December 17 will mark the 184th anniversary of the opening of Ireland’s first commercial railroad: the Dublin and Kingstown Railway. The D&KR speaks volumes when it comes to exploring Ireland’s rich history and great enthusiasm for railroad culture, and its enduring legacy has greatly impacted generations of people. The holiday season is a particularly good time of year to be a railroad aficionado in Ireland. Not only do we get to celebrate another year of the D&KR ‘s successful operation spanning almost two centuries, we also get to enjoy Ireland’s endless parade of vibrant Christmas train shows. Model railway villages are also quite the draw in Ireland. These miniature recreations of an earlier era depict busy markets, scenic town life, and bustling trains clickety-clacking between villages in a 1:24 scale. Toy models of some of Ireland’s most well-recognized trains, stations, and other scenery, recreated in painstaking detail, are extremely popular Christmas gifts enjoyed around the world. Let’s take a brief look back in time with the railroad that started it all, the industrious soul breathed life into it, and the legacy the rail has left on the country of Ireland, and the world.
Linking Westland Row in Dublin to Kingstown Harbour (now Dun Laoghaire), the D&KR was the first railroad in the world dedicated exclusively to the movement of people. This was significant for several reasons. For the first time, citizenry could move between longer distances with relative ease at all hours of the day. This sparked a surge in social and economic development unseen in Ireland’s history. Over the next century, over 3,500 miles of rail coiled its way around the island, connecting towns, families, and industries and ending the relative fragmentation of the country. The railroads also helped information circulate around the country faster as well, largely through increased newspaper circulation, greatly influencing the Irish national identity.
Through this, the D&KR is a symbol of the great impact railroads had on Ireland, and is a significant point in the history of railroads around the world. Additionally, it stands as a testament to the passion of the Irish railroad culture that persists to this day. Though only one third of the rails ever constructed in Ireland are still operational, many of the iconic train stations that linked them are maintained by communities of volunteers passionate about keeping the history of Ireland’s railroads alive. The stations that do still run have done so continuously, in some cases for almost two hundred years, and are just as important to the people who use them daily. This is most readily apparent in restoration efforts at stations such as Ballyglunin, featured in the 1952 John Wayne classic The Quiet Man.
William Dargan (1799-1867), known as the “Father of Irish Railways,” was the primary arbiter of the D&KR, as well as a number of other railway lines around Ireland. He grew up as the oldest of a large family of tenant farmers on the Earl of Portarlington’s estate, working his father’s 101-acre farm and attending school in Graiguecullen. Dargan excelled in mathematics and became a self-taught engineer, working for Thomas Telford on the Holyhead side of the London-Holyhead road. It was during his time with Telford that Dargan became interested in developing public works, and was put in charge of the road construction between Raheny and Sutton. His earnings from this project (£300) provided him with the capital needed to invest in his own private construction projects and young Dargan began to make a name for himself around Dublin as an extremely energetic and brilliant builder.
In 1831, he was hired as the contractor for The Dublin and Kingstown Railway Company, to begin work on the hotly debated D&KR Railway. The company was formed by businessmen around Dublin interested in reducing the swelling volume of road traffic, which had become dangerous for pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages. Unlike railroads in Britain and Scotland used for moving minerals and other commercial goods, Dublin had a greater need to move its people around more efficiently (although freight was commonly stored on the roof and it wasn’t long before freight cars were added). Easier transportation to and from Dublin would also help them market their real estate portfolios to the well-off purchasing second residences in communities such as Boostertown, Blackrock, Salthill, and Kingstown.
By April 1833, hundreds of men armed with picks and shovels began chipping away at numerous locations along the designated route. Eventually, over 1800 men were working simultaneously on the line, many of whom worked around the clock, their vision aided by blazing tar barrels and large wooden fires.
The rail was completed over the course of the next year and a half, eventually spanning just six miles. In total, the entire project took over three years to complete, due in part to the opposition of Dublin landowners who demanded considerable compensation for easements. Arduous negotiations slowed progress, and Dargan agreed to build footbridges and tunnels in order to maintain access to their property. The areas around the railroad also required a great deal of reconstruction in the form of bridges, tunnels, and excavation so as not to impede existing road traffic. The railroad cost a staggering £300,000 and was the most expensive railroad built up to that time (Railway development began in Great Britain a decade before), although the British had been using isolated wooden wagon-ways in some cities since the 1600s.
By the time of the D&KR’s completion, Dargan was well on his way to becoming an Irish titan of industry. He commanded fierce loyalty from many of his employees through generous wages (for the time), and many of them stayed with him as he went on to develop other important projects around the country, including the Ulster Canal, the Dublin and Drogheda Railway, the Great Southern and Western Railway, and the Midland Great Western Railway.
