Nine-nine years ago today an article appeared in the Irish Times, about the annual general meeting of the Great Western and Midlands Railways. The members were doubting the viability of the railways, particularly in the west, where tourism outweighed industry. The Railway hotels in Mallaranny and Recess were doing quite well.
Anita has her Say
Anita McMahon, who was the Hon. Secretary of the Lower Achill Co-operative Society, made a good case for the extension of a light railway to Lower Achill. She put the case as follows;
The powers that be took her idea on board, but it never materialised. The fishing and tourist industry continued the railway lasted just about two more decades. If the light rail had been built who knows what would have come out of it.
Undeterred, Anita would put forward equally ambitious ideas on behalf of the people of Achill, with successful outcomes. Because of her endeavours she was known in Achill as Auntie Anita.
In February 1919 Darrell Figgis arrived in Dublin on parole Durham Jail. The condition of his temporary release was due to the illness of his wife as well as the burning of his home. He would not return to prison as he and other prisoners that were held in British jails were not required to serve out their sentence, however the ones in Irish prisons were not released. When interviewed by the press he had the below to say:
“I have one complaint to make. It isn’t always very easy to stand steady in one’s place in a jail, but it isn’t made easier by continual rumours in the papers of our release, I can assure your. Besides, there’s another thing. I am under geasa [Irish for under obligation] not to discuss politics and I will only say this. Nothing would better suit the English Government than to turn national work into an amnesty or prisoners’ liberation movement. The best way to get us out is to get straight on with the nation’s work, and are good at it. If liberation is decided on, then look along the road and go all out for it. Either that, or leave it alone. This constant talk of release must be had for the country, and it certainly is bad for the men in jail.”
Emily had attended to Figgis’ wife Millie, when she was stricken by the deadly Spanish flu, with underlying health problems and was not expected to survive. Survive she did against the odds and made a full recovery.
The time the railway was completed, tourism began to take off in the West of Ireland. With the new improved infrastructure of rail and roads, tourist began to make their way west. Before that it was only the odd intrepid traveler that wandered to remote Island. In the 1870’s newspapers and magazines began to recommend Achill and similar places such as Connemara and the Cliffs of Moher as tourist destinations, talking about them as them as they were new discoveries, which in a way these places were at the time.
The above was written in 1877, when tourist books on Ireland were beginning to be printed, enticing visitors to places such as Connemara and Clare and the lesser known regions of Donegal and Achill. The areas mentioned would be known collectively as the Wild Atlantic Way.
The above accounts were taken from the Handbook of the Midland, Great Western Railway Guide to Connemara and the West of Ireland.
It is more than eighty years since the closure of the Achill Railway. It was in it’s time a great asset to the island, greatly improving, the flow of goods and people to and from the Island. But ironically the improvement made to roads in the early twentieth century, lessened the demand for rail travel to the area.
Officially open for business on May 13th of 1895, although the first train to make the forty mile journey from Westport, traveled the previous year. Its maiden journey was not celebrated. It carried the bodies of the victims of the Clew Bay Disaster, the first of the two tragedies that book-ended the route. The second 43 years later, carried the victims of the Kirkintilloch Disaster. Again the track was opened specially for the tragic occasion, another coffin train. The prophecy by Brian Rua O’Cearbhain, the 17th century seer, complete.
In spite of the tragedies that overshadowed its short existance, the Achill railway, contained all the elements of romance that rail travel carries. The scenery from Westport to Achill rivals any in the world. The vista from the forty or so miles of track, displayed mountains, valleys, lakes, seascapes and beaches, not to mention the quaint little villages with their human and animal inhabitants, scattered along the route.
When it first opened for business in 1895, the Sligo Champion 08 June 1895, reported that; “Already the Achill railway line is being largely patronised. There is a large amount of strangers present on the island.” Island life had changed for good, and was on the brink of changing even further, with the build up of tourists and day trippers that, began to make the 1 hour 40 minute journey.
The Achill line carried in and out people that would help “put Achill on the map”. Many public figures, the good and the great of those times, traveled the line that terminated at the end of the main land adjacent to the Michael Davitt bridge that joined it and the island at Achill Sound.