Saturday, 18 June 2016

Ffestiniog Travel 'Irish Circular'

Round Ireland, mostly by rail, with our own little support bus to shuttle us to and from hotels, railways, ferries, and attractions, and to cover the miles where there are gaps in the Irish rail system. We were eighteen guests, with an excellent tour guide (Richard), and Gerry was our genial coach driver.

Hotels were mostly 4 star standard and other than the first three nights and last night of the holiday which were in Dublin, we stayed just two nights in each; Cork, Killarney, Galway, Letterkenny, and Belfast.

Red is rail travel, yellow is travel on our bus. This is a simplified route depiction; there were many forays off it, mostly by road. 

Please click on any picture for a larger image.

Day one:

Boarding the Irish Ferries fast ferry 'Johnathan Swift' as foot passengers at Holyhead after arriving by train from home

Leaving Holyhead harbour, past a rival ferry company's vessel  

Anglesey receded as we sped across the Irish Sea at about thirty knots bound for Dublin. The sixty mile crossing takes two hours.

Opposite our Dublin hotel this former emigrant ship was moored in the Liffey 

To familiarise ourselves with Dublin we took a tour on an open-topped double deck bus. Here we cross the Liffey with a view back to our hotel on the north bank. 

The Royal Canal, which connected Dublin with Longford and the River Shannon 

Some views of the city, including construction of the new tramway system 

Phoenix Park 

The Wellington Monument in Phoenix Park 

The Irish do not seem to appreciate real cask beer, preferring carbonated fizz. Here's the brewery of a famous example of the latter - Guinness.

The 'pointless point', in O'Connell Street where 'The Fluzi in the Jacuzzi' sculpture used to be. The 'Spire of Dublin', or 'Monument of Light', is nearly four hundred feet high.

Day two:

We set off from Dublin's Connel Station for Howth, a resort on the north of Dublin bay where the National Transport Museum is located. 

Chris on the DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit) train to Howth 

Howth harbour 

Some exhibits in the Transport Museum 

Back in Dublin the search for real beer continued. This is a 'craft' ale stout, carbonated as almost all Irish beer is, but a lot better tasting than Guinness.

Day three:

Our coach takes us to the Straffan Steam Museum where Chris found a friendly moggie. 

Believe it or not this is a steam engine. More correctly it is a solar powered steam generator which can be used in remote locations to drive a small steam engine.

In the British Isles, where the sun is not so reliable, this portable coal or wood fired steam engine would have found use on farms for threshing and other duties

A piggy weather vane at Straffan 

 The model railway at the museum, with our tour group observing

The highlight of Straffan museum was the collection of stationary engines These are housed in the former Inchicore Railway Works church in Dublin which has been relocated here and re-built, stone by stone. 

A triple expansion marine compound steam engine. Being a marine engine, its valve gear allows forwards and reverse running of the engine. 

The marine engine's maker's plate 

Our guide demonstrated a laundry drum, such as would have been used in the notorious Magdalene Laundries. These harsh places were run by catholic nuns using girls who had 'fallen pregnant' outside marriage, as virtual slave labour. The drum is driven by line shafting (steam powered) and uses steam and hot water to wash the clothes.    

Two twin cylinder 'simple' pumping engines in a common frame, from Jameson's Distillery, Dublin

A beam engine of slightly more recent vintage than the one I occasionally tend at Styal Mill. Tour leader Richard (holding the hat) chats to Stewart, a member of our party. Stuart's wife, Judith, on the right.

An unusual 3.5" gauge live steam model of a German locomotive

A model of the 1830 'Planet' class locomotive, the original of which was built by Robert Stephenson for the Liverpool & Manchester Railway. I used to fire and drive a full size replica 'Planet' at Manchester's Museum of Science & Industry.

A view of the River Liffey from our Dublin hotel room

Day four:

Dublin Heuston Station and our train to Waterford

Our tour group on the Waterford train

Our bus met us at Waterford station and our driver, Gerry, drove us to the Suir Valley Railway for lunch and a ride on the train

All the narrow gauge railways in Ireland seem to be 3' gauge, and this is no exception as it follows the River Suir for about 8 miles towards Waterford on the abandoned trackbed of the Waterford & Dungavan Railway

Our train at the Kilmeaden terminus. Most of these narrow gauge diesel locos are ex-peat bog locos, where they were used to haul trains of peat ('turf' in Ireland) off the bog.

