wcrtitle - The West Clare's modernisation era

Ireland’s narrow gauge lines were pioneers in the use of modern traction despite a general notion they were anachronisms. These small gauge lines no doubt meant the threat of road competition was far bigger than for the broad gauge lines. A number of the narrow gauge systems experimented with petrol and diesel railcars from a period just after the first world war for the best part of the 20th Century. The most notable was of course the Donegal system which was one of the world’s first systems to employ the use of petrol and later, diesel railbuses. By the 1950s it was using diesel for most passenger traffic, leaving its venerable steam locomotives for the heavier work looking after the line’s many holiday specials as well as its substantial freight traffic. But we must not forget the West Clare Railway either, for it had the distinction of being the only fully dieselised narrow gauge system in these islands.

Being the only public narrow gauge railway in these islands to be extensively modernised the West Clare had railcars, diesel locomotives and modern looking passenger coaches. It was a brave experiment to prove a railway could continue to serve its community by way of providing a more frequent and faster service. This was in fact a continuation of C.I.E’s broad gauge modernisation policy – which had seen the authority order 60 railcars from Park Royal for its various main line routes as well as express work between Dublin and Cork. Sadly it was not so lucky for the narrow gauge. The West Clare’s modern era lasted just six years before C.I.E. pulled the plug, citing huge losses that were incurred.

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The West Clare’s route. I thought it was time for a newer route map – no doubt others will be using this on their blogs!

Despite the publishing of several new books in recent years on the West Clare Railway, research on the line is still somewhat difficult. Its said ‘alone among the narrow gauge railways of Ireland, The West and South Clare Railways lack a chronicler to have a devoted volume solely to them. It can claim neither a Dr. Patterson… or one of those splendid little Oakwood Press booklets…. As a consequence, the researcher on any aspect of their history has no obvious starting point…’ (The Narrow Gauge Journal Winter 1988.) Of course the first proper book to make the grade was In the tracks of the West Clare by Edmund Lenihan (the improved and revised second edition can be read at Google Books) but this was more of a light introduction to the railway rather than a fully comprehensive history.

These unique narrow gauge lines were the result of attempts to improve remote communities and provide transport. The Tramways and Public Companies (Ireland) Act 1883 (aka the Balfour Act) gave encouragement to further rail development in the more remote parts of the country and for the local authorities to make up any shortfalls in funding. The act specified light railways and the narrow gauge was seen as the most suited in terms of the act itself although it did not preclude wider gauge lines being built. It decreed new lines could be built providing they were light railways or tramways, however its said the Lord Lieutenant of Dublin erroneously interpreted this to mean specifically narrow gauge lines and that is why many of those were built. The first sod on the West Clare was officially dug by Charles Stuart Parnell with a special ceremonial spade. The West Clare itself was built from Ennis to Miltown Malbay and opened in 1887 whilst the later South Clare Railway opened the line from Kilrush and Kilkee in 1892 and progressively met up with the other company at Miltown Malbay.

One reason for the circuitous route is, its said, as well as avoiding the higher ground around Slieve Callan, Clare’s highest mountain, the route gave a gentle alignment for the first ten miles or so to a point west of Corofin and therefore allowed the crew to prepare their steam locomotives for ‘the battles ahead.’ It turned out to be wise, for the first locomotives to be introduced on the line – four 0-6-0T Bagnalls – proved to be quite underpowered, but at least the gentle start to the first few miles of line out of Ennis allowed crews to build up a good head of steam and thus tackle the steeper gradients further on. Alas it was one of these underpowered locomotives which proved one reason the famous Percy French episode arose in 1896 (I wrote on this at length based on a detailed description of the day’s actual events that I had read upon and archived two decades ago.) No doubt it was the line’s harsh gradients (as well as poor quality water replete with weed the crews took on board at Ennistymon) which put paid to the train Percy French was travelling on. Its unfortunate crew struggled to get the train up the notorious two and half mile long Rineen bank, the locomotive’s injectors and tubes being quite filled with weed. By the time the train limped into Miltown it was feared the locomotive’s boiler would explode. Since the line only had four locomotives and one of those was now totally buggered, the problem that faced the company in this mid afternoon crisis was its other three locomotives were on duties at Ennis or Kilrush – a good hour and half’s trip either way! The Percy French episode became a series of failures lasting the better part of an entire day and the fall out from it led to the railway’s first modernisation attempt – this being to replace its four small locomotives with much bigger and more powerful ones.

