The railways of Co. Cavan

By Ciaran Parker & Anna Sexton

Few developments of the Industrial revolution had as comparable impact on the mass of humanity as the invention of the steam locomotive. It destroyed the twin tyrannies of inertia and distance which had compelled people to spend the vast proportions of their lives within limited geographical boundaries. Human beings, as well as livestock and freight could now travel across continents at speeds that were unimaginable before.

The growth of railways was inexorable. Less than a decade separated the opening of the world’s first public passenger railway, the Stockton and Darlington line in 1825 from the inauguration of Ireland’s first rail line between Dublin and Kingstown in 1834. Two more decades elapsed before its iron-ribbed tentacles penetrated Co. Cavan.

The railway network in Cavan
In the mid 1850s the Midlands and Great Western Railway (MGR) built a line between the Inny Junction in Co. Westmeath (along their expanding network which was eventually to reach Sligo) and Cavan town. Completion of the line had been held up by technical and construction difficulties, as well as by the near inevitable financial irregularities which plagued the railway business in the 19th century, but in the summer of 1856 Cavan’s railway station was opened to passengers and goods transporters. In 1884 a branch line was added linking Killashandra to Crossdoney on the MGR line.

In 1860 the Dundalk and Enniskillen Railway Company built a branch line between Shantonagh in Co. Monaghan through Rockcorry to Cootehill. In 1862 an extension line was built between Cavan town and Clones, and when, in the following year the railway between Clones and Monaghan town was completed Cavan was integrated into the northern transport network. In the 1870s the Navan and Kingscourt Railway Company built a line from Kingscourt through Kilmainham Wood to Navan, while later in the 1870s the Sligo, Leitrim and Northern Counties Railway Co joined Enniskillen with Manorhamilton. This passed through north-west Cavan for four miles, although no stations were built in the county. Its construction was accompanied by inclement weather and heavy rain, and the construction of the railway bridge over the Arney River between Blacklion and Belcoo was an act involving both heroism and engineering ingenuity. A planned southward spur from this railway to Dowra was never built. In 1887 the last, and perhaps most famous piece of the Co. Cavan railway jigsaw was put in place when the grandiosely named Cavan, Leitrim and Roscommon Light Railway and Tramway Co. (better known perhaps as the Cavan and Leitrim Railway) built a rail line between Dromod in Co. Leitrim and Belturbet. This was subsequently joined to the existing rail network via a line to Ballyhaise. This marked the de facto completion of Cavan’s rail network.

The railways’ impact
This high-water mark for railways coincided with the first and furtive flickerings of the Gaelic Athletic Association in Cavan. Travel by spectators, supporters and players was greatly facilitated, whether to games elsewhere in the county or to those further afield, although travel was not always comfortable. Gaelic games were played on Sundays, a fact which raised the ire of the sabbatarian station master of Redhills to extinguish all the station’s lighting one dark and foggy winter’s evening, thereby making it invisible to the railway engine’s driver who missed the stop completely.

The advent of these steam and soot-belching beasts in the quiet Cavan countryside also caused some alarm. Another resident of Redhills, on spying a railway engine moving along the track for the first time, was convinced that it was the enraged “Black Pig” of legend who had allegedly excavated the eponymous dyke with his snout.

The outside world was made accessible through railways, and in consequence access to Co. Cavan was facilitated in turn. This meant that it could be inundated with all the products of the world’s factories and businesses, which, through economies of scale could usually be sold at prices well below any home produced item. But Cavan was also accessible to people. After the construction of the Catholic church at Mullagh in 1860 the readers of The Dublin Builder were urged to attend its opening and dedication, something which was possible they were told because of the proximity of the railway station at Kells.

Railways had an impact on the landscape of the county with the building of embankments, bridges and viaducts. There were the station houses themselves, most of which were functional in their architectural style rather than beautiful. There were also the many proudly-maintained cottages at level crossings.

The decline of the railways
Railway services were provided by a myriad of private companies, all of whom struggled valiantly but often fruitlessly to make a profit. As a result investment was seldom attracted. The creation of the border did not help. The Second World War provided many hardships, not least of which was the shortage of coal for engines. Railway services in Cavan were frequently suspended but the coming of peace was to witness their swan-song. The government sought to cope with the plethora of uneconomic railway companies by the creation of a semi-state authority, Coras Iompair Eirinn, which had responsibility for all transport. This was followed by a process of rationalisation, as uneconomic lines were terminated. This sounded the death-knell for most of the passenger services in Cavan.
The first to go was the services linking Cavan town and Killashandra to the Inny Junction. Passenger services were terminated early in 1947 though the transport of freight and livestock continued for another decade. Closed at the same time was the line from Cootehill to Shantonagh. Services along the Cavan and Leitrim railway continued, while Cavan town and Belturbet were still served by the Great Northern Railway Co. However any hopes of salvation for Cavan’s beleaguered railways from Northern Ireland had to contend with the strong vested interests of the Northern Irish road haulage sector. In 1959 all services along the remaining rail lines were terminated and the stations along their routes were closed.

The closure of the railways in Co. Cavan (and in many other parts of Ireland) made sense according to the short-sighted economic rationale of the mid 20th century. Railways may now appear romantic, and while they gave employment they generally engendered hostility in their heyday. Some nationalist commentators on economic matters blamed them for destroying domestic industry. It could not be doubted that Ireland’s railway stations had witnessed scenes of heart-rending poignancy with the final tear-stained farewells of emigrants who were seldom to see their families again.

The nadir of the railways was to usher in a new age of individualist prosperity. As their lines were torn up (often to be recycled as gates and fencing) they were to be replaced by upgraded ribbons of tarmacadam traversed by trucks and private motor vehicles, each one commanded by its own Don Quixote. Gone would be the days of waiting in freezing huddles at stations and sidings for noisy and dirty trains which seemed incapable of ever being on time. For those who, through poverty or perversity still needed public transport, there were busses but their networks could never hope to replace those of the railways. For many decades in the early 20th century it was theoretically possible to travel from the centre of Dublin to Arigna in Co. Leitrim and back in the one day, although such an expedition demanded an early departure from the capital and a correspondingly late return. Today this day-trip is impossible by public transport. This may well be progress of a sort.

With the railways’ closure many railway buildings were dismantled, not always easily. The keystone of the bridge across Cavan town’s Railway Road proved very stubborn when the structure was taken down in the early 1960s. Others were allowed to fall into decay. Some were saved and pressed into alternative uses, such as the old Bawnboy Road station which became a community centre. Belturbet station stood derelict for decades, and people will recall the sight of a tree growing up through one of its chimneys. This was reversed through careful and sensitive restoration in the 1990s.
What has been lost

In the last decades of the 20th century the destruction of much of Ireland’s rail networks began to be seen ever more as economic vandalism. Apart from the transport services provided to residents of outlying areas, many of these routes would attract thousands of extra tourists were they still in operation, as such railways do throughout Europe and North America. This would certainly be the case with the line from Enniskillen to Manorhamilton which passes briefly through Co. Cavan. There is talk of re-opening the line from Clonsilla to Dunboyne in Co. Meath. Perhaps passenger services could be re-introduced along the length of the old Navan & Kingscourt Railways line to Kingscourt.

Taken from Breffni Blue 2005