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Lough Swilly The Railway Sean Beattie and Fr Jackie Fitzgerald Podcast

Transcribed by Amy Fetherstone


It was a link to our past and to Derry City for another. It was the fastest narrow gauge railway in the world. It was the longest system in Ireland and the furthest north.

Its fascinating story began officially on the 26th June 1853. Authority was given and the railway was on its way. The Lough Foyle and Lough Swilly railway company was previously registered since 1852. The company was renamed during the passage of the act through parliament and emerged as the Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway company.


Its original destination was to a stone pier at Farland Point in Co.Donegal. That point served as a base for a fleet of sailing boats flying the many harbours lining the shores of our lovely lough, from which the railway had taken its name. The original plans were to connect Derry City with that busy commercial pier by laying 8 and ¾ miles of 5ft 3 inch broad gauge track.


Shortage of capital delayed the project again and again and it was not until the 31st of December 1863 that the great green steam engine with Lough Swilly Railway written proudly on its shoulders finally reached that destination. As its spikes were driven and the tracks slowly crept out into Donegal, a further decision was taken that the company would benefit by an extension of the line. The permanent way then ran to Buncrana arriving there on the 10th of December 1864.


On the 30th June 1883 the Letterkenny Railway, under construction officially since 1860, finally made a junction with the Lough Swilly Railway at Tooban.

It was a 3 foot narrow gauge line. An act of 1880 had already given authority to the Lough Swilly Company to regauge their line in anticipation. The Lough Swilly was always keen to extend to Letterkenny and now the two lines could be operated at the one unit envisaged. The wheel bases of the Lough Swilly’s large broad gauge engine were adapted to narrow gauge requirements. The entire conversion was accomplished in 1885 leaving the Lough Swilly railway at that time the fastest narrow gauge railway in the world.


The Lough Swilly railway by an act of 1896 obtained two further government built extensions, the first of 18 miles through the wildest and loveliest of mountain scenery was on north again from Buncrana to Carndonagh. It opened on the 1st July 1901. The second was to the west and still more ambitious, running 49 miles out to the fishing village of Burtonport on our Wild Atlantic coast. The Lough Swilly was now an old train well run that casts its magic spell all across this land Tir Conaill as it moved smoothly and strongly over its shining steel rails. Its root was scenic and colourful, its sturdily built station houses still stand, splendid survivals of 19th century railway elegance and architecture. Its comings and goings regulated the whole countryside and farmers for a century set their clocks by it. Donegal was a region famous for its scenery, great areas of mountains, deep glens and many lakes, the beautifully situated seaside resorts along the much intended coast now lay in the feet of the Lough Swilly. Its walking mileage of 99 and a half miles faced the exciting and rewarding prospect of moving both passengers and freight. Those who sought health holiday gaiety in the many fascinating coastal  resorts along its route. Those who wished to take gun and rod into the highlands or just simply to travel, were now drawn irresistibly to the famous Lough Swilly railway. On the 25th February 1906 a strong crosswind lifted two carriages as the train crossed the Owencarrow Viaduct the carriages were held in place by the strong iron railings. The Lough Swilly railway was always in trouble. The move from standard gauge to narrow gauge saved it from bankruptcy. Trouble stuck within months of the changeover. On the 2nd of January 1884, a mixed train from Tooban junction to Letterkenny crawling slowly across the embankment at Pluck village station on a night of wild winter gales was derailed. All carriages except the engine lay in a field close to the bridge that spans the Swilly river. Major general CS Hutchinson who investigated made the point that shorter carriages should be used. His sound advice was ignored and indeed in the years ahead the company went on to use even longer bogey stock. Mercifully no one was hurt in that blowoff.


On Sunday the 21st June 1891 a head-on collision at Springtown between a troop special out of Derry bound for Donegal and an empty train resulted in the death of the entire engine crew. The whole of our Donegal coast lies wide open to the full force of the Atlantic gales and danger remained as an ever present factor in the operations of the railway. On Christmas Day 1922 two carriages were blown off the line at Dunfanaghy Road. Hurricane force winds ripping in from the west on the 7th February 1923 suddenly blasted across the Rosses to derail the 8:30 train between Kincasslagh and Crolly. It plunged all the carriages headlong down an 8ft embankment. This time again luck held out and no one mercifully was killed.