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Ennis, where a smart new look for the West Clare line’s drivers, guards and station staff was shown off. (Image enhanced and colourised by the author.)

Of course when it came to the crunch much later in the line’s years, it wasn’t that the West Clare’s steam locomotives were underpowered – but rather that full dieselisation of the line would be a saviour to revive the line’s fortunes and prevent it being closed down. This modernisation extended not just to the line’s motive power but also to how the railway staff looked. All staff received a new and more corporate uniform to match the upgrade. There were however several oddities about that modernisation – this being the fact additional semaphore signals and second hand turntables turntables were introduced to the line! That actually was to enable the new diesel railcars to be turned round at Lahinch which saw a lot of extra traffic and the extra signals to cope with the increased workings there including the shunting and turning of the new railcars. Besides that existing turntables at the line’s terminus stations were also used. It was an operating anachronism of course but if these turntables couldn’t be used the railcars would not be able face the right direction of travel nor haul additional carriages/extra freight stock – and the same went for the other lines that used diesel railcars too – such as the Clogher Valley and the County Donegal.

Okay, let’s cut to the chase. I decided a post on the West Clare’s modernisation would be in order to mark the 60th anniversary of the line’s closure, and it came about thanks to a tweet depicting one of the line’s brand new railcars at a ceremony in Kilkee during 1953 – this being a part of the line’s history I had little knowledge of and here was a picture I saw for the first time. The date was 10 June 1953 and the scene shows a brand new Walker diesel railcar adorned with a special plaque, having just arrived at the station. A somewhat substantial crowd of onlookers are looking on in admiration. There’s clearly a ceremony, a photographic opportunity underway and the driver of the train is being congratulated.

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Jubilation at Kilkee in June 1953. Source: Twitter. (Here’s the same location as seen today on Google Streets.)

The cause of the occasion was to celebrate the fastest journey ever undertaken along nearly fifty miles of narrow gauge line from Ennis to Kilkee – and that was an attempt by the West Clare Section of the Coras Iompair Eireann (C.I.E.) to show how these ailing narrow gauge railways could be modernised. Up until then each and every one of Ireland’s narrow gauge lines had been closing down at a fair rate and only four public systems were left, the Cavan and Leitrim, County Donegal, the Lough Swilly and the West Clare, had survived. That to Dingle was of course still operating once a month for cattle fairs but ironically the following day after the record Kilee run, June 11th 1953, those British dignitaries would in fact be riding the Tralee and Dingle line’s final day of operations and then that would close! A couple of months later the Lough Swilly too shut for good.

The record run on that day in 1953 took just one hour and twenty three minutes to complete the forty eight miles from Ennis – as opposed to the usual two and half hour trips or so (and more in the days of steam.) The driver of the train, carrying 37 British guests, was Michael O’Donoghue and the guard Jack O’Halloran. Average speed was 38mph and the maximum 43 mph. Its stupendous when one considers the nature of the line itself. Most impressions of the West Clare is of a railway that traverses what seems to be fairly easy countryside, however there’s numerous road crossings and also several punishing gradients where trains have stalled or run away out of control.

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Rare picture of Willbrook station showing the considerably hilly country the line had to traverse between Ennis and Ennistymon. Source: Flickr

Heading north from Ennis the first of the line’s severe gradients starts at Roxton Crossing (the halt here was closed in the line’s early days probably to avoid the expediency of having to stop trains here at the foot of a stiff climb) and a summit around the 325 foot mark was reached near Willbrook. After Willbrook the gradients would fall almost continuously for six miles to Ennistymon, before rising again towards Lahinch and thence the two and half mile long Rineen bank which lifted the line over a substantial ridge of hills leading towards Miltown Malbay.

