The 19th century is commonly referred to as the Age of Progress as Europe witnessed dynamic advancements in industry, technology and science. While Ireland did not experience an industrial revolution on a scale to that of Britain, which was at the height of its empire building at the time, it still made considerable advancements in many areas, transport being chief among them. Before the advent of the railway system in Ireland in the 1830s there were three principal means available for travelling large distances; by boat on the canal network which was greatly improved with the opening of the Grand and Royal Canals in the late 18th century, by horse-drawn coach, or for the energetic or downright destitute by foot. In Carrick-on-Suir goods to and from Waterford and Clonmel were mainly transported on large barges on the River Suir operated by the River Suir Navigation Company as well as private hauliers. While passengers opted for Bianconi’s coach cars which provided speedy and cost-efficient travel to and from Waterford and Clonmel for the princely sum of 2 shillings. However, the need for a faster method of transporting both passengers and freight became apparent as the 19th century progressed. This led to the first railway opening in 1834, of a passenger service between Westland Row in Dublin and Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire), only 10 years later than that of Great Britain. The present day Dart line from Pearse Station to Dun Laoghaire still runs along the same line.
In the following decades Ireland’s rail network extended outwards to Cork, Belfast and Galway, before reaching small towns and villages. Plans for a railway between Limerick and Waterford were first put into motion in 1826, eight years before the opening of the railway in Ireland, with the passing of the Waterford and Limerick Railway Act. Interestingly, it was originally recommended that the railway line should terminate not in Waterford but at Carrick on Suir whereupon “the railway carriages would there be run on to platforms and towed down the river by steam boats as far as Waterford, where the lading (cargo) will be transferred into sea-borne vessels. The expense of a double unloading and double shipment would be thus saved.” However, upon realization of the added labour of transferring cargo from train to cart and cart to ship this would entail the plan was swiftly abandoned and it was instead agreed that the line would end in Waterford. However, an economic recession in the late 1830s and the subsequent Great Famine stalled the project for several years until 1845 when construction finally began. From then on it was full steam ahead and the first section of the railway between Limerick and Tipperary was allowed to open three years later after construction officially began on 9th of May 1848. The later sections of the line were opened in stages, finally extending to Waterford 1854 through the assistance of a £120,000 government loan.
The people of Carrick-on-Suir were first introduced to the wonders of travelling on the tracks in April 1853 with the opening up of the train station on the outskirts of the town where it still remains in operation today. Carrick is one of four intermediate stations on the route along with Clonmel, Cahir and Tipperary. The construction of the train station was a labour intensive and lead to the demolishment of parts of the town. For instance, the residence of a magistrate, Walter Herbert along with a disused tanyard were swept away on Pill Road. The road entering Mill Street from Sir John’s Rd was, also, completely razed while a new footbridge, which is still in use, was constructed to replace the road to Newtown.
The original five-bay single-storey railway station building, built in 1853, is now disused, however, the railway bridge dating from the same period is still in use. The signal cabin and waiting room built in the early 20th century have retained their original functions and are in a good state of preservation. Of the same vintage is the signal box which originally had 15 levers to operate numerous points and signals around the yard. Another feature of the station is the goods shed where originally, cargo would have been loaded into train wagons from horse-drawn carts. Today the goods shed acts as a base for the Irish Traction Group which dedicates itself to restoring disused locomotives The crane used to load goods onto the wagons is another notable feature to survive into the present day.
In the first few decades of its existence, users of Carrick-on-Suir train station witnessed the changing colour palette of Ireland’s early steam locomotives. Initially, steam trains were painted an eye-catching green until 1876 when they were replaced with a more subdued palette of brown with blue and yellow lining. In the late 1880s the colour was changed to a very dark crimson for passenger trains while goods locomotives were painted black with red and white lining. Not to be outdone by the trains higher-ranking employees sported equally colourful livery. The stationmasters and station inspectors in Waterford and Limerick wore a red cap with gold braiding, while those in Carrick, Clonmel, Tipperary and Fiddown wore a blue cap with a plain gold band.
