Saturday, 2 December 2017

The railway arrived in Ballyshannon 150 years ago this year


The old GNR bridge on the right  with the new bridge on the
Ballyshannon-Bundoran By-Pass today.

The  Great Northern Railway, or the  G.N.R as it was known, opened for passengers in this area in June 1867 and brought major benefits to the business and local community in Ballyshannon and surrounding areas including  the seaside resort of Bundoran and the Pottery in Belleek. The line was extended to Belleek, Ballyshannon and Bundoran through the lobbying of John Caldwell Bloomfield and the directors of the Pottery at Belleek, who required the rail line to bring in raw materials and coal for their china. Ms. Bloomfield laid the foundation stone at the railway bridge over the Erne at Belleek on 2nd January 1865. The construction  of the railway line provided work and further employment was created when the Ballyshannon and Bundoran  Stations were up and running on the aptly named Station roads. Things were on the up in Ballyshannon as the town was lit by gas by the Ballyshannon Gas company in the1860s, on the site of the handball alley today. The railway provided  a service for local people and connected this part of the North-West with Northern Ireland and Dublin. In the eyes of some local people in Ballyshannon, the railway was to have an adverse effect on the harbour at Ballyshannon, as goods formerly brought by sea could now come by rail.  However the problems at the seaport of Ballyshannon were long running, involving the sand bar which made it hazardous and in some cases uninsurable for shipping. There was no stopping the onward spread of rail transport. The G.N.R. opened up new areas of the country and linked towns and villages over a wide area. Local communities benefitted from the arrival of the railway and the seaside town of Bundoran owes much of its early growth in tourism to the coming of the railway.

The Beginning of the Rail Link to Ballyshannon  7th June 1867

An initial meeting was held in Ballyshannon on the 25th of  September 1860, to establish a railway to link into the Omagh-Enniskillen line. Present were the local  landlords: Thomas Connolly, M.P., John Caldwell Bloomfield, William Johnston, Alexander Hamilton, John R. Dickson and Rev. G.N. Tredennick was Secretary. Agreement was reached to issues shares to the value of £200,000 at £10 a share and  with funding in place, representations were made to parliament for approval of the project.  Permission was granted and work started on the project with a spur at Bundoran Junction, as it was called, on the Omagh-Enniskillen line leading on to Irvinestown, Kesh, Pettigo, Castlecaldwell, Magheramena, Belleek, Ballyshannon and Bundoran. The first passenger train crossed the metal bridge at Belleek on Sunday, 7th June 1867, on its way to Ballyshannon and onwards to Bundoran.

The  railway brought universal time replacing local time which had been estimated by sunrise, sunset and the seasons. Greenwich Mean Time (G.M.T.) was introduced in 1880 and was regularly known as Railway Time. Clocks became the order of the day and punctuality became more a feature of peoples lives, as they now became aware of precise times with the arrival of the train.The railways also carried the post and  newspapers became more popular as they were now accessible daily. Goods could be ordered and sent by rail and commercial travellers became a feature of life in Ballyshannon. Local crafts and industries were to suffer from the competition of  cheaper manufactured goods arriving by rail. The local fisheries benefitted as  fish could be transported speedily by rail to reach Billingsgate Market in London the following day. Ice was transported from Belfast to Ballyshannon in five hundredweight blocks on the G.N.R. for Swan’s fishery which operated in what is now the Mulligan warehouse on the Mall. Wooden mallets were then used to break the ice which could last for the fishing season. Two trains left Ballyshannon station daily for Dublin at 9.35 a.m.and 4.30 p.m.

