Railways Boosted Progress, Sport, Holidays And Romance

“NOSTALGIA plays a big part in contemporary life. As our environment has been subjected to ever more rapid change, our desire to remember the past grows stronger. Railways have occupied a very special place in that phenomenon.”

So stated the introduction to `All Change,` - the fascinating and informative exhibition on display at the Sean Hollywood Arts Centre in 2005. It focused on the social, industrial and commercial importance, which the local rail system has had on the Newry region over the past 150 years.

Railways have been sociable, exciting, bustling and romantic places. They had an aura of mystery and spine-chilling suspense, whether the exotic Orient Express; the illicit romance of `Brief Encounter’, or the colourful little locomotives, which snaked around the coast from the Fathom Line to Greenore, or Dublin Bridge Station to Warrenpoint.

“We owe much of what we are to the railways. They introduced us to the joys of seaside resorts, visits to cities and package holidays. They gave rise to dormitory towns and commuting; expanded our markets; brought foreign goods within our reach; rescued us from the isolation of small communities, and began the creation of the global village.”

And the brochure pointed out: “Small coastal villages like Warrenpoint and Carlingford grew into important seaside resorts, once the railways came into operation. They even changed our diet, as food manufactured in Belfast, or fish landed at various ports, could be on sale locally within a few hours.”

No doubt, the greatest engineering feat was the construction of the Craigmore Viaduct with its 18 arches, which enabled the main Belfast to Dublin railway line to traverse the deep valley near Bessbrook. Opened in 1852, a special feature is the famous Egyptian Arch, which appeared on a new set of coins!

Coinciding with the launch of the railways’ exhibition was a lecture by Bessbrook historian, Brian Mulhearn, sponsored by the Old Newry Society, on the Newry to Bessbrook Tram, described as `the longest tramway in the world.` He pointed out: “With Newry forging ahead as a progressive commercial centre, we are inclined to forget that it was once a centre of world attention as a growing industrial area.

“The Bessbrook to Newry Tramway was a world-beating engineering and technical marvel, when it opened in 1885. The system was permanently built to carry coal and flax from the wharves at Newry port to Bessbrook Mill, - though manufactured goods were also transported.

“Among the advantages was abundant water–power, which allowed the line to be worked electrically. It had to carry 10 trams each day, running between both stations, leading to daily traffic of 100 tons of minerals and goods, plus passenger transport. Completed in October, 1885, the last journey was made in January, 1948,” Mr Mulhearn reported.

Trauma and tragedy were often experienced on the rail-system. A number of children lost their lives in a crash near Goraghwood, while on a Sunday School excursion to Warrenpoint. Also, a passenger was killed, while eight others were injured on the same line, when a mail train collided with one drawing wagons, laden with whiskey.

Heart-rending scenes of grief were witnessed, when emigrants were leaving the local station, especially en route to America. One Belfast journal reported the heartbreak at Dublin Bridge Station in Newry, as a group of young men from the Ballyholland area was bidding farewell to relatives and friends.

The railway authorities, fearing a serious accident, had the carriages shunted further up the track. Female friends and relatives “clung to the carriage doors, giving vent to the most piteous cries. The emigrants made desperate attempts to shake the hands of their loved ones, who were overcome, surging around the doors.

“Eventually, the whistle sounded and the train began to move off. Those departing shouted: `Farewell, Ireland; farewell to the cot on the mount`, - a reference to the little cottage of their birth. The women bewailed the separation with agonising cries, as they ran after the train. The scene was memorable in the annals of the Irish exodus,” commented the Belfast journal.

Fortunately, the `American Wake,` with such piteous scenes of farewell are now folklore. Nowadays, people from this region, who have settled in the `States,` - like our trio, who now reside in New York, Maryland and California, - can cross the Atlantic in matter of hours. Indeed, we can see our grandchildren every weekend on the Internet!

Since we lived in Mary Street, trains would pass about 200 yards from our back-door. And Willie Rafferty trundled large wickerwork baskets for Belfast traders, on his wheelbarrow from Dublin Bridge Station to the nearby market. And after our Saturday night ablutions in the big tin-bath, my father would entertain us with his mimicry, imitating a steam-train climbing up the hill to Cloghogue: “Fathom people, dacent people, - bugger the lot!”

Romance thrived on the trains, especially among students from the Newry region, attending third-level institutions in Belfast. Sometimes, a sample of someone’s home-cooking would be the introduction, confirming that old adage: “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”

Meanwhile, local rail-links provided a convenient mode of travel for holiday-makers on both sides of Carlingford Lough. Fun-seeking families from the frontier town would pile into dusty carriages with buckets and spades. And Down GAA fans found the trains very convenient in travelling en masse by rail to Croke Park during the early 60’s.

But the quaint little village of Omeath was in the headlines, as trainloads of people from Belfast and Mid-Ulster would pile in on Sundays for all-day drinking. Residents of Warrenpoint complained about “disgraceful scenes” around their railway station at departure time.

The `Belfast Newsletter` sent a special correspondent to Omeath. He reported that “the hamlet has three public houses, which are open for seven hours on Sundays. They are visited by hundreds of men and women in search of drink, and do a roaring trade.

“Fast motor-boats carry the visitors across Carlingford Lough. On stepping ashore one is assailed by ice-cream vendors, and children selling `Omeath Rock’, while men sell cockles and oysters. From a small dance hall comes the sound of music, while dozens of jaunting-cars are drawn up.

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008