Anecdotal history of the West Clare Railway centred on the Vaughan Family.

Kilkee Station
Lawrence collection
Kilkee station panorama
Lawrence collection
Lawrence collection
Two trains in Kilkee station
Lawrence collection

Excerpt from a copy of an old book by Gabriel Vaughan entitled ‘My Affair with Malbay’.

It is an anecdotal history of the western part of Co. Clare centred on the life and times of a series of generations of The Vaughan family. It has one chapter devoted to the West Clare Railway.

Gabriel Vaughan’s father, Paddy Vaughan, worked on the railway. Family life revolved around the station at Miltown Malbay. Gabriel Vaughan says:

“It was almost impossible for me to miss the train at 8.56 a.m. when going to school in Ennistymon every morning. Dad knew the benefit of the proverbial saying “Go to work or school on an egg.” A good breakfast was sacrosanct and I also had to be in time for the train. So often the refrain would go like this: “hurry up, take your time, and eat enough”. Sometimes the train would be held for me for a minute or two until I had safely boarded the train. Other times, I was put into the guard’s van with a mug of tea and a few slices of bread. No way was I going to miss school. Thanks Dad!

On one or two occasions when the porter Tommy Honan was absent and my Dad had slept it out, the train, after passing the Flag Road gates, could be heard from a distance, whistle blowing urgently, alerting the station master to have the gates across the line opened.

The train approaching Miltown in the morning carried a lot of girls from Doonbeg and Quilty going to work in The Malbay Knitwear Factory and was called “The Glamour Express”.

I had a privileged ticket because my father worked for the West Clare Railway Company and I travelled first class to school. Often the only other passenger with me was the local Protestant Minister, Rev. Cannon Elliot travelling up to Ennistymon to greet his flock there. Although he was a kind gentleman, I did not find it easy to converse with him.

Jackie Fox together with his horse called Friday, was the local carrier of goods from the railway station to the town. Every young boy in the town rode on his cart from time to time. A low sized good-humoured fellow was he and strong as an ox. Flour was then delivered in sacks weighing 280 lbs but this enormous weight proved no obstacle to Jackie as each sack was deftly swung onto his cart. I remember walking with Dad down Cloonboney way, when for the first time I heard peals of thunder. This noise, strange to my ears, was explained to me by my father, as Jackie unloading firkins of Guinness for subsequent delivery. Guinness was then delivered in wooden casks, the iron or aluminium lung had not yet arrived on the scene.”

“The railway station was a centre where the youth of the town gathered to play. The boys playing cops and robbers would split into two groups. One group had to seek the other in different hiding places throughout the station and lock them up in prison, cattle wagons being our “Mountjoy”. The hero was the lad who surprised the prison guards and released the prisoners, thus the game lasted longer. In the station yard we had a large flat concrete area, a disused cattle pen and we erected a tennis net made up of two poles and a rope. Mo Connolly, the American tennis star was our idol of the time.

When my father went fishing in the evening, we had a “swimming gala” in the water tank perched 20 feet on top of the engine shed. The tank was about 30 feet long by 12 feet wide and held about 10,000 gallons of water which was pumped up from Cloonboney river just 500 yards beyond the distant signal on the line to Lahinch. Needless to say there were wigs on the green when my father found out what was happening in his absence.

As well as tennis and swimming, other sports such as, running, jumping, golf and baseball were organised in the environs during the summer holidays. A novelty for us was playing baseball and this was made possible by Richard McMahon’s ball and bat sent to him by relatives in America. Paddy Griffin who lived on the Lahinch road near the White Strand, fell down between two wagons and managed to rip a bad gash in his thigh.

One day my brother Michael was heard screaming way down town by the local Garda Sergeant who post haste got on his bicycle and went to the station to investigate. Michael had been sitting on the track when Tommy Honan changed the points to be ready for the evening train. Luckily for Michael his position was about 2 yards from the tip of the points so no damage was done. It could have been very serious, as it was, he escaped with only a bruised backside.

I can remember one fatal accident that occurred on Sunday the 25th August 1946. The unfortunate train driver Patrick O’Neill was killed. Early that day he was the driver on a “Special” to Lahinch, probably for Garland Sunday, a locally observed former pagan festival, now extinct. The light engine … was driven on its own to Miltown to be turned on the turntable for the return journey to Ennis later that evening from Lahinch. Patrick O’Neill who came from Limerick may not have been familiar with the layout of Miltown railway yard. When reversing past the points to drive off to the turntable, he had his head out the right hand cab window, not realising there was only 8 inches clearance between the engine cab and the goods store wall. He was squashed between the engine and the goods store gable wall. It was a horrific accident. Dad had gone to Ennistymon for the day not being on duty, and was immediately summoned by the Gardai to deal with the horrible stiuation.” [10:p27]

“As it happened, Tom Reidy, another driver was a passenger to Lachich that day and he was contacted and brought by road to Miltown to act as relief driver.”