The corporate image was maintained by the G.N.R. Company with solid buildings, well crafted bridges and a smart uniform with a crest. (Part of the facade of the building still survives at Station Road Ballyshannon).  Like the banks the G.N.R. station was amongst the most impressive buildings in Ballyshannon. Excursions from Ballyshannon were promoted by the G.N.R. and  became a regular feature as many people had their first adventures into the exciting world of travel . Local people went as a community on  bank holiday excursions to places like Derry and Portrush. The railway brought in large numbers for local events such as The Harvest Fair Day, the Falgarragh Horse Races and the Gaelic League Aeridheachts which were held at Rockville close to the G.N.R. station. The local soccer club Erne F.C later called “The Blazers” used the railway to compete in the Irish Football Association Cup in 1907 against teams such as Omagh United and Strabane Celtic. Gaelic games fans travelled by rail to the Ulster finals and to All-Ireland Finals in Croke Park. Emigrants who in former times had emigrated from the Mall Quay or Derry now began their journey to Great Britain or America from the railway station at Ballyshannon. 

Approaching Bundoran station

Railway memories from World War One and the War of  Independence

The sight and sound of  British Army troops with their bands, marching through the Port from the G.N.R. station on their way to the Rock Barracks, was to be a regular occurrence for local people. The garrison was changed from time to time and the railway was especially busy at times of war. With the building of Finner Camp in the 1890s the soldiers marched out through the two Ports, to Portnason  and on to Finner. This was to be  a regular feature as soldiers went to Finner for training during  the First World War ( 1914-1918) and also left on the railway for the Western Front in France. Not generally known is that a detachment of 200 soldiers of the 12th Reserve Battalion Royal Iniskilling Fusiliers from Finner Camp left by G.N.R. special train from Ballyshannon to take part in putting down the 1916 Rising in Dublin early in Easter Week.

The Great Northern Railway Station at Ballyshannon was  the scene of an armed robbery during the War of Independence. In June 1921 armed men entered the station at Ballyshannon and destroyed five tons of oatmeal enroute to a firm in Garrison. In the same raid 63 pounds of chocolate consigned by Cadbury’s at Belfast for crown forces at Finner Camp as well as 72 paint brushes from the Ulster Brush Company in Belfast were destroyed. This was in retaliation for pogroms in Belfast and was part of a boycott of British goods and personnel during the War of Independence. The County Donegal Railway (C.D.R.) also suffered a number of hold ups by armed men during the War of Independence (1919-1921). In April 1920  the  fireboxes from two railway engines were removed at Bundoran station to obstruct the British military from using the railway. This was  intended to disrupt military intelligence and was part of a guerilla war waged during the War of Independence. Tuesday 7th March 1922 was an historic day in Ballyshannon as, following the War of Independence and the Treaty, British forces vacated the town for the final time. The Royal Irish Constabulary police force who were based at the barracks in College Street lined up outside the barracks and, as the clock struck eleven, the Irish Volunteer force moved in. Head Constable Doyle and the R.I.C. police officers marched off to board the Great Northern Railway at Station road. The barracks still stands opposite the former Vocational School.

Pat Quinn of Corlea, some years ago,  in an interview with Martin Mc Cann, a student at Ballyshannon Vocational School, who was part of a group doing a project on the railways, recalled memories of working on the Great Northern Railway. He started working as a painter on the railway in 1929, worked for a time at laying rails at Belleek, and spent years as a track worker. In the mornings he would set out walking from Belleek Barracks to Ballyshannon. Every farmer who had land on either side of the railway had a crossing. Pat checked to see that the gates on the crossings were secured. There were two crossings between Belleek and Ballyshannon. One was a level crossing at Maggie Dohertys. The second was at Annie McCabe’s (Annie McCaffreys). There were signals at these gates, two on each side. If the train was coming from Belleek, the gate next Belleek was opened first. At Ballyshannon there was a distant signal and a home signal. The distant signal was about a half a mile out the Bundoran line and a couple of hundred yards away from the cabin. Pat carried a box  containing fog signals and these were activated if he noticed anything wrong on the line. The safety of passengers and crew depended on the signal system working properly.

