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The Castlecomer Branch

BARRY CARSE

The origins of this article started when Brendan Pender gave me access the slide collection of the late Norman McAdams. Norman’s slides of Castlecomer and the surrounding area aroused my interest, and together with documents from the British National Archives at Kew, sourced by Oliver Doyle, the following is the result.

EARLY RAILWAYS

Work began on the construction of the Kilkenny to Thomastown section of the Waterford and Kilkenny Railway in April 1846. One year later the line was inspected and passed for traffic, but the Waterford & Kilkenny Railway did not open the line until 12 May 1848. They had been waiting for the Irish South Eastern Railway to get to Lyrath (now called Lavistown). However, the ISER did not open its own line until 1850, establishing a link from Kingsbridge to Kilkenny by means of a junction at Lavistown and running powers over the W&KR. The W&KR reached Dunkitt, outside Waterford, where a temporary platform was erected, the station opening on 23 August 1853. A year later trains started to run to and from Waterford itself.

Although the company was incorporated as the Waterford & Kilkenny Railway, it was the intention to build a line right through to Mullingar so as to gain cattle traffic from the Midlands to Waterford Port. With this extension in mind, the W&KR changed its name in 1868 to the Waterford & Central Ireland Railway.

The route was to be via Maryborough (now Portlaoise), Mountmellick, then crossing over the GS&WR Athlone branch at Geashill and proceeding via Philipstown (now called Daingean) before running east of Lough Ennell and joining the MGWR Dublin line about 1 mile east of Mullingar. In the  end of the day, the line from Kilkenny only reached Maryborough in 1867. The short line to Mountmellick was opened in 1883 and that was as far as the W&CIR got. In 1900, the GS&WR took over the company.

CASTLECOMER COLLIERY RAILWAY            

Files held at the British National Archives in Kew throw some light on proposals for a railway link to the Castlecomer Colliery. Collection Reference MT 6/2152/2  relating to the Castlecomer District Light Railway includes correspondence (Files R4217 & R4892 of 1912) between the Railway Department of the Board of Trade (London) and the Board of Works (Dublin). Mr. Shanahan (Dublin), in a letter to Mr Thomson (London), advises that plans for a light railway from Kilkenny to Castlercomer were lodged at the Board of Works (Dublin) in May 1909. The Board’s statutory report on the engineering merits was made in June that year. The matter for an Order in Council was postponed in pursuance of an agreement between the promoter of the light railway and the promoters of an alternative proposal, the Kilkenny, Castlecomer & Athy Railway, for a line right through from Kilkenny to Athy via Castlecomer. The longer line was however unable to raise the necessary capital, and accordingly promotion of the shorter line, namely the Castlecomer District Light Railway, was resumed, application for a Light Railway Order having been made to the Privy Council on 9 January 1912. The Board of Works (Dublin) expected be reporting to the Irish Government (Dublin Castle) within days. The correspondence also considers whether the proposed railway is a tramway within the meaning of the Tramways (Ireland) Acts, as no portion of the proposed railway was to run along a public road. If the line was to worked as a light railway aspect, it was suggested that there should be some restriction placed upon the weight to be carried upon each pair of wheels.

The order itself (File R8420 – received at the Board of Trade on 16 August 1912) details the promoter of the line, Richard H Prior-Wandesforde of Castlecomer House, Castlecomer. It also goes on to give details of Directors, their powers and qualifications , share capital, borrowing powers, etc. The more interesting sections deal with the gauge (5 feet 3 inches), acquisition of lands, level crossings, and other works. One amusing section (Clause 54) is headed “Roof Loading” and states that “No passengers or goods will be carried on the roof of any carriage or vehicle except with the permission of the Board of Trade …

The Second Schedule gives details of the route from Clintstown (sic) to Cloneen townland in the parish of Castlecomer. This was not the final route. Firstly, the junction proposed at Clintstown was 21 miles 312 yards from Maryborough, but the final plan for Castlecomer Junction was at 24½ miles, a difference of approximately 3¼ miles. For the record, the proposed line was to have gone easterly from Clintstown through the townland of Gragara towards Corbetstown. It then would have followed the route ultimately adopted, running via Dysart and the west side of Castlecomer. However, the second difference was the termination point which appears to be further east than that finally adopted. Cloneen would be nearer the Ballylinan Road ,currently the N78.

Irish Railway Executive Committee (IREC)        

Collections References MT 6/2523/5, 6/2595/2 and 2598/2 contain extensive material relating to  the construction of the Castlecomer railway, which took place during the period of Government control of the railways from 1916 to 1921. On 31 May 1917, Captain Prior-Wandesforde wrote to E A Neale, Chairman of the IREC, with a series of queries regarding the propsed line to Casltcomer. Neale referred Captain’s points to Dublin Castle and in a letter dated 20 June 1917 from the Under-Secretary at Dublin Castle to the IREC, the proposed railway is examined in great detail – 6 pages.  Points covered are as follows, in part substantially verbatim and otherwise synopsised:

1.    The coal field on the property of Captain Prior-Wandesford (sic), of Castlecomer House, is situate North of the town and coal is worked, or said to have been proved, over a considerable area. The nearest stations are Kilkenny 15 miles, Carlow 12 miles and Ballyragget 9 miles. The distance from the Castlecomer Mines to the proposed termination of the Wolfhill line, now under construction, is about 9 miles.

