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Today, of course, it is an international line since it extends beyond Newry to Dundalk, Drogheda and into Dublin, served by the regular Enterprise Express, which stops at Portadown and Newry in the North and Dundalk and Drogheda in the Republic.
The Ulster Railway laid the way in 1839 with a Belfast to Lisburn service, followed by an extention to Portadown in 1842. From Dublin a line was laid to Drogheda and the Dublin and Belfast Junction Railway finally joined at Portadown in 1876. That same year all the small companies amalgamated as the Great Northern Railway (Ireland).
Several stations along the route – notably at Lisburn, Portadown and Newry – served as important hubs for many branch lines: Lisburn to Londonderry, Portadown to Enniskillen and Londonderry and the Co. Donegal seaside resort of Bundoran, Newry to Warrenpoint, Rostrevor. Today the line is a busy commuter link into Belfast, with several interesting towns and villages along the way.
While the Belfast-Newry line connects at Belfast Central Station with the services from Larne Harbour, Bangor and Londonderry the journey south into Co. Down will begin at Central.
Leaving the station the train runs alongside the River Lagan on the left – the city lies to the right – and immediately on leaving Central on the right is the redeveloped former Belfast Corporation Gas Works, now offices and the sleek Radisson Blu Hotel. Just beyond on the right can be seen UTV, the studios of Nl’s commercial television, and now also radio, service.
Botanic Station, built in 1976 when the line was laid across the city to the new bus/rail station at Great Victoria Street (from where you can also catch trains to Larne Harbour, Bangor and Londonderry), serves the nearby Queen’s University area and sits on Botanic Avenue, the perfect street to grab a meal in its many cafes and restaurants.
From the station the city centre lies to the right and at the top of Botanic Avenue lies the Botanic Gardens – stop off at the glorious Victorian Palm House and the steamy Tropical Ravine with its jungle pathway and fat tropical fish. The station is actually as close to the city centre than Central Station … welcome to Ireland!
A matter of a few minutes later is the City Hospital halt, opened in 1986 to serve the large hospital and the fashionable Lisburn Road. The train turns right on a spur leading into Great Victoria Street Station, the city’s second largest after Central and part of a comphrensive bus/rail network.
It occupies the site of the once vast terminus, built in 1839 as Belfast’s first, that served all the lines from the city. The original station remained in operation, though serving a decreasing railway system, until 1976 when it was closed. Eventually the remaining lines were routed to and through Central in the same year and the new station beside the Europa Hotel and the Grand Opera House opened in 1995.
The line leaves Great Victoria Street and re-joins the main line turning right to run through the South Belfast suburbs, running parallel to the Lisburn Road on the left and skirting the hills on the right. Adelaide is now a small commuter halt, built in 1897 and named Adelaide and Windsor – the line passes Windsor Park, to the right, the home of Irish Premier League king-pins Linfield and of the Northern Ireland national soccer team – before dropping the Windsor part in 1935. The Blues (aka Linfield) were formed in 1886 and the ground was opened in 1905 though it was developed in the 1930s by architect Archibald Leitch who also designed Ibrox, Celtic Park and Hampden Park in Scotland.
Behind Windsor Park, to the right, are the TV masts on Divis and Black Mountain.
Balmoral, another small halt, serves the King’s Hall – famous for its boxing and pop concert connections, Homes and Gardens exhibitions – and the grounds of the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society’s annual Balmoral Show, the largest of its kind in Ireland.
Just beyond Balmoral, on the right, the red-brick building is Musgrave Park Hospital. The hospital has a worldwide reputation for the treatment of trauma injuries, learned during the 30 years of civil unrest. Finaghy is a large urban centre. The station was built in 1907 and Finaghy – meaning Whitefield or White Meadow – is said to be where the White Castle, home of the legendary King Lir of the swan children, was located.
