Railways in Monaghan - past and present

The railways, for so long such an integral part of the infra structure of this country, are now just part of history and part of our folklore as far as Monaghan is concerned. But for almost a century they were a very vital component in the life of the area.

They were also a vital employer in difficult times and often the only means of travel to distant places. Many people who were emigrating made the first part of their journey by rail to the ports and in fact it is there that the beginnings of the rail system that served Monaghan started as the various companies were interested in connecting different parts of the country to the various ports. The first stretch of railway to reach a point in County Monaghan was when a section of the railway from Dundalk reached Castleblayney in 1844 and this section was part of the plans of two companies who wanted to develop lines from Dundalk to Enniskillen and Newry to Enniskillen, to bring trade to the port.

Two separate companies were set up, the Dundalk and Enniskillen Railway and the Newry and Enniskillen Railway. The plans for the latter to connect the port of Newry to Enniskillen by way of Armagh, Monaghan and Clones while the Dundalk and Enniskillen railway was to connect Dundalk with Clones and thereby Enniskillen. The companies were to share the responsibility and the cost of the remaining 22 miles to Enniskillen with the NER. Financial problems saw that plan abandoned and the line did not come further than Armagh but a new company was formed and obtained powers to build the Armagh to Clones section. The Dundalk and Enniskillen Railway company had been constructing its line from Dundalk and had reached Newbliss in 1855. Progress over the next two years was slow and the Newbliss to Clones to Lisnaskes section was not opened until July of 1858.

Part of this delay was due to difficulties in constructing the track across difficult terrain between Newbliss and Clones and it was February 1859 before the first train left Clones for Enniskillen. The difficulties centred on getting the track through the townland of Ballynure or rather a 200 feet high drumlin hill and the engineers decided to tunnel it rather than go around it over lands belonging to the Haire-Foster family of Ballynure. Reports indicate that a lead tunnel was driven through the Hill and some work was done on the Clones side on the main tunnel but a subsidence on the Newbliss side of the hill entombed some of the workers a short distance from the end of the exploratory excavation. The engineers then are said to have negotiated another route with the Haire-Foster family including the provision of a private halt on their lands. Local tradition also has it that a number of workers (seven or eleven) lost their lives in the tunnel collapse and their bodies were never recovered even though a plot was taken in St. Leabhan’s Catholic church graveyard for their interment. Later research would hint at a possible cover-up but whatever the outcome the incident and Ballynure not only held up the completion of that section of the rail but has given rise to a conspiracy theory about the whole incident. The completion of that section of the track brought Clones into the limelight as a station and in March of 1862 Clones became an important junction when the Clones and Cavan railway opened at that time. This line was financed by four different companies and it provided an alternative round trip to Dublin from Clones.

There was a great deal of political intrigue in the railways at this particular time which resulted in the formation of the Great Northern Railway as the different lines that connected the major towns and cities were at times operated by as many as four companies. The creation of the GNR had little immediate impact in Monaghan but in future years Monaghan’s strategic location was to have a vital bearing on developments. Before the turn-of-the-century the railway system in Monaghan was complete with most towns and villages being served. The Clones - Dundalk service which connected with Belfast and Dublin ran from Clones, Newbliss, Monaghan Road, Ballybay, Castleblayney, Blackstaff, Inniskeen to Dundalk. The period immediately before the first world war can rightly be described as the heyday of railways but after the war the financial position of Irish railways deteriorated considerably. Some of the reasons for this were the introduction of the eight hour day in 1919 which led to rising wage costs, as did other elements such as trade union power all conspiring to make the railways less profitable and in some cases loss-making exercises. The railways in Monaghan were further affected by the partition of Ireland in 1921. The creation of Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State affected three lines which each crossed the new international border but the most affected were the lines between Clones and Cavan which crossed the border six times and the crossing on the Clones to Enniskillen line which required Customs examination at Clones while on the Belfast Clones line there were stops at Tynan and Glaslough. Apart from the inconvenience to travellers the border also affected the pattern of freight traffic in the long-term and towns on the border itself were also affected by changing shopping patterns and Clones once a thriving town and a major junction went into decline. The partition of Ireland also had an impact on the way rail transport was organised and the railways in Monaghan like everywhere else in the country were amalgamated into the Great Northern Railways in 1925.

