Great Famine. It linked Clifden and seven other stations, Moycullen, Ross, Oughterard, Maam Cross, Recess, Ballynahinch, with Galway and ultimately Dublin and beyond, providing a regular service to markets and business.
It was also an outstanding engineering accomplishment. Not only was it the longest but also the most challenging line built under the Light Railways (Ireland ) Act of 1889.
Leaving the station of the Midland Great Western Railway in Galway a substantial tunnel had to be built under Prospect Hill, and then immediately to cross the Corrib over a viaduct, with three spans each 250 ft apart. The central span could be raised to allow steamers to enter the Eglinton Canal where these big ships travelled through the town, emerging at the Claddagh Basin and the docks for servicing and cleaning. It was an imposing, steel structure of grandeur, and its massive supports are still visible from Woodquay today.
After the viaduct the line then travelled for 48 miles along the west side of the River Corrib, through rough countryside along the shores of Derryclare and Ballynahinch lakes, cutting passes through limestone and granite, providing drainage over bogland, building 27 bridges, 18 gatekeeper’s houses at level-crossings, as well as seven stations most of which still survive, either as redbrick ruins or private dwellings.
The line took five years to construct, gave immense employment, and was opened in July 1895. At a time when the average cost per mile of light railway was between £3,000 and £5,000, the Clifden railway cost £9,000 per mile.
Boon to business
Forty years later, because the line was losing money, and better roads and transport made the line uneconomic, it closed. It might have survived had the track been laid along the coast as it was originally proposed. One of the ideas of a railway was to advance the development of fisheries, and if the line travelled along the coast it could have serviced Spiddal, Carraroe, Roundstone and Clifden. But for some reason, never properly explained, it chose a route through the middle of Connemara instead.
An opportunity was lost. Certainly it succeeded in bringing tourists into Connemara, but it could have brought prosperity to the fishing industry as well. The Cleggan Fisheries was close to Clifden and took full advantage of a rapid service to get its products to market. In 1896 Cleggan was landing 398 tons of fish, but by 1900, it was landing 1,437 tons. The railway was a boon to business, but not if you were too far away.
Next week: The battle for the Clifden railway route.
NOTES: You can enjoy this journey as well: on ‘Connemara Railway’, and please donate to the scheme: GoFundMe page.
Details on Clifden Railway from J H Ryan’s paper to Institute of Engineers of Ireland May 1 1901.
Brigid Kavanagh, author of Walking With Ghosts, can be contacted at 087 7752863, and her book is now available in Charlie Byrne’s bookshop.
Apologies that the number given did not connect.
Listen to Tom Kenny and Ronnie O'Gorman elaborating on topics they have covered in this week's paper and much more in this week's Old Galway Diary Podcast.