As narratives of the line tell us, the views from the train were ‘glorious and uninterrupted’ but it was of course recognised the route wasn’t exactly easy going as the following verse recounts: Up hill th’ould engine is climbin, While passengers push with a will, You’re in luck when you reach Ennistymon, for all the way home is down hill.’ (Keeping to the Rails on West Clare Line – Times Pictorial, Dublin, 19 February 1944)

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Driving one of the diesel railcars on the West Clare. (Image colourised by the author.)

In terms of the special run of 1953, the guests who rode that railcar were members of Britain’s Light Railway Transport League, accompanied by Mr. J.H.Price, from London, the editor of Cook’s International time-tables. The V.I.P. crowd were clearly very enthusiastic about the record run as Mr. Price said to the press afterwards: ‘No narrow gauge railway in Britain has a service to compare with this. The West Clare is the best I have ever travelled on.’ Source: Clare Library. These somewhat evocative words were a little misleading as none of Ireland’s narrow gauge lines were exactly fast!

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Passengers about to board a modernised eastbound train at Ennistymon. (Image colourised by the author.)

The four railcars introduced in late 1952 were not the first instance of modern traction used on the West Clare. Under ownership of the Great Southern Railway of Ireland (and before it was absorbed by the C.I.E.) the West Clare had a small railcar for line inspections which survived until closure in 1961. The Great Southern Railway too bought two petrol railcars, both a Drewry, for working the Kilkee branch from 1927 onward and these lasted until 1936.

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Moyasta in 1933 with what clearly is one of the Drewry petrol railcars on the Kilkee branch platform. Source: Twitter

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West Clare staff pose with one of the 1927 petrol railcars. Source: Trawbreaga Bay Light Railway

Getting back to the more modern tranche of rolling stock on the West Clare, the question of how the line’s new diesel railcars and locomotives came into being is, I think, best described by the words of Michael Wray, a reporter for the Irish Times – who described C.I.E.’s attempt at modernisation as ‘decrepit and feeble’:

Probably in fact if the second World War had not intervened, the line would have failed to survive the first half of the century. Then came a hope of resurrection – decrepit and feeble as it was, C.I.E. decided to give the West Clare yet one more chance to serve the community which had created and nurtured it. On March 17th, 1952, four new diesel railcars went into service and the overall journey time was cut by 30 minutes; the wind of change had indeed blown across the westernmost parts of our island! These proved eminently successful and in October 1955 they were followed by three diesel locomotives to work freight traffic. A revolution had been accomplished, the line seemed all set for a new lease of life. Its fame was still spreading and it was once again fit to perform a useful service for the local people.‘ (The Passing of the West Clare – Irish Times 1st February 1961.)

The reason for this change of heart was that a number of years prior to the record run there had been attempts to close down the West Clare Railway, but the C.I.E. was frequently met with strong opposition. Ithad attempted closure of the line as soon as it took it over during 1945 when the railway was pretty much knackered. Locals complained the line’s services were not frequent for in those days it was at best two trains a day each way. In 1951 the C.I.E. announced its plans for modernisation of the line. There would instead be ‘frequent and light’ rather than ‘few and heavy trains’ and diesels would be brought in to enable that to happen. However ‘When the CIE took it over… even then its days were numbered and when it switched from steam to diesel, it became a steel coffin on wheels.’ (Story of the West Clare is Finally told – Irish Times, 12 December 1994.)

Its clear from such analysis that no matter what was done the railway was effectively a lead weight in terms of C.I.E.’s budget and the act of converting the line to full diesel operation was merely delaying the inevitable. The conversion made the line even more of a millstone and C.I.E. officials were frequently dispatched to assess the situation and find the best way to get rid of the railway. On one occasion a team of C.I.E officials spent several days surveying the line and evaluating how each station site could be converted to a simple facility for both bus and freight lorry services that would take over once the line had closed.

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Railcar driver and enthusiast pose for the camera at Ennistymon in the days when the modernised line had become something of a cause célèbre. (Image enhanced and colourised by the author.)