The introduction of the railway to Carrick brought economic prosperity to the town, providing for the most part, well-paid positions. Drivers were paid 7 shillings a day while guards received 15 shillings a day, which were good wages in that time period. Employees who were on the lower rungs such as porters and gangers received less generous wages, on a scale from 8 shillings to 15 shillings a week. Such meagre wages did not measure up to the high level of risk that they were subjected to on a daily basis. Casualties were frequent and the incidences of death worryingly high. Essentially, a career in the railway was an extremely dangerous career path for those workers who wore the smut of coal, grease and sweat on their face. The need to keep the train wheels turning put considerable stress on these workers, a reality which was starkly highlighted during an incident that occurred at Carrick station on 4 November 1875. On that day a goods train which was travelling at too great a speed collided with a goods and passenger train arriving from Waterford. Thankfully, there were no injuries but the investigation conducted in the wake of the accident exposed the dangerous working practices that directly caused the accident. The investigation found that the train approached the station at too great a speed and that the fireman (a fireman’s duty was to tend the fire which powered the steam engine) was young and inexperienced. Perhaps most damning was the driver who had been working almost 21 hours straight at the time of the accident and was found in a deep slumber on a station bench after the accident! From 1856 railway workers who fell ill were not granted sick pay. Compensation was given if employees sustained an injury or were killed at work, but it varied widely and was often inadequate. For example, the wife of Donovan, a ganger who was killed between Fiddown and Carrick in 1878 received an allowance of 6 shillings for one year. Less fortunate was the sister of Denis McCarthy who was killed in 1889 near Lixnaw station in Co. Kerry. When his sister requested for an allowance for the removal of her brother’s remains to Tralee, she was refused on the grounds that she was not financially dependent on her brother.
The dawning of the 20th century saw further progressions to Ireland’s railway network. In 1901 the Waterford, Limerick & Western Railway was amalgamated with the Great Southern Railway. The train network was extended further south to Tralee and all of the way to Sligo in the North West. In effect Carrick on Suir railway station was now part of the fourth largest railway in Ireland measuring an impressive 342 miles. By 1920 Ireland’s railway network measured 3,750 miles, impressive when you consider that Ireland had a population of just over 3 million people at the time. However, only a couple of years later, the positive progression and advancements made to Ireland’s railway network were to suffer a serious blow. Ireland’s railways the length and breadth of the country became caught in the crossfire of the Civil War. Due to the use of the railways by the Free State for the transport of troops and war materials and for the purposes of army communications it was inevitable that the railways would become a prime target for the Anti-Treaty side. The length and breadth of the country cargo trains were raided, passengers were forced to disembark from trains and rail staff were coerced into carrying out tasks at gunpoint by the IRA. Whole sections of the railway infrastructure were decimated as bridges and viaducts were blown up. Carrick station did not escape the turmoil unscathed as outlined in the personal diaries of contemporary witness JJ Healy.
In the wake of the Civil War the Irish Free State set about restoring Ireland’s railway system and infrastructure which had suffered considerable damage during the conflict. All of the railways in the country were centralised under the newly formed company the Great Southern Railways (GSR) in 1925. GSR’s attempts to rejuvenate and restore Ireland’s railway network to its former glory were severely curtailed by the outbreak of WW2. The GSR struggled to provide a functioning service once Britain decided to cease coal exports to neutral Ireland. . There was a sharp drop in the quality and frequency of the Waterford to Limerick service as passengers regularly experienced long delays. This was mainly due to the inferior substitutes used for imported British coal. The main substitute being a poor quality briquette known as duff which was made up of coal dust, cement and other substances. Wood and turf were also known to be used to power the steam engines. These alternatives often failed to keep the fires burning often leading to passengers facing delays of up to 12 hours. WW2 lead to a rapid reduction in the number of rail passengers, which had already been in steady decline due to the unpredictable railway service, the increasingly more regular bus services, and the high levels of emigration. Train stations the length and breadth of the country have borne witness to countless scenes of long-lost farewells as thousands of young people sought a better life abroad. The memories of the loss of our young people to foreign shores are still alive in Carrick today: “I remember my dad saying about the Railway Station ‘If these walls could talk, they wouldn’t, they would weep. We rear our children to export them, and we export our best.” “I remember years ago when a family member would be heading off to England it would be packed in the railway station. I remember my nanny crying lots of times over there waving them off to the boat. The railway station is steeped in memories and history.”
