The Killorglin to Valentia Railway

Prior to the arrival of the Railway ( Killorglin to Valentia Harbour 1893) South West Kerry was then an impoverished and isolated region with little or no infrastructure, massive poverty, hunger and disease. No opportunities other than immigration. In 1893 the government offered five pounds per person to immigrate and as a result two ships containing fifteen hundred local people left Valentia harbour for an unknown future. Landlords owned almost all the land at that time which they rented at very high  prices each plot of land too small to be viable. Rowland Winn was the infamous landlord in Glenbeigh at that time who had built a castle on the outskirts of Glenbeigh in 1869 subsequently rising the rent an extra fifty per cent to defray costs. This the tenant could not afford so leading to the Glenbeigh Evictions in the 1880s which were reported to be the worst in Ireland. This was only a short number of years after the Great Famine 1845-50 where one million people died of hunger in Ireland and one million more immigrated. The blight of the potato which was the staple diet of the Irish peasant was the main cause of the famine as all potato crops died. But despite all this hardship and misery the resilient people of Ireland fought to survive. At this time only small amounts of work was available with over eight hundred distressed families living in the barony of Iveragh.

The biggest move in the economy of South Kerry came around 1890s with the extension of the railway line from Killorglin to Valentia Harbour. The first railway line was built in Ireland in  the 1830s then establishing a network of railway lines through the country reaching Tralee and Killarney in mid 1850s. The railway lines connecting cities and major towns were known as trunk lines and from these line connecting smaller towns were known as branch lines. There were four branch lines to Kerry: Headford Junction to Kenmare, Tralee to Dingle, Farranfore to Valentia Harbour and Limerick to Listowel which in turn was connected to Ballybunion by a monorail. This monorail was unique as it was the only one of is type in the world. It was designed by Frenchman Charles Lartigue hence the moniker. The Lartigue Line opened in 1888.

Work first began on the Farranfore to Killorglin line in 1882, The contract was carried out by Falkiner & Frazier taking three years to complete. It covered a distance of 12.5 miles using the standard gauge of 5ft 3in costing 7000 pounds per mile. The line left Farranfore passing through Molahiffe, Castlemaine, Milltown arriving at Killorglin. The only major engineering work  undertaken was the 340ft bridge over the Laune river in Killorglin. The line was officially opened on 15 January 1885, with the plan of extending this line to Valentia Harbour still only a dream. Passengers intending to travel to Cahirsiveen were transferred by stage coach which Charles Bianconni had operated for many years prior to the arrival of the Railway line.

Two men that worked tirelessly to ensure that the railway line would be extended a further 27 miles to the South Kerry capital were Fr Tim Brosnan PP of Cahirsiveen and The Knight of Kerry Lord Fitzgerald, a landlord who resided on Valentia Island. Their efforts were rewarded after a long campaign of canvassing the politicians of the day and the higher echelons of the Great Southern and Western Railways. It was eventually sanctioned and the building of a line to the point of Renard known as Valentia Harbour commenced. This was not just a railway line; it was a life line as well, as the contractor Mr Falkiner promised that every able bodied man in the region would be needed to work on this project. A total of 1500 men (300 skilled and 1200 unskilled) were employed at the peak: some were also paid to supply horse and cart. This was a major undertaking as they encountered some challenging territory in the laying of this line. They just did not go around mountains: they went through them instead, boring two tunnels at the base of Drung Hill and building a covered way adjacent. Three rivers had to be bridged: the Caragh, Behy and  Fertha, along with over ninety culverts and bridges built. The most incredible  piece of engineering was the building of the magnificent viaduct crossing the gorge at Gleesk, Kells. Up to fifty stone masons were engaged in the construction of this viaduct, which required twelve piers some 74 ft high to support this railway line. It took over three years to complete this railway at a cost of 9000 pounds per mile officially opening on 12th September 1893. A number of railway stations were built on the route from Killorglin, along with level  crossings and workers cottages. Caragh Lake was the first railway station on this new line which was used a lot by English tourists holidaying in the now demolished Caragh Lake hotel. Then came Dooks Halt which was used mainly for visiting golfers to the new golf links which had first opened in 1889. Then crossing the viaduct over The Caragh river onto Glenbeigh station all on level terrain. Glenbeigh was an important station as it catered for goods and passengers both local and visitors as Glenbeigh was establishing itself as a popular tourist resort. Also here were two large water tanks for top up purposes for the steam engines.

