For almost exactly 100 years, Cork and Youghal were linked by a rail service.
THE original line between Youghal and Dunkettle opened in 1860, with a horse-drawn link to Cork City until the Summerhill terminus opened in 1861.
In 1963, CIE shut the passenger service.
Until 1987, a summer Sunday service still ran, leaving many Cork families childhood memories of outings to Youghal’s sandy beaches in a time when most couldn’t afford regular air travel for summer holidays.
That too was abandoned, deemed financially unviable.
But while the track was removed and the station fell into dereliction, Youghal station has never been officially declared closed.
For years, local councillors have petitioned for the railway’s return.
However in recent years, beguiled by the success of the nearby Dungarvan to Waterford Déise Greenway, which attracted more than 250,000 visitors in its first year, many locals turned to supporting Cork County Council’s ambitious plans for an East Cork Greenway on the rail track.
Youghal representatives, including independent Councillor Mary Linehan-Foley, now back the proposed 22km cycling and walking amenity for the disused former railway line between Midleton and Youghal.
However, more than 100 people showed up for a recent meeting in the town, arranged by Liam Quaide, who will run as the area’s Green Party candidate in next year’s local elections, to campaign for the rail line to reopen as a commuter service.
Joined by local historians, fellow Green Party members Dan Boyle and Eamon Ryan TD, as well as Sinn Féin’s Pat Buckley and Fianna Fáil TD Kevin O’Keeffe, Mr Quaide said he was surprised at the number of “pro-railway” voices in the room.
“It was an older age-group, but it was people who are very concerned about Youghal being left behind in terms of infrastructure and services,” Mr Quaide said.
Mr Quaide was keen to stress that the Green Party don’t want an ‘either-or’ approach to the issue of whether the area should have a greenway or a railway, but ultimately, they want the area to benefit from both.
The problem is that Cork County Council’s flagship project, the East Cork Greenway, would run right on top of Irish Rail’s disused railway track.
“At the meeting, everyone was unanimous that a greenway would bring a great kick-start to the local economy and the tourism industry,” Mr Quaide said.
“But it seems to be coming at such a high price, that we’re trading a potentially essential public service for an important tourist amenity. That trade-off doesn’t seem right.”
Under the Ireland 2040 National Development Plan, Cork City is set to double in size.
Mr Quaide believes that the government’s infrastructural commitments haven’t been far-sighted enough and are “primitive compared to what’s planned for Dublin.”
He thinks a train link, connecting not just Youghal, but villages like Mogeely and Killeagh to the city would ease the flow of traffic on the N25 and form an important part of an integrated transport system.
“Young people in college, people who can’t afford a car, people who want to be able to stay living in Youghal and work in the city: everyone would benefit.
“It’s also a quality of life issue,” he said.
“People’s commute times are getting longer and longer, and it doesn’t matter how much we widen roads, people will get stuck at bottlenecks on the outskirts of towns and cities.”
Irish Rail conducted a feasibility study several years ago and reported that it would not be financially viable to re-open the Youghal line.
Since it closed, 7km of the track has been removed for use on a different line and the cost of reopening the service would likely be substantial.
Instead, Irish Rail is proposing to lease the land to Cork County Council for the Greenway.
Mr Quaide would prefer to see the rail service reinstituted and a separate Greenway built.
“We see the train as an essential public service,” he said. “Do we perceive of public services like transport as a very narrow business model, where they have to be profitable in the short-term, or do we see them as a means of enhancing our society?”
It’s certainly true that Youghal could so with some enhancing.
In antiquity a seaport to rival Cork, the once-proud garrison town was hit with a devastating series of lay-off and factory closures in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Motorola, Pfizer, FCI, Youghal Carpets, more than 2,000 people lost their jobs.
Local independent Councillor Mary Linehan-Foley campaigned for years for the railway line to be restored since she was first elected 17 years ago, at the height of Youghal’s crisis.
“That was always our plan, to bring the railway back to Youghal, especially when it went as far as Midleton,” she said.
“But in talks with Irish Rail, there was no way that was going to happen in the immediate future.
“We’ve been looking at a derelict site for the last 30 years, and then the Greenway option came about. In an ideal world, we’d have the railway back, but I know it’s not going to happen, so I’m 100% behind the Greenway.
“Rather than look at a derelict site for another 10 years while we wait for a railway, we’ll take the Greenway project.”
Ms Linehan-Foley has been highly impressed by the Waterford Greenway’s impact on once way-side towns like Kilmacthomas, which are now stopping off points in their own right, with bustling cafés to cater to hungry cyclists and walkers.
What works in Waterford will work for Youghal, she believes: “It will work in Youghal, 100%. We have historic buildings, we’ve our boardwalk, we’re a heritage town. It will all tie in together. A Greenway leading on to a beach? You won’t get it anywhere else in Ireland.”
Ms Linehan-Foley wants investment sooner rather than later.
“I’m not talking about in ten years’ time,” she said. “I’m talking about in the next two years.”
Cork County Council Senior Executive Seán O’Callaghan, the manager of the East Cork Municipal District, has worked on the Greenway proposal for more than two years already.
He said that, as land is set to be leased from Irish Rail, if a railway line becomes viable in the future, the Greenway can be reconverted for rail.
“Should Irish Rail ever decide that the line becomes viable, we’re keeping it in place,” he said. “It will still be there.
“I know some people might ask why invest €10 million in something in the shorter term when there’s a chance it’ll be turned back into a railway at a later date, but the way we see it, the towns and villages can have the benefit in the meantime.”
Cork County Council’s announcement last November that public consultation for the €10 million project was impending seems to have been premature: to date, no plans have been put on display.
Mr O’Callaghan said the Council were now “practically there” with the public consultation plans, which would go on display in Youghal, Midleton and County Hall as soon as possible and where members of the public can express their wishes and concerns on the project.
“We’re anxious to get public feedback on the project,” he said.
“We won’t bully this through. We want to hear people’s concerns. Why would we want to proceed with a project without public approval?”