The advent of the busses and increased road transport for freight meant that by the early mid-forties the railways appeared to be facing a bleak future and closures were predicted. Traffic was declining, costs were rising and the railways were not subsidised in anyway. The GNR which covered the railways in Monaghan was struggling as an independent company and a crisis point was reached in late 1950 when the company reported a financial loss on the previous years work. In January 1951 the GNR announced its intention to close the system and served notice on its employees, the beginning of the end for the railways in Monaghan. There was a temporary stay of execution when the governments of Northern Ireland and The Irish Free State stepped in to negotiate with the company. The outcome was that the two governments, after meeting the company’s current deficit as an interim measure, purchased the GNR a 4.5 million pounds as and from September 1st 1953, each paying half of the cost. This created an unique situation with the GNR being effectively nationalised but owned by two separate states and to administer the company a board was created called The Great Northern Railway Board.

Viewed in the current context of cross-border bodies this was a bold step but almost immediately there were difficulties as every decision with regard to finance had to be agreed by the two governments. There was a further development in this in 1953 when ministers were allowed to make unilateral decisions affecting the lines within their specific jurisdictions and there was also the added problem that the Northern Ireland government wanted rid of the GNR and it resented having to co-operate with the Irish Republic over its transport policy. So the railways in Monaghan became hostages to fortune and the political intrigues of the time and following the closure of a number of branch lines in Northern Ireland it came as quite a shock when the Northern Ireland government proposed in 1956 that it was going to close all lines that had any connection with cross-border traffic. The knock-on effect of this was catastrophic and meant that services into Monaghan and across the county to Clones could not remain open as they would be unable to sustain the services on the Cavan to Monaghan and Clones to Dundalk sections after their connections had gone and rail traffic effectively ceased in the county completely in 1957.

People still talk of the last trains to leave the various stations in the county and the love that people had for the service was evidenced by the fact that huge numbers turned out and travelled on those last trains. The railways too played a major part in the GAA with trains providing the only means of transport to matches in the early days but a major crux arose over the Ulster final of 1903, which was not played until Easter Sunday, April 23rd 1905, but the railway authorities refused to run a train service on Sundays. Eventually through the tireless efforts of Patrick Whelan from Newbliss who was then President of the Ulster Council everything was sorted. He travelled to London to meet the railway authorities the game was re-fixed for the following day April 24th in Armagh and ended in a draw. The second replay also ended level and the third replay was fixed for Newbliss where it is reported that 7000 peopled travelled by train to the game, the trains arriving at the appointed venue, disgorging their thousands of supporters as the pitch was alongside the track and when the match was over they climbed the embankment back onto the train to head back to Armagh and Cavan. The rail service too was a vital link for many people travelling to All-Ireland championship matches in Croke Park and of course there are still many who remember the excursion trains not only to matches but the seaside resorts. Bundoran was a favourite destination for those excursions from Monaghan with trains running from as far away as Inniskeen to the Riviera of the North West.

As for the present there is no rail service in any part of Monaghan but the question still remains, could the railways have survived. Those who study such things are of the opinion that the services emanating from Clones to Dundalk and Dublin respectively could have survived, as with little change the track could have been altered to create a through line between Dublin and Clones via Cavan. In that event a through service from Dublin serving Cavan, Clones and Monaghan might have been viable for both passengers and freight. As for the Clones to Dundalk sections it could have been as viable as some of the services to parts of the west of the country at the moment but such was the political opinion of the day that there was no future in the railways and the lifting of the permanent way was more or less completed in December 1959. By now quite a deal of the original track has been subsumed into agricultural land and the stations which fell eerily silent from the 1950s on are now mere ghostly relics of a bygone age.

Taken from Monaghan's Match
December 2003