As the train left Glenbeigh – the exact mid point of the line, 20 miles from both Farranfore and Valentia – it began its first climb to Mountain Stage and then on to Kells, both 400ft above sea level. Both railway stations at Mountain Stage and Kells were busy stops on this line. The line passed through areas of great natural beauty and breathtaking scenery, with awe inspiring views of Dingle Bay and peninsula, Rossbeigh Beach, Inch Strand and the Blasket Islands. The line meandered along a high vantage position near the foot of Drung Hill through tunnels over viaducts and bridges before it reached the most westerly railhead in Europe at Valentia Harbour. Some people found the journey a little frightening due to its high elevation with the Atlantic Ocean 400ft below. As a lady passenger once  remarked, “iron rails to Glenbeigh, iron nerves from there on”. That about  summed up the trip.

The greatest benefit of this railway was that it opened up South and Mid Kerry to the rest of the world. Up to now the only means of transport was horse and coach both slow and uncomfortable and could only transport small number of passengers and goods. The economy immediately improved with large amounts of livestock and fish being exported to the Irish and English markets on a regular basis. Huge amounts of herring and mackerel transported, by train to Dublin then by boat to Holyhead, could be in the English market within twenty four hours. Livestock specials were usually on a monthly basis, with cattle sheep and pigs the back bone of the local  economy. People traveled to and from the region daily, and tourism flourished. Essential food products and building material were some of the products that arrived by train. During the ‘Economic War’ with Britain in the 1930s and during World War 2, large quantities of turf by special trains to supply the Irish market as coal was not available. The most famous of all special trains was the “Ghost Train” which travelled  on the eve of the All Ireland carrying Kerry football followers to Croke Park. This train left Valentia Harbour at midnight stopping at many Kerry stations and halts along the way arriving in Dublin early Sunday morning on the day of the match. It left Dublin again that evening for the ten hour return,  arriving home early Monday morning. Both journeys were throughout the night hence the name the ghost train. Sigerson Clifford immortalises this excursion in his poem “The Ghost Train for Croke Park”.

Special excursion trains were also laid on for special occasions trips and visits. Huge numbers traveled by rail to events such as GAA matches, Puck Fair and to Cahirsiveen for the very popular annual Races usually held in September. On Tuesday 31st August 1897 the Duke and Duchess of York traveled by train from Dublin to Valentia Harbour and then crossed by boat to Valentia Island for lunch with the Knight of Kerry, returning that evening to spend the night with the Earl of Dunraven in Adare. The Duke of York later went on to become King George V of England. Trains were also laid on for the transport of the British Army, who before Irish Independence had one of the finest artillery ranges at Glenbeigh Castle in the early 1900s. The castle was burnt down in 1920 but the Irish Army continued to use it for similar purposes and also had a camp at Incharee for army training purposes up to the 1940s. Other famous names who traveled by train was the writer John Millington Synge who lodged at Mountain Stage during the summer months between 1906 and 1908; also Monsignor Hugh Flaherty an Irishman who saved 6000 prisoners of war during the second world war while based in the Vatican.The body of the first casualty of the 1916 rising, Con Keating, who drowned at Ballykissane Pier was returned to his home and family by train for burial.

For sixty seven years 1893 to 1960 this line remained open and provided a wonderful service to Mid and South Kerry helping it through a period of economic depression. The J15 steam engine was used for the first fifty years and then replaced by the Diesel engine which moved at a much faster speed reducing the time of travel. In the late 1950s, the motor car became the popular mode of transport through out Ireland replacing the train. The number of railway commuters declined as well as goods been transported as a result the railway began to lose money. Word came from head office “Close the branch lines and the trunk line will make money”. The chairman of CIE, a man called Todd Andrews grandfather of present day Late Late Show presenter Ryan Tubridy, announced that this iconic line from Farranfore to Valentia Harbour was to close. So on the 31 January 1960 the train left Cahirsiveen for the last time bringing an end to a memorable era of railroad transport in South Kerry.

2 thoughts on “The Killorglin to Valentia Railway

  1. If this scenic line were still operating it would be a valuable tourist attraction, and a useful alternative to all the coaches which tour the Ring of Kerry. Any rail enthusiast multi millionaires interested?

    • Hello Meg, thanks for your comments! Unfortunately, the rails were taken up and removed almost immediately after the line ceased operation in 1960. There is a current plan to convert the old track into a ‘Greenway’ – a walkway/cycle-track all the way from Glenbeigh to Caherciveen. The project is still subject to full planning approval and there are some objections. This would be a great boon to the local tourist industry if and when it receives approval to proceed.

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