Tracking Wexford's railway history

By Oliver Doyle

Published 21/04/2015 | 00:00

Oliver Doyle gave a lecture to mThe Wexford Historical Society on Railways in County Wexford in St Michaels Hall on Wednesday evening. L/r; John Furlong, Jarlath Glynn, Oliver Doyle, Ernie Shepard, Brian Matthews, Lorraine Hynes and Sean Rattigan
Oliver Doyle gave a lecture to mThe Wexford Historical Society on Railways in County Wexford in St Michaels Hall on Wednesday evening. L/r; John Furlong, Jarlath Glynn, Oliver Doyle, Ernie Shepard, Brian Matthews, Lorraine Hynes and Sean Rattigan
An early shot of Rosslare Harbour.

Wexford was the fourth last county in Ireland to have a railway - only Sligo, Leitrim and Mayo followed. This was largely due to the Wicklow and Blackstairs Mountains being difficult to engineer a railway through.

The country's first railway, the Dublin & Kingstown opened in 1834 and was continuously being extended southwards but there were major physical difficulties such as the building of the line around Bray Head and onward along the coast to Wicklow.

The Dublin & Wicklow Railway, who took over the D&KR changed its name to the Dublin Wicklow & Wexford Railway in 1860 hoping to reach Wexford town. However, another company, the Bagenalstown and Wexford Railway, sought to connect Wexford with Dublin via Ballywilliam and Bagenalstown.

On St. Patrick's Day 1862 they opened the line as far as Ballywilliam making it the first railway station in County Wexford.

However, it closed shortly after due to the condition of the track and when this was repaired the line re-opened with an extension to Sparrowsland, 3 and a half miles from Macmine, before running out of money.

On 23 November 1870 they commenced a service from White's Hotel, Wexford using a coach with four horses to connect with the train from Sparrowsland to Bagenalstown and onward by the GS&WR to Dublin Kingsbridge - renamed Heuston in 1966.

Meanwhile the DW&WR reached Enniscorthy in 1864 and here there was an extensive range of sidings serving Donohue's coal yard and Guinness bottling plant, Buttle's Bacon factory, Roche's maltings, Kavanagh's Ironworks and S & A G Davis's flour mills.

In the mid-1800s there were several plans to build a railway connected pier on Rosslare bay and the first pier opened at Grenore, later Rosslare Harbour in June 1882.

The Waterford & Wexford Railway company was empowered by Act of Parliament in 1864 to build a railway from Wexford to Ballyhack and a branch to Rosslare Harbour.

However, only the Wexford-Rosslare Harbour section was constructed. This line was in continuous financial trouble and closed in 1889. It was re-opened in 1894 when it was planned to be incorporated into the last major Irish railway scheme. This plan was the realisation of Brunel's original plan for a route to Ireland via Fishguard and Rosslare.

A company, the Fishguard & Rosslare Railways & Harbours Company was enacted to construct new ports with adequate facilities at Fishguard and Rosslare Harbour as well as complete a direct railway link between Rosslare Harbour and Cork. This involved constructing two major bridges to cross the rivers Suir and Barrow.

The latter, consisting of 13 fixed spans and a centrally pivoted opening span is 2,131ft long and when completed was the longest bridge in Ireland and the third longest in Britain and Ireland after the Firth of Forth and Firth of Tay bridges in Scotland.

The contractor for the railway was Robert McAlpine, affectionately known as Concrete Bob because of his extensive use of mass concrete for structures.

Perhaps his finest concrete structure on the line is the lofty three-arch bridge taking a minor road over the railway at Kilmokea.

The new route officially opened on 21 July 1906 when a special train conveying the Viceroy, Lord Aberdeen, and other dignitaries travelled from Dublin Kingsbridge to Waterford and then over the new route while the Great Western Railway operated one of the new steamers from Fishguard to the official opening.

The Great Western Railway in Britain had four new ships constructed for the service, the Saint David, Saint Andre, Saint Patrick and Saint George, though the latter was deemed surplus to requirements and sold in 1912. The Great Southern & Western Railway built new carriages including Dining Cars for the new service providing passengers with the best of Edwardian travel.

After the visit of Queen Victoria to Killarney in 1861, it became a popular tourist attraction and the railways operated day excursions from London to Killarney travelling out overnight on Fridays and returning overnight on Saturday night with a return express train between Rosslare and Killarney.

After the Fishguard service was adapted for Roll-on Roll-off and officially opened on 11 June 1965, shipping rates for cars fell rapidly and many families of Irish extraction in Britain changed to driving through to Ireland for their annual visit.

In 1961, Cork Airport opened and by the middle of the decade Aer Lingus was operating services to London, Manchester and Bristol. The first jet aircraft to land at Cork Airport, a Comet operated by British Overseas Airways Corporation (predecessors of British Airways) on behalf of Aer Lingus touched down on 29 March 1964.

The level of passenger traffic via Fishguard through to Cork and Kerry by rail diminished considerably and CIÉ closed the Waterford-Mallow section on 27 March 1967, the Rosslare Strand-Waterford section continued for a further 43 years as it was a major route for conveying sugar beet to the sugar factory at Mallow.

However, when the factory closed in 2006 there were no goods trains on the route and only five or six passengers a day travelling so the railway was closed on 18 September, 2010.

The Bagenalstown-Palace East section closed to passenger trains in 1931 and completely in 1963. The Macmine Junction-New Ross line also closed on 31 March 1963 to all traffic. The New Ross-Waterford section is currently disconnected, but not officially closed.

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