By Stephen Thompson
DISTRICT DIRECTOR: EDSO CROWLEY / EDITOR: WILLIE WARREN
January 15th, 1885 was a red-letter day in the lives of the people of Killorglin, for on that day, over one hundred and thirty years ago, the first Great Southern and Western Railway train pulled into the newly constructed station building. From a newspaper of the day we read that the local dignitaries were present, together with most of the town’s people and many from the parish to witness their “Iron Horse” and its wagons arrive in style.
This was the most westerly railway line in Europe until it was closed in 1960. In 1881 the Great Southern and Western Railway commenced construction of the rail branch line from Farranfore junction to Killorglin, a distance of 12.5 miles (20km) at a cost of £7000 per mile. The sandstone used in the construction of St. James’ Church (1888-1891) was transported from Castlemaine via the newly opened rail line. The line also served as a vital connection for those living in South Kerry. For one travelling the entire route from Farranfore to Renard Point, the first architectural feat you would have come across was the Metal Bridge over the River Laune in Killorglin. The bridge itself was constructed in 1884 and comprises single arch sections to the east and to the west with limestone and red brick voussoirs, coupled with a three-span section to the centre with bowstring cast iron girders on tapered limestone piers.
In 1893 the Killorglin to Valentia branch of the Great Southern and Western Railway line opened. The need by local farmers and fishermen to get their produce to market in Britain was identified and the provision of a government grant of £85,000 meant that work could commence. In December 1890 the first sod was turned by the local parish priest, Canon Brosnan, and witnessed by high officials of the railway company amid much fanfare. The project gave a huge boost to the local economy, providing 273 jobs on a basic wage of two shillings per day.
This was a great triumph for the engineers and workers who surmounted all obstacles of terrain – boring through rock and mountain to form tunnels, and spanning the chasm at Gleesk to construct the viaduct, an outstanding engineering feat and still a proud monument to the craft and skill of the men who built it.
During the construction, a number of people lost their lives. At Gleesk, a man died as a result of a fire breaking out in one of the temporary huts built to house the men near the viaduct. Another was killed in one of the tunnels. Near Caragh Bridge, a man died when he was crushed between two ballast wagons during construction.
Dooks Halt was added to the system in 1897 in connection with the excellent nine-hole golf links on the sand dunes nearby.
The overall cost of the 26 mile (42km) track was £243,627, a huge sum in those days. Three years after work began, the first train left Valentia station on September 12th, 1893. The main traffic on the line came from tourism and the fishing industry, both of which were seasonal. The regular cattle fairs were the most reliable source of income, and Cromane mussels were exported using the railway.
Train Derailed, 1944
“The derailment was caused by a landslide the previous night when many tons of earth and stones from the cliff edge were dislodged and piled onto the permanent way. It happened less than half a mile from the first tunnel on the section of line running along the steep side of Drung Hill between Mountain Stage and the majestic Gleesk viaduct further west. The driver, peering through the darkness of the early Monday morning on the bleak November day, saw a dark mass on the line ahead of him. As he slammed on his brakes the engine lifted off the permanent way, skidded along two lengths of rails and then came to rest within two feet of the cliff that rises 150 feet above the waters of Dingle Bay. But for the vigilance of the driver and fireman and the presence of some tons of yielding mud into which the engine ploughed, the train with its engine, crew and passengers, would have gone crashing over the cliffs into the waters of the bay deep down below. The escape was miraculous and even more miraculous was the fact that no one was injured. Indeed in the darkness the passengers were not even aware of what happened and not until day light broke were they able to appreciate how close they had come to the shadow of death. All they knew was that there was a terrific jolt that flung them from their seats, and grinding crash, and then a moment’s deathly silence before they dazedly picked themselves up with their luggage. There were fifty passengers on the train that morning, many to connect with the main line at Farranfore. All were duly conveyed to their destinations by cars, and no further trains could run on the line that day.”
By the 1950s the line was no longer commercially viable and, despite great efforts by the Iveragh Railway Protection Association and much lobbying by individuals, the line was closed in 1960. On a dark and dismal day, January 30th, 1960, the last passenger train left Killorglin station after serving the people well for 75 years. Large crowds gathered to line the route on the last day, this time to wave a fond farewell and mourn the passing of what had been a life-line to one of the remotest parts of Ireland.
By 1962, the track had been completely taken up.
This story and images were taken from the files of Killorglin Archive Society and incorporate quoted material from The Kerryman newspaper
Biography: Stephen Thompson was born in London, and moved to Co. Cork when young. He worked as a chemist in both the polymer and pharmaceutical industries. Stephen married Rita (Chub) O’Connor, and moved to her home town of Killorglin.
A member of Killorglin Archive Society, Stephen’s main reading interest is history. He published a book “Killorglin’s Great War Servicemen” in 2018. He has contributed articles to the Royal Munster Fusiliers Association Journal “The Bengal Tiger.