The Emergency and The Great Snow of 1947

The G.N.R. provided an essential service, during the Emergency 1939-1945, when petrol was in short supply for private use. The Bundoran Express from Dublin to Bundoran was introduced after the Second World War and it also led to an increased popularity for the pilgrimage at Lough Derg in Pettigo. In the autumn and winter the Sugar Train also ran  from Dungannon to Bundoran on Sundays. This train allowed passengers  to stock up on sugar and other items which were scarce in the North. Smuggling was quite prevalent and in October 1942 the customs introduced a lady searcher to check for smuggled goods at the G.N.R. station in Ballyshannon. Folk memory of the big snow which fell all over Ireland in February 1947 and which resulted in 20-30 days of snowfall is readily recalled by those who lived through the period. The G.N.R. train due in Ballyshannon on Tuesday 27th February at 9 p.m. did not arrive in Ballyshannon until 7 p.m. on Wednesday 28th February due to the snow. The line was blocked at Irvinestown and the passengers had to stay overnight in a heated coach. The railway crew saw to their needs and meals were provided in a local hotel. The train ploughed its way to Ballyshannon next day but the snow continued to cause problems. The only G.N.R. bus to arrive in Ballyshannon on that Wednesday was the workers’ bus from Tullaghan driven by Jack McAllister. It took four hours and twenty minutes to reach Ballyshannon from Tullaghan!

Ballyshannon a Town with Two Railways

Local businesses which used the railway frequently included: Neely’s Mills, Myles’ Timber, Coal and General Hardware, Stephens Hardware, and Fancy Goods and F.H. Morgan on East Port. These firms, and others, had in earlier times  imported by ship through the Mall Quay. Cattle trains were also to be a feature at Ballyshannon station and this benefitted the farming community who now had  a more ready access to markets.  Some staff who worked for GN.R. locally  included: Eddie and Johnny Boyle, Jimmy Trainor, Andy Mc Shea, Patsy Mc Geown, Charlie Boyle, Pat Fannin, Pat Quinn, Jim Flanagan and Phillip Boyle. In earlier times employees included, W. Duffy, Ballyshannon agent, James Mc Donald, station master, and D. Beatty who was stationmaster in 1880. The G.N.R were later engaged with road transport and kept their buses and lorries in the Market Yard where they had a waiting room and an office, while still operating the trains from Station Road. Packie McIvor, Paddy Drumm, Michael Campbell and John Connolly were amongst the lorry drivers with G.N.R. The railway also ran buses from the Market Yard with Mary Gillespie working for the G.N.R. from a railway carriage beside her home in the Market Yard. Her daughter May was the founder of the Gillespie School of Dancing.

Ballyshannon was a town with two railways as the County Donegal Railway or “narrow gauge” as it was called was on the northern side of the river Erne. The C.D.R. opened in 1905 and served areas in County Donegal including  Creevy, Rossnowlagh, Ballintra and Donegal Town. Both the G.N.R. and the C.D.R. were to share in the boom in Ballyshannon, created by the Erne Hydro-Electric Scheme in the late 1940s, as both transported materials for Cementation, the main contractors on the Scheme. The G.N.R. carried bulk cement from Drogheda and also carried plant and machinery. Despite the short term benefits of the building boom during the Scheme, changes in modes of transport were to lead to a decline in passenger numbers and to financial difficulties for the G.N.R. Company. Both the G.N.R and the C.D.R. would have required major investment to upgrade the railway lines and railway stock. The two railways in Ballyshannon were not connected as the width of gauge was different, but  passengers regularly walked across  the town to continue  on their rail journeys by the G.N.R. or C.D.R. The switch over  to road transport and the increased use of motorcars effected both  Ballyshannon and Bundoran.

The recent discovery of a forgotten medieval graveyard at Ballyhanna when the By-Pass was being constructed recalled a linked incident in 1900. The corner of Station road and East Port was  called Hobson’s Corner as a John Hobson resided at Rockville house, on the grounds of which 1,300 skeletons were recently uncovered. Back in 1900 as water pipes were being laid to the G.N.R. station a number of  human bones were uncovered at Hobson’s Corner. The bones were left in situ on the site and covered up. These were a small part of the Ballyhanna graveyard, later discovered during the construction of the By-Pass, which is commemorated with a heritage garden on the site today.