If you’re a movie fan there is a connection to be found at Dunmurray: there, between 1981 and 1982, the infamous De Lorean cars were built. The car is, of course, featured in the Back to the Future films and you can see one on display at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, Cultra (near Holywood). Over 8000 were built and 6500 are still running as highly-prized collectors' items. The station, built in 1839, lies between the Colin Mountain and the village straddles the canalized River Lagan. It also has an excellent golf course, built in 1905.
Derriaghy station was built in 1907, closed in 1953 and re-opened in 1958. Lambeg has had a long association with the linen industry, going back to the early 1600s. The station was built in 1877 and the name translates as Little Church. It was English settlers – from the North – who established linen in 1611 but it was the French Hugenots, Protestants fleeing persecution, who brought the first bleaching establishment in 1701.
The area was put firmly on the linen map by the Barbour family mills. It is also famously associated with the large – and loud – Lambeg Drums, played by Orangemen, especially on the 12th of July. Ireland’s oldest independent brewery, opened in 1981, is at Hilden, a fashionable commuter community.
If it’s shopping that floats your boat then a visit to Lisburn is a must. Lisburn – whose station was built in 1839 – is a small city – granted the status by Queen Elizabeth ll as part of her Golden Jubilee celebrations in 2002, along with Newry – and is another key centre of the linen industry whose history can be traced in the Irish Linen Centre in the old Market House in Market Square. It has a long association with the Army whose NI HQ is at Thiepval Barracks.
The city was originally called Lisnagarvey (fort of the gamblers) – a name still used widely in the area – and other historical links include the negotiations between Ben Franklin and Lord Hillsborough preceding the American War of Independence in the nearby town of Hillsborough, also well worth a visit. One of the city’s most famous sons was Sir Richard Wallace who gave it Wallace Park and Wallace High School and not a few Wallace Fountains that can be seen around. The River Lagan flows through Lisburn and on its banks is the Island Arts Centre and Civic Centre, built in 2001 and one of the finest in Ireland.
A branch line, now disused, ran from Lisburn to Antrim through the towns and villages of Knockmore, Ballinderry, Glenavy and Crumlin. This line, utilized by Northern Rail to train drivers, runs alongside Belfast International Airport and there has been much speculation of re-opening it with a station dedicated to air travellers.
Near Lisburn is the site of the notorious Maze Prison, known for its H Blocks, in which were kept terrorist prisoners. It was also where the hunger strikes and dirty protests were held. It was originally the site of the Long Kesh RAF base from 1941 until 1971 when it became the prison. It subsequently closed and has been suggested, controversially, as the site for a national centre for conflict resolution.
Moira, the station after Lisburn, is the oldest on the NI rail system, built in 1841 … though you get to wondering how such things are decided. Moira is a quaint little village, but it’s in the middle of the line so did they build a station in the hope that somebody would eventually run trains through it? Anyway, the next station along the line is Lurgan, and that was also built in 1841.
Moira has a strong religious association since for all its size there are five churches in the area. The great Methodist founder John Wesley preached in St John’s Parish Church (built in l725) in 1760 and William Butler Yeats, grandfather of the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, was a curate there in 1835.
Dog lovers – specially if the four-legged friends are greyhounds – should certainly stop off in Lurgan to celebrate the feats of the legendary Master McGrath, who won the Waterloo Cup in 1868, 1870 and 1871. There is a statue of the dog in the town and there is also an annual festival in his name. You’ll even find a friendly pub named for him. The Brownlow name has long been associated with the town, from when Lord William and his family were granted the surrounding land in 1610.
The town has the largest urban park in NI. It also has the man-made Balancing Lakes popular with anglers, seen from the train after leaving the town, and is near to Lough Neagh, glimpsed far to the right just before the station. The growth and importance of Portadown, on the River Bann which flows into Lough Neagh, can be attributed to the railway – and before it to the building of the Newry Canal – for the Mid-Ulster town became the hub of the rail system through which almost all the services ran.
