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A Different Ireland

In a different Ireland, in another age, a certain Arthur J. Balfour sought to "kill Home Rule with kindness." His 'Light Railways Act' of 1889 was proposed and enacted to achieve this goal. Recognising the value of national self-determination the Irish people gladly accepted "the kindness"; got twelve new railways and in due course, independence. Thus was the final section of the Western Rail Corridor opened to Collooney junction on October 1st 1895, giving a two hundred and twenty two and a half mile route to Waterford.

It had taken thirty-six years to construct the stretch from Limerick to Collooney, involving five companies and bankrupting several contractors in the process. The Limerick and Ennis Railway was completed by July 2nd 1859, the Athenry and Tuam Railway opened on 27th of September 1860 and the intervening section was opened by the Athenry and Ennis Junction Railway on September 15th 1869. It took until April 30th 1894 before the awkwardly titled 'The Athenry and Tuam Extension to Claremorris Light Railway' reached Claremorris.

Finally and ironically, through the "largesse" of the colonising power, Collooney got its third railway; The Waterford and Limerick. By this time, the W&LR owned all the line from Limerick except the sixteen and a half miles from Tuam to Claremorris but worked the entire line in conjunction with its service to Waterford. On the 1st of January 1896 the company adopted the more appropriate title of 'Waterford Limerick and Western Railway', to reflect its enterprise which at that time extended to three hundred and forty two and a half miles, in eight counties. It was the fourth largest railway company in Ireland but on the 1st January 1901 lost its independence, by amalgamation with the Great Southern and Western Railway, the largest railway company in Ireland.

The new century brought modest prosperity. The spectre of poverty and famine that had lingered while the railway was built receded. Through the War of Independence and Civil War, the railway served the region well. After the First World War, passenger numbers declined, as road transport improved but freight traffic remained buoyant. In 1925 virtually all of the railways wholly within the Irish Free State, were amalgamated into the Great Southern Railways Company. Through the depression, economic war and "The Emergency" the railways carried on, despite increasing financial difficulties and deteriorating equipment. C.I.E. was formed in 1945 and following the Milne and Beddy reports, attempted to cut losses. Branch lines and stations were closed, a carriage and wagon renewal program was undertaken and by 1963 the steam locomotive had been replaced by diesels. On the 15th of July 1963 passenger services were withdrawn between Collooney and Claremorris.

In Sligo, on a sunny Friday morning 31st of October 1975, I was greeted by driver Jimmy O'Grady as I mounted the footplate of engine B145 as it waited to haul the last "Southern Goods" to Limerick. A group of railway men bade farewell at Sligo. At Ballisodare signal cabin, two staffs were taken, one for Collooney Junction and one for Tubbercurry. At Collooney Junction the groundframe lever was pulled to release the points and we were on the "Burma Road." As we rolled past Collooney Southern Station some railway enthusiasts took photographs. A wave from the gatekeepers saw us on our way to Tubbercurry. Here some shunting was done, before we headed south through Curry to Charlestown, where a group of youngsters had gathered to see what was happening.

At Swinford, we crossed the down goods and as both trains pulled away, Swinford became the first town on the line to have no more trains. At Kiltimagh a fusilade of detonators heralded our arrival and a squad car arrived, enquiring about "shots fired." Even more detonators saw us off to Claremorris, in the time-honoured railway tradition. On the journey, I was told that the line went,"up hill and down hollow" and was so difficult to work in the days of steam that loco crews, empathising with the slave labourers in the Sino-Japanese War, christened it "The Burma Road", by which name it is known to this day.

I heard of the 1947 blizzard that closed the line for a week, of the Kiltimagh disaster, that left six permanent way men dead, following a collision; of joyous football specials and Knock pilgrimage trains. The bellowing of cattle and the emigrants' tears were part and parcel of its eighty years of activity. A railway that surely was "Cuisle na Tire" (title of the contemporary C.I.E. staff magazine) was ebbing away. We slipped into Claremorris with our 35mph loose-coupled goods and knew it was the end.

When driver, Hughie Dawson, arrived in Claremorris, with the final Cork - Ballina passenger train on the 5th of April 1976 it demoted the Claremorris - Limerick line to freight only status. By the end of the century, that too was gone, except Ennis - Limerick and still nobody shouted stop. Of four lines closed on the 31st October 1975, three were lifted. Through the valiant and untiring efforts of Fr. Micheal MacGreil and the Western Inter-county Railway Committee, Transport Minister of the day, Seamus Brennan, acceded to their request to leave the Claremorris - Collooney line in situ. And so it remains today, apart from a hundred metres at Collooney Junction.

©Peter-Bowen Walsh

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