On the way to Limerick Junction for our train to Cork, our coach stopped in Tipperary for us to have a look at this town. It might be 'a long way to Tipperary' but when you get there, it's mostly closed. This bar was an exception. Allison from Birmingham, Gwynn from Blaunau Ffestiniog, and Chris relax before we continue on our way.

Limerick Junction is a long way from Limerick. Our train to Cork arrived some time after Gerry has left us and driven our bus to Cork station to meet us there on our arrival.

Increasingly Irish Railways use DMUs (Diesel Multiple Unit) trains, but some locomotive hauled (and propelled - the loco is sometimes at the back) conventional trains still run. Here is an Irish diesel loco at Cork station.

Gerry met us here and transported us to our city centre hotel, our luggage having remained in the bus since leaving our Dublin hotel this morning.

Day five:

The bus took us to Blarney Castle. The famous Blarney Stone is at the top of the tower, and two figures can be seen in the gap behind the battlements as they lean across to kiss the stone. This act is said to endow the kisser with 'the gift of the gab'.

The Poison Garden at Blarney

The view from the battlements

A pair of views of the castle. We had lunch here before returning to Cork

Our driver, Gerry, in his bus

We had a free afternoon, so Gerry suggested a trip out to Dungarvan and Cobh. Here the bus pauses at a viewpoint overlooking Dungarvan Bay, as Chris chats with Gerry.

Views of Dungarvan

Dungarvan harbour and sea front

After leaving Dungarvan Gerry took us to Cobh, a seaside resort close to Cork, and the last port of call of the ill-fated 'Titanic' (the republic was British back then, and Cobh was called Queenstown, reverting to it original name after independence).

Cobh waterfront

We had a lovely evening meal in Cobh, sitting outside the restaurant afterwards to enjoy a drink in the warm evening sunshine. Note the beer is a craft ale from Dungarvan, the place we had just visited.

Outside the restaurant in Cobh. The weather throughout our fortnight in the Emerald Isle was superb; mostly hot sun with just a few rainy mornings in the second week.

Day six

This morning we left our luggage with Gerry on the bus and walked the short distance to Cork station for a train to Tralee 

The bus met us at Tralee for a trip around the Dingle peninsula. Here is all that is left of what must have been a beautifully scenic Tralee & Dingle railway. The west of Ireland used to abound in three foot gauge railways to enable goods to to reach remote locations, and produce to be shipped out. They would be marvelous tourist attractions if they were still in place today. 

Just across the road from the railway is the Blennerville Windmill, of great interest to me as a miller at the National Trust's Nether Alderley Mill in Cheshire

Our guide sits on the 'skirt' over the mill stones, with a 'horse' and hopper just like ours at Nether Alderley

Close up of the Shoe, Damsel (which agitates the Shoe so the grain feeds down it into the stones), and grain control gate. Just as at Stretton Mill (see earlier in the blog) grain feed control is by a guillotine 'gate'. At Nether Alderley we control grain feed by varying the angle of the shoe, which seems a far more effective way of doing it.

Leaving the mill we set off around the picturesque Dingle Peninsula. Here our bus is paused at a view point, and shortly after this Gerry decided the road was too congested and narrow for our bus, so we returned to the lower road around the peninsular.

The lovely weather meant that our lunchtime stop at the South Pole Inn could be enjoyed al fresco.

Near Dingle we stopped in a remote spot in a field to look at some Ogham Stones. Ogham is an ancient form of writing using short vertical marks on stones to represent characters. Gerry parked the bus in the gateway, and as ever, was 'on his phone'!

Medieval Ogham characters on a stone. I reckon it's early binary; Octal, Hex, or BCD depending on where you place the bit mask.

A view from the dry stone walled enclosure of the stones

We reached the far west extremity of the Dingle peninsula at Dunbeg Promontory Fort, the most westerly point in Europe. In the distance is the Kerry peninsula.

