18 Aug 2022

The legendary history of the Great Northern Railway in Dundalk


The legendary history of the Great Northern Railway in Dundalk

Until the coming of the railways, most Irish folk lived out their lives within a 20 mile radius of their homes. The coming of the railways opened up new vistas for the entire population, creating opportunities for trade, travel and romance.

The process was put in motion by the 1831 Railway Act. This authorized the Dublin and Kingstown Railway Company to construct a line between Dublin and Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire), which opened in 1834. By 1852 the Dublin and Belfast Junction Company had completed a line between Drogheda and Portadown, passing through Dundalk.

Founding of GNR

Dundalk's role in Ireland's railway network came to the fore in 1876. The Great Northern Railway of Ireland (GNR(I)) was founded through the merger of the North Western Railway, Northern Railway of Ireland, and Ulster Railway. From its Dundalk hub, GNR(I) operated mainline services between Belfast and Dublin; Dundalk and Derry via Portadown and Omagh; and, Dundalk and Enniskillen. These services were supported by an extensive branch network.

The partition of Ireland in 1921, allied to the greater use of road transport and the introduction of air services between Dublin and Belfast in 1947, led to a downturn in rail traffic and rail profitability throughout Ireland. The GNR(I) responded by introducing Ireland's first regular non-stop rail service between Dublin and Belfast. The first 'Enterprise' express service left Belfast in August 1947, hauled by Class V locomotive No. 83 'Eagle'.

Decline and change

The new express service was not profitable and in January 1951, the GNR(I) announced its intention to discontinue all services in Northern Ireland within five weeks. Two days later, around 1,200 employees were given one week's notice. In an attempt to preserve the company, both governments offered to cover its deficit, agreeing to finance the operating losses and fund the purchase of materials and equipment.

It was to no avail. By the end of 1952 the deficit had reached an alarming £1,900,000. The following year, the two governments passed legislation to jointly nationalise the company, ending the 78-year existence of the GNR(I) as a private concern and establishing the Great Northern Railway Board (GNRB).

In 1958 the GNRB was dissolved and divide its assets divided between the Ulster Transport Authority and Córas Iompar Éireann. Both of these authorities closed the bulk of the GNR(I) railway network, so that only the Dublin to Belfast line is still in use.

Social impact of GNR

The railways in Ireland reached their zenith during the early part of the 20th century. People had few alternative modes of transport at that time. Indeed, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries most Irish folk grew up, worked, married, raised families and died within a 20 mile radius of their home.

The coming of the railways completely revolutionised this pattern of living. Railways linked communities throughout the country and gave people an opportunity to escape the bounds of their immediate locale. But the railways did much more than enable huge numbers of people to move quickly and easily. They changed people's perceptions of the wider Irish society; they hastened the speed at which goods and news could travel and they helped to cement relationships between widely disparate people and communities. As a result, railway stations became important social meeting points, the scene of heartfelt hellos and poignant good-byes.

Day trips

Railway services such as those of the GNR introduced the masses to excursions - day trips to Gaelic Football matches, seaside holiday resorts, tours and day excursions to Dublin all gained in popularity. However, following World War II, the growth in the number of motor vehicles on Irish roads brought rail supremacy to an end.

There were further challenges to the dominance of rail. In 1947 Aer Lingus introduced flights from Dublin to Belfast. GNR's response was to introduce the Enterprise service, which completed the journey in just over two hours. However, nationalisation and under-investment undermined the profitability and competitiveness of the GNR, and, with the Northern and Southern Irish governments unwilling to keep the railway open, the bulk of its lines closed, with the exception of the Dublin – Belfast Enterprise.

Engineering Pride

For almost 80 years, the Great Northern Works in Dundalk was responsible for the construction of locomotives, goods and services stock, carriages, railbuses and road vehicles.

When the Great Northern Railway formed in 1876 through the amalgamation of various companies, their works also merged.

However it was not until 1885 that the Dundalk Works assumed overall control under James Park. He started the production of goods engines, the first being the class 'A'. Two of these 32 ton behemoths were built at Dundalk in 1882. 1885 marked the arrival of the class 'J' 4-4-0 engines and ten class 'J' engines were constructed between 1885 and 1893.

Following the Armagh rail disaster of 1889 which killed 80 people, the Regulation of Railways Act was introduced. This required engines to be fitted with an automatic vacuum brake. Also at this time, the boiler capacity of engines was growing in order to meet increased demand to move passengers and goods.

Rail and road

Charles Clifford took over control of the Dundalk works in 1895. Under his guidance, six 'JT' type 2-4-2T locomotives were produced, named Sutton, Howth, Aster, Crow, Viola and Tulip. Clifford's final design was the class 'S' engine. 1938-39 saw the renewal of the 'S' and 'S2' class locomotives and eight engines were rebuilt with heavier frames. 'VS' class locomotives marked the completion of the Great Northern steam stock. These were numbered 206-210, and named Boyne, Erne, Foyle, Lagan and Liffey.

Practically all of the Great Northern coaching stock was completed at Dundalk, including saloons, dining/kitchen cars, parcel van and brake vans. In 1929, when the first GNR bus service was introduced, the Dundalk Works made the body work for the new fleet and from 1937 - 1942 manufactured a total of 53 Gardner buses. Buses were built at the Dundalk Works until the late 1950s, including nine Regents built in 1953.

