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The Stolen Railway today

The Parsonstown and Portumna Bridge Railway (1868 – 1878)


Almost in the dead centre of Ireland, between the towns of Birr and Portumna, can still be seen the almost undisturbed remains of what was one of the country’s most infamous lost railway lines: The Parsonstown and Portumna Bridge Railway, known as “The Stolen Railway”. The line has become part of local folklore in the area it served. This was a line whose fate was sealed right from its humble beginnings. It was, to say the least, Ireland’s biggest commercial railway failure, sometimes compared to the unfortunate “Potteries”, Shrewsbury & North Wales Railway in Shropshire.  “The Potts” closed on 22 June 1880, but unlike the Portumna line, its track survived 29 years of dereliction to carry trains once again when the line was revived as the Shropshire & Montgomeryshire Light Railway, reopening taking place on 13 April 1911.[i][i][1]


In July 1861, an Act was passed authorising the building of the line. Capital of £65,000 in £10 shares was authorised, with loans of £21,000. The Public Works Loan Commissioners and the Great Southern & Western Railway Company put up most of these loans. Although about £60,000 of the required sum was subscribed by local people, and in particular by the Marquis of Clanrikarde of Portumna Castle (who is reported to have held over £10,000 worth of shares), it is known that great difficulty was experienced in building the railway. Parliament was requested to grant an extension of time in June 1866, and the project was finally completed in 1868. The GS&WR leased the line for a period of 10 years and agreed to work it with its own engines and rolling stock for 40% of the gross receipts.


The first contractor for the line was E. Bond of London, who not surprisingly suffered bankruptcy when work done could not be paid for. Bond was succeeded by H.P. Bradley of Liverpool, who soon gave up, leaving Bagnall to complete the line from a junction just outside Birr station. The first train left Birr using the GS&WR terminal on Monday, 5 November 1868. The passenger timetable with which the service was inaugurated was considered inadequate at the time, but connected at Birr with the trains for Roscrea and Dublin.

In 1871 the timetable was as follows:

Parsonstown (Birr) dep.

12.29 pm

8.58 pm

Portumna Bridge arr.

12.59 pm

9.20 pm

Portumna Bridge dep.

6.00 am

1.20 pm

Parsonstown (Birr) arr.

6.30 am

1.50 pm

All trains used the Birr Station of the GS&WR and diverged from the Roscrea line about 200 yds south of the station. From there to Portumna, the line proceeded in a generally westerly direction for 12¼ miles to the east bank of the River Shannon at Portumna Bridge or Portland.

In the early stages of its journey it crossed Rock Lane, which is a laneway connecting the Birr- Roscrea road. About 1½ miles from Birr, the railway spanned the Little Brosna River at Riverstown, this also marking the boundary between Counties Offaly (King’s County in the time of the P&PBR) and Tipperary. The stone piers and abutments remained until the late 1990s.  A short distance from the bridge, the railway ran under the road from Birr to Nenagh. Heading more or less westward into County Tipperary, the line travelled about 2½ miles to an overbridge at Ballyduff. This bridge was partly destroyed during the Civil War. The road now runs  across the railway on the level.

Having traversed a section of bogland, the line next made its way, in the townland of Walshpark, through the Derrylahan estate of the Head family, who insisted on having manned crossings at two level crosing within the area of the estate. The houses occupied by the level crossing keepers still stand.

Next the line ran under the Athlone – Limerick  road (now the N52) near a place called Johnstown, between Walshpark and Abbeville. A second overbridge followed a short distance to the west, at the minor road south from Lisballyard, a crossroads on the Birr – Portumna road. Continuing its journey, the railway crossed two minor roadways on the level and then intersected, also on the level, a road now called the New Line (one of many roads in Ireland so named), which runs between Ballinacurra and Lorrha.

A little further west, it crossed the Portumna – Lorrha road over a single span girder bridge, the abutments of which still remain. The final 2½  miles were through wooded, boggy county until the line reached Portland, where emerged from a rocky cutting under a stone bridge which once carried  the Portumna – Nenagh road. The roadway now crosses the site of the old line on the level. From this point to the river bank, where the old Portumna Bridge Station stood, there is no trace of the railway except for a house adjoining the bridge.

Although there are no remains whatsoever of the Station House on the river bank, the accommodation appears to have been pretty extensive. There are still the remains of commercial premises that were built to serve the line situated close to the bridge mentioned above.

