Irish Railway Record Society
Stolen Railway today
Parsonstown and Portumna Bridge Railway (1868 – 1878)
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]
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.
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.
1871 the timetable was as follows:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
extract from an advertisement of a proposed sale in 1880, following termination
of services, reads as follows:
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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?
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]
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?
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
HARRIS Do I understand the hon. Gentleman to say that the railway is to be left
there derelict without anybody taking care of it?
JACKSON I am afraid, if we can find no purchaser, there is no other means of
disposing of it.[iii][iii]
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
indefatigable traveller, T.R. Perkins, whose Irish journeys are recorded in the
explored the remains of the P&PBR in the Summer of 1932[v][v].
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
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.
Magazine, May & June 1903, pp 400 & 441
Copyright © 2012 by Irish Railway Record Society Ltd.