GNR and its workers

For the majority of employees the Works were a way of life as it had for previous generations, an extended family. Skills that were honed by a system of apprenticeships were passed, undiluted to the next generation. The Works fostered a community spirit that survived beyond the life of the Works.

In 1919 the Works formed the roots of Dundalk AFC who witnessed one of their proudest moments in April 1942 when they won the FAI cup for the first time. The avant garde of employees became very competitive at quitting time. When the hooter sounded first out of the works, up the slope and onto the Ardee Road would be declared the daily winner. There is no doubt that for the majority of employees the Works was home from home.

That is not to say the relationship between the GNR and its employees was always a happy one, with conflict between stakeholders over issues relating to unions, working hours and pay.

The events of July 1932 are a case in point. Two hundred employees of the GNR were given final notice, and a further 600 were told to work one week in three. All 800 went on strike from 01 August, with the support of the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR). The deadlock continued for three weeks until negotiations between the Dundalk Urban District Council (DUDC) and Minister Sean Lemass proved acceptable to both sides.


However, with the announcement that station masters and clerical staff wages were to be cut by almost 16 per cent, a further strike commenced on 31 January 1933. The GNR network came to a standstill in the northern half of the country as signal men, porters, drivers and firemen all downed tools. Negotiations eventually settled the strike and workers returned to their stations on 10 April.

Improved economic conditions at the end of the 1930s gave GNR a reprieve from its precarious financial position. Then with the outbreak of World War II, fuel rationing and grounding of many motor vehicles meant that rail transport became central for economic survival.

Moreover Dundalk became a black market capital as smuggling was prevalent.

By 1943 the total staff employed by the company numbered 6,888. Following the conclusion of World War II and the Emergency the newly formed Labour Court awarded an increase of 2/10 per hour. This led to jubilant scenes at the Works with one delighted blacksmith declaring "I got more than I expected"1 .

By 1948 however, the long term future of the company looked pessimistic. Labour costs had increased by 142% in less than a decade. With the financial resources of the company almost at an end both governments were forced to intervene. Despite this, the operating losses continued to soar. By 1955 the GNRB was losing £1 million a year. With the closure of unprofitable lines now widespread a meeting was organised by the Dundalk Chamber of Commerce to voice their concerns on the bleak outlook for the local economy. In 1956 total losses summed almost £1.2 million. Such figures could not of course be sustained. Each employee received notice of the closure of the GNR Locomotive Works in January 1958, resulting in the loss of some 1000 jobs. The Irish government helped to establish Dundalk Engineering Works and other companies were also set up, including Frank Bosner & Co. and Heinkel Cabin Scooters Ltd.

Industry & Commerce

The GNR formed a vital part of Ireland's industrial infrastructure. Its rail network serviced the important east coast seaports and this was key to its success in moving goods, livestock and mail for import and export.

Import & Export

The Dundalk Steam Packet Company was formed in 1837. Every year its Liverpool to Dundalk service carried 23,400 tonnes of cereals, pork, dairy products, linen and flax. By the time of the First Word War (1914-1918), it was exporting livestock, eggs, butter and other agricultural products and importing bread and general merchandise from England. These goods were loaded onto waiting wagons and vans which were then pulled to provincial towns and halts all around the GNR network.


The transport of livestock made up a substantial part of the goods traffic on Irish railways. The livestock were transported by rail to markets and fairs all over Ireland, and then to the major ports of Dublin, Belfast and Londonderry for export to England and Scotland. The movement of cattle dropped to 6,000 in 1926 and by the 1950s, with competition from road transport, livestock traffic on the GNR was in terminal decline.

Transporting the Mail

The spread of railways and the reliability of their timetables made it possible for the first time to dispatch goods for next day delivery throughout Ireland. The Steam Packet companies were an integral part of the system of distributing mail between Ireland and Britain. These factors made possible the early development of the modern postal service. Indeed, so important were their mail contracts that the railway companies planned their timetables around the needs of the Post Office.

Coal at Newry

In the 1920s Newry was a major entry port for coal. GNR's most important customer there was Joseph Fisher & Sons Ltd of Bridge Street, ship brokers and coal importers, who dispatched coal to most of the Midland counties of Ireland. Further on towards Warrenpoint was S. Lockington & Company, another coal firm which gave valuable traffic to the GNR. The GNR built coal storage at many of the major stations on the network for Lockington. This benefited the GNR as a consumer of coal for its locomotives, and gave Lockington good locations to distribute coal to private and industrial consumers.

Cement at Drogheda

The establishment of a large cement works in Drogheda in 1938 produced specialised traffic in this commodity. In 1954-5 the railway designed and built 150 wagons of 16 tons capacity exclusively for cement haulage. Twelve of these were of the hopper type for bulk traffic, and the remainder were modern covered wagons for bag traffic.

Brewing in Dundalk

Railways worked in tune with local industry as far as possible. Legislation in 1904 enabled railway companies to provide facilities for forwarding or receiving traffic from private sidings. The breweries of Dundalk benefited from this legislation. A railway siding from the GNR was run into the Macardle Moore brewery at Cambricville on the Ardee Road, and wagons containing the empty casks were shunted close to the cooperage. The casks were cleaned, refilled and dispatched again in the wagons. The Great Northern Brewery was also serviced by a private siding running the short distance from the main GNR line to the brewery.

Piece courtesy of LouthNewry Archives.

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