 Requiem for the G.N.R. 30 September 1957

A green flag waved, a whistle shrilled and the last passenger train steamed out of Bundoran railway station on Monday afternoon, 91 years after the first train had chugged its way in. Into history it rolled on its way, accompanied by the cheering of a crowd on the platform, the reverberating crash of fog signals and the shriek of the engine whistle.”

“The Donegal Democrat”  aptly summed up the end of the line for the G.N.R. as the reporter described the mixed emotions of crowds gathered on the platform as the last train left Bundoran station to the call of “Last train for Enniskillen”.  On the 30th September 1957 this last train, with upwards of one hundred passengers, left Bundoran and journeyed through Ballyshannon, Belleek and Pettigo. Many made the short journey to Ballyshannon and disembarked retaining their tickets as a memento of the great days of rail.The staff at Bundoran station were redeployed and a number of  families left the area as a result. Mr. Wickham, stationmaster, was transferred to Castleblaney as stationmaster; Mr. Mooney went as guard to Howth, Mr. Jimmy McGrory to Dublin as guard; Mr. Paddy Martin, driver, to Dundalk; Mr. P. Mulhern, platelayer, to Dundalk; Mr. Felix Campbell, platelayer, to Dundalk; Mr. Thomas Campbell, ganger, to Dundalk; Mr. Robbie McCurdy, fireman, to Clones; Mr. Seamus Gallagher, clerk, to official in charge Monaghan; Mr. P. Jones, clerk, to Dublin and Mr. Richie Phillips electrician to Drogheda. From Ballyshannon station Mr. Patsy McGowan went as goods checker to Dundalk and Mr. Johnnie Gallagher went as porter-signalman to Dublin. Initially three of the staff at Ballyshannon station were retained. Mr. J. Flynn, stationmaster, remained in charge of the road freight section, and  signalman J. Trainor and permanent way ganger J. Boyle remained at the Ballyshannon station.

The impact on the town of Ballyshannon, of the closure of the Great Northern Railway sixty years ago in 1957 and two years later, the closure of the County Donegal Railway, coupled with the end of the  Erne-Hydro Electric Scheme in the early 1950s, had a lasting effect on the town  and its commerce. In this period "The Donegal Vindicator" newspaper also closed.  Bundoran faced a challenging time to retain its developing tourism and  bus transport increased greatly to the seaside resort. The closure of the Great Northern Railway in 1957 meant that business firms receiving goods from Dublin had no direct access by rail. The nearest railway was Sligo and this involved greater transport costs. Road freight now became the only viable option. The closure of the G.N.R  railway  sixty years ago was a major blow to the local economy and led, for a period, to increased isolation for this area.  So ended a rich history of railway service to the people of this area which began 150 years ago and which is still remembered with great affection by the older generation who travelled on the line.

 Train at Ballyshannon station in 1956  one year
before the railway sadly closed

Danny McIntyre of the Whitehill, Sheegus, Ballyshannon in his ballad entitled “Pictures from the Past” echoed what many people felt about the passing of the railways.

In dreams I see the trains run on their shining rails of steel,

The G.N.R. and narrow gauge, their image is so real.

The platforms and the stations, the people young and old,

How bitter sweet the memories that dreaming can unfold.

Ideal Christmas Gift 


 "Ballyshannon Genealogy and History" available to purchase in The Novel Idea, Ballyshannon Museum, O'Neills, Clearys and Local Hands in Ballyshannon.Available also in Four Master's Bookshop in Donegal Town. For postal details contact

Date for your Diary

On Saturday next 9th December at 12 0' clock I will be giving a 20 minute local history talk in the Mercy Hall. This is part of  Ballyshannon Enterprise Town     with lots of activities in the Mercy Hall from 11-2 p.m. All welcome to this free event hosted by Bank of Ireland and Ballyshannon Chamber.

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