Tom Ferris: Irish railway historian and essayist

The trains long departed : Ireland’s lost railways.

1- From Iron Ore to Charabancs: The Ballymena, Cushendall & Red Bay Railway 21
2. Gone Never to Return: A Lament for the Irish North and the Derry Road 31
3· Collateral Damage: The Fate of the SL&NCR 63
4· The Premier Line in County Louth 86
5· Forgotten Byways in South Leinster 104
6. Closed at the Stroke of a Pen: The Destruction of West Cork's Railways 122
7· Mr Balfour Goes West 146
8. A Magnificent Folly: The Letterkenny & Burtonport Extension Railway 166
9· Rails to Valentia Harbour 187


The Letterkenny & Burtonport Extension Railway first came into my life in singular circumstances. As a student at Queen's in Belfast in the early 1970S, I was one of the two men and a dog who constituted the membership of the now probably long defunct Queen's University Railway Society. A film show was advertised for one particular evening and I ambled down to the Students Union to see what was on offer. The film was on the Burtonport line and it began in black and white with views from the train as it left Letterkenny, the spire of St Eunan's cathedral seen in the distance through the carriage window. The next section featured footage of Churchill and Kilmacrenan stations. This in itself was rare enough but then suddenly—and I still recall my amazement to this day even though I have viewed the footage many times since—it burst into colour. This unique record, probably the first ever colour film of an Irish railway, was made in 1939 when the days of the L&BER were already numbered.

Previous to seeing that remarkable amateur film, even to come across a few black and white photos of the line was rare enough, but here was a series of views from the train showing the rocky grandeur of Barnes Gap and the fragile-looking Owencarrow Viaduct //of the structure, the spot where an Atlantic gale howling down th~ valley blew a train from Derry off the track in January 1925, causing the death of four passengers. There were shots of a Bedford lorry which was pursuing the train, its final victory in sight though it would yet be postponed for a few years. The condition of the dusty road upon which it was travelling was far from impressive. The highlights of the film for me were the close-ups of one of the line's pair of legendary 4-8-0 tender engines No 10. Its partner No 11 had already been withdrawn in 1933, worn out by years of hard work on the punishing Burtonport Line. Built in Leeds by Hudswell Clarke & Co in 1910, these were the only tender engines ever used on an Irish 3 ft gauge line and the only engmes of that wheel arrangement to run anywhere in these islands. They would not have looked out of place on the lengthy networks of narrow gauge lines which the British Empire endowed to southern Africa, Australia and parts of India. The tender engines were machines of such size and grandeur that they were in a different league from almost anything else that ever ran on the Irish narrow gauge, with one exception. That exception was also in the Swilly locomotive fleet, the pair of 4-8-4 tank engines which Hudswell Clarke built for the company in 1912.

The film was the work of a remarkable man, Father, later Canon, Tom Doherty who at that time was the curate in The Rosses in north-west Donegal. Somehow or other, possibly from connections in the USA, he got hold of some colour cine film and decided to make a record of the line whose closure, which took place the following year, had been on the cards since the .early 1930s. He created an unlikely but impressive epitaph to a railway which was the great epic of the Irish narrow gauge, a magnificent folly almost fated to failure from the day it opened, a line which would never have been built without a vast amount of direct government funding. The politics of this are discussed at some length in Chapter 7. The Burtonport line was built as part of a

This film may be available via U-tube: KPJ has seen some of it thereon. There is a gap in the above text due to the failure to copy one line on the Xerox copier at the NRM. Sadly the notes on Irish railways: a new history are even thinner due to lack of time, but for a thorough single volume on Irish railway history this must be seen as a contender.