In the 1940s the railway system in Ireland underwent a period of dramatic change and modernisation. In 1945, Coras Iompair Eireann (CIE) was set up by the Government to replace the GSR which had failed to raise enough capital for investment. From 1951 CIE steadily converted to diesel trains, spelling the beginning of the end of steam engines in Ireland. Despite the CIE’s drive for modernisation some traditional aspects of the Irish railway remained unchanged, one being the use of horsepower – in the traditional sense. Jack Doherty was a character that is still fondly remembered in Carrick today and he was the last person to deliver by horse and cart cargo arriving into Carrick train station to businesses in the town. Jack’s faithful horse was a Clydesdale and was known for his gentle temperament. Jack and his faithful horse and cart ambling through the town was a familiar sight until Jack’s retirement in the early 1970s. From 1979 onwards the train station at Carrick experienced an upsurge in freight traffic with the expansion of the sugar beet industry in Ireland. The sugar beet was transported from a depot in Wellingtonbridge in Co. Wexford to Mallow in Co. Cork via Carrick. By the late 1980s the production of sugar beet was at such a level that there were three daily services between the two stations. Cement which was produced in a factory Limerick was another commodity that regularly traversed through the station in Carrick.
At the turning of the 21st century a disastrous event occurred which nearly spelt the end of the Waterford to Limerick line and Carrick on Suir’s place in Ireland’s national rail network. On 7th October 2003 a cement train bound for Limerick was derailed on the Cahir viaduct, causing the viaduct split into two. Twelve wagons plunged 50 foot from the viaduct into the River Suir below. Thankfully there were no injuries or death, a sobering fact considering that just hours before the accident a passenger train carrying 10 people had crossed the same viaduct. It was a matter of history repeating itself as a similar accident occurred at Cahir Viaduct on the morning of 21st December 1955 when a beet train fell through the floor of the viaduct into the gushing River Suir below, killing both its driver and fireman instantaneously. A subsequent investigation into the 2003 accident found that the design of the freight wagons, their weight and the track, caused the train to derail. Intensive lobbying and support shown by local TDs and the local people prevented the permanent closure of the line. The line reopened the following year after undergoing restoration works that cost €2.6 million.
Carrick on Suir train station is not the busy transport hub that it once was; freight traffic no longer trundles through the station and its services to Waterford and Limerick Junction have been reduced in recent years. Although the car has become the main mode of transport the station continues to provide a vital transport service for those in our community who need to travel by rail for work or study. Others in our community choose train travel for less prosaic reasons; many revel in the romanticism of rail travel while others appreciate its slow, leisurely pace and the rare opportunity it provides to reflect and gaze at the lush landscape rolling outside the carriage window. Fundamentally, rail travel has been at the forefront of slow travel before slow travel became a conscious decision rather than the only choice.
Carrick on Suir train station has borne witness to some of the most significant events in Irish history, from Civil War to world wars, and to mass emigration to fatal accidents. In this present time when train stations are currently being forced to close Carrick on Suir has shown its true tenacity by retaining its rail service. If we continue to avail of our national railway service, whether it be for reasons for work or pleasure, we can guarantee that Carrick on Suir station will continue to provide a vital service in our community for another 168 years.
By Róisín Phelan
NOTE: I would like to thank Maurice Power, Mervyn Grace, Michael Faulkner and the countless other people who kindly submitted information and images for this article.