After a stop in Dingle we headed back eastwards along the southern edge of the peninsula

Macgillycuddy's Reeks, visible over on the Kerry peninsula as we make our way to our next hotel, in Killarney

Day seven: 

Gerry drove us north to the Shannon Estuary and the Foynes Flying Boat Museum. The museum is in the original trans-Atlantic terminal where majestic Boeing and Empire flying boats took off and landed on the Shannon providing a luxurious service to and from New York. 

Pan American ruled the trans Atlantic skies back in the thirties. From the mid-seventies Concorde was the uncontested Queen of the Atlantic - with a flight time of around three hours for the London to New York flight. This is a 'wannabe' picture, as Pan Am never flew Concorde; no airlines except British Airways and Air France did.

The museum includes a full size, if incomplete, replica of a Boeing Pan Am flying boat

The replica has flight deck, even if it's not the most realistic. But I had to have a go!

My co-pilot Julie has been given a take-off brief, so it's full power on the Pratt & Whitneys and off we go!

The flying boat includes a 'honeymoon suite'. I love the Champagne and the casually discarded lingerie! 

Our guide watched Anne having a go at making Irish Coffee

The tail of the Boeing as viewed from the control tower

Some wreckage from a Sunderland that crashed into high ground in bad weather while approaching Foynes

Many famous people such as Earnest Hemmingway would have passed through this, the one-time entrance to Foynes Flying Boat Terminal.

From Foynes we went to the odd Lartigue Monorail at Listowel. Operating between 1888 and 1924 it originally ran nine miles to Ballybunnion. The locomotives had two boilers, one each side of the raised monorail track, with a fireman on one side and a driver / fireman on the other side. The locos were 0-3-0 (3 coupled driving wheels) and compound, built by Hunslet in Leeds.

Here's Judith and Chris ready to for a ride.

Why did they build a monorail instead of a conventional railway? Because it was cheaper. To build a railway requires a lot of civil engineering work to provide a level track bed. With a trestle-supported monorail, one simply uses trestles of different lengths to attain a level track over undulating ground.

The original railway was scrapped on closure, so this is a replica. The steam-outline loco is diesel powered, and the train runs on a short demonstration track. They wouldn't let me drive it, but I 'cabbed' it!

The locos had a massive headlight between the boilers

The points, or switches, are reverse curved and double as turntables for the loco

Having been turned, the loco is ready to back down onto its train

An explanatory diagram of these 'odd' locos

The carriages are suspended each side of the track

The mountains behind Killarney. After visiting Listowel Gerry drove us back to our hotel, which was opposite the Killarney Brewery, so we decided to do a brewery tour. 

We arrived about 16:15, and I asked if they had beer for sale. "We don't have a loicence, but we can give you a wee tastin' if you buy a tour". So we did. "And if you loike, you can troy some samples whoile you wait for d' tour". So we did!

The brewery comprises highly polished stainless steel vessels and pipework

Here's us on the tour. After which we had some more samples!

Day eight:

Gerry drove us to Tralee station for a train to Ennis, changing at Mallow and Limerick Junction. 

Here is our train at Tralee; on the other end is a diesel locomotive providing the motive power (it pushes the train in this direction, and will pull it in the return direction, it being at the front for that direction of travel). This is known as 'push/pull' operation and is used nearer home on the East Coast Main Line between London and Scotland. And until Virgin introduced the Pendolinos, it was the practice on the West Coast Main Line as well. 

The diesel loco on the rear of our train from Tralee

Limerick Junction again, as we change trains for Ennis

Gerry met us at Ennis and drove us to Moyasta Junction on the former West Clare Railway. The loco is a 3 foot gauge 0-6-2 with trailing wheels the same size as the driving wheels, so it could be easily converted to become an 0-8-0.

Again, I didn't drive it but I 'cabbed' it

The owner of the railway, Jackie Whelan , addressed our group

The steam loco had been prepared specially for our visit. It was then put away in the shed and a diesel loco took the subsequent public train services. Here is a service train, ready to go.