 An extract from an advertisement of a proposed sale in 1880, following termination of services, reads as follows:

“At Portumna there is a station with booking office, waiting rooms, offices, engine and other sheds, iron crane, cattle pens, turntable for engines, siding for trucks and the necessary switches, points etc, and a landing stage fronting the Shannon with crane, turntable and rails to goods shed”.

The station was intended to serve not only Portumna and a large area in North Tipperary and East Galway, but also to afford connection with the steamers of the Shannon Navigation.


The railway maintained a struggling existence for a period of 10 years, but on the expiry of the lease, the GS&WR refused to renew it. They had been working on 40% of the gross receipts and they now asserted they had been making a loss of £2,000 a year on this basis. Efforts were made to induce the company to alter its decision but these were without avail. The government of the time was petitioned to take it over, but they also refused. In December 1878, the railway was closed to all traffic and the GS&WR removed its rolling stock and withdrew its staff.

The Public Works Commissioners had originally advanced a sum of £12,000 on mortgage and they now took possession of the railway as mortgagees. That they did not make any attempt to operate the railway is understandable as the receipts during the last three years of its working life were very small. The GS&WR made an offer to continue working the line, if it were transferred to that company without charge, but the Commissioners refused to do this. The railway lay derelict for five years, but was patrolled by men appointed to keep it in order. During these years, little damage was caused, but when the Commissioners withdrew their men in 1883 and when the intention to hold an auction (made in 1880) was also dropped, the line was considered abandoned.

Up to this time a quantity of rails had been removed and sold by the Grand Jury (predecessor of the County Council) to meet outstanding rates and taxes but otherwise the railway was intact.

The line was built to the standard 5ft 3in gauge, and laid with very substantial “Bridge” type rails. The sleepers were of massive creosoted timber, and the line was well ballasted. At first, no attempt at pillage was made at the Birr end, but a few miles out the country, the ballast started to disappear. It was found to be very useful in making farm roads and roadways into bogland. Next the fishplates, spikes and other small pieces of iron started to vanish as well. No doubt the blacksmiths of the time were glad to receive them.

The rails went next and they were put to many uses. You could not mistake the wrought iron “Bridge” style construction of these rails, associated with early railway building. The sleepers were easily disposed of, being used for farm buildings and even firewood. The marauders came from far and near and in a very short time nothing but the bed of the railway remained. The station buildings in Portumna are said to have disappeared in a single night. The timber, windows, doors, slates, etc. were very useful and quickly found new homes. The kerbs of the platforms were prised loose with crowbars and made fine doorsteps for houses, cowsheds and stables.

An attempt was made to remove the girders of the six span bridge over the Little Brosna at Riverstown, but the attempt was thwarted by the local RIC. This bridge remained intact without the rails until the Second World War. The water tank which supplied the engines found a new use in the town of Portumna. It is estimated that in all, property to the value of £20,000 was looted. This action was without parallel in the history of railways and effectively sealed the fate of the P&PBR.

During the next few years, nothing was done to revive the railway except for a few isolated and tentative overtures to the Government and the GS&WR. Hansard records two parliamentary questions in the matter during this period:

In 1884,

THE EARL OF ROSSE asked Her Majesty's Government, Whether it is their intention to offer facilities for the reopening of the Parsonstown and Portumna Bridge Railway, which has been closed for the last five years, and has passed into the hands of the Loan Commissioners?

LORD THURLOW in reply, said, the Public Works Loan Commissioners held the line referred to at present as mortgagees in possession. They had no power whatever to work the line, but only to execute, from time to time, the repairs which might be required to prevent the line from falling into a state of deterioration. It was their earnest desire to dispose of the line at the earliest possible moment, and they were prepared to entertain any reasonable offer which might be made. Some four years ago they had hoped that they were at the point of concluding a sale; but, unfortunately, and without any fault of theirs, the transaction went off. The Commissioners believed that, at the present moment, circumstances were more favourable for effecting a sale than they had been for some time past; and they hoped and had some confidence that before long they might be able to dispose of the line to some substantial people, and that it might be re-opened for public traffic.[ii][ii][2]

Two years later

MR. HARRIS (Galway, E.) asked the Secretary to the Treasury, Whether the Parsonstown and Portumna Bridge Railway is now derelict; that everything removable and of value is being taken away, such as timber, cut stone, iron rails, &c.; and, whether the Government Loan Commissioners had charge of it for five years, and at the expiration of that time they removed the five caretakers engaged in its protection, and allowed the station house, sheds, and rails to be made objects of plunder; and, if so, will the Government do anything to protect all that remains of the property, with a view to its future utilisation?

