EARLIER this month, in Throwback Thursday, we talked about the closure of the great old Youghal railway line, and recalled the trains that took so many people to the summer holiday of their dreams, or even for a long-remembered day out by the sea.
The memories that rail service of East Cork evoked were many, and showed how it was cherished by thousands of Corkonians.
However, we have also had correspondence from so many other readers, demanding to know why we have not also marked the tragic departure of that marvellous network of lines spreading out from the city like a cobweb of magical transport, to towns such as Bandon, Baltimore and Ballydehob, Courtmacsherry, Clonakilty and Skibbereen, Dunmanway, Drimoleague and Durrus, Upton, Innishannon and Kinsale.
Well, you are absolutely right, as our readers always are.
The beloved West Cork Railway was indeed an iconic example of railway transport at its best, used by everyone and everything from businessmen and schoolchildren to cattle and turf - but it was closed forever, on March 31, 1961.
That is coming up to 63 years ago, but it is still lamented, still longed for, and wherever devotees are gathered together, you will, sooner or later, hear the cry, “Bring back the West Cork!”
Some of the stations along the line, now in private ownership, have been lovingly maintained to keep the tradition going. And who doesn’t salute the Chetwynd Viaduct as it soars over the Bandon Road, that magnificent example of 19th century engineering?
In other places, along a country lane or unexpectedly by the edge of a remote field, you will find the old crossing gates still in place, or an abandoned wayside halting station, now home to crows and brambles.
Macroom town still has Railway View, although the original station where once the steam train hissed and whistled is now served by buses.
Today, when we all travel everywhere by car (although indeed our elected ministers would have it otherwise), it is difficult to imagine just what a difference the train made to the majority of the people in West Cork.
Before its arrival, you lived in your own small village or town, getting your schooling or finding a job there, buying from local shops, probably marrying the girl or boy from next door or down the road.
Then, suddenly it seemed, gangs of workmen were digging through hitherto undisturbed landscape, laying iron tracks. Buildings, gates, and stone platforms went up. Finally, an eerie whistle sounded across the hills, and a column of white smoke was seen moving along the meadows at frightening speed. And life would never be the same again.
At first, these railways were built for the improvement of commerce. Not only could goods be sent from one end of the country to the other speedily, but local West Cork produce could go quickly up to Cork and even beyond, to Dublin, expanding the possibilities for local producers.
Fresh fish from Baltimore could arrive in our capital, whereas before it would have had to be heavily salted to survive the slow journey. And the converse was true too.
A salesman could nip down to Bantry or Skibbereen with a bag or two of samples, whether clothing or footwear, show his wares to a number of merchants there, return with a full order book, and arrange for the goods to be sent down on the next train.
That meant local residents had a far wider choice in their shops than ever before, including the latest in fashion. Country housewives had a choice at last!
So, yes, goods came first, but good times in the form of excursions weren’t long in following.
The railway companies soon realised that they could make profitable use of weekends, when freight was less frequent, by offering reduced price fares. And that had its effect on social life generally.
Sporting fixtures, instead of being local events, became major occasions held in big cities, where everyone who could travelled by train to cheer on their local team.
Country shows began to attract far larger crowds. Exhibitions held in Cork brought not only city residents but visitors from Timoleague or Durrus.
It’s hard to believe now, when we have just Kent Station, but at one time this city had no fewer than five railway stations:
Summerhill North, for trains to Cobh and Youghal.
Capwell Road for Macroom.
Western Road for Blarney.
Lower Glanmire Road for Dublin.
And Albert Quay for all the West Cork routes.
Since Lower Glanmire Road was on one side of the twin-branched river, and Albert Quay at the other, and it was often necessary to transfer freight, the two had to make connection via specially strengthened lifting bridges across both branches of the Lee.
As late as the 1960s, it was an everyday event to hear the hissing and clanging as locomotives and freight puffed ponderously across from one station to the other.
The railway cutting between Glanmire Road and Brian Boru Street still remains: the rails have been lifted, but it now serves as a handy short-cut for people hurrying from the train to the bus station or jobs in the city.
