By John O'Flaherty
Travelling by train has always been something that I’ve enjoyed, not least because it is a wonderfully relaxing way to see a country. When Iarnród Éireann asked me to sample their new self-guided Railway Heritage tour, offered as part of “The Gathering”, how could I refuse!
The tour incorporates three individual day trips, firstly to Cobh, then Belfast, and finally Waterford. All three locations not only highlight Ireland’s railway heritage but other social, cultural and historical aspects of the nation.
Day one started bright and early at Dublin Heuston for my travelling companion and I. Heuston is an imposing edifice located at the western end of the quays along the River Liffey, beside the Guinness Brewery. Built as the terminus of the Great Southern & Western Railway in 1846, it is the departure point for all rail services to the south and west of Ireland.
The first trip was a journey along the Dublin to Cork mainline, the spine of Irish railways. Fortified by a strong coffee, we left on the 08:00 service to Cork. Shortly after departing Heuston Station, the traditional railway works at Inchicore is passed on the right, being over 160 years old. Further on in the journey in the Irish midlands, the new depot is Portlaoise is passed, opened in the last decade, and used to maintain the new fleet of Intercity trains. There are noticeable infrastructure features on the route such as at Monasterevin where the southern branch of the Grand Canal (linking Dublin with the River Barrow at Athy) passes over the River Barrow by means of an aqueduct, or at Mallow where the line to Kerry branches off after the crossing steel viaduct high above the River Blackwater. Cork station is reached through a 1,355 yard tunnel which is the longest railway tunnel in Ireland.
Between Dublin and Portlaoise, the train speeds through the Curragh of Kildare, a 5,000 acre area of common land (where incidentally anyone can legally graze sheep!), which is the home of the principal flat racecourse in Ireland, and also an army barracks. While after Portlaoise is the town of Thurles which is home to Semple Stadium, the second largest GAA stadium in Ireland and Limerick Junction with its racecourse beside the station.
Cork City prides itself as being the “Real Capital of Ireland”, and there are many places to visit here, such as St. Finbarr’s Cathedral, the Shandon Bells and Tower, the old City Gaol, the Cork Museum and the Cork Observatory at Blackrock. Located off Grand Parade is the English Market, a place that can only really be understood by visiting and not by reading. This is a location that stretches the senses of touch, vision, smell – and taste! The most famous visitor to the market was probably Queen Elizabeth II, whose visit in 2011 was a pivotal moment in the history of our country, and who received a wonderful welcome from the people of Cork.
Arriving into Cork at 10:35, rather than exploring the city immediately, we decided to continue directly to Cobh on the 11:00 service. The short twenty five minute trip to Cobh is a particularly attractive one, following the River Lee east of Cork, before skirting along the shore of Cork Harbour. En route the train calls at Glounthaune, the junction for trains to Midleton, and at Fota, where there is a wildlife park, one of Cork’s major attractions.
The train then arrives at Cobh, or is it Cove, or Queenstown? The original name comes from the Cove of Cork but in 1849 was renamed Queenstown following the visit of Queen Victoria. By 1920 it was back to its traditional name of Cobh. The tour includes entry to Cobh Heritage Centre, located in the former railway station building. In the centre there is a fascinating exhibition, “The Queenstown Story”, that tells the history of the town, its maritime heritage, and also the important role that it played as the port of choice for many people emigrating from Ireland. Cobh was a major port on the trans-Atlantic route and as such the exhibition highlights the ports connection to the Titanic tragedy in 1912. It also recalls the sinking of the Lusitania by a U-boat off the Cork coast three years later in 1915.
Cobh remains a port of call for cruise liners to this day, and the impressive liner Magnifica was berthed alongside the railway station on the day of our visit. The visiting liners are a major source of income for the town and its surrounds.
A short walk along the road from the station to the town brings you to the former offices of the White Star Line where the remains of the pier used by the Titanic passengers is still visible, while across the road from it is the Lusitania memorial. Cobh was an important naval port for the war effort of the Royal Navy, and to this day the naval base on Haulbowline Island opposite the town is still in use by the Irish Naval Service. A short, but steep, climb up the hill behind the harbour brings you to the impressive St. Colman’s Cathedral, which is well worth exploring. The easiest approach is from the East via Harbour Hill. The added benefit of making the climb is a stunning view over the town and harbour.
After spending the morning in Cobh, we returned to Glounthaune Station and took a short ten minute wander to visit the local village of the same name, where there is a lovely waterside restaurant. After lunch, options include returning to Cork city and exploring the city centre; taking the regular bus from Cork to Blarney and its castle, or taking a train from Glounthaune (requires an additional ticket) and visiting Midleton where the distillery is worth a visit. The hourly train service from Cork to Dublin means that there are plenty of options for returning to Dublin.
Tomorrow - Day 2, Belfast