There are also claims C.I.E. attempted to hasten the line’s decline. Its said new carriages bought for the West Clare in 1953 were broken up in 1960, leaving the railway’s much older and decrepit passenger stock to solder on. The truth of this claim is nevertheless shrouded in mystery for a picture of one of the railcars seen on 31 January 1961, the final day of operations, has a modern carriage in tow! The new carriages may have in fact been very unreliable for all we know and scrapping some may have in fact provided spares. Nevertheless Mr. Thomas Lillis, chairman of Kilkee Town Commissioners, said: ‘I have seen new carriages broken up by C.I.E. The people who did this should be charged with sabotage… I am wondering why people lost their lives for this country when all we have are Russian tactics.’ (S.O.N.G. to fight C.I.E. for Rail Line – Irish Times, 3 November 1960.) S.O.N.G. was the acronym for Save Our Narrow Gauge – a campaign group set up in late 1960 to fight the closure of the line.

Getting back to the 1950s modernisation programme, what happened is a fleet of four Walker diesel railcars, similar to those well known examples on the County Donegal system were ordered for the West Clare. Following that a fleet of three powerful diesel locomotives too were purchased for the line’s freight services after it was found the line’s remaining steam locomotives had become totally unreliable. In fact these three freight diesels were sought rather hurriedly so the remaining steam fleet could be disposed of. These quite large 23 ton Bo-Bo locomotives were also built by Walker’s of Wigan. Thus from 1955 the line became 100% diesel operated.

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New Walker diesel locomotive f501 at Ennis in 1955. These were equipped with Gardiner engines. Source: Irish Railway Modeller

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One of the line’s new carriages seen at Ennis. (Image enhanced and colourised by the author.)

The rather austere interior of the new rail coaches can be clearly seen in the image above and the seats are no more than those used in buses! Despite the modern sleek steel bodied appearance designed to match the railcars, its pure bus design that’s influenced the concept of these new carriages. One example of these has been preserved on the Cavan and Letrim line.

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Kilrush station 22 September 1960 with one of the Walker locomotives about to back onto its one single carriage & guards van. Source: Twitter

Some of the line’s venerable coaches from early days were in use right up until the very end however in terms of an upgrade of sorts, some stock was brought over from both the Cavan and Leitrim and Tralee and Dingle lines to complement the West Clare’s existing stock. These included coaches and guards vans which can be seen in the Kilrush station scene above.

What happened to the line’s steam locomotives? Several were disposed of but one or two were left on standby in their respective sheds at Ennis. No.5 Slieve Callan was in fact brought out of retirement and dragged by a diesel south to Kilkee to become one of the stars in a new John Ford film. Yes you read that right! John Ford the famous American film director with a number of US Westerns under his belt including Stagecoach starring John Wayne. Kilkee station became fictional Dunfaill whilst Slieve Callan was given a makeover and a new identity for Ford’s 1956 film ‘The Rising of the Moon.’ (See the British Railway Movie Database and Wikipedia for more detail on this film.)

The Rising of the Moon scenes at Killkee and along the West Clare towards Moyasta can be seen here and here. In the scenes with the train running through the countryside, its first seen near Blackweir station (Google Streets location) the adjacent river bridge can just be seen in the background. The second set of scenes show the train crossing what is now the N67 near Moyasta Junction (Google Streets location) as it returns to Kilkee.

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The turntable from Kilmessan in Co. Meath was relocated to Lahinch for the turning of the line’s disel railcars. July 1954. Source: Twitter

Turntables on the line were at the following locations: Ennis, Lahinch, Miltown Malbay, and both Kilrush and Kilkee. The railway triangle at Moyasta also provided a suitable turning point for any railcars that needed to do so here. Lahinch was a popular seaside resort and many special workings operated between Ennis and here thus it was necessary to provide a turntable for this purpose. Previously steam locomotives had to run south to Miltown Malbay to turn.

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Not a brilliant picture however one that shows the quite hilly terrain the line traversed. (Image colourised by the author.)

