A train arriving at Castlebar Railway Station in the 1880s.

The railway brought prosperity to Mayo in 1862

By Tom Gillespie

THE Midland and Great Western Railway (MGWR) of Ireland extended the railway system into Mayo towards the end of the 19th century. The company was formed in the 1840s and was the third largest railway company in the country.

In 1925, it amalgamated with other railway companies to form the Great Southern Railway.

The building of the railways provided employment for thousands of people and brought great prosperity for many years. The railways assisted trade, facilitating the transportation of farm produce to new markets outside Mayo and the importation of foreign dry goods into the county.

Livestock trains carried cattle bound for England to Irish ports. The railways also provided a valuable passenger service for tourists and emigrants alike, as well as bringing seasonal workers to and from the harvest fields of England and Scotland.

According to The Story of Mayo by Rosa Meehan and published by Mayo County Council in 2003, the Ballyhaunis-Claremorris-Castlebar line was built in 1862 and was the first railway line laid in Mayo in the standardised five-feet three-inches wide gauge.

Some 2,000 people were employed in bringing the railway to Ballyhaunis.

Many of those who worked on the construction made their homes in the county when the work was finished.

In 1866, Castlebar was linked to Westport and from 1874 until 1901 a passenger service operated from Westport to Westport Quay.

The Westport line was extended to Mulranny in 1894 and to Achill a year later.

The Achill line was one of the so-called ‘Balfour Lines’, named after Arthur J. Balfour, Chief Secretary for Ireland during the years 1887 to 1891, who introduced the Act providing State assistance for the construction of narrow gauge lines to disadvantaged areas.

Railway construction continued in the 1890s, with lines extending from Claremorris to Ballindine and Ballinrobe.

North Mayo was first serviced in 1869 by a railway line from Manulla Junction running on to Ballyvary and thence to Foxford, which was, in turn, connected to Claremorris-Castlebar line.

Four years later Foxford was linked to Ballina and 20 years later Ballina was linked to Killala.

The Waterford and Limerick Railway was responsible for another line which also headed north from Claremorris, making stops at Kiltimagh, Swinford and Charlestown, after which it continued on to Curry in Co. Sligo.

The first trains passed through Charlestown on Tuesday, October 1, 1895, and were welcomed by enthusiastic crowds.

Plans for other railway lines in Mayo never came to fruition. In the early years of the 20th century, there was much debate and speculation in Mayo County Council about the possibility of a rail link from Dublin to Blacksod Bay, where it would terminate at a proposed transatlantic shipping terminal. However, World War I commenced and the project was shelved.

In the early 20th century, small-scale dedicated industrial railway lines were built to facilitate the transportation of goods by individual companies.

The Irish Industrial Mineral Company, for example, based on Achill island, constructed a two-foot gauge line which ran six miles from their whitestone quarry to Keel Harbour.

This line was used between 1910 and 1916 to transport ore to the harbour, from where it was shipped by hooker to the grinding mills at Westport Quay.

Railway lines were also constructed in Bellacorrick in 1958 and Bangor Erris in 1964 to assist the transportation of peat harvested by Bord na Mona for use at the ESB power station in Bellacorrick.

On occasion, trains were put on for special purposes. Such was the case in 1894 when a group of over 30 harvesters from Achill drowned in Clew Bay. Their hooker had capsized while carrying a full load of passengers to a steamship in Westport that would bring them to Scotland.

A special train was brought into operation to transport the bodies home for burial in Achill’s Kildavnet Cemetery, even though the Achill railway extension was still under construction at the time of the accident.

Forty-three years later, on September 1937, another special train was put on to return the bodies of 10 young boys to their native Achill.

They had been working as harvesters in Kirkintilloch, near Glasgow, and had been burned to death when their bothy or cabin, into which they had been locked for the night, had caught fire.

Two weeks later, on Thursday, September 30, 1937, the Achill line closed, and the tracks were removed shortly afterwards.

These disasters had been prophesied in the 17th century by Brian Rua Ó Ceabháin from Inver in Erris, who, it was said, was granted knowledge of the future after showing great kindness to a poor widow.

He had foretold of the coming of the railway to Achill, describing carriages of iron wheels with smoke and fire. He prophesied that the first and last trains to the island would carry home the dead.

Individual towns prospered with the arrival of the railways. The first train arrived in Mulranny, on the north shores of Clew Bay, on Monday, July 16, 1894, quickly making it a significant tourist destination.

When the Irish railway company became involved in the hotel business, the luxury Mulranny Hotel opened in 1897. From 1898, a combined rail and hotel ticket was available. The hotel was equipped with every modern convenience of the time, including electric light, and by 1900 hot and cold water baths were also available. Patrons had access to sandy beaches and the use of the hotel’s boats and golf links.

Newport station, also on the Westport-Achill line, consisted of a series of small-scale, orderly, attractive buildings, designed to be functional.

The viaduct bridge, carrying the railway over the Brown Oak River, was built to the highest engineering and architectural specifications of the day and was completed in 1892 at a cost of over £7,000.

The Westport-Achill line finally closed in 1937.

Islandeady, Balla and Bekan were among the stations closed in Mayo on the Westport-Dublin line.

The last passenger train on the line to Charlestown stopped in June 1963, although the freight train continued until 1975 when the station closed.

Foxford Station, on the Ballina line, received a reprieve: after being initially closed in 1963, it was later reopened in the 1980s and continues in operation today.