Trains through Portadown once served Enniskillen, Co. Donegal and Londonderry. The Londonderry-Enniskillen line through Omagh was laid in the 1840s and connected with the Belfast-Dublin line at Portadown. Today the major rail link is maintained by the Belfast-Dublin Enterprise Express stopping at Portadown, though the Enniskillen, Donegal and Londonderry lines are no longer in use. From the left-hand side of the train one catches, ahead, the first glimpse of the Mourne Mountains.
In 1690 a Williamite army on its way to the Battle of the Boyne camped in Scarva, the next station from Portadown, the village can be seen on the left. King William – of the Dutch House of Orange – camped under a Spanish chestnut tree, and it’s still thriving. The small village, whose station was built in 1859, sits on the now abandoned Newry Canal. The village is famous for the Sham Fight, held in commemoration of the Boyne each July 13. The event attracts thousands of visitors … but never be persuaded to put a bet on the man in the green jacket!
Poyntzpass, on the right of the station, was named for English soldier Lieut Charles Poyntz who in 1598 defended the marshy crossing against Hugh O’Neill, the Third Earl of Tyrone. The small village boasts five churches and three pubs but it is even more famous as the birthplace of the first man ever to be awarded the Victoria Cross: Charles Davis Lucas. Lucas was born here in 1834 and at the age of 20 while serving in the Royal Navy during the Crimean War in 1854 he showed remarkable bravery by throwing a live shell overboard to save his comrades. He went on to become a Rear Admiral and died in Kent in 1914.
The domestic NI service ends at Newry, though the cross-border Enterprise Express runs beyond the city to Dundalk, Drogheda and Dublin. As the train approaches Newry the lovely Mourne Mountains, the highest in NI, can be seen to the left. Slieve Donard is the highest at 850m. The range was made famous in the Percy French song ‘Where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.’
And just before reaching the station the train passes over the imposing Craigmore Viaduct (pic), the one-quarter mile structure made of local granite. It was designed by John Benjamin Macneill, started in 1849 and opened in 1852. There are 18 arches with the highest – in Ireland – reaching 126ft across the Camlough River.
During the civil unrest of the recent 30-plus years it was often the target for terrorist bombs and scares, but it withstood all the threats. The station serving the city has been revamped and looks all the better for it. A bus service ferries passengers into the city centre. The station has had several names: opened in 1856 as Newry Main Line, it became Bessbrook and Newry Main Line in 1866 and then Bessbrook in 1880. It was closed in 1942 but re-opened as Newry in 1984.
Newry, colourfully translated from the Irish for ‘the yew tree at the head of the strand’, is the fourth largest city in NI and the eighth in Ireland. It was founded in 1144 beside a Cisterian monastery and is one of Ireland’s oldest cities. Like Portadown the railway and canal helped establish Newry, also its location as a half-way point between Belfast and Dublin. It was a market and garrison town and its port was established in 1742 with the canal link to Lough Neagh. The canal was the first summit-level commercial canal in the British Isles.
In 1689, on its way to the River Boyne at Drogheda, the Williamite army sacked the town and burned it, leaving just six houses and Bagenal’s Castle. St Patrick’s Church of Ireland cathedral was built in 1578 as one of the first purpose-built Protestant churches in Ireland. The Catholic St Patrick’s and St Colman’s cathedral, built in 1829 – at a cost of £8000 – has a unique claim to fame: its architect Thomas Duff also designed Dundalk cathedral just across the border and the story goes that he got the plans mixed up.
A well-known landmark, MacNeill’s Egyptian Arch, was chosen for the £1 coin … and soccer fans will know that one of the world’s greatest goalkeepers, Pat Jennings of Arsenal, Spurs and Northern Ireland, is a native of Newry. The city is a mecca for shoppers from both Northern Ireland and the Republic. due in no small part to its Eurozone status (ie both island currencies are accepted in most shops). Stop off and spend a few hours in this vibrant location.