2.    The members of the IREC had visited the locality on 31 May 1917 and driven over the route from Athy to Kilkenny. One of the working pits, the Vera Colliery, was inspected and detailed information was obtained.

3.    Four workings are in operation at present, the several pits being somewhat widely separated; other pits have been closed, while trial borings have been made on unworked portions of the property, with successful results. The present output is approximately 60,000 tons per annum, and Captain Wandesford (sic) looks forward to increasing it, if rail communication is established, to 150,000 tons per annum immediately, and ultimately to 300,000 tons a year. To effect this large increase, additional pits would have to be opened and coal cutting machinery introduced, involving an expenditure which the owner estimates at £40,000. Altogether it is estimated that there remains about 60 million tons yet to be raised.

4.    The town of Castlecomer, with a population of 950, is in the centre of a good agricultural district, which, although surrounded by railways, is at a considerable distance from the nearest railway stations, and a small general traffic would be developed by a railway serving it directly.

5.    If the rail communication with Castlecomer is to be established, two alternative schemes suggest themselves (a) an extension of the Wolfhill line under construction, and (b) a distinct railway from Castlecomer to join the existing branch of the Great Southern & Western Railway at Clinstown[1], between Ballyragget and Kilkenny. The length of the former would be - to the Pits 9 miles; to Castlecomer town, about 10½ miles, and the latter - to the Pits about 10½ miles. The line from Wolfhill is estimated to cost, roughly, about £80,000 to the Pits and an additional £10,000 if brought on to the town. The line from Clinstown through Castlecomer to the Pits is estimated to cost about £110,000.

6.    The first named, i.e. the Wolfhill extension scheme, though cheaper as regards first cost, would involve a heavy gradient of 2½ miles of 1 in 80, up which all the Castlecomer Coal would have to be hauled, whereas the alternative (Clinstown) scheme provides for a line with a falling gradient with the load practically the whole distance.

7.    The Clinstown route is strongly favoured by Captain Wandesford (sic) on several grounds, For isntance: (a) It gives direct access to present markets for Castlecomer coal, i.e. Kilkenny and Abbeyleix districts, to which about 20,000 tons is sent annually. (b) It affords a shorter route to the South of Ireland generally where there is a good prospect of marketing the coal. (c) Districts served by the alternative route can be supplied from Wolfhill (assuming the output there to be increased as proposed), the haul from the colliery there being about 9 miles shorter than from Castlecomer. (d) The Clinstown line would afford better facilities to the Castlecomer district for general purposes (i.e. the distribution of agricultural produce and inwards sundry traffic) than the Wolfhill line would do, the natural trend of business being with Kilkenny, and with Waterford the nearest Port. Having regard to all the circumstances, “we consider that, if it is decided to construct a railway to Castlecomer, the route via Clinstown should be adopted. The terminus of the railway should be placed in a convenient position to receive the output from the new pits proposed to be opened by Captain Wandesford on the Skehana Seam, and so that connections with the outlying Pits, by means of tramways or ropeways, can be provided without difficulty”.

8.    “The question upon which we are required specifically to report, i.e. whether the construction of a railway to Castlecomer merits being recommended, as a War measure, when labour is released on the completion of the Wolfhill line, raises the following:”

9.    Whether railway communication is essential for the development of the Castlecomer coal area. The failure to develop the trade of this coalfield is mainly attributable to inadequate transit facilities and until road haulage has been superseded by rail communication, the use of Castlecomer coal cannot be much increased.”

10.  Whether a largely increased output of Castlecomer could be marketed. The coal now being raised from the Jarrow Seam is used mainly in the district and for domestic purposes. A small portion of the output is sent to more distant places by railway for lime-burning, domestic purposes, drying corn, steam raising, suction gas engines, horticultural and other purposes. The Skehana seam proposed is said to be equal on analysis to the best Welsh Anthracite and suitable for the purposes for which the latter is now used. The importation of Anthracite to Ireland in the year 1911 was about 86,000 tons, and may have increased since then, owing to the rapidly extending use of gas suction plants.”

11.  The time needed for the construction of the proposed line. The actual construction of the railway would take a period of about 15 to 18 months, but if it is decided to make the line, it should be put in hands at once. It is not apprehended that there will be any serious difficulty in getting the labour required for construction. If the commencement were deferred until the Wolfhill railway is finished, or is nearing completion, there is little probability that it would be ready for traffic until 1919 and its value as a saver of shipping tonnage in bringing coal from Great Britain to Ireland would be greatly lessened”.