Linking these historic railroads are hundreds of train stations endeared into the hearts and minds of the Irish. For almost two centuries, generations of people have utilized these structures as important gateways to other parts of the island. Additionally, they served as social hubs where friends and relatives stayed connected, caught up on news, and strengthened community ties. However, as use of the lines has decreased—railroad travel peaked in Ireland in the 1920s—so too have the number of stations still in operation. Railroad companies have demolished or closed approximately 238 stations since the 1930s. The latest train station to close in Ireland was the Wellington Bridge station, shut down in 2010. This makes the surviving stations all the more important when it comes to preserving the rich history Ireland’s railroads have to offer. The memories and nostalgia of the stations are simply too strong for many to let go of.
The station at Ballyglunin is one such landmark beloved by locals and tourists from around the world. This is due in large part to the fact the station was featured in the opening sequence of the 1952 John Wayne classic The Quiet Man. Nevertheless, Ballyglunin is an archetypal example of the lush, simple, picturesque Irish train station many are determined to preserve. With the support of Hollywood stars such as Liam Neeson and Gabriel Bynre, crowdfunding campaigns, and a generous donation from the Irish government, the village of Ballyglunin raised enough cash to buy the station and save the historic structure from demolition. The building was abandoned in 1976 after more than a century of continual use. After falling into a state of complete disrepair, volunteers set to work restoring the building’s roof and working their way down into the station’s interior. Plans are underway to re-open the station as a cafe, event center, and interpretive center, honoring Ireland’s railroad history and the film that helped make the station a local landmark. The goal of the volunteers is to restore the building to exactly how it appeared in The Quiet Man.
The Dublin Pearse railway station is another significant landmark. Originally called the Westland Row Station, the station served as the point of departure for the first train to travel along the D&KR that cold December day. It is subsequently crammed with important Irish history and to this day it is Ireland’s busiest commuter station (9 million passengers journeyed through the station in 2016 alone). Differing from stations in the quiet countryside, Pearse station is a towering brick structure, stark and industrial. It’s look has changed little over the centuries and there are few Irish who wouldn’t immediately recognize the building. Like its counterpart at Ballyglunin, Pearse station has also served as a movie set, and is featured in films such as “Angelas Ashes” and “Michael Collins.” From 1934 to 1891, the station received trains running the six mile stretch of the D&KR between it and Dún Laoghaire. In 1891, it was decided to connect Pearse to Connolly Station. To achieve this the railway tracks were lifted off the street and onto the bridge which crosses the Liffey in front of the Customs House. Of course, many Dubliners took issue with the fact that the new Loop Line bridge would ruin certain views in the city, nevertheless, construction continued. In 1966, the station was given its current name in honor of the Pearse family, most notably brothers Patrick and Willie Pearse who served as leaders of the Easter Rising. The Pearse station was one of fifteen renamed to commemorate the sacrifice of the sixteen leaders of the failed rebellion who were all summarily executed.
Thankfully, Ireland’s railroad culture is not all so grim. Many historical steam trains continue to operate for tourists and remain extremely popular. And especially this time of year, Ireland’s Christmas train shows and experiences draw crowds from around the globe. The Santa Special, sponsored by the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland, begins running weekly December 1-16, and typically sells out (this year’s 7000 tickets sold out in just 20 minutes). Running from Dublin to Maynooth, the Santa Trains offer families and enthusiasts the best of the historical railroad experience coupled withe the magic of Christmas in Ireland. Musicians, Christmas elves and Santa himself attends each carriage car, handing out treats, visiting with children, and posing for family photos as the train puffs along the line. The RPSI employs an army of dedicated and passionate volunteers to maintain and operate its steam engines just as if they were stepping back into the 19th century.
Speaking of traveling back in time, the West Cork Model Railway Village is another fun way to experience life as it was during a time when people depended on the railroads much more heavily than they do today. Handcrafted at a 1:24 scale, the Model Village located Clonakilty is one of the most popular attractions to West Cork. The model West Cork Railway Line travels between miniature versions of Clonakilty, Kinsale, Dunmanway, and Bandon. The Model Village also has an interpretive center with a detailed history of the WCR and the region it served. And unlike the Santa Train, the Model Village is open year round and is open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The Fry Model Railway is another unique model experience for those interested in Irish trains. Complete with miniature working models of trains from Ireland’s various eras of rail travel, the model railway wraps its way around the Malahide Castle and also features a full range of stations, bridges, trams, barges, and more. The Fry Model Railway is open from April to September.
If you can’t get to Ireland this time of year to enjoy a steam-powered Christmas experience, however this might be the right time to pick up some Irish-inpired train models and accessories!