How the Cavan Leitrim railway ran out of steam...

Story by Tom Kelly

Wednesday, 7th March, 2012 5:30pm

How the Cavan Leitrim railway ran out of steam...

The old steam train that serviced Cavan at Ballinamore station.

A new TV documentary airing on TG4 this week tells the fascinating story of the Cavan and Leitrim Railway, the only railway in the country to have been run for its entire lifetime on steam.

Opened in 1887 the narrow gauge railway ran from Belturbet through Ballyconnell and into Dromod in County Leitrim and then on to Drumshanbo and later Arigna. The line was built primarily to draw coal out of the mountain in Arigna, as previously only horses and carts were available for this job. Thanks to the Cavan and Leitrim Railway, coal from Arigna was brought to homes and businesses all around the country, and especially during the war years, it was a vital means of ensuring that Irish homes were able to get fuel.

The early years of the Cavan and Leitrim Railway were however, not without their difficulties.

The documentary features stories of a stationmaster absconding with £7 takings - and subsequently using the money to buy a passage to America; of another station master grabbing some money and leaving so fast that he left his clothes behind; and of a certain Captain Rogers who arrived in 1920 to try to bring some discipline to the C&LR. Rogers' staff were unimpressed with the manager's hard line approach and promptly took him from his bed at gunpoint one night and marched him down the tracks, warning him that things would remain as they were. Rogers lost no time in leaving!

But the programme also touches on the cultural and political division between management and crew on the Cavan and Leitrim Railway, with management being largely Unionist and crew Republican, something which created tensions during the early years of the 20th century.

The Republican crew refused for example to drive an engine called the Queen Victoria, and painted it in green white and orange, renaming it the Sinn Féin Engine.

But for the people of Cavan and South Leitrim, this little narrow gauge railway was a way of escaping the rural isolation which would have been their lot without it. Many women would use the train to go and do their weekly shopping in Mohill, or Drumshanbo, and the staff were happy to stop and issue tickets to anyone who stood by the tracks and waited.

With its cowcatcher in front, the small engine looked like 'something out of the Wild West' as it wound its way through the beautiful Leitrim countryside.

Trains would be packed to capacity on Fair Days, for Monaghan Fair in particular, the biggest cattle fair day of the year. Pilgrimages to St Lasser's well were also a huge draw on the railway.

But it was the building of the power station in Arigna in 1958 which sounded the death knell for the Cavan and Leitrim Railway since coal would no longer be brought out from Arigna, the power station needing all the coal the mountain could provide.

Locals were devastated at the loss of their little railway whose familiar sight and sound had become synonymous with the landscape from Belturbet all the way across to Arigna.

In "Bóithre Iarainn" the railway will be brought to life in a most visual way, using a combination of archive footage of the train, reconstruction, interviews and of course the stunning local scenery to capture, if for only half an hour the spirit if this most unique of railways.

Some of the reconstruction scenes were filmed at Dromod Railway station, where Michael Kennedy has brought a part of the Cavan and Leitrim Railway back to life. The producers, Nemeton TV in the Ring Gaeltacht in Waterford wish to thank Michael for his help with the production, and also to Seán Ó Súilleabháoin and all at Ballinamore library and Colm Keane and his staff at Arigna Experience.

Bóithre Iarainn will be aired on TG4 tomorrow (Thursday), March 8 at 8pm, and repeated Sunday, March 11 at 7.30pm.

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