There is always a great sense of nostalgia about railways and the part they played in providing an economic and social lifeline, in particular to rural parts of the country.
Visitors to Skibbereen Heritage Centre often ask for information about the railway line in this part of the world.
It is almost sixty years since the railway line from Cork to Baltimore closed on Good Friday, 31 March 1961, so the number of people still alive who remember the line in operation is a diminishing group.
The history of the Cork, Bandon and South Coast Railway has been well recorded by Colm Creedon, Walter McGrath and many others and much of that material is readily available. There is a very good archive of Colm Creedon’s research at the Local Studies section at Cork County Library. For anyone interested in the history of railway lines in County Cork, that would be a good starting point. https://www.corklocalstudies.ie/collections/show/5
Also central to the history of the rail link to West Cork is the story of the Schull and Skibbereen Light Railway, which was always referred to locally as the ‘Tram’. The best history of the Tram that we have come across is a book by James I.C. Boyd, The Schull & Skibbereen Railway, which was published by The Oakwood Press in 1999.
The story of the railway in West Cork goes back to the 1840s. On 30 June 1849 West Cork’s first train ran from Ballinhassig Station to Bandon. In August 1860 the ‘West Cork Railway Company’ was formed with the intention of extending the railway from Bandon to Skibbereen, through Dunmanway. In August 1863 the first sod for this new venture was turned by Lord Carbery near Bandon town.
It took some fourteen years and all sorts of antics and shenanigans before the railway line did eventually make it to Skibbereen. On 21 July 1877 the first train arrived from Cork to the new station in Skibbereen. The town was en fête and thousands of onlookers thronged the area around the new station to witness this historic occasion. The Iron Road to West Cork was finally in place!
The plan was to extend the railway system to other parts of West Cork, including the fishing ports of Baltimore and Glandore. Baltimore did get its extension, but the rail line never made it Gladore. The final addition to the railway system in West Cork was the extension from Skibbereen to Baltimore. It was built largely at the expense of the Government, who subscribed close to £60,000 under the Light Railway Act of 1889. The first sod was turned in May 1891. The Cork, Bandon, and South Coast company gave the contrast to William Martin Murphy, who had completed the Bantry Bay extension line the previous year.
Maybe it was a portent of things to come for William Martin Murphy, but the building of the line from Skibbereen to Baltimore was beset with problems, not least a series of strikes by the workers.
One of the initial problems was the very contentious issue of land acquisition. However, the new Railway Act ensured that this issue would not cause undue delays. The contractor was allowed to take immediate possession of any land that was needed, and the issue of compensation was settled at a special sitting at Skibbereen Courthouse in September 1891 presided over by Mr Joseph Abbott, Local Government Arbitrator.
The laying of the tracks to Baltimore was reasonable straightforward, there was only two difficult engineering challenges, both within a few hundred meters of each other and both very near to the Railway Station at Skibbereen.
The first was the crossing of the Ilen River which required a new bridge. The single span bridge was put in place in February 1892, and it was a big operation. But that railway bridge is still standing almost sixty years after the last train travelled over it.
The second major engineering challenge was to cut a passage through Knockawneen hill. Initially the contractors used blasting devices to shift some of the rock, but this caused damage to the newly-constructed Abbeystrewry church and houses in the proximity of the works. Blasting was stopped and solid rock to a depth of 45 feet had to be cut by hand.
With the work completed, the line was opened to traffic on 2 May 1893. However, the extension Baltimore did not create the same furore and excitement as the first train into Skibbereen sixteen years before. ‘There was absolutely no interest,’ said the Cork Constitution. ‘When the train crossed Bridge Street, there was nobody to see it only a few idlers. On arrival at Baltimore it was no better. There were no cheering crowds, no display of bunting, and no signs of rejoicing that the fishing port was not in direct communication with the city.’
The early 1890s was a period of deep recession in Ireland and there was danger of famine conditions returning to many parts of rural Ireland. Mainly through the efforts of Rev. Fr Charles Davis and following some large investment, the fishing industry was revived in Baltimore and some measure of prosperity came to the area. A new pier was built and the railway line was extended right to the pier.