12.  The provision of materials”. The objection seen by the IREC to railways such as the Castlecomer Railway at that time was whether new permanent way materials, such as rails, fishplates and fastenings could be procured commercially. The available supply was only for Government and other special work. The poorer railways in this country had very little margin of reserve and expressed concern about maintaining their lines in a safe condition. The Great Southern & Western Railway was willing to provide rails by taking up a second line of rails between Athy and Kildare on the same terms as in the case of the Wolfhill Line, and the sleepers could be obtained in this country. The steel required for the construction of the bridges, which were to be of Ferro-concrete, would require to be provided in good time, and Class A Priority Certificates should be given for this at once.

13.  The output of the Castlecomer Collieries is at present 240 tons per day - three times the output from the Wolfhill district and if a line is justified as a War measure to the latter, there is much more reason for that from the Castlecomer coal-field to Clinstown to connect with GS&WR near Ballyragget Station.

14.  The final paragraph of the letter was interesting, although it did not come within the terms of reference. It concerned the proposed termination at Wolfhill then being built by the Government. It stated that: “As laid out, the line would end in a deep cutting approached by a continuous gradient of 1 in 30. This is wholly unsuitable in view of the necessity of providing storage and other sidings. It is understood that by diverting the last 3 miles of the line the gradient can be improved to 1 in 40 and the Colliery approached on a workable gradient”. It was suggested that this modification be adopted.

The letter was signed by J. Ingram (Sec.)

STREET RUNNING

We come now to the construction of the line through the town of Castlecomer. Originally the line was to be built to the east of the town, starting near the present Railway Garage and passing in front of the Catholic Church. The gradients would have been easier as the railway would have followed the river. But strong objections were raised to this proposal.

Mr Keating, Secretary of the Irish Industries Committee, wrote in 8 July 1918 to Sir Albert Stanley, President of the Board of Trade in Whitehall. He drew attention to the fact that the proposed railway would pass by the Catholic Church as well as the Presentation Convent Schools. He pointed that this had caused a great deal of apprehension and asked Stanley to consider whether it would be possible to deviate the route a little. Another consideration which was pointed out was that the proposed route would run over the Main Sewers of the Sanitary Works of the Rural District Council in Castlecomer.

Another stronger letter came from the Rural District Council, but the reply from the Resident Engineer pointed out that completion of the line could be expedited by going through the town and that the construction of railways through the streets of towns was not unusual. The GS&WR’s Engineer’s Office and Stanley replied in similar manner, but promised to repair any damage to the sewers.

Nonetheless the route to the west, high over the town, was built instead.

AGRICULTURAL LABOUR

The Castlecomer Co-Operative Creamery passed a resolution on 15 August requesting the Board of Trade not to employ agricultural labourers in the construction of the new railway as otherwise the district would be denuded of labour necessary to reap the harvest.

SIDINGS & DEPOTS

Late in 1918 Kilkenny County Council sought a coal and merchandise depot at what would become Castlecomer Junction. There would be road access from the Ballyragget Road and the road known as the Triangle Road. As far as is known, this request was declined. Nowadays you can access a quarry from the Ballyragget Road level crossing and if you continue down the dirt track you come to the former Portlaoise line accommodation crossing. I imagine this was the area that they were hoping to build their depot. Ballyragget level crossing was 780 yards from the junction.

Around that time, Kilkenny Woodworkers also looked for a siding at Dunmore but were refused by the GS&WR, as there was no prospect of any traffic. Dunmore is also in the area of Castlecomer Junction

CONTRACTORS

The Contractors were Perry & Company (Bow) Limited, of London, and the agreement drawn up with Sir Albert Stanley MP, President of the Board of Trade, shows that work was to start from 1 July 1918 and to be completed no more than 1 year later. It confirms the length of about 10 miles from Deerpark to the junction with the Maryborough and Kilkenny line in the townland of Dunmore West. It will be noted that the junction was moved away from Clinstown, as mentioned earlier.

STATIONS

There was one intermediate station on the branch at Corbetstown. Dunmore was mentioned in correspondence as a possible second station on the branch It would have been 5 miles from Kilkenny. As Castlecomer Junction was 4¼ miles, then Dunmore would have been about ¾ mile further on. This would have put it close to the Ballyragget Road level crossing. The correspondence concluded that Corbetstown would be sufficient, being 7½ miles from Kilkenny and 4½ from Castlecomer. It should be noted though that the GS&WR pressed the Board of Trade for a station at Dunmore West Junction which in effect would have been a passenger station at Castlecomer Junction and given a connection to mainline trains for Dublin etc. rather than having to travel into Kilkenny. Cost of such a station was estimated at £2,200. The Chief Engineer of the GS&WR at this time was Mr A Gordon.

CHERRYVILLE JUNCTION - ATHY

There was some correspondence about singling the above section of line to provide rails and sleepers for the Castlecomer branch. Quoting from a letter dated 17 October 1918 from the GS&WR to the Board of Trade: “The rails on the section in question are in good condition and have lost only a small percentage of their weight owing to wear ... therefore, if the Company agree to bear a proportion of the expenditure in providing new rails they will be incurring an outlay many years in advance of what would have been necessary if the existing rails were left undisturbed. On this consideration I think that the allowance for betterment to be made by the Company should be a comparatively small one, and I would suggest that the quantity of new rails which the Company should receive should not be less than 90% of the tonnage of the rails taken up.

