In late October 1890, Arthur J Balfour, nephew of the Conservative leader Lord Salisbury of the time, and recently appointed Chief Secretary of Ireland, went on a walking tour of the distressed districts along the Galway and Mayo coast. Accompanied only by his sister, and local officials who joined them as they passed through different districts, they travelled without police escort. Remembering that it was only eight years since the Phoenix Park Murders* it was a brave gesture. But Balfour was probably the best of them.** He was genuinely anxious to improve the conditions of the area. He had influence in London, and an imaginative grasp of his brief for Ireland. He met and talked with the local community leaders, listened to what they had to say; and sat by the open fires listening to the mná tí.
As a result he proposed a system of light railways all down the western coast of the island, which would help develop commerce by giving fishermen and craftworkers access to new markets, and would hugely improve communications. Such an ambitious scheme would give meaningful employment to thousands of men during its construction, and thereafter its maintenance. Furthermore it would invite tourists to venture into the mountains for fishing, and walking holidays.
His plan came to fruition, with various degrees of success. In Connemara there were rows on the preferred route, whether it should pass along the coast, where most of the population lived; or go through the middle way. The middle way won. The first phase was opened on New Year’s Day 1895. By the turn of the century the line to Clifden included Moycullen, Ross, Oughterard, Maam Cross, Recess, and Ballinahinch.
Proposed branch line
And there the matter rested until I read with interest that a further branch line was proposed, linking Recess with the deep fiord at Killary Bay. It was thanks to the astute eye of engineer Paul Duffy, who speculates in his totally original, and fascinating study of the history of Galway through old postcards (Galway - History on a Postcard, published by Currach Press and on sale €19.99 ), that the Recess station was in fact located in an awkward site, less suitable for Clifden, he says, but ideal for a branch line to Killary.
The British North Atlantic Squadron steamed into Killary during the summer of 1892 while on manoeuvres off the west coast. Mitchell Henry of Kylemore, in a letter to the Times, enthused about the many advantages of locating a naval base at Killary.
Clearly the British military were moving in that direction. Plans were drawn up for a deep water harbour at Derrynacleigh, at Killary, and a branch line connecting it with Recess. A return visit by the fleet was made in October 1899, probably to test out the suitability of the plan. This time it was photographed by the famous Lawrence studio of Dublin,*** which duly appeared on one of its postcards (see illustration ).
Further exploratory visits were made by the marine research vessels Helga I and Helga II. However, nothing came of it. There was no branch line. A far less peaceful visit by the British navy took place on June 29 1921 when troops disembarked on the south Mayo coast in an attempt to round up members of the IRA.
Over the wall
Paul Duffy recalls an amusing incident when a small group of reluctant Connaught Rangers planned to go AWOL in April 1902. They decided to use the Galway-Dublin train for a quick get-away. Not wishing to draw attention to themselves by buying tickets, the three men, Privates Dillon, Fay and Murphy, bravely clung on to the side of the engine, standing on its buffers. The train pulled out of Galway at midnight. As it gathered speed, the men held on for grim life. Eventually their screams alerted the driver, and he stopped the train. The three men were arrested and taken back to Galway. However, the taste of freedom was hard to lose. Two of them suddenly made a break for it. Fay was quickly recaptured but Murphy ran off down the railway line towards the town. Thinking he was safely away, he vaulted over the wall into what he hoped was a field. In fact he was half-way across the bridge at Lough Atalia. He fell headlong into the water. The three men were later charged with desertion.
Oranmore was connected to the railway system in 1851 when the Midland Great Western Railway Company completed its Athlone-Galway line. The station was closed in 1961. But in July this year a new digitalised station opened at Oranmore, offering commuters a generous choice to either Galway or Dublin, with 23 services daily. No more smoke. But a quiet, smooth ride on the diesel mark class super train.
NOTES: * On May 6 1882 the newly appointed Under Secretary of Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavandish, and his adviser Thomas Burke, were stabbed to death in Phoenix Park. Cavandish had only arrived in Ireland that day.
**A grateful Galway later presented Balfour with a beautifully bound photographic record of the Galway-Clifden line in appreciation of his efforts. Balfour’s brother Gerald, on a trip with his wife to Connemara later commented: ‘Betty and I found a kind of hero worship of Arthur wherever a light railway has been made.’ The album is held at present in the James Hardiman Library, NUIG.
*** William M Lawrence successfully photographed the length and breadth of Ireland 1880-1914, leaving behind 40,000 glass slides, usually of excellent quality. His premises in Sackville Street, were looted and burnt during the Easter Rising 1916