By John O'Flaherty
Day three saw a return to Heuston Station for the 07:25 departure to Waterford. Retracing our steps, we then branched off the mainline at Kildare, continuing south through the towns of Athy, Carlow and Bagnelstown, where we crossed the river Barrow, before arriving at Kilkenny city. There the railway station is located on the remaining stub of the now removed railway line to Portlaoise, which means that all trains serving the city then reverse back out of the station to continue their journey. Crossing the fine viaduct over the River Nore at Thomastown the railway continues south through county Kilkenny to arrive at Plunkett Station, Waterford.
Built on the banks of the River Suir, Waterford was established as a Viking settlement in 853 AD, and has developed into a major port. The city is probably most famous for Waterford Crystal. A short walk across the river bridge from the railway station and along the Quay brought us to the Bus Éireann bus station. We took the 10:00 bus travelling towards Cork for the 15 minute trip to the village of Kilmeaden. From there a 20 minute walk takes you to Kilmeaden Station. I would note that the walk is along a busy road, without a footpath, and other options include taking the Suirway coach from Waterford at 13:00 directly to Kilmeaden station, or taking a taxi. This would be advisable if travelling with children.
Kilmeaden Station was the first stop on the railway line from Waterford to Mallow, built in the late 19th century, and which again provides a return to the emigration theme. The line was the route for boat trains from Cork to Rosslare, on which many people would have started their journey to a new life in Britain. It also carried sugar beet to the sugar factory in Mallow. Passenger traffic ceased in the 1960s, and a limited freight service continued until 1982.
Thankfully, a group of volunteers formed the Waterford & Suir Valley Railway (W & SVR) in 1997, as a local heritage project, with a view to building a narrow gauge railway along part of the old Waterford to Mallow line. This came to fruition in 2002 when the line first opened to the public. Now 8.5 kilometres in length, the railway runs from Kilmeaden along the southern banks of the River Suir to Gracedieu Junction on the outskirts of Waterford City. The railway drops an impressive 27 feet en route, and is a wonderful example of community enterprise. Entry to the railway is included in the tour. Open 7 days a week between April and September, and during mid-term school breaks, the railway offers up to six 40 minute round trips during the week, and longer 55 minute trips on Saturdays. The ticket office and coffee shop is located in an old Iarnród Éireann coach at Kilmeaden, and features historic photos and timetables of the service from Waterford to Mallow.
Using a Simplex locomotive, the two coach train travels at 15km per hour, and offers a nostalgic trip back in time for older people, stunning views of the River Suir, a glimpse into the impressive Mount Congreve Gardens, and excitement for younger travellers as it passes through the Magic Wood!
After a pleasant couple of hours spent at the W & SVR, I adjourned for lunch in Kilmeaden, before returning to Waterford on one of the hourly Bus Eireann services. Options in Waterford include visiting the medieval museum, the bishop’s palace, Reginald’s Tower and the Waterford Crystal centre.
Returning to Dublin one can retrace your steps via Kilkenny, but we decided to return on the 16:25 service along the “South Tipperary line” via Carrick-on-Suir and Clonmel to Limerick Junction, for a connection back to Dublin. For any rail enthusiast, this line is worth travelling over, offering a trip into the past as it is a single track route still signalled using semaphore signals. Travelling at a slightly more sedate pace than on the mainline, the route is a particularly scenic one, passing impressive mountain peaks on both sides of the line at various locations. The line snakes its way through the northern part of the Suir Valley, before crossing the river by an impressive viaduct at Cahir. Having called at Tipperary town the train approaches Limerick Junction, at right angles to the mainline, which it crosses and then reverses into the station. In years gone by, trains bound for Waterford would have had to perform two reversals, one of which was for over a mile, but that has been simplified these days.
There then followed what can only be described as a game of railway musical chairs during the busiest time of the day in Limerick Junction, as trains arrive from Waterford, Dublin, Limerick, Cork and Dublin in quick succession. We had to leave in the middle of this process to board the train from Cork to Dublin Heuston, after which the station would return to sleep for another hour.
Returning to Dublin, we adjourned to the dining car on board the 17:20 service from Cork, and had a light meal. It was a lovely way to finish the three day tour, concluding the trip with a nice glass of wine while watching the countryside flash past. The tour itself is a great way of seeing the country, and offers wonderful insights into the past and the present. Travelling by rail was exceptionally relaxing and enjoyable. So now the question is, where next?
I would conclude by thanking Iarnród Éireann for the opportunity to make the trip, and my travelling companion Cathal O’Brien, who ably assisted in writing this blog!