The Sligo (and Cork etc) Avoider
24 October 1992
"How do you fancy a trip to Ireland?", I asked Tom. I reckoned that, at the age of eleven he could probably withstand the rigours of an Irish railtour. (An Irish railtour? On a bus, I suppose!)
"Great! When are we going?"
The Cobh Rambler was originally run in February 1992. Due to (hoax) bomb threats on the Belfast and Cork main lines from Dublin, the organisers - the Irish Traction Group - had little alternative but to accept Irish Railís offer of a diversion to Sligo, just about the only possible route remaining. The trip I had spotted in the Pathfinder tours leaflet was in fact a re-run for the benefit of those disappointed.
The total fare for the two of us was £50 exactly - very reasonable, I thought, considering the cost of railtours on the mainland, especially as it included the ferry fare from Holyhead. A road coach connection was available, but the nearest point of access was Crewe, and it would have added another £30.
So it was that we started the car, at 11pm on the Friday evening 23rd October, to catch the 4.00am sailing (!). A new moon meant total darkness for the journey - no moonlit Snowdonia to be viewed from the A5.
I had deliberately allowed plenty of time, for hold-ups or naps. We arrived at Holyhead, despite dawdling, at 2am, so we had a bit of waiting. Once on the boat, it was announced that departure, already re-scheduled for 4.15am, would be delayed due to exceptionally low spring tides. It was twenty to five when we sailed, into the winds of force 4 to 6. Not that we felt the effects - the Stena Cambria is stabilised, apparently. We were asleep anyway!
So it was about 8.30am when we arrived - the special was due away in a couple of minutes. Starting from Bray, the operators must have been in touch with Sealink - it arrived in Dun Laoghaire station at about 5 to nine, after a northbound EMU on a Bray - Howth service. (Shades of Woodhead - overhead electrification at 1500v DC!)
No. 150, one of the General Motors fleet introduced in the early 1960s, hauled the special as far as Limerick. We ran quickly to Connolly station, heading west through North Strand Junction, and out through Phoenix Park tunnel to Islandbridge Junction, where we joined the double track Cork main line. Inchicore works follows soon after the junction - I had hoped to see the famous (notorious) barrier of withdrawn locomotives, used as sound insulation from nearby housing. Sadly it (=they?) is no more.
The day showed promise as we headed in a general south-westerly direction, the sun lifting well above the distant Wicklow mountains. We soon passed the Curragh of Kildare, the world-famed Newmarket of the Irish republic, and in a little while Portarlington, once notable for having a (now closed) peat-fired power station!. Soon we were drawing to a halt at Ballybrophy.
Reversal here was required to gain access to the "difficult" Nenagh line to Limerick. After stopping in the down loop platform, the train was propelled back to the up main line, in order to run round, and reverse into the Nenagh bay - a remarkably awkward manoeuvre. Fortunately Iarnrod Eireann seem to be fairly laid back about such movements - no need to detrain.
Single track now, and a pleasant amble through rolling countryside as we headed westwards towards the Shannon. The advertised photo-stop took place at the passing loop station of Roscrea, though as we were at the end of the last coach (next to the generator van) we were at least three coach lengths from the platform, so we stayed put. The next two scheduled stops were omitted, so that as we approached Killonan Junction, a mile or so from Limerick, we were more or less on time.
The aforementioned generator van was a mixed blessing. Without it we would have become rather cold, as it supplied steam heating, and later on it would have been rather dark - it also supplied electric power for lighting. It retained a great fascination for some of the tour participants, who seemed to have to visit it at frequent intervals, leaving the connecting doors open to a howling gale and the insistent growl of the generator. I suppose some would have liked the latter. Typical of Irish Railways - locomotives barely strong enough to pull themselves along, coaches that need electricity and steam!
So we arrived in Limerick. The special was to travel to Ennis and back, about 25 miles away, and was to take nearly three hours to do it. Tomís innards started to get the better of him - "Iím hungry!" - so we decided to take a break, and rejoin the special later (after a quick shot of A-class no 053 hauling the special away towards Ennis). After all, we would have been travelling rather a long time without a break.
