The West Clare Railway provided a very important service until it was shunted into history when it was finally closed down in February, 1961. It still continues to steam slowly and erratically in popular memory fuelled by the Percy French song ‘Are ye right there, Michael’, writes Gerry Breen.
The West Clare Railway opened on 2nd July, 1887. Two years before that, Charles Stewart Parnell was invited to turn the first sod in laying the tracks at Miltown-Malbay, where he was greeted by one of the largest crowds ever assembled in Clare. He was presented with a silver spade and a wheelbarrow made of bog-oak.
The railway was a steam driven three-feet narrow-gauge rail service that ran from the county town of Ennis along the west coast of Clare, stopping at numerous points along the way to two termini, at Kilrush and Kilkee. The railway employed about seventy people in Ennis alone, so it was an important addition to the economic life of the town.
Shortly after the Second World War, in 1948, the Irish national railway Córas Iompair Éireann (CIE) were preparing to close the line, but, instead, they decided to replace the steam engines with diesel engines. The last steam passenger train departed from Ennis on 15th March, 1952.
Attempts before 1887 to provide railway transport connections to west Clare didn’t succeed because of the remoteness of the area and the reluctance of investors to risk their money in such a venture.
However, when Parliament passed an Act entitled ‘The Tramways Act’ in 1883, new possibilities were opened up. The Act contained provisions which allowed the construction of a narrow-gauge track, and this meant that the costs of building a railroad would be halved and would guarantee a return for investors. Almost immediately, work began on the building of the West Clare Railway.
When the West Clare Railway was being built, it was originally intended to provide a service between Ennis and Kilrush. However, a number of its directors who owned lands in the far west of the county, shrewdly formed a second company to promote a similar railway serving the towns of Kilrush and Kilkee.
Needless to say, the railway brought new life to the entire area. It was welcomed by farmers, who could use it to transport their livestock to markets, and by business people generally.
The Kilrush Horse Fair and the Lahinch Garland Day celebrations, as well as many other events, attracted bigger attendances, and Kilkee became known as the ‘Brighton of the West’. The train service guaranteed faster delivery of goods and services and was hugely beneficial to people over a wide area.
By the turn of the century, there were five trains each way between the county town of Ennis, with many stopping points along the way, to Kilrush and Kilkee. It was calculated that more than 200,000 passengers travelled on the line and 80,000 tonnes of freight and livestock were carried each year.