Riches of Clare: All aboard the West Clare Railway

Clare Champion, Friday, March 14, 2003

The Riches of Clare exhibition at the local authority-run Clare Museum charts the county’s history over 6,000 years using authentic artifacts. In this article, Fidelma Mc Donnell, writes about the West Clare Railway, which opened in 1887 but finally closed in January 1961.

The West Clare Railway opened on July 2nd 1887. It was a steam driven, narrow, 3 feet gauge service, which ran between Ennis and Kilrush, with a branch line at Moyasta for Kilkee. Three trains were scheduled daily in each direction, to be synchronised with arrivals and departures of the 5 feet 3 inches broad gauge train from Limerick. There were also additional “fair specials” and seaside excursions, when appropriate.

Ireland’s most prominent politician at that time was Charles Stewart Parnell MP, and it is no surprise that he was asked to turn the first sod, at Miltown Malbay, in January 1885. The spade and wheelbarrow used in this ceremony were then presented to him to mark the occasion.

The railway ran through magnificent scenery and a scheduled journey time was three hours from Ennis to Kilrush, although inclement weather conditions, and under powered locomotives, meant there were frequent delays. In later years the line was improved and was popular with visitors to Lahinch and Kilkee, both of which had a service from 1892.

The line was nominally run by the West Clare Railway and the South Clare Railway companies, but in reality it was operated by one company, the West Clare, facilitated by the fact they both had the same chairman. In 1925 it was taken over by Great Southern Railways, which became amalgamated into CIE in 1945.

The railway will always be brought to mind by Percy French’s song – “Are ye right there Michael?” In a court case in 1898, Percy French was awarded £10 for loss of earnings due to a five-hour delay on the West Clare Railway, which occurred on 10th August 1896. In an explanation for the delay, given by a railway company official, it was claimed that when the engine had taken in water at Ennistymon, weeds had gotten into the engine, causing it to stall at Miltown Malbay. By the time French and his entourage reached Moore’s Hall at Kilkee at 8.20 pm instead of the anticipated 3.30 pm, his audience had all but dispersed. His receipts on the night were £3 instead of the expected £14. French, who delighted in composing humorous songs, penned “Are ye right there Michael?” to commemorate the event, and which went on to become his most famous song. One verse from the song goes as follows:

“Are ye right there, Michael, are ye right?
Do you think that we’ll be there before the night?
Ye’ve been so long in startin’
That ye couldn’t say for sartin’
Still ye might now, Michael, so ye might”.

The spade and wheel barrow, mentioned earlier, are still extant and are on display at Clare Museum. The spade is made of Silver, and is inscribed as follows:
Presented by William Murphy to Charles Stewart Parnell Esq MP on the occasion of his turning the first sod of the West Clare Railway, the 26th day of January 1885.
James F Lombard, Chairman of the Company, William Barrington, M.I.C.E., Engineer, William M Murphy, C.E. Contractor. Erin go Brag.

Also engraved on the spade, are classic Irish symbols such as the harp, a wolfhound, a sunrise depicting hope and optimism, and the also the Irish round tower. These symbols reflected an Ireland where there was an upsurge in national pride in the decades that followed the famine, and optimism engendered by Parnell’s Home Rule Party, which was widely supported at the time.

The original West Clare Railway steam engines, powered by burning turf and coal, were withdrawn in 1952. They were replaced by four diesel railcars, with a further three bought by CIE in 1953. The frequency of the service increased and several new halts opened in a show of optimism in the line. Passenger numbers were strong, but the line overall was losing money, around £23,000 per annum. This loss was unsustainable, and, on January 31st , 1961, the West Clare Railway line was closed forever.

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