Vaughan goes on to discuss some of the history of the line which we have dealt with elsewhere. He makes reference too to the Percy French song ‘Are Ye Right There, Michael?’ and then goes on to say:

“Why the line, one of the best loved of all the distinctive Irish narrow gauge railways, should have closed is a mystery. It’s chronic unreliability, perpetuated by Percy French’s song was a myth. In fact the line by today’s standard, was as well engineered as any in Ireland. It was well maintained by the staff, with no rubbish strewn about the line. Unfortunately, it lost money and in 1960 losses amounted to £23,000. In all my years travelling on The West Clare Railway, I have to say, it may have been colourful for all the wrong reasons, but it mostly ran on time.

In the summertime they put tourist or saloon coaches on the line, these were panoramic coaches with large glass windows to allow for maximum viewing of the scenery. They are now all the rage with European railways … The West Clare tourist coaches, of which were four, were all constructed on six wheel bogies, in Ennis between the years 1905 and 1906. Each coach had seating for 32 passengers.

I remember early morning “specials” leaving Miltown at about 7.30am. These “specials” transported hundreds of matchgoers to Ennis, and pilgrims to Knock and to Croagh Patrick, who of course transferred at Ennis to the Great Southern Railway Company to finish out their journey.

Some say it’s a pity that the line wasn’t constructed in standard gauge instead of narrow gauge. This would have done away with the necessity of trans-shipment of goods at Ennis. The Swiss who are acknowledged expert rail builders have no problem conforming with both gauges. Their solution is to transfer the narrow gauge wagons, intact onto broad gauge bogies. Imagine all the work involved in transferring beet from one wagon to another at Ennis, for trans-shipment to the Tuam or Carlow sugar factories. A proposal was made in 1936 to widen the gauge from 3 feet to the standard 5 feet 3 inches, but this came to nothing despite much debate which carried on until the 1940’s. I think £23,000 of a loss in the 60’s was not an enormous loss to bear.

The fact that C.I.E. scheduled buses to leave Kilrush and Ennis at the same time as the train, did not help either. The door to door deliveries by ever increasing numbers of lorries, owned by the manufacturers of goods and providers of services, seemed more efficient than deliveries by train and horse cart by the local carrier. The outcome of all these changing trends, was that the business community did not give enough support to their railway.” [10: p31]

“At this time it was normal practice for maintenance at the stations to be carried our by a pool of C.I.E. tradesmen based in Limerick or Ennis. Picture the scenario, a burst pipe in Miltown has to be repaired. A plumber would leave Limerick at 9 a.m. and connect with the 11 a.m. West Clare at Ennis, arriving at Miltown at noon. After a long and slow trip from Limerick, tea is first the order of the day naturally. Work would begin at 1.30pm and cease at 3.30pm in order to wash and shave for the trip home on the 4 o’clock train. Of course if it were a big job the trades men stayed over- night in the town. Economy how are you? I could not understand the logic of it. For years my Dad tried to rectify this wastage of time and money by C.I.E., by getting this maintenance done by local tradesmen. It worked eventually when they saw light at the end of the “tunnel.” Actually we had no “tunnels” on the West Clare line! There is no use in crying over spilt milk!

Because Miltown was once a terminal station on the West Clare Railway, provision was made for engine drivers to sleep over- night at the station and so a bedroom and kitchen was provided for them. During my Dad’s term at Miltown there was no need for this facility, the line having been extended as far as Kilkee and Kilrush. The kitchen continued to be used to make that extraordinary, wonderful sweet tea in a billy-can by various tradesmen. A small double-sided tin containing on the one side tea and on the other side sugar was emptied into the boiling water in the billy-can together with milk. The ensuing beverage was out of this world to us as youngsters. Potatoes were often half boiled by us also in the billy-can and with a pinch of salt and lump of butter, those potatoes tasted far superior to anything cooked at home.

The bedroom, which at this stage was rough and ready was used to store the turf which came from Shragh bog. The wagon of turf arrived at Miltown station on the up-line on the 3.35 p.m. goods train. All hands were on the platform in a mad scramble to get the wagon emptied of it’s fuel before the passenger train’s arrival at 5.30pm.

The Shragh bog yielded sods of turf that were really massive, some were 4 inches square by 14 inches long and had to be broken with a hatchet in order to fit into the grate of the stanley range. In a way it was like the steam engine, as one had to have a really hot fire going, to get enough heat in the oven for baking, so you had to be a good stoker as well as a good cook. This breaking of the turf was one of the Saturday morning chores to be done by either my brother Michael or myself.

During and immediately after the 2nd World War, spare parts for the engines as well as fuel were in short supply. The steam locomotives were “rag order” for want of spending a bit of money on them. About this time saw anthracite for the first time being used on the locomotives. We called them “duck eggs” because of their shape.”

“In 1945, C.I.E. had taken over responsibility for The West Clare Line from The Great Southern Railway Company. A report first published in 1948 (Milne Report)  gave the hint of possible closure of the West Clare branch of C.I.E. The closure was postponed and it was decided to modernise the roIling stock by dieselisation. This took place between the years 1952-1955. First to appear were 4 diesel rail-cars which resembled buses on railway wheels, and these were augmented by 3 diesel locomotive for goods haul. Thus, the West Clare was the only narrow-gauge railway in Britain or Ireland to be fully under diesel power.”