As regards the sleepers, these are on rather a different basis as the bulk of these were due for renewal and the work of replacing them with new ones would now have been in progress if the line had not been taken up. My suggestion therefore, is that the Government, instead of providing new sleepers, should pay for any that may be useable and can be transferred to the Castlecomer line at the current controlled price for that class and, as it is impossible at present to say what the price of sleepers may be when the line comes to be re-laid, that the Government should guarantee the Company a supply of new creosoted sleepers at the current rate at that time, but not exceeding the existing price, namely, 9/6d per sleeper (including creosoting).

I note the Government will bear the cost of any necessary alterations at Cherryville Junction, Kildangan and Athy, including the labour cost of taking up and relaying.”

 BRIDGES

In October work was held up because two girder bridges, 32 tons weight were required. It was pointed out that the Fishguard & Rosslare Railways & Harbours Company had two bridges on the Felthouse Junction to Killinick Junction section which in 1918 was no longer in use. The company was willing to release them on receiving an undertaking from the Government to replace them with new girders after the War when called upon to do so. The bridges had only  been in place for twelve years approximately and were described as being in as good condition as when erected. It is not clear where these bridges ended up, as there are two possibilities. At Dysart, the line crosses the river at two points in quick succession. However, in Castlecomer itself the line goes around the town. After crossing the street at Barrack Street, it proceeds along a substantial embankment and then crosses the road towards Deerpark. This bridge is in effect two bridges and it is quite likely that the redundant structures from the Killinick area were used here.

 PETITION

The Honorary Secretary of a Committee representing the people of Castlecomer and the surrounding district sent a petition to the Board of Trade in London pointing out that the railway under construction for coal traffic should also include services for passengers, livestock and general goods. They mentioned that the population to be served was about 15,000 and would increase with the development of the Collieries. There was also the question of establishing Fairs in Castlecomer which is in the middle of a large cattle and pig rearing area.

Another prospect for business was the Co-Operative Creameries and Mills in the area.

PROPOSED NARROW GAUGE RAILWAY

A proposal for a 3ft narrow gauge line was prepared by Captain Wandesforde to connect the Vera and Rock Bog pits with the main road from Castlecomer to Carlow. It would alleviate the heavy lorry traffic on the by-roads in the area.      This area is north east of Castlecomer and away from the Deerpark Colliery, which is on the road to Clogh. The plan was for a line from Rock Bog coming close to the Vera pit and then to a depot at the side of the road dealing with a daily tonnage of 300 tons. The length of the line would have been 2¾ miles and it would have terminated about ½ mile north of Coolbaun. There would have been four level crossings and the worst gradient would be for a short stretch after leaving Coolbaun. In the overall costing of £22,858, there was an estimate for just one locomotive and 51 two-ton side-tip wagons.

The Board of Trade was not enthusiastic about this proposal and favoured proceeding with the 5ft 3in line from Deerpark and using other methods such as ropeways to connect the various pits.

DYSART BRIDGE SIDING

From early 1919, a series of correspondence started about installing a siding at the above bridge about 1¾ miles south of Castlecomer. The railway was not expected to be completed to Deerpark until the autumn and the mining office felt that this siding could be in operation by March. The correspondence described the road conditions as terrible and that this siding would cut off 9 miles of road haulage. The usual debate started about cost and who will pay and a letter of 3 February provides an interesting insight on attitudes at the time. The letter from the Mining Office to London states “The GS&WR have never shown themselves to be in sympathy with Colliery undertakings in this country, their policy in the past having always been to give a preference tariff on imported coal, and it was with the object of defeating any sinister designs on the part of the Railway Co. that I asked you to intervene. Since writing to you, however, Mr Waller has made the suggestion that if he can get locally oak of a sufficient size to use on the bridges at Dysart Bridge, he would be able to give us a siding in Castlecomer itself at no very distant date, and the suggestion now is that we struggle on as best we can until a siding can be got in Castlecomer.” Further correspondence tells us that they expected the line to be completed to Castlecomer in July 1919 and the more difficult section to Deerpark to follow in the autumn. There are two bridges at this point and in June 1919 a very heavy flood occurred. The River Dinin reached a new height and force, and caused Mr Gordon of the GS&WR to raise the formation here. This in turn delayed the completion of the line to Castlecomer until September. The question of the temporary siding was raised again, but it was not installed. The GS&WR on 15 September 1919 was directed to make arrangements to convey coal traffic to Castlecomer as soon as the line was sufficiently completed for this to be done with safety.