A mines loco and two small diesels 0-4-0s on the other arm of the Moyasta 'Y'

We enjoyed an evening meal in Ennis before catching the train to Galway. Here is the River Corrib in the town.

After we'd checked into our Galway hotel, we went out for a drink

Day nine:

On the road to Dromod to visit the Cavan & Leitrim Railway. Note the absence of traffic on Irish roads.

On arrival I made a bee line not for the trains, but for this, an ex-Irish Air Corps dH Chipmunk like I used to part own and fly for well over thirty years....

....So I had to re-live old times and sit in a seat exactly the same as that I've spent many, many hundreds of hours in

After lunch in the local pub, we returned to the railway. Here, the owner gives us a welcome speech.

Our group in the single coach ready for the ride

...And off we go

Life is unhurried in rural Ireland. Here the owner stops the train to chat with a neighbour who wants to bring his tractor across the track to one of his fields.

As the Chipmunk indicates, this railway has aviation exhibits as well. Here's me in the P1 seat of a DC7.

DC7 flight deck

There's also an early Boeing 707 flight deck. After the end of its operational life (initially with Pan Am) this was used by an airport fire service for fire training and so was a gutted shell when the railway acquired it. £11,500 later it is almost complete! Great job!

The railway's steam locomotive is out of boiler ticket, but that doesn't prevent them lighting it up (but not to sufficient pressure to run, obviously)

Irish motorways carry little traffic. What a contrast between this and our M6 or M1!

Galway's main street in the evening
Day ten:

This is Sean Brown's 'Hell's Kitchen' pub in Castlerea. He has an ex Irish Railways diesel loco 'crashing' though the wall into the bar. 

Only in Ireland!

Looking into the bar from the driver's cab

The other end of the loco is in a room full of railway memorabilia

Among the non-railway artifacts in the pub is this nice Scott motorcycle

Next stop was the Donegal Railway Heritage Centre in the old station house in Donegal town

One of the DVDs being shown in the centre's cinema; a Donegal Railway railcar  travels though the Barnesmoor Gap which we will shortly travel through by road on our way to our next hotel, in Letterkenny.

Day 11:

This morning our coach took us to the Fintown Railway, home of the last working County Donegal railcar. On the way we passed 'stooks' of cut peat ('turf' in Ireland) drying on the bog.

When we got to Fintown the railcar was warming up in the shed, its 6-cylinder Gardner diesel engine sounding healthy

After a run down the line to check it was clear, the railbus, with a small diesel loco on rear to haul it when it travels backwards, returned to Fintown station for us to board

Some of our group on the railbus for the three mile run along a restored section of the County Donegal Railway, alongside Lough Finn amid spectacular highland scenery

I got a chance to 'cab' this unique vehicle, and photographed the driver from the second man's seat

In the afternoon we actually saw some rain! Not much; what the Irish call "a soft day". Our coach took us to Oakfield Park, a restored Deanery with extensive gardens, lakes, and woods, and a miniature railway with about three miles of 15" gauge track. 

The only steam loco is 'Duchess of Difflin', an Exmoor-built engine just like the 10.25" gauge versions at the Rudyard Lake Railway which I volunteered at for a while. 

The gardens were closed to the public that day but they opened up for our visit, and prepared the steam loco for our two trips around the railway system.

This is the railway's other loco, a diesel named 'The Earl of Oakfield'.

The superb engine shed, complete with overhead extraction systems so locos can be 'lit up' indoors

The railway is relatively new, having being built professionally (mostly supplied by by Alan Keef) for its owner about twelve years ago. This map of Oakfield Park shows the that the railway is a good way to see the lower garden. The upper garden, across the public road, has to be visited on foot.

A disused ram pump in its 'bee hive' housing in the upper garden

The lake in the upper garden

That evening we had an excellent group meal in the 'Firebox Grill' in Fahan, situated in the former station house of the long gone Londonderry & Lough Swilly Railway Company (closed in 1953).

Day 12:

Gerry drove us into Northern Ireland this morning, to Derry, where we boarded the train for Coleraine. Michael Palin described this journey as "one of the most beautiful railway journeys in the world". I wouldn't go that far, but it does boast attractive coastal views.