“I remember going for a trial run on the first railcar that was delivered. The railcar was driven by an engineer from Dublin, a Mr Curran whom Dad thought was going to derail the “blasted” thing it was going so fast. It handled very well and did not derail. About the age of ten or twelve, I often  stood in the cab of the goods engine when the fireman, Joe Carmody was shunting and I remember the driver, John Hartney taking a break for his cup of tea. On the railway line down to Clonbony river having passed the distant signal, I would turn the wheel for reverse, ease the regulator gently forward to open and so begin shunting. Of course I threw the few shovels of coal into the firebox as well as helping to take on water, for they were all thirsty “old ladies” as locomotives were called.

I “worked” with Micko Conway and his gang of permanent way men, picking weeds and general cleaning up for a period of a few months after school in the evenings. Every Friday, I queued with the men for my wages. Dad had my name pencilled into the wages book, and paid me the wage of 6d a week, for which I was very grateful. I honestly believed I would not get any “wages” if I did not put in my stint with the men.

Generally the trains ran on time but from time to time the odd cow straying onto the line delayed us. It was deemed necessary to monitor wind speed in areas exposed to Atlantic gales. An anemometer was erected at Quilty for the purpose of measuring the wind velocity. If it exceeded 60 miles an hour, only stock that was ballasted could run. If winds were over 80 miles per hour, the trains were stopped. Ballasting took the form of large concrete slabs placed under the seats to weigh down the carriages. A gale of 112 mph was reportedly recorded here in January 1927.”

One evening, the 5.30 p.m. train approached the spot now occupied by the Rinseen Ambush Monument, a carriage door opened and a baby left on the floor near the door tumbled out. The distraught mother had to endure the next five minutes until the halt of the train on its arrival at Miltown station, where she reported the accident, was comforted by fellow passengers as she waited in agony for Dad and his search party to return. An hour elapsed and the party returned with the baby. As luck would have it, the baby, having fallen into a clump of bushes, luckily escaped with only minor superficial scratches and was re-united to the loving arms of its mother, no doubt to be minded and cosseted for the rest of its life after such a scare.”

“Amongst the droves of boys who went to “The Brothers” by train in Ennistymon for their daily dose of education, admittedly there were some adventurers in the bunch. I recall Eugene who could change carriages by walking on the running board outside the carriage while the train was in motion. Invariably this would happen on leaving the station at Ennistymon before the train had time to pick up speed. To the best of my memory none of the school-going boys had an accident except Paddy Griffin whom I previously mentioned.

One day I had the desire to be as good as the big boys and try my hand at smoking. I bought ten Woodbines to smoke on the way home on the train. Knowing I had about half an hour to experience the joy of being grown up, like the big boys, but there was one snag, I had to have them all smoked before I got home. In the process I got violently sick having almost “eaten the packet.” That experience cured me of the desire to smoke and thankfully I have never smoked since.

Dad was well liked by the travelling public and went out of his way to accommodate everybody especially those with sparse means. One old lady who travelled to Ennistymon to visit the dispensary and collect her pension used to sleep in one of the waiting rooms overnight because she was afraid of missing the train. A breakfast of tea and bread was often provided for her by Dad.

The senior schoolboys when they got good jobs on leaving school, were often canvassed later by Dad for private insurance. I remember being told after landing my first job to take out life cover but not to stretch myself. That I did, taking out a policy for £300 over a period of 30 years, a princely sum no doubt. The insurance inspectors who came from the Norwich Union Head Office in Galway were always remarking on Dad’s knowledge of the whereabouts of every man, woman and child and even the animals. They would jokingly say, that if he did not know where two bonhams (baby pigs) came from, he knew what creel they came from.”

“Michael Tynan, father of Maureen Ryan (nee Tynan), Ennis, and my father both worked in the Limerick Goods Department of G.S.R. and both applied for the position of Station Master in Miltown. My father got the position, but shortly after Michael Tynan was appointed to Kilkee.” [10: p34-35]

“Miltown Station, in common with all other stations on the West Flare did not have a telephone line to the outside world. Telephone communication only existed between stations, and only very important calls were made to Kingsbridge as this entailed making a trip to the local post office, which was run by Mrs Hynes.”

Gabriel Vaughan concludes:

“On January 31st 1961 the last train returned to Ennis, driven by Paddy Hanrahan whom at the time was I think one of the younger drivers on the line and so ended a history of 76 years. It was a very sad day for all Clare people and is looked back on with great regret. The much loved West Clare had a very short life and was mourned by many. It served its people well and I, like many others, retain many happy and much cherished memories of the West Clare. What a tourist attraction even a section of the restored line would be today!. Full marks to the Moyasta group headed up by Joe Taylor who intends restoring a section of the line.

It was sad indeed to come back from Switzerland in January 1961 to witness the end of an era – the closure of The West Clare Railway after 76 years.”

Acknowledgement: Excerpt from a book called “ My affair with Malbay” by Gabrial Vaughan.

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