At 3.15 a Dublin train was due to leave; at 3.25 the special would be back, so after taking on some fast food, Irish style, and a quick look at the Shannon and the castle, we headed back to the station. There, after we had taken a few photos, an IR official informed us that the special would not in fact be returning to Limerick, but going on to Athenry, and back to Dublin. A bus would depart from the station yard at 3.40 to take us to Ennis!
It transpired that a freightliner train, which had left Limerick shortly before we arrived, had suffered a derailment near Limerick Junction (which is 12 miles from Limerick). The last wagon of the long train had left the rails and been dragged for nearly two miles. Nothing would be going that way for a day or two!
"Irish railtour on a bus, Dad........."
The Bus Eireann left on schedule, taking us on an interesting if somewhat hair-raising trip to Ennis, skirting the Shannon for the first part of the trip. We soon arrived at Ennis, where the former West Clare Railway 3ft gauge 0-6-2 tank stood in a new coat of paint beside the platform.
"On you get, please, weíre ready to go". I had time for a couple of photos, then we regained our seats. We then remained in the station for another 15 minutes - the bus had arrived earlier than expected (!) and several tour participants were still exploring Ennis (!!).
Apparently a passenger train runs from time to time to Limerick, a recent innovation on this normally freight only route. The full cross country route from Limerick to Sligo saw a passenger service until the 1970s. The northernmost stretch, from Claremorris to Collooney, near Sligo, is completely disused. Athenry to Claremorris is intact, but was closed to through traffic in 1991, and is now classified as an engineerís siding..
So we continued our journey. County Clare is noted for its Burren Country - the limestone region near the coast. Whilst our route was a lowland route, the bare waterless country had the look of limestone about it.
We were halted briefly at Gort by detonators, for no immediately apparent reason, before continuing to Athenry, where we joined the Galway to Portarlington line for our run home. The line beyond the junction for Tuam and Claremorris, which comes shortly after Athenry station, was blocked off by sleepers.
If the route from Ennis had been bleak, the stretch which followed was even bleaker - mile after mile of empty space - flat bogland with just the odd pine to break up the landscape.
At Athlone, the line from Westport and Ballina joins from the north, and a line heads north-east to Mullingar. Now freight only, this was once the main route from Dublin to County Mayo. We would take the line back towards Heuston station, after a pause of 20 minutes. In my youth, I clearly remember scanning the dial of the old radio. Places like Hilversum and Athlone had a magical ring to them. Now, beside the train in the gathering dusk, there was the bright red and white radio transmitter mast!
It was completely dark when we left Athlone, so we were left to the sound of the old A-class no 053 to accompany our journey. We were soon in the outskirts of Dublin, and not many minutes later we passed through Connolly and headed away over the Liffey, looking beautiful with the reflected lights of Dublin.
"The train will stop at Dun Laoghaire for the ferry in plenty of time, then will continue to Bray. It will be returning shortly afterwards via Dun Laoghaire, so if anyone wishes to do the line to Bray they may, though we canít guarantee that they will catch the ferry". I donít think there were many takers!
So we rejoined the ferry, where early sleep was possible despite "Honey I shrunk the Kids". Tom was sound asleep when we arrived at Holyhead - it took me a good five minutes to get him moving, though I donít think he was awake at all as we trudged through the (very) early morning rain back to the car. At any rate, he was fast asleep again by the time we were onto the A5! So was I, about three hours later, after driving through the pouring rain all the way home!
And so the Sligo Avoider avoided its destination yet again. Nevertheless it had been a most enjoyable trip. Irish railways have a super atmosphere - proper loco-hauled trains and unmodernised stations, real signals and clickety-clack track.
"When can we go again Dad?"
Footnote: the re-run of the re-run ran on 3rd April this year, advertised as the "Mystery Tour"! We didnít go - we were in France - now thereís another story...