Saturday, 30 December 2017

“Farewell to Ballyshannon” and the Great Northern Railway 1867-1957

Emigrants leaving Ballyshannon railway station
This story of emigration from Ballyshannon GNR railway station was written over 100 years ago and deserves to be remembered as the only known story of emigration from this railway station. The railway opened 150 years ago in 1867 and closed 60 years ago in 1957.

“Farewell to Ballyshannon”

In 1894 Katherine Tynan, well known novelist and poet, wrote an original story, “Farewell to Ballyshannon” about a young boy’s departure from Ballyshannon. She had a great appreciation for the works of William Allingham, the poet, and based her story around his famous poem “The Winding Banks of Erne” also known as “Adieu to Ballyshanny”.  

“Farewell to Ballyshannon” is a story which tells of a young local boy called Johnny, being accompanied to the Great Northern Railway station in Ballyshannon, by his mother and his sister Susy, on the first stage of his emigration to America. The following is an extract from the story which reveals a continuous process of emigration from the Ballyshannon area and the sadness of those leaving, and those left behind. The narrator and a friend were also on the cart to the railway station. Johnny aged twelve years of age, with his innocent blue eyes under a thatch of fair hair, was dressed in hand-made clothes for the journey.  He had scarlet hand-knitted stockings and a muffler around his neck. His mother fussed nervously over him, about whether he had put spare socks in his bag and the sandwiches for the train journey. As the horse and cart pulled away from the hotel on Main Street for the railway on Station Road, a crowd of ragged onlookers gathered around the cart and the narrator reflected that Johnny might be as well away from this poverty.

 “He’s but a little chap to take the green fields to Amerikay alone. Ay surely!” said our carman, musingly. By this time we were rattling down the street, and over the bridge, from which we could see the silver spray of the falls below and hear the dull thunder. The other car was close behind, all the ragged retainers trotting cheerfully in its wake. “Is there much emigration from here?” one of us asked. “Ay surely”, said the man, “what else is there for them? Sure there isn’t enough to keep the life in the old bodies, unless the young goes away to Amerikay, and sends home the money. Och, sure, it’s the sorrowful place. If you was here last Wednesday you’d have seen a train full starting for Derry. An’ the same every Wednesday since March. I don’t like to be about the station myself them times. It’s terrible hard for them to go.

We asked one or two sympathetic questions. The carman answered us flicking his whip. “There’s some,” he said, “that’ll hold up strong and silent; and there’s others again, keenin’ worse than the old women at the wakes. There’s a girl now,” he broke off, pointing at a straight, handsome creature, who was just stepping across the street. “There’s a girl started for Amerikay, an’ kem home the next day. Ay, faith, it was the shortest voyage yet known in the town. She turned back from Derry. She said she didn’t give a thraneen for the passage money. She’d work her fingers to the bone to earn enough to keep the oul’ woman out of the workhouse, without lavin’ her childless.” He said it with a certain admiration and added immediately afterwards, “There’s not a handsomer nor cleverer girl than Nancy Goligher in the three baronies.”

Then he planted his feet firmly, as if he had talked enough, and began to sing in a deep baritone:

                                       Farewell to Ballyshanny! where I was bred and born;

                                       Go where I may, I’ll think of you, as sure as night or morn.

    The kindly spot, the friendly town, where every one is known,

                                      And not a face in all the place but partly seems my own;

There’s not a house or window, there’s not a field or hill,

But, east or west, in foreign lands, I’ll recollect them still.

                  I’ll leave my warm heart with you, Tho’ my back I’m forced to turn-

So adieu to Ballyshanny, and the winding banks of Erne!

It was the song of a townsman, William Allingham, who had won the delightful immortality of being the ballad maker to his birthplace. Under the circumstances the song sounded curiously mournful.

On arrival at the railway station some of Johnny’s friends came to see him off and Johnny was putting on a brave face.He swaggered up and down with his hands in his pockets and we could hear him committing rash promises of letter writing. Sometimes he blinked uneasily as if a little salt-water drop troubled his eyesigh.  His mother, dressed in black like a widow, explained that he was setting out for Florida to join his father who had been there eleven years. He had been unable to secure work in Ballyshannon due to the decaying trade of the town. Each year one of the children emigrated to join him in America. Only herself and Susy remained and Susy would follow on next year, when they could get the fare together. Susy was a sober-looking girl with glasses, who was the eldest child and was a great support to her mother.  Her mother would accompany Johnny as far as Derry, where he would go on alone on the ship to America. They shared the railway carriage with an American.The American looked out at the exquisite country and shook his head. It puzzled him that there should be such poverty to override God’s precept, that husband and wife shall not be parted, and here in a land covered with tiny green spears of corn, dappled with the gold and white of the pastures, under such a sky, by such a river full of rosy salmon.The story concluded with the train pulling out and the strains of Allingham’s famous emigrant ballad, “Adieu to Ballyshanny”, were whistled by the young boy who was joining the many people from the locality forced to emigrate by economic necessity.

Ballyshannon GNR station  in 1956, one year before it closed

Auld Lang Syne and the End of the Line

Hush! ‘tis Music! Sweetly stealing

Oh! How thrilling is the strain.

Cold the heart-devoid of feeling

If not touched with love, and pain.

Hush! ‘tis Music! Softly playing

Auld Lang Synes, heart stirring lay.

“Tho’ seas between us roar” `tis saying

“Forget not Auld Lang Synes blithe day.

“The Parting Hour” Mary Anne Allingham

Mary Anne Allingham was an aunt of the poet William Allingham, and she also wrote poetry, and was a major influence on encouraging her nephew to write poetry. In the verse above she is describing how she witnessed emigrants leaving by ship from the Mall Quay, to the musical  strains of  “Auld lang Syne” in the 1820s.  Forty years later the railway station replaced the Mall Quay in Ballyshannon as the place where families saw off their emigrant children, as they began their journey to Great Britain or America. Local shops and the railway company sold tickets which included all transfers to the emigrant’s final destination.  Ballyshannon Brass and Reed Band were at the G.N.R station in 1910 to see off one of their comrades. William Mc Cartney resided in the Diamond in the town and had played a major role in the development of the  Band as a player, instructor and officer. The spirit of  comradeship in the band was reflected in the tremendous send off he was given on his departure for Canada, on Wednesday the 2nd of March1910.. On Wednesday 2nd March a large number of his friends accompanied him to the Railway station and as the train steamed in the Band played “Auld Lang Syne”. A similar tribute was paid to bandsman Joe Keown prior to his departure for America. It is interesting to recall that in earlier generations families had gathered at the Mall Quay  and “Auld Lang Syne” was  played for the emigrants, leaving by sea,  who might never have returned. No doubt the railway station was to be a scene of sadness for many, but with more modern transport the likelihood of seeing the emigrant return  was much higher.

Sadly both railways that served Ballyshannon closed in the 1950s, due to changes in modes of  transport, with increasing use of lorries and motor cars which resulted in less use of the railways . The upkeep of the railway lines would have required major investment and political commitment.  The Great Northern Railway was first to close, sixty years ago, on 30th September 1957. Two years later on 30th December  1959 the C.D.R. in Ballyshannon closed. The Great Northern Railway had provided a link for local people to get rail connections to locations in Northern Ireland and to Dublin. It also allowed the sporting public to attend Ulster finals in Clones and  All-Ireland finals in  Croke Park. The railway had opened up this region for tourism and business and provided a service to the community. The withdrawal of the railways was a major blow to the local economy and for a long period led to  increased isolation from the rest of the country.

A GNR railway bridge survives on the Ballyshannon-Bundoran By-Pass

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