Railway buff Colin McAlpin rides Ireland's rails and reports back on his journeys of discovery. Hold onto your hats as we head from Dublin to Sligo...
The Iarnrod Eireann InterCity rail system serves the North-West town of Sligo 10 times a day from Dublin’s Connolly Station, the journey of just under three hours taking in such midlands centres as Mullingar, Longford, Carrick-on-Shannon and Ballymote.
The line, laid piecemeal between l846 and the l860s, is one of the longest in the Republic of Ireland. The scenery, it has to be said, is ordinary enough with the exception of the River Shannon at Carrick-on-Shannon and the distant mountains glimpsed as the train approaches Sligo.
There are, however, plenty of interesting towns and villages to stop off in and explore, many of them promising romantic stories of Irish legends and bloody battles … and, in the many nearby lakes, plenty of excellent fishing. Here a word of warning: pack some sarnies and a flask of tea since there is only a trolley service on the train, and the prices on board are pretty steep.
Connolly Station, noted for its Italianate square clock-tower, was opened in November, 1844 as plain old Dublin Station, one end of the Dublin Drogheda Railway Company line north (the extention to Belfast, over which the Dublin-Belfast Enterprise service runs, was completed in l853). It was subsequently re-named Amiens Street and finally Connolly, after the socialist and revolutionary James Connolly in l966 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising against British rule in Ireland. Several other stations – including Sligo: now MacDiarmada, after local hero Sean – have been named after the heroes of the Rising.
New trains, all bright blues and creams, gleaming chrome and comfortable seats, have been put on the route as the Republic has embarked on an impressive re-structuring of the entire rail system.
The train runs through the Dublin suburbs so watch out – though you can’t really miss it – for the magnificent Croke Park sports stadium on the left. The home of the GAA and the traditional, fast-and-furious games such as Gaelic Football and Hurling, this is one of the world’s most impressive stadiums, now temporarily shared with soccer and rugby while these sports finish their own grounds. Croke is a must-see for its GAA museum, tour and shop.
Maynooth lies on the Royal Canal and, until Irish independence in the 1920s was home of the (British) King’s Representative. There is a castle and Carton House, once the home of the Dukes of Leinster. It is also a famous University centre.
Mullingar Station opened in l848 as part of the Midland Great Western Railway. Trains ran from here to Galway but that service now operates from Dublin’s other main station, Heuston. Railway buffs should visit the second home of the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland (the main HQ are in Whitehead, Co. Antrim, on the Belfast-Larne Harbour line). Mullingar is associated with the Irish legend of the Children of Lir, who were turned into swans. You might spot them paddling gracefully on Lough Owel or Lough Ennell, both famous for the fishing.
Edgeworth Station was built in l855 and serves the town, named after the Edgeworth family, and its twin Mostrum. Longford station built in l855, was founded by the Vikings – Long, after the boats, and Ford, after a port or dock – and is the birthplace of Anne Reilly Gibson, mother of Hollywood star Mel. Dromod is another mecca for railway buffs since it has a preserved line operating on the narrow-guage Cavan and Leitrim Railway (1887-1959).
Carrick-on-Shannon lies, you will be surprised to learn, on the great River Shannon, which joins the Erne in Fermanagh. A boating holiday along the beautiful river is well worth your time. The train passes over the Shannon on its way into the station. When the train stops at Boyle you might want to shout “Me – insert name – you Jane” for actress Maureen O’Sullivan, she of the Tarzan films, was born here.
The town lies at the foot of the Curlew Mountains and near Loughs Key, Arrow and Gara, all excellent fishing spots. There is also Boyle Abbey, built in the 12th century. In Ballymote, Glasgow Celtic fans will want to stop and pay homage to Brother Walfrid, the founder of the famous Hoops. And American Civil War historians will be eager to visit the monument to Yankee Brigadier General Michael Corcoran of the famous New York 69th Infantry. In 2006 NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled the monument, a piece of the doomed World Trade Centre, to the Fighting Irish.
Coolooney once boasted three stations, one of which served the Sligo, Leitrim and Northern Counties Railway to Enniskillen in County Fermanagh. The line opened in l881 and closed in l957. The Battle of Coolooney was fought during the l798 Irish Rebellion when a combined Irish-French force defeated the English.
Sligo Station is an imposing greystone building opened in l862 but restored in the l990s. It has a collection of plaques and old photographs relating its history. Down the steps is the convenient Bus Eireann depot.
Sligo lies at the heart of William Butler Yeats country and if you love the works of Ireland’s national poet as much as the Irish do then take a bus ride to Drumahair and visit the Lake Isle of Innisfree on Lough Gill … arise and go now!
Sligo is also the birthplace of actress Pauline McLynn, famous as the housekeeper in the Father Ted TV comedies. You simply must stop for a cup of tea: ah go on, you will, you will, you will!