THE SECRETARY (Mr. JACKSON) (Leeds, N.) The hon. Member's information as to the present state of this unfortunate line is, no doubt, more complete than mine. The Loan Commissioners held it as mortgagees in possession for five years, and during that time preserved it from dilapidation in the hope of obtaining a purchaser; but, in 1883, failing all their attempts at selling it, they withdrew from possession. They do not consider themselves justified in spending any money upon it unless in some reasonable hope of a return. May I suggest that the hon. Member should help us to some arrangement for taking up and working the undertaking.

MR. HARRIS Do I understand the hon. Gentleman to say that the railway is to be left there derelict without anybody taking care of it?

MR. JACKSON I am afraid, if we can find no purchaser, there is no other means of disposing of it.[iii][iii][3]

In 1889 however, a public meeting was organised in Portumna largely due to the efforts of two local landowners named Colonel J.F Hickie and Mr. W.T. Trench. A deputation met the Chief Secretary for Ireland and pointed out that the present condition of the railway was due to the action of the Loan Commissioners in neither handing it over to the GS&WR nor placing it in bankruptcy. Even if the latter course had been adopted, most of the assets could have been realised and might have led to the re-opening of the line, whereas the abandonment had been followed by wanton pillage, so that nothing of value was left.


The deputation urged the Government to make a grant of £12,000 towards reviving the line and they agreed subject to certain conditions. However, the GS&WR would not hear of reviving it without a grant of £24,000, which they estimated would be required to restore the track. The Government refused to consider this amount and an appeal to the Lord Lieutenant was equally unsuccessful.

In 1903 there were rumours of a Viceregal Commission being set up to enquire into the condition of railways in Ireland. Some very influential people gathered to make a final attempt at restoring the P&PBR. An appeal was made to the Chief Secretary, placing the facts before him and requesting his assistance. The committee was invited to put its case before the Viceregal Commission when it met.

In 1907 the Commission met in Dublin and the delegates from the people interested in the P&PBR ably stated their case. The Commission was presided over by Sir Charles Scotter, and the GS&WR was represented by Mr Timothy Healy, K.C., M.P. (later to become first Governor- General of the Irish Free State). However, like all previous attempts, this final effort also proved futile.

Even today people in the area people are reluctant to talk about the P&PBR. Some will say that the whole line disappeared in a single night, others will either claim that they never heard of it, or if they have, they will blame the people of East Galway for stealing it. However, without looking in any particular direction, there is much evidence to suggest that the railway didn’t go too far away in the end.


That indefatigable traveller, T.R. Perkins, whose Irish journeys are recorded in the JOURNAL[iv][iv][4], explored the remains of the P&PBR in the Summer of 1932[v][v][5]. A surprising amount of what was recorded by Perkins still survives, as can be seen from the accompanying recent photographs, as well as from Michael Costeloe’s image in 1962 and the Editor’s explorations of 5 and 6 May 1984. The extraordinary survival of the damaged bridge at Ballyduff is especially remarkable.


I first heard of “The Stolen Railway” in the 1960s from my late father, who was a professional railwayman and was for a time based in Birr. It was in the summer of 1995 that I first explored the course of the line, with the excellent guidance of my old friend Colm Ryan. I am also very grateful to Colm for providing me with very detailed background information from his extensive research on the subject which he first published in 1968 to commemorate the centenary of the opening of the line. I would also like to acknowledge the assistance of Patrick John Moore, who owns the site at Portland where the old road bridge is situated.

 [vi]i][1] Railway Magazine, May & June 1903, pp 400 & 441
[2] HL Deb 01 July 1884 vol 289 c1780
[3] HC Deb 13 September 1886 vol 309 cc167-8
[4] JOURNALs 112, 114, 116 and 117
[5] Railway Magazine, May 1938, pp 313-319

The remainder of this article appears in IRRS Journal number 178, published June 2012


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Revised: November 06, 2015 .