COAL LINES summary

The Castlecomer branch was constructed under the Defence of the Realm Act and was one of three lines built for coal traffic, the others being to Wolfhill and Arigna. Construction started during the 1914-1918 War and the line was opened to traffic on 15 September 1919. The British Government put up the money for the construction and transferred ownership to the new Free State Government in 1922. The line was worked by the GS&WR, but in 1921 it was taken over by the Board of Works before the GSR took control in 1929. At first the Board of Trade intended that Irish Railway Executive Committee would work the line using rolling stock under its control. The IREC was not in a position to supply wagons but the GS&WR provided locomotives and rolling stock during the period of control. The cost estimate was £125,000, of which 35% was Permanent Way, 17% for Earthworks, 11% for Stations and 8% for Bridges. The remaining 29% covered Accommodation Bridges, Culverts and Drains, Metalling of Roads & Level Crossings, Gatekeepers’ Houses, Signalling, Telegraphs & Block Instruments, Engineering and Contingencies.

HISTORY OF COAL MINING

A brief history of coal mining in this area might be helpful. Anthracite coal had been mined locally since about 1640. There are three seams, firstly “The Three Foot Seam” which lies between 50 and 100 feet from the surface in an area north east of Castlecomer extending roughly from Doonone to Coolbaun. The next seam, which is 200 feet deeper again, was called the Jarrow seam. Finally there is the Skehana seam which is 300 feet lower again, and this is relevant to the railway as an inclined shaft was sunk in 1924 at the Deerpark Pit. Deerpark was worked from 1925 to 1969. Its deepest point was about 700 feet from the surface and 11 miles of underground roadways were constructed. In 1916 the Royal Commission on Coal Supply estimated “the coal still to be worked in the Leinster Coalfields at 180 million tons. For the last 10 years or more the average output of these collieries has been 60,000 tons. The fortnightly output at the present averages 2,500 tons. If a railway were built to connect these Collieries with Kilkenny the output could shortly be increased to 10,000 per fortnight. The line which is at present being built to Wolfhill will not serve the Castlecomer Collieries as Wolfhill is 9 miles distant at the extreme northern end of the coalfields. The area of the Royalties now being worked by these Collieries amounts to over 20,000 acres and only a limited portion of this area is worked out. With increased transport facilities the output is capable of great extension.” The report goes on to state that this coal is comparable to the best Welsh Anthracite.

OPENING DATES

In the Kilkenny People newspaper dated Saturday 20 September 1919, there is an interesting piece about the new railway and the Colliery. “It is most gratifying to be able to report that at long last the Castlecomer Railway has been so far constructed as to be able to convey from Castlecomer the product of the coal mines at Castlecomer, as just while I am penning these notes I have seen many loads of coals been filled into the wagons awaiting to be filled at the verge of Castlecomer (Collins’ Field). This will be good news to the outside public and will prove that the railway is a thing in fact. One good feature of the proceedings is that the coals are brought to the sidings from the pits by horse and carts. That will give a much needed employment to the carters as well as tend to preserve the roads from excess traffic which would be occasioned if engines were used to land the coals at the Castlecomer sidings."

 The above report confirms the opening date of Monday 15 September 1919. However, between that date and 29 February 1920 the signalling arrangements at Castlecomer Junction must have been very basic. The Weekly Circular for that date has a heading “Alterations at Castlecomer Junction 24¼- 24⅔”. The following text read: “On this date the line will be broken from 07:30 to 18:00 or such later hour as the work is finished. An Engine and Van to pick up men will leave Maryboro’ for Castlecomer Junction at 06:45 and all signal cabins from Conniberry to Kilkenny inclusive are to be opened so as to give this no delay. The train staff will be kept by the Driver all day at Castlecomer Junction and the cabins are to be opened in the evening from Ballyragget to Maryboro’ at 16:30 or such later hour as the Special may return.”

From that date, a new signal cabin and signals were brought into use. An Up Distant was fixed 1,000 yards out from the Home Signal. The Up Starter and Branch Starter were on a bracket signal. In the opposite direction there were Down signals from the Ballyragget side, but from Castlecomer (which was referred to as the Up direction), the Up Home was 100 yards from the fouling point. There was a loop and sidings provided and a number of discs installed. The same Weekly Circular stated that “The Branch is now open for Coal Traffic and will be worked for the present, until further notice, under the One Engine in Steam Arrangement as set forth in Book of Regulations for Train Signalling etc.” On the signalling diagram, there is a range of numbers from 1 to 32 with 8 spare. The location was quite extensively signalled to cater for a large volume of traffic. However, the group of sidings to the north of the junction were later dispensed with, most likely when the GSR took over in 1929.

In the Weekly Circular dated 17 February 1931, the signal cabin at Castlecomer Junction, all signals connected thereto, and the passing loop were dispensed with. The ETS (Electric Train Staff) section then became Kilkenny-Ballyragget. Castlecomer Junction points and the existing Home signal from the branch were then worked by a ground-frame controlled subsidiary ETS apparatus. The branch was governed by Manual Train Staff operation. In January 1944, Ballyragget Road, The Pike or Jenkinstown, and Dysart level crossing gates were altered so that the Up caution signal (i.e. in the direction of Kilkenny) was now controlled by the gates. There were 9 CX type crossings on the branch, and the 1935 Appendix to the Working Time Table shows that all were signalled but only in certain directions, mainly in the Up direction. All had cottages attached except Barrack Street, which was in the centre of Castlecomer.