In utter darkness on 25th January 1925 the 5:15pm out of Derry City to Burtonport roared through the night and it passed through Kilmacrenan station at 7:25pm right on time. It was due to cross the High Carrowowen Viaduct above rugged Barnesmore Gap at 8pm. It became the worst tragic disaster in the railway’s history. Four passengers were killed and four seriously injured when icy winds boldly lifted the train from the rails. Dawn showed the carriages crushed in and suspended in midair below the viaduct. The first thing I saw was the first carriage seeming to rise from the rails. I said to the driver there is harm done this night. The driver Robert McGuiness takes up this story after traveling about 60 yards over the viaduct I looked back and saw the lights of the guards van, considering everything was alright. Wind was gusty and I proceeded at an ordinary reduced speed, I then cast another look back and noticed that carriage number 11 was off the line and raised in the air. The impact has taken away the complete roof of one carriage and all the passengers dropped to the jagged rocks far below. To be injured still further by falling masonry and boulders the Swilly profited by the hard earned experience and all carriages on the Burtonport line were hence to be ballasted with cast iron. The story of the line is full of incidents but none of them were ever as serious as that Owencarrow disaster. Still undaunted the Lough Swilly railway chugged on courageously into the future.


I made my own first journey on the Lough Swilly railway as a boy to Carndonagh. On that first journey with childish glee, led by the hand I was fairly bold over at the size of the gleaming engine, the splendour of the carriages with their opulence silver lights and gushing privacy. I fell in love with the Lough Swilly and I have never been the same boy since. The richness of the experience lingers on, today as my thoughts wander affectionately back over a lifetime of railroading the things that strike me most were the stationhouses on route. The one built at Buncrana was a notable example of the railroad’s addiction to its glorious past.


A survivor of 19 century elegance and serviceable centre for arriving and departing passengers. The deepthroated whistle signalled departure as I clutched the tickets stub and the Lough Swilly slowly jolted out rising 1 in 60 i got my first glimpse of the fast flowing Mill river at Swans corner from the high 5 arch superb masonry bridge. It was an inseparable part of my first intoxication with the railway and of all natural habitats that river remains the most beautiful and most seductive. The train rolled east of the town to reach Ballymagan station two miles out with its ridges of red tiles and dressings of yellow brick, it crossed the open bogland to gallop over a single span lattice girder bridge that leaps the Crana river into Kinnego. There to this very day, stories of a ghost train still persist along this lonely wild stretch of line seen on at least three occasions. The Kinnego crossing keeper rushed one gusty night to hurriedly open the gates for what he took to be an unannounced special. He was too late and had passed completely through the gates without leaving a mark. The extension to Carndonagh was on through relatively unpopulous terrain forever climbing and a tough nut for a passenger train to crack.


The track rose with mountains on each side as it crossed into Drumfries station, set into the most spectacular of scenery where the regerted Mintiagh Lough reflected the snow sprinkled twin peaks of barnon mor and barnon beag known locally as king and queen.

Following the valley of the Clonmany river it puffed into Clonmany station across the tree arched Mindoran bridge and level crossings of Ballyliffin and Rashenny. The next two stations were favourites of the many tourists who visited Ballyliffen’s magnificent strand. Rashenny was the furthest north railway station in Ireland. The last 4 miles of the Carndonagh extension skirts the magnificent coast of Trawbreaga Bay to its last official halt at Carndonagh built thoughtfully as an overbridge to serve the homes in Colin Hill. To begin the final 1 and a half mile run down into Carndonagh, the railway turns southeast roaring fast downhill through the rich fertile hinterland that came slowly whistling and gently breaking to a stop at the platform of a solid railway station built in 1901.

That terminus was the end of the line for the now fastest and narrow gauge railway system in all Ireland. The Carndonagh extension sadly closed and the grim tales of ruin and utter desolation in 1935.

The slowness of the Lough Swilly railway was not because it was incapable of great speed, but because it became a gossip.


All along the line it stopped to exchange the latest at every station no matter how pressing the emergency there always seemed to be time to get out, smoke a cigarette and visit the refreshment bar. The railway had a thousand and one things on its mind, all of them worthy. The engine had to get water from the tanks, the fire had to be fueled and it had to wait for the mailbags. Pieces of track from Derry to Buncrana were well known as remarkable sections where the dwindling engine driver obeying strict safety rules often slowed the train to a walk.

Many of the reasons were enchanting but none conducive to swift passage of the seated passenger. The terminus of Derry City was closed to the harbour and docks. The train curved northwest as it left to begin the best railroad journey in Ireland heading for Donegal heading along the route so colourful that it still evokes deep nostalgic memories for many.

