Remembering the day the steam trains met in Dundalk
Friday, February 15, is the 170th Anniversary of an event which marked the beginning of a new era for the people of Dundalk --- The coming together of two railway trains to link the two major cities of Ireland. It was not the first time trains had travelled on railway lines in North Louth but it was the beginning of a railway network which still exists. This must be considered a 'Trip Through Time' that brought profound change the Dundalk area!
On that morning one train carrying an unknown number of fare paying passengers left the terminus of the Dundalk and Enniskillen Railway Company at Barrack Street to meet up with another train that had travelled from the Newfoundwell Station on the north bank of the River Boyne at Drogheda, carrying passengers, some of whom had come from Dublin on the previous day. The old fashioned steam locomotives had come together at a place off the Ardee Road that we now call Traffic Place where thousands had gathered to greet the new form of transport and some travellers from both trains went to Castleblayney from whence they made their way to Belfast by road.
My thoughts on this epic journey were inspired by an article published in the current Journal of the County Louth Archaeological and Historical Society, written by a man from Ardee, now living in England. P. J. Geraghty, works for the Planning Section of the Essex County Council. The article called 'The Dublin and Belfast Junction Railway: The Great Link Uniting Dublin and Belfast', is a work of immense scholarship which make for gripping reading for anyone interested in the railway --- Which, in effect, is most of the population of Dundalk and its hinterland! I want to warn my readers, however, that it is not an easy read and needs to be studied to fully understand but is well worth the effort!
Anyone with imagination can visualise the great excitement that must have pervaded Dundalk on that day so long ago and one can only speculate what ordinary men and women thought of the 'fiery monsters' that had steamed into their sleepy town on that morning! Many must have seen steam locomotives before, men had been working on laying tracks and building bridges for nearly five years. Engineers and other officials had been testing the running of trains but on this day it had all come together to link the two major cities of our island. Up to that time it had taken days to travel from Dundalk to Dublin by horse drawn coaches and, possibly, even longer to reach Belfast but now it was all coming together so that people could make that journey in less than one day!
Dundalk had been well used to great crowds and excitement as the 'Liberator', Daniel O'Connell had held some of his biggest 'Mass Meetings' in support of his Repeal of the Act of Union campaign in Ireland at Dundalk in the early part of the 1840s but, by February 1849, O'Connell had been dead for nearly two years. O'Connell is reputed to have been a great supporter of the spread of the railways system in Ireland and, indeed, there is a Punch cartoon of the time which suggested that some people believed that O'Connell had invented the steam engine as a machine for 'making babies' who would grow up to support his cause for an independent Ireland!
Whatever ordinary people thought at the time, there can be no doubt that there was great popular support for the creation of a railway system to connect Irish towns and thus expand business enterprises. The new line to Enniskillen, which had its origins in Dundalk in the mid-1830s, had been planned with the express idea of joining the Port of Dundalk with markets in the North West and thus help the growth of Dundalk's economy.
However, in the meantime the whole country had been struck by the Great Famine which had reduced the population by a third in less that a decade, through death by starvation and disease and emigration. Dundalk town seems to have been spared the worst effect of the Famine and this may be due to the arrival of the railway system here at just the right time. The building of the railway tracks in the area provided relief work for many starving families, as well as a rapid transport system for the delivery of foodstuffs!
Geraghty, in his article written for the Journal, remarks in his introduction --- 'The Ulster Railway (from Belfast to Lisburn) was opened on 12th August 1939. Such was the level of interest that the crowds were "immense" and upwards of 3,000 passengers were carried on the first day , whilst hundreds "were disappointed in not obtaining places".
It is interesting to note that Geraghty seems to have done much of his research for his article in local newspapers. The Dundalk Democrat did not come into existence until eight months after those first trains arrived at Traffic Place. I do not known how many travelled on those trains and my friend Anthony O'Hagan, who is also a great researcher of old newspaper articles, tells me that there may actually have been two trains coming from Drogheda to Dundalk on that morning. If so, there would have been more than two locomotives there to be examined by the throng! I wonder what 'social media' would have made of the event, if such had been in existence at the time?
I would like to think that the Founder and first Editor, of the Democrat, Joseph Cartan was present on the occasion. He was a supporter of O'Connell but he might have had conflicting interests because he had been involved in the Mail Coach business through his wife's hotel, a coaching inn at 92, Clanbrassil Street.
There is a lot more of interest about that day in Dundalk 170 years ago and I would hope to come back to it in future notes!