The Connemara Railway (1895-1935)
ran for over forty eight miles through some of the most breathtaking scenery Ireland has to offer. Past lakes, mountains and bogs, making its way from Galway station, through the rugged grandeur of Connemara and on to the coastal terminus at Clifden. The line was welcomed by the people of Connemara as a relief from the deep hardship suffered by the region during and after The Great Famine (1845 – 1852) and a guarantee against future economic difficulties. Before the railway line all supplies, produce and cargo to and from Clifden, and the surrounding villages, were delivered by sea, except for small parcels which were conveyed by cart from Galway. It was a long and slow journey. Because of this prices increased during winter months, and frequently bad weather created shortages. Clifden and Connemara were very much isolated from the rest of Ireland and, by extension, the rest of Europe. Click on the map on the right to view the route the railway took from Galway to Clifden.
Why was the railway line built?
The 1889 Light Railway Act was the first piece of British Government legislation given to provide grants for the construction of railways in Ireland, which had previously been done by private railway companies. This act brought railways to remote, thinly-populated areas which were considered commercially non-viable by the railway companies.
£1,553,967 was spent on the construction of fifteen separate lines in Ireland. They were mostly in the poorest parts of Ireland along the Western Seaboard from Donegal through Mayo and Connemara to Kerry. The original act was passed due to the efforts of the Chief Secretary for Ireland Arthur Balfour because of this they were often referred to as ‘Balfour lines’.During the 1880s severe weather conditions, bad harvests and a fall in agricultural prices, left the people of Connemara in very poor circumstances, and as usual in times of distress, a demand for public works was directed at government. The construction of the railway was proposed as a means of offering large-scale employment over a wide area. The railway, it was argued, would give local produce access to outside markets. This would aid the development of fisheries and agriculture, which would in turn greatly improve the conditions of the people. The government responded favourably and a grant of £264,000 for construction was made to the Midland Great Western Railway Company which was also to maintain and operate the line.
Which way to go?
Once the decision to construct the track had been taken, and the finances secured, disagreement broke out over the route. Galway to Oughterard was not a problem, but after that opinion was divided. The vast majority of Connemara’s 60,000 inhabitants lived along the coastline. As the railway was expected to help the development of fisheries, many believed the line should follow a coastal route through Spiddal, Carraroe, Roundstone and on to Clifden. Huge efforts were made at the time to have this coastal route adopted. The Midland Great Western Railway Company stated publicly that they believed this to be the best route. The Royal Commission for Irish Public Works (who were providing most of the funds), however, disagreed, and for reasons which were never publicly stated, favoured a direct inland route. It may well be that the offer of free land from Mr Berridge of Ballynahinch Castle, through whose estate twenty miles of track was to run, had some bearing on the decision.
Constructing the line.
By the end of January 1891 five hundred men were employed, cutting drains and carrying out other surface work, on the boglands of central Connemara. To accommodate this workforce huts were erected at various points along the line.
In March 1891 one hundred men went on strike at Clifden, demanding an increase of six pence per day and a change in working hours from 6am-6pm to 7am-5pm. The average wage was twelve shillings per week. The workers’ demands were met and the strike settled almost immediately.
As work progressed over 1,000 men were employed along the line, rising to a peak of 1,500 by November 1893. Skilled men were brought in from other parts of Ireland, but all labouring work was carried out by men from the area.
To facilitate such a large workforce in the wilderness of Connemara, the contractor opened a provisions shop in a number of huts at Ballinafad. This store was of great benefit not only to the labourers but also to the locals. A number of unsavoury characters were also attracted into the area. Shebeens were set up along the line and the local priest complained of the ill-effect the sale of illegal alcohol was having on his parishioners.
It wasn’t until the works were completed and the men had left the district, that the shebeens and the store were closed.
‘The Balfour Album’ of photographs was originally created in 1893 by the photographer, Robert John Welch. It was a gift to the former Chief Secretary for Ireland, Arthur J. Balfour in recognition of his support for the building of the Galway-Clifden Railway. The album was presented to Arthur Balfour in the summer of 1896, a year after the railway had opened. It remained in the property of the Balfour family until 1987 when it was sold to the James Hardiman Library in NUIG. Click on the picture below to see the images:
The Grand Opening.
Promoting tourism in Connemara.
In 1903 the company laid on a special tourist train which ran daily from Dublin to Clifden during the summer months.
The river was crossed by a viaduct, ‘an imposing and elegant structure of steel’, with three spans, each of 150 feet, and a lifting span of twenty-one feet, to allow for navigation of the river.
Once over the bridge the line ran for miles along the west side of the river and the western shore of Lough Corrib, ‘passing deserted mansions, breweries and factories’.
The first station was at Moycullen Village, then Ross and then Oughterard.
From there the line ran west through the heart of Connemara stopping at Maam Cross and Recess.
Here the railway met with Alexander Nimmo’s link roads, laid out some seventy years before, which cut through the passes of Maam and Inagh Valley, linking Westport, Killery Harbour, Kylemore and Letterfrack to the north, with Screeb, Casla and Cashel to the south.
After Recess the line passed the southern shores of Derryclare and the eastern end of Ballynahinch lakes before moving on to Ballynahinch station. Ballynahinch was expected to receive a good deal of tourist trade from anglers visiting the lakes. And fish from Roundstone would be exported from here.
After Ballynahinch the train passed through a ‘long stretch of wild and rugged country, interspersed with many lakes, before reaching the terminus at Clifden’.
There were twenty-eight bridges on the line, with thirteen other ‘small accommodation‘ bridges. There were eighteen gatekeeper houses erected at public road level crossings.
Decline and Closure
The company argued that the huge cost for repairs could not possibly be recouped especially with the increase in private motor car ownership.
The increase in private road haulage companies (lorries) was proving too stiff a competition for the company.
On Saturday 27 April 1935 the last passenger train pulled out of Clifden. The whistle blew and detonators were fired at every level crossing, and groups of people gathered along the route to bid it farewell.
At each station old wagons were hitched on, making the last train from Connemara very long and important looking as it entered Galway station.
The railway was replaced by a fleet of buses and lorries, and the roads were tarred in preparation for the service.
Local opposition to the closure was strong, but the company pointed out the advantages of the new service.
Goods would now be delivered directly to homes and shops, and the bus would stop on request along the route from Galway to Clifden. A daily service between Clifden and Roundstone was soon to come into operation.
In time the tracks were removed and sold to a German scrap company, including the iron from the ‘Corrib Viaduct’. Local folklore has it that the metal was later used as bombs which were dropped on London during the Second World War.
GALWAY EDUCATE TOGETHER. (2018). Connemara Railway. [online] Available at: http://getns.weebly.com/connemara-railway.html [Accessed 7 Mar. 2018].