60 years ago: End of the line for West Cork

On March 31, 1961, services ended on the West Cork Railway. PATRICK WALSH provides a brief outline of how the network developed, and its sad demise
60 years ago: End of the line for West Cork

The train crosses Clontarf Bridge n Cork city on an Irish Railways Record Society outing to West Cork on March 16, 1961

THE network known as the West Cork Railway developed from a short local line between Cork and Bandon.

During the railway investment mania of 1844, promoters of a Cork-Bandon line considered two routes prepared by renowned engineer, Charles Blacker Vignoles.

The first was a level but quite circuitous route, while the second option, albeit more direct, had to negotiate two high ridges between the Lee, Owenabue and Bandon rivers.

This route would be expensive as high embankments and deep cuttings would be needed to keep the track formation as level as possible for the underpowered steam engines of the time.

Viaducts over the Chetwynd valley, Halfway, and the Bandon river would also be necessary.

Nevertheless, the latter option was chosen and with parliamentary approval obtained in July, 1845, the Cork and Bandon Railway (C&BR) was incorporated, with capital of £200,000 for the 20-mile line.

After a much-publicised and flamboyant ceremony at Kilpatrick in October of that year, construction began.

Emphasis was put on the western half of the line first as this section would be easier to build.

Rail services between Ballinhassig and Bandon commenced in October, 1849, with passengers transferring between Cork and Ballinhassig by horse-drawn busses.

The Timoleague and Courtmacsherry line in 1952
The Timoleague and Courtmacsherry line in 1952

Troubles, however, were never far from the C&BR’s door through these years. Edmund Leahy, the resident engineer, was dismissed in 1846 and replaced by Charles Nixon of London. He quickly revised some of Leahy’s plans, substituting some deep cuttings with two tunnels, which saved the company £1,000.

Nixon’s best known legacy is the Chetwynd viaduct, with its fine stone pillars and metal superstructure. Leahy’s plan for this crossing was a flimsy wooden bridge.

More conflict, involving fisticuffs, contractor sabotage, and courtroom drama, had to be endured before trains could finally run between the places in the C&BR’s title, late in 1851.

Even before work on the Bandon line began, other towns in County Cork also desired a railway, particularly during the ‘railway mania’ period already mentioned.

With its long established fishing industry and seaside leisure potential, Kinsale soon came to the attention of promoters.

Kinsale and Bandon interests, in fact, had entered into an agreement whereby both concerns would share part of a line out of Cork that would also serve Passage, but it was not proceeded with.

Eventually, plans by an engineer, Henry Conebeare, were accepted for a line that would leave the Cork-Bandon railway at Crossbarry and run south-east to Kinsale via Bally-martle and Farrangalway.

An act of 1858 authorised this line and the Kinsale Junction Railway (KJR) set about its task.

Not helped by the loss of two shipments of rails at sea and a formidable obstructive rock outcrop near Kinsale, the company forged ahead and the line opened on July 16, 1863.

The guests who arrived on the inaugural train from Cork that day had a busy schedule. Having toasted success to the new concern and to future developments, the guests once again entrained at Kinsale, their next destination, Bandon.

Under the title, The West Cork Railway (WCR), yet another company had secured powers in 1860 to build a line from Bandon westward to Skibbereen.

The WCR proprietors arranged their sod-turning ceremony to coincide with the Kinsale opening, ensuring the revellers who attended both events would have a day to remember.

When this line eventually opened in 1866, lack of funds had confined construction to Dunmanway, but soon afterwards, plans were revived to reach Skibbereen by the Ilen Valley Railway (IVR).

A steam train running on the West Cork railway in 1956
A steam train running on the West Cork railway in 1956

Their scheme also included a branch from Drimoleague to Bantry and, with its act secured in 1872, work began three years later.

Skibbereen finally got its railway in 1877, while that to Bantry opened in 1881. When Clonakilty got its nine mile branch from Gaggin, renamed Clonakilty Junction, in 1886, the network was almost complete.

By the mid-1880s, C&BR passenger and goods trains now served places well beyond Cork and Bandon. From a much-expanded city terminus at Albert Quay, and a new through station at Bandon, main line trains ran to Skibbereen, with connections provided for, Kinsale, Clonakilty,and Bantry.

The C&BR had in fact, worked the Kinsale line from the outset, and was doing likewise for the recently opened Clonakilty branch, also built by a separate company.

In 1879, the C&BR had purchased the KJR outright and amalgamated with the WCR and IVR the following year, 1880.

Consequently, in 1888, the C&BR directors changed the name to the more accurate, Cork Bandon and South Coast Railway (CB&SCR).

The final additions to West Cork’s railway were only made possible through government interventions.

Two concerns combined to lay a short line from Ballinascarthy on the Clonakilty branch, to Timoleague and Courtmacsharry.

Investors in this line, which reached Courtmacsharry in 1891, had their dividends guaranteed by local ratepayers if they could not be paid from rail-generated revenue.

For many decades, heavy excursion traffic ran over this line, especially from Cork city.

To stimulate development of its fishing industry, the line from Skibbereen was extended to Baltimore in 1893, aided by a Treasury grant that covered more than 90% of construction costs.

An extension of this line onto Baltimore pier in 1917 proved a great boon to fish traffic for some years.

Like other railways, the CB&SCR saw its fortunes reversed from its most profitable years before the Great War, to almost ruin by the time the Free State was established.

With a continuous rise in road competition, Kinsale lost its railway in 1931, while successive governments grappled with wanting a railway but not wanting to fund or own it.

State ownership of railways in 1950, and dieselisation of services through that decade, did sound a note of optimism throughout West Cork, but only to be dashed in late 1960 by the issue of closure notices for the entire network.

In spite of a spirited and vociferous cross-community drive against the closure, the national carrier was not for turning, and all regular services on West Cork’s railway ran for the last time on March 31, 1961, 60 years ago.

Up until its closure in 1961, Clonakilty was one of the busiest termini on the West Cork line. It was a major beet centre for West Cork and also in the 1950s a mecca for GAA supporters.

The railway land was sold to local landowners, and the wooden sleepers, 500 for every mile of track, were sold off for a shilling each. Many ended up being shipped to Nigeria for the railways there.

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