Galliagh Road station built in 1880 was two miles out through Colin and Bridgend to Burnfoot. The line was straight and level. Burnfoot Station, in existence since 1864 was often flooded prior to the reclamation of the land by the impressive trady Inch and Farland embankment. High tides ran within yards of the village street. On this run one met the more courteous porters, conductors and ticket collectors imaginable to leave a lasting impression. It’s not every railway that could hold so fast to an ideal true one hundred years of our history’s fastest century here in Donegal. On it went rolling and rattling down the scenic shores of Lough Swilly giving its own impeccable service. The line followed its course of two rivers to reach Tooban junction and less than a mile further on was sturdy Inch station built in 1864 was Lambertons halt built to serve a cluster of houses in 1927. The line ran through the romantic woods at Glengollan to reach Fahan station whose unique charm retains much of a bygone era and connects to the ferry boat services at the ferry pier. Freight and passenger service operated traditionally in conjunction with the railway curving suddenly right through a massive rock cutting the iron wheels finally reached that much exposed coast of Lough Swilly. Open to many a northwest gale and many a winter’s night this section of line is now in clear sight of Buncrana Town. The wheels have been lapped by many a high spring tide as they rushed on and on north into flaming sunsets and Buncrana’s impressive two story granite station always the busiest in the entire system. The advent of the Lough Swilly railway on 10th September 1864 revitalised that once important Elizabethan town.


Far to the west on a distant skyline a white quartz peats of Errigal and Muckish loomed and beckoned. The extension of the railway to Burtonport in that direction was a triumph of engineering. The engine curving left out of Tooban junction passed the historic Grianan of Aileach touring forever on the hill above the station. It rushed across the top of the great trady embankment for a mile into its own pass where the trady Farland banks meet just after leaving Trady station at first old line to Farland point still slopes away gently to its terminus a quarter of a mile away. Clear traces of a slow embankment on its sandy Swilly shore can still be seen,the wall of its old turntable pit survives. The massive stone facing is an almost perfect condition. A few stones are a nostalgic reminders of the old Farland Point Pier that saw the arrival of the very first Lough Swilly train in 1863. Rising at 1 in 49 threw a deep earth cutting goes rolling into the single station platform at Carrowen scaring the fox and the rabbits then briskly approaching the blanket nuke for a brief look at the migrant swans on that fascinating inlet of Lough Swilly.


Three miles ahead lay Newtowncunningham the most important intermediate stop with extensive good jards, cattle pens, water storage tanks and an 1883 two story stationhouse traveling on a westernly course through the rich farmlands of the Lagan it entered Manorcunningham station, built to in 1883, before it could descend to sway across those long salt flats and mudbanks were the Swilly river meets Lough Swilly it had to pass through the genial and relaxed Pluck village station.

Now losing height rapidly at 1 in 50 along the way, and quickly covering the last four miles into Letterkenny Station built at the east end of town that same year of 1883. To move on out west the Lough Swilly had to circumvent Letterkenny heading straight across flat land to Oldtown Station before it could head north through the beautiful tree sheltered Swilly Valley to enter New Mills station. This was the start of the long arduous climb through a lovely landscape along slopes of the valley to Foxhall Station built in 1903. Churchill Station built that same year was the next stop in the glacia valley when the sparkling river was crossed there was again difficult terrain to be negotiated with a summit of 340 ft above sea level to be reached. That climb was 1 in 50 before the rapid descent into Kilmacrennan Station. Many special extrusion trains polished to a sheen, were to enter refuel and leave Kilmacrennan Station. Built also in 1903 it was the stop for the holy well dune which was and remains the scene of many pilgrimages down the years. The Lough Swilly was now curving North West heading for stretti and a level crossing at Barnes. The railway crossed the road at Barnesmore viaduct at 60 ft high of three 60 ft spans set into the rocks through the slopes in broad view where now Errigal and Muckish. The Owencarrow river flows North East linking lovely Lough Veagh to the beautiful Glen Lough. The masterpiece of engineering by any standards known as the Owencarrow viaduct spans the valley with 380 yards of steel and concrete subjected to those high winds from our Atlantic coast that gusts through the Barnes Gap and valleys trains always crossed wily. Below in the wild and alluring land of rural land and bog  stood Creeslough Station amid the heather with its fine storied mountain background to interest the antiquarian and the historian.  