Coleraine signal box, with a train for Portrush. This section of line still has operational 'somersault' semaphore signals, but not for much longer as they are due to be replaced by colour light signals.

Our coach took us to Bushmills where the Bushmills Railway transported us to Giant's Causeway. This is more tramway than railway, the three-car train comprising a diesel 'locomotive' and two passenger trailer cars.

In the shed at Bushmills were two steam locomotives, but they have not run for some time, being out of boiler ticket

Giant's Causeway station. From here, we rode the train back to Bushmills to pick up our coach.

Aboard the Bushmills 'tram'

The stock seems nearly new, but the rack is in a pretty poor state, requiring some careful slow running, especially on the points of the passing loop

Straight sections, with no points, did allow a little speed to be attained

Our coach took us back to Giant's Causeway, to the National Trust centre there where my National Trust volunteer card got Chris and I in free of charge, and saved us 20% on our lunch in the cafe and purchases in the gift shop! I'm glad I remembered to bring it with me as it saved us around £30.

The Volunteer card also got us free transport on the shuttle bus from the centre to the Causeway itself

On this lovely sunny hot day the Causeway was a delightful place to visit and climb up. Not sure I'd enjoy it if it was chucking it down.

From Giant's Causeway the coach took us back to Coleraine for our train to Belfast, then picked us up at Belfast station to take us to our hotel just outside the city. I took this shot of Belfast's iconic Harland & Wolf shipyard cranes from the train as we entered the city.

Day 13:

The coach took us to the Downpatrick & County Down Railway this morning for a trip of two miles each way to Inch Abbey from St Patrick's Town. Here is the station at St Patrick's Town with a big diesel loco ticking over in the platform road.

This railway has an extensive under-cover museum of steam locos and coaching stock

The big diesel went off to Inch Abbey, and a steam loco came off the shed road to couple to our two-coach train

Track gauge in Ireland is 5' 3" and these old Irish coaches were built to take advantage of this width. Modern Irish rail stock is bought 'off the shelf' and such stock is built to fit the almost universal standard gauge (as in England) of 4' 8.5". Such stock bound for Irish rail is fitted with 5' 3" gauge bogies, but because of the 'standard size' coach body it offers no width advantage for passengers over our own railways in England.

If you remember your 'O' Level geography you will recognise these hills behind the track panels as drumlins - distinctive humps left by retreating Ice Age glaciers

The railway passes over a small river which feeds into Strangford Lough

Our loco's footplate; the engine used to work in a sugar beet factory

I asked for, and was granted, permission to ride on the footplate during the run-around at Inch Abbey (if you don't ask, you don't get). Here the fireman, under instruction in driving, runs us around the train for the return journey to St Patrick's Town.

Our train, the loco having run round, ready to depart back to St Patrick's Town

In the afternoon we visited the Ulster Folk Museum, and again we were thankful for the superb weather enabling us to see this outdoor collection of ancient buildings in lovely conditions

Being mid week and out of school holiday time, the museum was delightfully peaceful

Strolling round and within the different farms, mills, and cottages, and stopping to admire the views and the wild flower meadows and hedgerows, was quite wonderful in the hot high-summer sunshine 

After a couple of hours our coach took us to the nearby Transport Museum, celebrating the history of Ireland's rail, road, and air transport

Chris in the rail gallery

We had a guide to show us around, but it became obvious he was no expert and could tell us little of interest about the exhibits, all of which he called 'trains' (they were locomotives of course, not trains). So most of us left him and did our own thing

A general view of the rail gallery. The maroon diesel loco with the yellow flash was built by Brush in Loughborough. 

Having visited the Donegal Railway Centre, and ridden on the last operational Donegal railbus at Fintown, it was interesting to see this 'half cab' Donegal railbus (the one we rode in was the 'full cab' version)

Stanier influence or what? Although built for Irish Railways at Inchicore works, Dublin, the designer of this loco must have been a Stanier fan. Taper boiler, Belpair firebox, Walchearts valve gear, double chimney - it's almost a re-built Royal Scot and could have come straight out of Crewe works!