At the other end of the line there was a progress report at this time (February 1920) in the Kilkenny People. “This long wished for railway is now rapidly nearing completion, the permanent way being laid and ballasted to the terminus at the Deer Park ... being the point at which the overhead ropeways from the collieries concentrate. When the ropeways are ready, the coal which is now hauled from the pits in carts and loaded on railway wagons at Castlecomer station will be dumped direct off the ropeways into the wagons ... a larger quantity of coal will be sent away than the 100 tons per day at present from Castlecomer.”

“As to the passenger service, a signal box with necessary signals, telegraphs etc. is well in hand at the junction at Dunmore (Castlecomer Junction), a commodious set of booking offices and waiting rooms at Castlecomer is approaching completion and a platform has also been constructed at Corbetstown. Passenger services are expected in the next few weeks...”

“No special engineering difficulties have been experienced. Two bridges over the River Dinin, each consisting of 6 spans of steel girders resting upon reinforced concrete piles driven well down into the river bed, have been constructed. In the town of Castlecomer a substantial bridge of 3 spans of steel girders on high abutments of concrete has also been constructed. The men employed on the works have been housed in the Castlecomer Workhouse.” In this regard huts from Scotland to relieve the accommodation shortage arrived at the Colliery in February 1920. Also, the ropeway contract at Deerpark was awarded to British Ropeway Engineering Ltd.

In the House of Commons, May 1920, the Minister for Transport reported that the whole railway was not completed yet, but that 9,857 tons of coal had been transported in the 5½ months to the end of February. As regards opening to Deerpark, an exact date cannot be given, but it would appear that it was later in 1920.

A Running Notice dated Monday 1 March 1920 shows an extension of the 10:48 from Waterford running right through to Castlecomer, reaching there at 16:00. It returned to Waterford at 17:30, arrival there at 22:50. This was confirmed in the Working Timetable (WTT) of 1 June 1920. All along there is no mention of Deerpark, but as the year progressed and the coal strike of that year worsened, the trains were restricted to run between Kilkenny and Castlecomer.

In the WTT from 1 November 1921, there are 3 mixed trains each way, leaving Kilkenny at 08:30, 12:30 and 16:50. They were allowed 40/45 minutes for the run. In the downhill direction from Castlecomer, they took 30/40 minutes, leaving at 10:25, 14:50 and 18:30. Later that month the service of mixed trains was changed to 2 trains each way.

Corbetstown was served by the 2 mixed trains each way as shown in the Working Timetable from 2 July 1923. Earlier in 1923, in the Weekly Circular for Sunday 27 May, there is shown a GAA special from Castlecomer at 12:00 to Kilkenny, returning at 18:00. Also in June that year, there were specials for the Kilkenny Sports and Feis. In all cases the empty train was provided by Kilkenny.

TRAFFIC

Passenger Services ceased on 24 January 1931 and the 1932 WTT shows just one goods train at 14:45, returning at 16:35, but in 1936 this again increased to two goods trains each way. This service continued until 1943, when trials resulted in a three-train schedule.

Files in the IRRS Archives dated 1943 describe a test train from Castlecomer to Kilkenny with 13 laden 10 ton wagons of coal and two 20 ton brake vans, the weight being just over 252 tons. Dysart, Jenkinstown and Ballyragget Road level crossings were approached by gradients of 1 in 40. The first two were protected by Stop Signals and worked in conjunction with the gates, but not interlocked. At Jenkinstown crossing, the gates were not protected by a signal operating from the gates, despite it being on the main Kilkenny to Dublin road. The first view the driver had of these gates, in the opinion of the Locomotive Inspector and Traffic Inspector conducting these tests, was from only about 150 yards. They stressed that close co-operation between driver and guard was essential for safe working. At Jenkinstown, interlocked signals received approval from the General Manager, Mr Bredin, more or less immediately, and this resulted in revised working on the Castlecomer branch. An engine was withdrawn from Kilkenny and two specials of 13 wagons each as against 3 specials of 10 wagons each began operating in early 1943. Should an additional special be required once or twice a week in order to clear the traffic, this could be arranged without retaining the extra steam locomotive at Kilkenny. The November 1943 WTT confirms this with departures at 07:00 and 10:50 from Kilkenny, with an “if required” path at 15:00.

Another letter in the Archives dated 3 November 1922 from Castlecomer Collieries Ltd. to the Secretary of the Office of Public Works requested permission to construct a siding from the main line at Deerpark. This siding was really a loop for five wagons and the correspondence states their intention was to start a yard there for the sale of their coal. Completion was about mid-February 1923.

