A Short History

Many attempts were made to provide railway transport connections to west Clare but the area was just too remote for investors to take the risk of spending their money on such ventures. They could not imagine there being enough freight or people for a railway to make a profit. Then, in answer to exactly this problem in such areas of Ireland, Parliament passed an Act called “The Tramways Act” in 1883 the provisions of which included clauses to permit a narrow gauge track (thereby more than halving the building costs) and giving guaranteed returns to the investors.

Building began in 1894 with no less a personage than Charles Stewart Parnell cutting the first sod at Miltown Malbay – originally intended to be the terminus of the line leading there from the county town of Ennis where main line railway transport was already available for the interchange of freight and passengers. The directors appointed one William Martin Murphy as contractor to build the railway. (Murphy was later to become a major newspaper owner and caused the infamous worker’s lockout in Dublin in the early years of the 20th century.) One of Murphy’s first acts was to order 4 locomotives from Bagnalls of Leeds. These locomotives, fine as contractor’s engines on the proposed 25 miles or so of railway being built, proved to be an embarrassment when used on the 48 mile railway eventually opened and were largely confined to working the Kilrush branch line and freight to and from Kilrush and Kilkee.

Whilst the west Clare railway was being built, a number of the directors who owned lands in the far west of the county decided to form a second company to promote a similar railway serving the towns of Kilrush and Kilkee. These towns had always been the targets for the original railway plans. However, no agreement could be found as to the direction of the railway with many believing that the line could be built across the tidal Poulnasherry Bay with the resulting land reclamation providing rental incomes which would largely defray the costs of building the line. However desirable the plan looked in theory, it was not until Murphy explained that he could not calculate the costs of making the line sea-resistant and could not guarantee the results anyway that the directors finally decided that the South Clare Railways should go to Moyasta where the necessary division of the line would take place and a line built to connect with the West Clare Railway at Miltown Malbay. Thus the southern half of the line as eventually built was begun some time later and the line was not completed throughout until December 1892.

The two companies worked closely together from the very start and many of the officers were common to both. Such was George Hopkins, appointed to design and supervise the rolling stock. Hopkins came to give Dubs & Co of Glasgow a specification for three locomotives the detailed design of which would be left to Dubs. The first of these was Number 5 named “Slieve Callan” which arrived in March 1892. These locomotives were designed to pull the expected loads at the timetabled speed of 25 mph over gradients as fierce as 1 in 50 along a track of 48 miles in length. They were therefore large and powerful engines built to the limits of the permitted loading gauge.

The railway timetable for three trains each way between Ennis and Kilkee with branch line connections to Kilrush was published under the sole name of the West Clare Railway in June 1893. From then on, the railway trundled on gaining new passengers as its services became better known. It is, for example, no accident that the Lahinch golf course was laid out at this time – British Army officers could use the railway to travel to the course easily. The Lisdoonvarna Festival each September gained a new lease of life as passengers could get as near as Ennistymon from all parts of Ireland. The Burren cattle trade was enhanced by the ease of transporting the cattle away from the market. The Kilrush Horse Fair and the Lahinch Garland Day celebrations took on a new significance. Kilkee, always a popular resort, became known as the “Brighton of the West” whilst new goods and services were brought to the shops by travelling salesmen, postal services quickened by degrees and newspapers from Dublin became available on the day. By the turn of the century, the timetable was showing 5 trains each way. More than 200.000 passengers travelled the line and 80.000 tonnes of freight and livestock were carried each year with 2/3rds of the passengers travelling during the summer months.

The War of Independence and subsequent Civil War saw the railway very much in the front line. No 5 was hit by Black & Tan bullets after the Rineen Ambush, Captain Meldrum RM was ambushed and killed at Clohanes, railway staff bravely defied their directors and refused to carry any arms held by British soldiers but the railway carried on despite all until the grouping of Irish railways took place after independence and the line became part of the G & SR.

A new era now dawned as the track was made stronger and the maintenance of the locomotives was based at Limerick and vastly improved. The special difficulties of getting maintenance done during war production in Britain were largely overcome and no more locomotives were ordered for the railway despite losses caused by obsolete boilers not being able to be replaced during those terrible times. The only service lost was the excursion trips by steamboat from Limerick via Cappa Pier to Kilkee. German U-boats in the Shannon Estuary put paid to them and they were sadly never revived. The greatest loss of grouping was, however, the change in the livery of the engines – now a plain grey with no nameplates and only painted numbers.

The Second World War (or “Emergency” as it is known in Ireland) created special problems for the railway. Ireland has no coal reserves and little enough could be imported from Britain. Fuel became a serious concern and the West Clare Railway used the fuel that was plentiful locally but totally unsuited to a steam engine’s boiler – turf. Two firemen working on each engine threw vast quantities of the stuff into the fireboxes but the engines could not make steam quickly enough and often came to a grinding halt for a “blow-up”

The late 1940’s saw Irish railways in a bad state and the economic situation of the Republic demanded change. Many lines were closed and road traffic was encouraged whilst the remaining lines were modernised to diesel traction as quickly as possible. The WCR was recommended for closure along with all the remaining narrow-gauge lines but, owing to local opposition to such plans, the line became the only narrow-gauge line to receive significant investment in diesel traction, line, signalling and operating improvements. However, Clare was still losing population and emigration was, indeed, increasing. There was just not enough traffic and the line was eventually and inevitably closed on January 31st, 1961.

More pictures and Information can be found at the Clare Library website.