The bus on the left doesn't look old enough to be in a museum

Delorean car and chassis. These were built in Belfast as a job creation scheme funded by the British tax payer. The cars were a flop, though I think John Delorean did OK out of it.

A racing Norton motorcycle, and a Bitza (bits of this, bits of that)

Another less than successful Belfast product - the Shorts SC1 vertical take off and landing aeroplane. It had no less than four lift jet engines, and one propulsion engine, so once in wing-born flight the four lift engines were dead weight. The Hawker Siddely Harrier in contrast had one big engine with vectored thust, so all the thrust was available for take off or landing, and for wing-born flight. 

Day 14

Gerry drove us to the city centre, and for those who wished, on to the Titanic Museum. Here is Belfast City Hall which we passed on the way.

Our coach at the Titanic Museum

The interesting architecture of the museum, from the inside

The museum is well worth a visit. Perhaps the only disappointment is the part of the museum on 'the sinking', which was sparse after so much detail in the other areas (such as early Belfast and the linen industry, building the ship, sea trials, etc.). 

There was no coverage of spotting the iceberg, maneuvering in an attempt to avoid collision, or how the ship went down (not as traditionally depicted as in the museum picture above - apparently she broke in half between last and second to last funnel with both parts floating in a 'V' shape before first the bow, then the stern, sank). 

Apart from that, the museum is highly recommended.

Film of the discovery of the wreck; this is the bow section

That afternoon we took the train from Belfast to Dublin, to stay our final night in Ireland in the hotel where we started the holiday. This is our group on the last Irish train of our holiday

After our end-of-tour evening meal in the hotel, Head of Passenger traffic for Irish Rail gave us a talk and answered any questions we had on the Irish rail system. I learned how they settled on their almost unique gauge of 5' 3"; In the early days various Irish railways had different gauges, including a few at standard gauge. 

The government decreed they must all adopt a common gauge. Logically, one would have expected them to plumb for standard gauge as there were some already at that gauge, and procuring stock from other countries would be simple. Instead they came up with 5' 3" because no Irish railway had that gauge, so everyone would have to change and no existing railway would be favored!

How very Irish!

Day 15:

The end of our holiday. The view from the stern of the Irish Ferries vessel 'Johnathan Swift' as she leaves Dublin and accelerates to about 30 knots for the two hour crossing to Holyhead.

What a fabulous holiday. Two weeks in Ireland travelling mostly by rail in good company (18 of us plus our tour guide - and Gerry of course), visiting so many small railways and other interesting destinations. And the weather! Mostly hot and sunny while back home in England torrential rain, lightning, and flash floods caused chaos. 

But they don't call it 'The Emerald Isle' for nothing; the weather we enjoyed was probably far from typical but very welcome!



  1. Andrew Shimmin22 June 2016 at 08:02

    Hi Vince, great blog post and photos!
    One small comment: although the 800 class locos are often said to look like the rebuilt Scots, this is entirely coincidental. In fact the 800 class dates from 1939, two years before the first rebuilt Scot. The connection is much more tenuous, the Swindon influence being via Holcroft and Maunsell.

  2. Thanks Andrew. Glad you like the report, and thank you for the info on the 800 class which I'll research.

  3. Very interesting trip report. In the interests of accuracy, I'd like to correct a couple of details about a few of the narrow gauge locos reported though:

    The tram on the Giants Causeway Railway is diesel powered not battery electric. (Built by Severn Lamb in 2010.)

    As far as I'm aware none of the locos on the Suir Valley Railway came from the Channel Tunnel Contract. All but one are ex Bord na Mona, and the one wasn't ever at the Channel Tunnel (it was another peat bog loco actually, in Scotland). I imagine you are quoting staff; I wonder where they got the idea? Off hand I can only think of one ex Channel Tunnel loco in Ireland - RFS 101L on the West Clare Railway (pictured later in the blog).

    Ken Scanes

  4. Thanks Ken. Can't remember who told us about the Bushmills being battery electric and Suir valley being ex-chunnel. But I have made the corrections as I'm sure you know what you are talking about. I'm sure someone else will comment if it turns out you don't!