Beet traffic was handled at Castlecomer and the programme for the Carlow 1936-37 campaign shows two laden wagons each Friday. They were brought to Kilkenny by the regular goods and attached to a beet special for Carlow there. In 1943-44, there were three laden beets on Mondays and these were attached to the Attanagh special. These two examples would be typical of the loads carried over the years. In a paper to the Society by E Fitzgerald in March 1949 on the beet and sugar traffic, he mentions that coal for the factories amounted to 80,000 tons per year. This was transported mainly from seaports but large quantities were also supplied from Arigna, Castlecomer and Slieveardagh. The coal was moved in the summer as the unloading facilities were taken up by beet traffic during the autumn/winter.

For the All Ireland Hurling Final against Cork on Sunday 1 September 1946, there was a train from Castlecomer at 07:00 to connect with a special at 07:45 from Kilkenny to Kingsbridge. The load was not to exceed 5 vehicles and accommodation was for 100 passengers. Arrival back in Castlecomer was 10 minutes after midnight. The four specials from Kilkenny were interesting. Routing of the 07:45 and 08:15 was via Gowran while the 08:00 and 08:30 were via Ballyragget. The Weekly Circular shows the first pair were restricted to 18 vehicles and 800 passengers whereas the second pair were allowed up to 22 vehicles and 1,000 passengers. It was advisable that all passengers had tickets as all trains were booked to stop at the check platform in Clondalkin.

For the Fair in Kilkenny on 7 August 1923, there were specials of empty cattle wagons at 10:00, 11:00 and 12:00 from Cabra. The last mentioned was booked to stable at Castlecomer Junction. With over 100 wagons at Kilkenny there was adequate storage here in the extensive arrangement of sidings. The monthly fair at Castlecomer required about 5 wagons.

The last stationmaster at Castlecomer retired in 1953 and his duties were taken over a depotman, to use a more modern expression.

Norman’s pictures were taken on 3 September 1962 with C202 working the 15:00 from Kilkenny. It was scheduled to stop at Castlecomer Junction for 9 minutes, where the key on the Kilkenny-Ballyragget staff was inserted in the Annetts lock and the goods would be locked into the branch. Restricted to 25mph the goods would reach Castlecomer at 15:54 before proceeding at 20mph to Deerpark arriving there at 16:30. Return was at 17:00. This train ran fairly frequently at this stage. C202 was the Kilkenny pilot and this class was allocated here around 1957. It was in that year that the locomotive shed was closed.

ROUTE DESCRIPTION

At Castlecomer Junction the branch diverged from the Kilkenny-Maryborough (Portlaoise) line about 4 miles north of Kilkenny. For the first ½ mile to the Ballyragget Road level crossing, the initial gradient is at 1:60 followed by 1:110. The line then heads cross-country to meet up with the main road to Castlecomer, crossing it at The Pike or Jenkinstown level crossing at Mile Post 1. Approaching the crossing, the grade is at 1:80 and after it is 1:55. Heading in a northerly direction, the line stays on the eastern side of the road and at MP1½ it passes Ballyrafton level crossing. Shortly after this, it falls at 1:41 and there is then a dip before MP2, followed by a fall on the approach to Mohill level crossing (MP2¼). Still staying close to the road, the gradients remain severe before reaching Corbetstown station at MP3¼. There was a loop here. Access to it at each end was by a single lever ground frame controlled by the key on the Staff. A station building was provided on the platform. After leaving the station, there was a level crossing and the line then drifted away from the road for the next 2¾ miles. The gradients were untypically gentle over the initial section with a continuous climb to MP5¾, before the level section at MP6 where the line crossed the River Dinin on 2 bridges. At this point, we are close again to the road and at Dysart level crossing at MP6¼, we climb again for about ½ mile before dropping down into Castlecomer station. Here, after passing the farm crossing, the single lever ground frame controlled entry to the loop. There was just one short platform with a wooden station building, and as the road was very close at this point the entrance was end-on from the town end. Beyond that, just off the platform was the Station Master’s house. This still stands today and appears to be in very good condition. Right beside the house was the turnout for the goods yard which had 3 sidings. The one nearest the public road had, from south to north, the goods store, the loading bank and the cattle bank. Like the passenger entrance, the “Cart Roadway” was end-on, also from the town. In today’s geography, the buffer stops would where the filling station is now and the words Railway Garage on the forecourt wall confirm this. One of the other sidings led to the water tank. At Castlecomer, there was no locomotive shed as the branch locomotive was always based at Kilkenny. Although foundations for a shed could be seen, this plan was abandoned by the Board of Works.

We now take a journey on the Deerpark section which left from the loop at MP7¼ and immediately tackled the 1:51 past Workhouse Road level crossing, before becoming level at Barrack Street crossing ¾ mile from the station. There was no cottage attached to this crossing. Before this crossing it is believed that there was a footbridge to facilitate access to the church.

 After Barrack Street, we are now on a high embankment and this led to two bridges over the Skehan Road and Clogh Road. There was a level section before dropping down to river level. What followed must been a very tough section, with falls and rises up to Deerpark level crossing at MP9¼, and finally the approach to the perimeter of the Colliery at MP10.

