The train that once linked Castlecomer and Kilkenny

Plumes of smoke could be seen curling like grey candy floss above the trees as the gleaming black locomotive with its cargo of coal trucks chugged its way along the river banks, towards the depot in Kilkenny Railway Station.

It is difficult to imagine now but there was a time when the hills around Castlecomer echoed to the sounds of a steam train.

The Deerpark Train which ran between Deerpark mine and Kilkenny operated for more than 40 years, bringing coal from the mines of Castlecomer for distribution to the world beyond.

Accounts differ as to whether the train started running in 1919 or 1921 but it ceased operation in 1963.
Seamus Farrell, from the Railway Garage, is to be my guide for the day and we begin our journey at his home.

"This was the old station master's house," says Seamus Farrell, as we drive the short distance from the Railway Garage to his home on Castlecomer's Kilkenny Road. "Down there," he says, pointing tot he next house a little further out the Kilkenny Road. "was the ticket office."

"And this is where the railway lines ran" says Seamus, as we make our way up the steps to his back garden. "Two tracks ran through here and out there," he says, sweeping his hand from one end of his garden to the other and pointing up towards the town.

Looking around the beautifully landscaped garden surrounded by flowers, shrubs and trees, it is impossible to visualise a large steam train thundering through here pulling its dusty, rattling coal trucks behind it.

"The station master would have kept a cow here in the garden also," says Seamus.
On the front gate post, a fixing for an oil lamp conjures up an image of the station master going about his duties on dark wintry nights.

"The train would have gone up one of the lines here, turned and come back," explains Seamus. "Then the lines merged into one just down by the ticket office."

According to the map in Tom Lyng's book Castlecomer Connections, the train left Deerpark Mine, crossed the bridge over the Ballinakill/Clogh Road (the pillars of the bridge can still be seen), crossed Barrack Street, Hospital Lane, over the Dysart Bridge, where the Silvery Deen and Dinin Rivers meet, crossed the road at Corbettstown near the Cave Bar to run along the left-hand side of the road, crossed the road again by Dunmore House, crossed Ballyragget Road to join the Kilkenny/Portlaoise railway line in Dunmore West, then made its way into Kilkenny over bridges near the cattle mart and just below the Castlecomer Road roundabout. The coal was deposited at the depot and taken on by train to Dublin from where it set off across the Irish Sea.

In the compiling of a project on Coalmining in Castlecomer as part of the Schools Integration Project (SIP), pupils from the local Holy Cross national school in Firoda, spent the day walking a section of the railway line. Their website shows images of farm gates along the route branded with the shamrock logo of the rail company and the discarded 'clinkers' or lumps of coal which wouldn't burn, which they found still sitting in the same spot on the tracks having been thrown from the train over 40 years ago.

The Deerpark Train was set up in 1919 by the British government under the Defence of the Realm Act, in the aftermath of World War 1 as a means of ensuring a safe, convenient and efficient supply of coal. The railway was then turned over to the Irish Government in 1921 and run by the Great Southern and Western Railway (GSWR). An act in 1924 ordered the amalgamation of all rail companies and the GSWR became the Great Southern Railway operators of the Deerpark train until stopped running in 1963.

In the 1950s, Deerpark Mine sent three trains a day carrying 100 tons of coal each into Kilkenny. The coal came in many forms and included cobbles, Aga nuts, peas, beans, breakage, culm, and cannels. There was a demand for all of it and in Castlecomer Connections, Tom Lyng had documented enquires from prospective customers on Cairo, Sao Paulo and Stockholm as well as all over Ireland and Britain.

"It didn't just carry coal," explains Seamus as we drive through Castlecomer out to the Deerpark Mine. "Sometimes it carried other goods like sugar beet for the farmers. And, of course, it carried passengers too."

The Deerpark train carried passengers, as well as coal, from 1921 to 1931 allowing people from Castlecomer and the surrounding area to venture further than Kilkenny.

The coal trucks were all left at the colliery in All-Ireland day though and the train was packed to capacity with fortunate All-Ireland ticket holders who had each paid six shillings for a seat on the train.
On the way to Clogh road on the way out to the Deerpark mine, Seamus points out the railway bridge and further out, the railway crossing where, as one local put it, "it doesn't matter how many times they tarmac that road, you can still feel the bumps of the railway track as you drive over."

Out at the mine, the long building which housed the showers now stands roofless and the once 350-foot mountain of shale known as Bell's Heap had been greatly reduced.

There is no evidence either of the overhead cable cars which carried coal form the other pits to Deerpark to meet the train.

"I remember, years ago, when I was playing hurling for Kilkenny, our trainer brought us out here for showers before we went to Dublin for the match" says Seamus laughing.

According to Mary Morrissey, librarian in Castlecomer Library, there are plans to build an interpretative centre at Deerpark Mine in the near future.

The Deerpark train ran twice a daily but when passengers became uneconomical, the decision was taken to carry only freight with excursion trains being laid on only for special occasions.

"I was on it in 1947," says one Castlecomer woman, who preferred not to give her name. "We went to Tramore and it was my first time at the sea side. I will never forget the excitement. 130 people got the train from Castlecomer to Kilkenny, which took 40 minutes, and then we changed to the Waterford train. When we arrived in Waterford, we had to get to the other side of the city to catch the Tramore train. I can't remember if there was a bus or if we walked. We got to Tramore at 4 o'clock that afternoon," she says laughing at the memories. I remember my mother saying to me, " Well there's the sea", but it was an overcast day and the sea and the sky were the dame colour and all I could see was sky and I started crying. But we all went off down to the beach and, of course, I saw the sea and the sand was so soft. It was lovely. It was a great day.”

*Coalmining in Castlecomer, project by Firoda N.S.,
*Castlecomer Connections by Tom Lyng, 1984
*In the Shadow of the Mines by Joe and Seamus Walsh, 1999

Courtesy of Katherine Blake and the Kilkenny People
July 2005