In the image above the freight train has just descended the notorious Rineen bank and is approaching Lahinch. The line to the south of this point climbs a good height in order to get across the hills and reach Miltown Malbay whose station was on the other side of the ridge in question. The bridge at this location in the picture still exists and can be seen on Google Streets. Further up the ascent the line clung high up on the hillside and there were bridges and embankments at a considerable height above the adjacent main road – features rather more akin to a mountain region. No doubt it was once a spectacular stretch of railway with unparalleled views across the countryside below.

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A rather battered Walker railcar bound for Ennis at Miltown Malbay, 21 September 1960. Source: Twitter

The railcar on the right in the above picture can be seen in quite a few photographs of the West Clare – easily identifiable because its side is bashed in. The cause of this was said to be a collision the railcar had with a road vehicle on one the of the line’s many crossings some years earlier though its never been said which crossing that had been!

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The same battered Walker railcar has just arrived at Ennis after its lengthy run from the wilds of the Atlantic Coast. July 1959. Source: Flickr

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Ennis in September 1960 with diesels on the broad and the narrow gauge! The Bo-Bo diesel locomotives were often employed on passenger trains in the line’s last years when the railcars had very poor availability. Source: Facebook

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Pair of railcars at Moyasta during the final days of early 1961. The Kilrush service is at right and that for Kilkee left. The railcar with bashed front evident once again! Source: Flickr

The West Clare Railway closes

The end for the West Clare came on 18th November 1960 when C.I.E. published notices announcing the cessation of services from early 1961:

Pursuant to Section 19 of the Transport Act, 1958 the Board of Coras Iompair Eireann hereby gives notice:

1 That all services of trains for passengers, merchandise and livestock operating in each direction between Ennis and Kilkee, Ennis and Kilrush, and between Kilrush and Kilkee, whether or not serving any intermediate stations or halts, will be terminated on and from 1st February 1961.

2 That Kilrush and Kilkee railway stations and all intermediate railway stations and halts will be closed to passengers, merchandise and livestock traffic as from the said 1st February 1961 and that Ennis railway station will be likewise closed to all the said traffic in relation to the carrying thereof by rail between Ennis and Kilrush and Kilkee and all said intermediate railway stations and halts. (Source: West Clare Library)

The last advertised train to run the West Clare was to be on 31 January 1961, and a service many knew would be quite popular as people sought to ride the quaint narrow gauge line for the last time, was unfortunately ‘cancelled’ at the last minute much to the annoyance of many! However it is said C.I.E. had decided a couple of days before that the last train from Ennis to Kilrush/Kilkee would not run in order to avoid totally chaotic scenes – and that was confirmed in a phone call by one of the newspapers to C.I.E. headquarters in Dublin. Those who rode an earlier trip to Kilrush or Kilkee (or both) then the last train from Kilkee to Ennis would have enjoyed substantial celebrations and sorrow at the line’s passing. In a way C.I.E. did honour the final day of operation by allowing the Railway Enthusiasts Club of England the privilege of a brakevan tour hauled by one of the Walker locomotives along the disused line from Kilrush to Cappagh Pier which had not seen a train for a number of decades.

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C.I.E. attempted to quell possible chaos on the West Clare’s final day of operation amounted to cancelling the last train from Ennis to Kilkee.

‘Although C.I.E sought to avoid trouble by cancelling the late train from Ennis to Kilkee, the railway went ot in a blaze of glory. From the time an earlier train left Ennis, where a very big crowd had assembled to see it off, hundreds of people gathered at each of 21 stations along the 53 miles long route to Kilkee to give the train a rousing send-off.‘ (Farewell to West Clare railway, Irish Times, 1st February 1961.)

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Railcar at Kilkee on the final day of services, 31 January 1961. Source: Twitter

Farmers working in the fields and women from their cottage doors waved goodbye to the train as it sped by and detonators placed on the track exploded when the train passed over them. When the train halted at Corofin the passengers, including a group of British railway enthusiasts ran out, jumped a wall and hot-footed for the village pub where they drank pints and bottles of stout for over 20 minutes while the train waited at the station. The bottles of stout taken out from the pub were drunk on the way to Kilkee to the sounds of a tin whistle and loud singing.‘ (Farewell to West Clare railway, Irish Times, 1st February 1961.)