In point of fact, the West Cork line was a marvellous mix of different lines and connections which served a multitude of towns, villages and country halts, taking children to school, cattle to and from market, housewives to do the shopping, goods and supplies from the city to the outlying areas, agricultural produce and seafood back from these areas to the city, salesmen to country stores, football and hurling fans to the big games.
It was a social network like no other. Lifetime friendships were made on the West Cork lines, and in all likelihood many a marriage too.
Cattle were a big part of the transport on the old West Cork lines. One elderly man recalls as a boy reluctantly getting up before dawn on cold autumn mornings to drive cattle to Bantry Fair from the family farm, some 10km away.
“Once the fair was over, and they were sold, I would have the job of taking them to the train and getting them loaded on to the wagons for Cork. ‘Twas a long day right enough.”
Ships arriving at Bantry would unload their cargoes straight to the waiting freight wagons on the quayside. Vessels came right up to the quayside in Timoleague where the train stopped right by the water.
Alas, that harbour is silted up now, and seeing the quiet stretch of road between the old abbey and the quay, it’s hard to imagine the bustling noisy scenes here in railway days.
Where freight and livestock led, passengers were not long in following. In the early days, while Kinsale was still an English garrison town, and chief supply port for the British Navy, officers used the service to travel in comfort to and from Cork.
In the 20th century, parents could now choose to send their children to secondary school in Skibbereen or Bandon instead of having to cut short their education after primary level. Attending university in Cork city was now feasible, as were concerts and courses.
“I used to come up to Cork from Bandon on the train every week for ballet classes at Joan Denise Moriarty’s in the 1950s,” remembers one senior lady fondly.
At one pub in Clonakilty, they still recall the excitement of the day of a big match in the capital.
“Everybody would be planning and getting ready the night before. You wouldn’t believe the crowds going up the hill to the station! Sometimes they’d even leave on a ‘special’ in the middle of the night, and we used to call that the ghost train!”
In the opposite direction, excursion trains to Ballabuidhe Horse Fair outside Dunmanway in early August were always packed.
Ballabuidhe is one of the old traditional fairs of Ireland, being held since time immemorial at the ancient festival of Lunasa. When it was first heard in the 19th century that the new railway line from Bandon would cut right through the fair field, the worst was feared, but in fact it brought even more visitors, delighted at this new simpler way of getting to the fun and the races.
Today, the fair is held in Dunmanway town, with trotting races further out, but you can still find the old track of the railway in the fields, near a plaque which commemorates the original site of the fair. The platform where once so many fairgoers and horses alighted is still there too, holding in its grass-grown flagstones the echo of stamping hooves, nervous whinnies, shouts and laughter.
Further west, Kilcoe, on the Schull & Skibbereen line, is now a small platform on a quiet side road, with views over the bay and Jeremy Irons’ restored medieval castle.
A thought: as lord of the local manor, Mr Irons could probably claim the right to stop the train whenever he felt like travelling on it. That’s if it hadn’t been closed, of course.
Back in the early days of this lovely little line, even the carriages were a source of delight, having been lovingly hand-made entirely of wood by a local carpenter in Skibbereen, one Willie Cottam.
First class had upholstered seats, second made do with wooden benches. Freight, though, was a major part of the Schull & Skibbereen, when the sugar beet industry got going.
This part of West Cork was particularly suited to growing the crop, and at the harvesting season, trains ran round the clock to the sugar factory in Mallow.
Digging the heavy parsnip-like tubers from the ground was hard enough work, but according to local memory, loading them into the open freight wagons was even harder. A shame though, that both the train and the sugar beet industry have been removed from our lives.
Now come on. How many of our readers can recall travelling on one of the West Cork lines back in younger days?
Did you come up to the city to school from Bandon or Clon’? Go on day trips down to Kinsale, or a weekend in Courtmacsherry? Or did you perhaps work in the fisheries at Baltimore, and see the laden boxes safely on to the late evening train?
Were you one of those happy sportsmen who travelled up to Dublin for the hurling final?
We know you are out there, and that you still lament the passing of the West Cork. Tell us your memories of its glory days.
Who knows, if we all shout loud enough, maybe they will bring it back?
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