The tourist haven of Mulroy and Haven Bay below are lashed by the Atlantic and the track skirts along sandy beaches all the long way to Falcarragh Station, built again in 1903. Three miles beyond this most magnificent of mountain scenery stands Cashelnagore Station the highest point in the entire railway system. 420 ft above sea level the white cone of Errigal Mountain to the north dominates this very land scene of staggered white washed cottages, their thatched roofs lashed down against the wild winter gales. Gweedore Station again of the 1903 vintage lies 6 miles ahead to serve scenic foreland Derrybed and Dunlewey running along the island coast at Innisfree Bay the train suddenly went curving Southwest and entered the single station platform at Crawley, built also in 1903.


The Lough Swilly railways whistles sang its final note of urgency as it dipped down into Burtonport to pass fish curing stations screaming seagulls, fish packing plants and fishing boats coming slowly to a halt before the single platform at the harbour in the tang of the Atlantic Ocean where breaks and foams along our scenic Donegal coast.


Death came quickly to the Lough Swilly railway, I lived in the twilight of the railway road and in the going down of it sung they seemed to disappear overnight, the trains were suddenly gone and the station houses remained with their forlorn waiting rooms.

No Hollywood director could have improved on the deathbed scene of the Lough Swilly. It startings and arrivals with regularity and precision had become such a vital part of our lives that never again to hear its whistle was like death itself.

Like all Irish trains it had a character on its own that has passed forever into lore and verse.


Whatever its charm, and there were many, road competition,two world wars and our fast moving century ,hard economic facts and the division of Ireland hastened its end. Times change and they had become a jet in the sky. The very quality that had endured the Lough Swilly to us it’s traditionalism became its death threat, its love ritual and it loved the past. It seemed defeat proof to me with its liturgical qualities still intact even in the strong light of this century. It became evident that the railway reduced to what it had been 1883 a total of 30 and ¾ miles of unprofitable track was sick and the company tirelessly engaged in diagnosis. The increased road service was carrying the once proud railway on its back.

It was living on borrowed time and death seemed in the air. The end seemed inevitable when a formal application to the two governments for the necessary closure orders came in 1953. There was no stay of execution, its termination was a landmark in Irish Railway history. Although in many places our railways still enjoy good health rolling on at a profit.


The Lough Swilly railway came to an end on 8th August 1953. A newspaper reporter stood on the footplate of the last train into Derry City from Donegal. As a principle actor in the deathbed when it’s swayed across the points of Pennyburn crossing in through the gates and past sidings and yards and engine sheds to break gently to a final stop beside the long white ribbon of the platform at Strand Road station.

It had served Donegal and Derry for exactly 100 years.


Whatever its failings down the years, its sins are now forgiven. It was well prepared for its final hour of splendour. On the left stood the adjourning track and there one saw parked a few rail tank cars and coupled to them a few passenger coaches empty, old and of an indefinite colour. Silent reminders of the days when the old station was alive with the laughter of thousands of excursionists and the faded coaches newer.


With the driver’s rag in his hand, Robert Turner made the last adjustment to his engine and the train pulled up. That’s the end he smiled, the century of service ended quietly just like that.


There was however something inevitably sad about the death of the Lough Swilly railway. It deserved a well end round of applause. I will miss it greatly and all the old excitement. It had qualities that none can ever take away and virtues that have never been surpassed. The sound that its wheels made threw the hills of Donegal for a century was the sound of majesty, punctuality, stability and success.


Its journeys had value in themselves as it moved over the well laid track. They were not just devices for saving time which in the end never got saved anyway. It offered the traveler advantages and conveniences never to be had in any other form of transport. Unlike the airplane it could slow down in bad weather, unlike the car it didn’t have to be steered,unlike the bus it didn’t have to pull over to the right every few minutes to pass what was up ahead. I remain torn between past and present, a common feeling within a historian who fell in love with the sound of its shrieking whistle, the brightness in its carriages and the brilliance of its stationhouse.


Even when its whistle dwindled a little more than a faint puffing in the hills, the lights in the stationhouses all gone out and the trains withdrew from service. My love endures.