It is said locals and enthusiasts stripped the carriages on the line’s last trains of light bulbs and other fittings to take home as a souvenir. No doubt a few items have since turned up on Ebay!

A News Reporter’s final run on the West Clare a few days before closure:

So in the closing days of January 1961, we left Dublin to make our farewells to the last passenger carrying narrow gauge railway in Ireland…. Spirits soon rise in the clear and heady air… and as I entered the cab of one of the diesel railcars at Ennis, my mood was one of pleasant expectation. Soon we had left our companion rails of the broad gauge and were heading west towards the sea. The first request stop was Lifford, where the customary red flag brought us to a standstill, then we were off again and rapidly reached the maximum permitted speed of 35 m.p.h. Lest anyone think this is a mere crawl, I strongly recommend them to try driving a car at faster speeds on the tortuous roads in this part of the country!

After Corofin the line climbs over a shoulder of the hills and drops down to Lahinch and the sea. From here onwards the view is glorious and uninterrupted all the way to Moyasta Junction, which demands a word to itself. The station, a few houses and the inevitable bar, are completely surrounded by a triangle of railway lines – a sort of ‘Island State’ of the narrow gauge, whose existence will now be abruptly terminated.

Finally the Kilrush train runs along the shores of the Shannon estuary to its present terminus at the foot of the incredibly broad main street of the town…. Back again to Moyasta and on to Kilkee in a violent hailstorm, where we had a few moments to inspect the old locomotive shed and the neat and tidy station. It was difficult to believe that soon only the demolition train will enliven its precincts. All too soon we were back on board for the last Saturday evening run to Ennis, marked with a touch of ceremony by the gesture of the local bank manager as he handed a cigar to our guard.

Sitting at the rear of the coach in the gathering dusk, we reflected sadly on the mortality of human institutions. We thought too of the petition raised by the people of Clare in an effort to stave off the lifting of their railway; the line has become a part of their lives and landscape – it will be sadly missed. The epitaph of this much loved system, however, was spoken spontaneously and naturally by the guard at Ennis, as we finished taking our flashlight photographs: ‘Do you want us anymore boys? No? Then we can go away now. Goodnight.’ (The Passing of the West Clare – Irish Times 1st February 1961.)

S.O.N.G. – the campaign group set up to fight the closure of the line demanded that C.I.E. leave the tracks in situ for a number of years whilst a restoration attempt was sought. C.I.E. took no notice and announced the line’s tracks would be ripped up immediately after closure. S.O.N.G responded by threatening a huge demonstration against the lifting of the railway’s tracks. That demonstration never took place. The reason for that is probably because S.O.N.G sent a delegation to Dublin to protest the line’s closure. When asked how everyone had travelled from Clare to Dublin, it turned out not one of the crowd used the train but had come by car. It turned out unfortunate because at that C.I.E. turned round and said to the group something along the lines of: ‘you see, no-one uses the railway anymore, and that is why it must be closed.’

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The West Clare’s inspection railcar seen at Ennis after closure and awaiting disposal, June 1961. Source: Railway & Correspondence Travel Society

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Run out of rails! This pair of Walker diesel locomotives, their services were no longer required after having hauled the line’s demolition trains, stand on an isolated section of track awaiting disposal. Ennis 1963. Source: Flickr

Immediately the line had closed demolition work began on 1st February 1961 starting at Cappagh Pier. That didn’t stop some staff taking a few lucky locals on a final passenger run from Kilrush to Moyasta and back that day. It took C.I.E. well over a whole year to dismantle the line and gather all the stock at Ennis for disposal. Thus through 1962 and most of 1963 enthusiasts would be fortunate to witness the last vestiges of the line as its railcars, freight wagons and locomotives stood in Ennis yard awaiting disposal. Its said the total scrap value of the rails recovered from the line amounted to some 30,000 pounds. There was a claim some of the locomotives and rolling stock had been sold to Nigeria, but whether there’s any truth in that, it seems no-one knows.

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