For many years there were three trains from Cork to Baltimore, six days a week, and two trains on Sundays. On weekdays the mail train left Cork at 3am (the mail), 9.20am and 3pm, arriving at Baltimore at 6.15am, 12.30pm and 5.55pm respectively. At the height of the fishing season there were special trains to carry fish to the Dublin market.
The eight-mile extension from Skibbereen to Baltimore meant that Skibbereen became a through station instead of a terminus. But it did get a major upgrading to accommodate the anticipated extra number of passengers it would have to accommodate. A new platform was provided, and a line of new offices were built.
Following the line of the tract from the station at Skibbereen, there were level crossings at Bridge Street, at the end of Mardyke Street, at Assolus Cross, and another three between there and Old Court. There was a stop at Creagh Station.
On the Ordnance Survey Ireland (OSI) 6 inch map one can quite easily follow the line of the track from Skibbereen to Baltimore.
The building of the Schull & Skibbereen Light Railway Line which opened in 1886 extended the rail link west as far as Schull, although it was a completely separate operation from the Cork to Baltimore rail line.
The story of the Tram is a very colourful one and the many controversies and mishaps which blighted its existence are legendary.
The West Carbery Tramways & Light Railways Company Ltd. was registered under the Companies Act 1862, as a company limited by shares to construct tramways, its place of business to be Skibbereen. Its registered office was at No. 60 North Street for many years.
It was initially intended to build two schemes – the Schull & Skibbereen Tramway and Light Railway, and the Skibbereen, Glandore and Union Hall Tramway and Light Railway, which would also serve the slate quarry at Benduff, and also Rosscarbery. The eastern scheme never materialised.
The firm of Messrs. McKeon, Robinson and d’Avigdor of 13 Victoria Street, London SW, were contracted in July 1885, to undertake the western scheme. The whole assignment was left in the hands of d’Avigdor, who very soon found himself at odds with many local people and from the outset the problems were legion, making the whole construction and early running of the line a complete farce.
Local folklore has it that there was only one tender for the job and when the firm itself discovered this, they withdrew their original tender, re-submitted it at double the price, and still got the job. Actual construction began in 1885 at three points, Skibbereen, Ballydehob and Schull, with the main civil engineering work being the beautiful viaduct in Ballydehob.
The narrow track, with only a 3 ft. gauge, was laid along the roadside. The mistakes in construction were of the most basic nature and reduced the whole scheme to an outrageous folly. The curves were too narrow, the gradients were incorrect, and the flanges of the wheels were too narrow.
The line was officially opened in September 1886. Service was suspended in April 1887 until January 1888 due to failure of the locomotives.
Despite all its deficiencies, the Tram ran until 1947. In April 1944 the service was suspended because of fuel shortages. It resumed operations in December 1945 but this was short-lived and in January 1947 services were again suspended and on 1 February the line officially closed. There was one final special run, from Skibbereen to Schull Regatta on 15 August that year.
The Tram had stops at Newcourt, Church Cross, Hollyhill, Kilcoe, Ballydehob and the Woodlands, so it took well over an hour to complete the fifteen-mile journey – and that was on a good day.
As well as invoking an impulse for nostalgia, the history of the Railway and the Tram are of course major stories in the social history of Skibbereen. They created good employment and many families came to live in this area as a result.
There’s not too many around now who can remember the Murphy family, late of Mardyke Street. Patrick Murphy, a native of Cork city, came to Skibbereen and spent over forty years as Loco-Superintendent on the Skibbereen to Schull Tramway. Patrick Murphy used to drive Marconi to Schull in the Tram when the great Italian was experimenting with radio on the Mizen peninsula.
Patrick Murphy had twenty-one children! One of his sons, Charlie, was maintenance tradesman at the Skibbereen terminus. Older readers may remember Charlie Murphy’s shop at the top of Cork Road.
William Walley was stationmaster at Skibbereen up to the time of his retirement in 1942. He was other man who came to Skibbereen to take up employment in the Railway and whose family contributed handsomely to the business, social and sporting life of Skibbereen.
Thomas Barry, a native of Ballydehob, succeeded William Walley as Stationmaster in Skibbereen. Frederick O’Rourke was the last Stationmaster in Skibbereen at the time of its closure in 1961.