I could never conceive of my world without its railway station houses, engines, trucks, buffers and signal boxes. I remember feeling at the time that its deathbed scene had been overplayed and that it belonged to another century. The scene remains a lingering pain in the heart for all lovers of this railway. I shall miss seeing the first shafts of morning lights and the trackside blades of Carndonagh and the many migrant swans at Inch. I shall miss the friendly intimacy of the vanished and elegantly mannered conductors and ticket collectors in faded blue. I shall miss the porters’ arms full of red hurricane lamps on their way to decorate the white crossing gates with their honoured trappings. I shall miss the peaceful stretches of the Owenkillew river along the embankment of Swans corn mills and the reflection of the engines in the waters of Meencha Lough where the kingfisher dipped in jeweled flight.


Those sellout extrusions to the holy well of dune and the evident friendliness of the passengers in its years of wonder I miss. The reassuring clasp of a grandfather’s hand I missed most of all when it came to traveling on the Lough Swilly he hadn’t a second class bone in his body. In the sadness of all last things, its joy, its sorrows and its triumphs, it has linked Donegal’s generations in an indestructible chain.

It casts a reliable spell across the land in war and peace carrying 10,000 tightly packed visitors to Buncrana for the royal visit of King Edward and Queen Alexandra. This railroad of class with its fine sense of public relations, named an engine after the King and was a royal coach carried him and his entourage right regally into Derry City.

When Lough Swilly became a naval base during the first world war, a boom built across the entrance virtually closed it to all shipping and the fish traffic ceased.

Thousands of tons of Swilly herring were no longer available for European markets. Tourists traffic fell away as extrusions trains became troop trains to and from the large military camp that now lined the lough.


When the war ended it became obvious that following the Easter Rising in 1916, British rule in Ireland was rapidly coming to an end. In the civil disorders which follow, train crews were threatened with violence or death if they conveyed troops or police. The line remained closed for weeks on end. Following the division of Ireland the troubles became a civil war, trains were raided for supplies and set ablaze. They often traveled through the whine of bullets with passengers lying on the floor. Bridges were blown up and trains derailed and the smoke cleared the gallant into Lough Swilly railway had its headquarters in Derry city and the greater part of its track mileage 3 miles away across the border and under the flag of the new irish free state.

This affected the railway in many peculiar ways during the second world war because most of it was now in a neutral country.


The closure of the entire Burtonport extension was ordered on the 3rd June 1940. Petrol became scarce as the war progressed and the Letterkenny Gweedore section was reopened on the 3rd February 1941 In the acute shortage of coal, turf and wood were used. Derry City was attacked by a German aircraft in 1941, one immediate result was the large immigration of people to Donegal. Damage had been done in the raid to the railway headquarters excursion trains were always a speciality of the Lough Swilly Railway during its lifetime.


All through the war people were keener than ever to get to the seaside from the city. The railway was hard at work hauling packed trains to Fahan and Buncrana. One last gallant gesture in 1953 was typical of the company. It was an extrusion train that took children to the seaside. A magnificent railway and magnificent gesture enough indeed to make the heart throb of memories of bygone glories.

It was the  engine driver himself who broke up the party on 8th August 1953. The train itself was watched by hardly a score of people as it rumbled over the level crossing and along the final few hundred yards of grass grown tracks into the almost ruthless terminus.


The platform at which he grew up was deserted. He simply stepped down from his engine, adjusted his cap and walked away. My heart is warm with the friends i made and better friends i’ll not be known yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take no matter where its going.


The Lough Swilly railway is dead and gone. In my pleasant memories it lingers on. That extraordinary train has passed into song and story to remain still a lingering pain in all our hearts. Eternally echoing the past grandeur of the rails.

The Lough Swilly railway served us for a 100 years in a variety of liveries beneath its copel shining varnish. Its favourite colour however to have been the everlasting green for this all time pride of Irish railways.

It was a throwback to that golden age of railroading when the passenger was king and it thundered across the Owencarrow viaduct on through the Donegal hills,It cinders red on the sky across the Swilly shores.

The extrusion trains were the proudest feature of the railroad, the conveniences of the railways were always well advertised with the rapturous experience of traveling the rails.


The story of the Lough Swilly railway survival Against All Odds is immensely complex and mysterious like the backing up of a train in the night. It reveals that this land without its railway service and freight offices ablaze with light is now a land and decline. In lore and Legend the Lough Swilly railway will never die. Its heavy wooden sleepers lit many a winter fire where stories of the brokenhearted whale of a whistle were heard again rushing on through the night hauling fish, potatoes, newsprints, Stout, ice, tobacco, cigarettes and ice cream with the vanished Army and Navy personnel of two great world wars that one well conducted institution regulated everything in Donegal’s endless history it will retain that well- earned place.