Tracing the Great Southern and Western

The “Ring of Kerry” is a 180 km tourist route around one of the rugged peninsulas on the west coast of Ireland. Although its moniker probably arose in a 20th century tourism promotion, the  route itself is one that travellers in the neighbourhood of the Irish town of Killarney have been encouraged to go round since the 1800s.

Here is Samuel Carter Hall, in his 1858 traveller’s guide, A Week At Killarney, expanding in full Victorian eloquence on why one might make this journey:

We shall ask the reader to accompany us to the wild sea-coast of the South-west, and the Tourist to follow us into a district where the graceful beauties of Killarney may be contrasted with the wild grandeur of scenery certainly unsurpassed in Ireland. That district is now visited by a large number of those who visit Killarney; and one of our special objects in our latest tour–in 1858– was to describe the routes to it, with the facilities for travelling and accommodation; and at the same time to picture its peculiarities as well as our limited space and opportunities permit us to do.

The district Hall is referring to is the Iveragh peninsula, jutting west into the Atlantic from the area around Killarney. Hall’s tourist is to begin from Killarney and proceed south to the town of Kenmare — which anchors the southeast corner of the peninsula; then out along its southern coast, up around the end, and back along the north coast to Killarney. With horse and jaunting cart the tour took the Victorian traveller two days. (Hall recommended hiring a single set of horses for the entire journey.) Today most visitors drive it in one.

But not all visitors have explored the Iveragh peninsula by horse-drawn car or horseless carriage.  Some 35 years after Hall published his guide, a new option appeared: rail. The West Kerry Branch of the Great Southern and Western Railway began its service in 1893, running along the north coast of the Iveragh from Farranfore to Reenard Point. Farranfore was a connection with the main line running from Tralee to Killarney and on to Cork; Reenard Point was a ferry terminal on the outermost coast where passengers could board a boat and continue out to Valentia Island, a place sometimes promoted with the tantalizing (but geographically incorrect) fact of being the westernmost point in Europe. However it is fair to say that the GS&W was the westernmost railway in Europe.

1902 route map

The West Kerry Branch of the GS&W highlighted in yellow. (Map from Project Gutenberg: “Great_Southern_and_Western_Railway_-_1902_Ireland_routemap_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_19329.jpg”)

Tourism was only one reason for this thirty-mile rail line out to the end of the world. Valentia Island hosted both famous slate quarries and an active fishing industry, and there was demand for the products of both in Ireland’s big neighbour to the east. No less a symbolic building than the Houses of Parliament in London was floored with Valentia slate.

This branch line ceased operations in 1960, and today most stations and track – which was the Irish Gauge, spaced 5′ 3” apart – have been removed. But, if you’re paying attention, you can still encounter bits and pieces of the railway, which visited the towns of Killorglin, Glenbeigh and Cahersiveen on its way.

 

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In Killorglin a plaque on the sidewalk, near the Aldi supermarket on Iveragh Road, tells the story of this vanished line.

For example, in the village of Glenbeigh, if you cross the River Behy on the old bridge and go just a short distance left, you find the road cutting through the old railgrade, still some ten feet high.  The Gleensk Viaduct looms above your head as the road does a tight turn to contour through a small drainage on the steep-sided hill.  At Cahersiveen the old rail bridge stands just upstream as you cross the river Ferta.

 

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On the way to Cahersiveen, the road snakes high above the Atlantic along the side of Drung Hill, and here a roadside pullout features an interpretive sign that details the history of the GS&W.

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At the same location: the mouths of two railway tunnels are above the road but below the electric line running across the slope

In many ways though the most remarkable remains of the railway are the mute raised railbeds that run through farmers’ fields.

 

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Do the cows know that a railway used to run along that strange, straight mound that cuts through their field? (Muingaphuca townland, near Killorglin)

As well, the railway is detectable in small kinks in present-day roads, like the one in the Caragh Lake Road 200m from where it meets the Ring of Kerry. Here the line crossed over the road, which jogs briefly to pass under a viaduct that is now completely gone.

There’s a remarkable web resource for tracing this old route. The Historic Environment Viewer of the Irish government’s Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs features a detailed basemap from Ordnance Survey Ireland (OSI) which shows the current status in superb detail at large scales.

 

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OSI’s superbly detailed and up-to-date map of the area between the Caragh River (right) and the village of Glenbeigh (left). Portions of the old rail line are shown.

But here’s the magic: you can change the base map to the Cassini 6″ mapping. This is mapping at six inches to the mile (or 1:10,560) from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, perfect for seeing where the railway ran. It turns out that, as one drives the Ring of Kerry from Glenbeigh to Cahersiveen, the old rail grade is never far away, sometimes running on the right, sometimes the left, side of the road.

 

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The same region, but now seen against the Cassini 6″ basemap, c. 1900

As well, there are two other historic map layers here. The Historic 6″ dates from between 1829 and 1841; the Historic 25″ (twenty-five inches to the mile, or 1:2534!) from the end of the nineteenth century.

There was a hope at one time that trans-Atlantic vessels would depart from Valentia Island, passengers preferring to go as far towards North America as possible by rail before boarding ship. It never came to pass, but today the old rail line may perhaps have another life. Between Glenbeigh and Reenard Point the rail bed is presently the locus of debate about whether it will be turned into a cycleway. The conflict focuses on how local landowners will be compensated. If this can be worked out, yet a fourth mode of transport will be added to the choices travellers have had for exploring that peninsula west of Killarney.

 

 

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