Deerpark Colliery gets its name from a herd of deer that was introduced by the Wandesforde family. Approaching by rail, the empty coal train passed between the Baths and the offices to the lower end of the yard. The pit head was about 500 yards from this point towards the left. The Baths were built in 1939 and after refurbishment in 1951 were considered to be one of the most modern facility in the country at the time with 1,000 lockers. They could accommodate up to 500 miners and each miner would have 2 lockers, one for his clean clothes the other for his pit clothes. After passing the weighbridge and offices and straight in front, came the Landing area. It came in a straight line from the pit head and was built on concrete pillars. Coal trucks came from the mine along this elevated landing area and passed through various buildings known as “Breaker“, “Washer” and “Screener”, where the coal was graded and prepared for onward despatch. Coal then travelled to the end of the Landing where it was tipped into horse drawn carts or rail open wagons. Beyond the Landing area, there were other buildings such as the Forge and the Sawmill, that produced various tools and even coal trucks used internally. There was also a powerhouse that housed a generator worked by steam. The “Magazine“ was a strong room that contained a very limited supply of explosives, enough for one day’s blasting of rocks in the mine. Further up the yard and away from the main activity, for safety reasons, a more extensive “Magazine” was kept. Explosives arrived by rail and the network in Deerpark reached this area, as the track continued past the Landing area.

 The mine at Deerpark was sunk in 1924 and opened in 1928. It closed finally in January 1969.

IRRS RAILTOUR

On Saturday 17 September 1960, the IRRS organised a special from Amiens Street to Mountmellick and Kilkenny. At Kilkenny,  GNR locomotive No. 197 4-4-0 Lough Neagh, which was the motive power throughout, worked tender first to Deerpark. This decision not to turn the locomotive at Kilkenny was very controversial as the locomotive crew would have preferred to go up to Deerpark chimney first and return tender first on the easier gradient. If they had gone up chimney first they would have had the benefit of the sanding applied to the wheels, but there were no back sanders on this locomotive ofr tender-first running. There were severe problems at Castlecomer Junction and it took many attempts to get the train moving. At Castlecomer itself, the dining car No. 2400 and possibly one other coach were removed for the final part of the journey to Deerpark. The coach next the engine was Inspection Saloon No. 352, built in 1912 and 42ft long. The reason I remember this trip was the balconies at each end provided great views of the locomotive as it tackled the difficult gradients of the Castlecomer branch. The steps at each end provided easy access at locations like Castlecomer Junction for photographic purposes. I do not remember the interior layout of 352, but a general arrangement drawing I have shows a section in the middle for an attendant as well as a toilet. To either side of this were open sections with tables and chairs. The drawing refers to gas light and cooking ring. The other coaching stock on the train were probably a laminated type coach, dining car No. 2400, another coach and a heating van. The tour returned from Deerpark chimney first via Kilkenny and Carlow.

CLOSURE

A CIÉ document issued by the Transport Control & Planning Unit dated November 1962  detailed the revised arrangements upon closure of the branch. Coal from Castlecomer was to be dealt with by a 19 ton tipper lorry attached to Kilkenny. Explosives were to be sent by road from Dublin. The local contractor at Castlecomer was to be let go. An undated document, but probably around that time, gave some interesting statistics about freight traffic. Annually there were 208 wagons of Sundries, 624 wagons of coal and 12 wagons of explosives.

GS&WR wagon No. 15432 was one of 6 wagons converted from old wagons about 1915 in Inchicore. They were marked Powder wagons, and weighed 7 tons with a 10 foot wheelbase.

In Pádraic O’Cuimin’s article in Journal No. 51 on MGWR wagons, he gives details of two gunpowder wagons built at the end of the 19th century. In their construction, they were suitably strengthened both inside and out.

In the early 1960s, there were many closures, and this branch saw its last train run on 1 January 1963. B101 left Kilkenny at 14:40 to clear all wagons from Castlecomer and Deerpark. When it passed Castlecomer Junction, at 17:45 the points were locked for the last time, bringing to an end just over 43 years of service.

Very little remains of the branch today, but a visit to the Castlecomer Discovery Park is well worthwhile, as there is an exhibition tracing the history of the coal industry. This describes very well the facilities provided at Deerpark, as well as displaying illustrations of the sidings at the screening area. One picture caught my attention. The caption states that it was the first train to arrive at Castlecomer on 21 February 1921. It shows locomotive No. 49 and inspection saloon No. 352. I wonder about the date, but maybe this was an inspection run prior to passenger services starting in August. Locomotive No. 49 belonged to the E3 Class 0-4-4BT built in Inchicore 1883. This wheel arrangement was a rare designation, it referred to the back tank at the rear of the bunker. This locomotive also included a side window fitted to the cab. It was withdrawn in 1945. The carriage No. 352 featured on that trip in 1960. Another picture, but this time in the Kilkenny station waiting room, shows a view of Castlecomer with the line going to the yard on the right and the line to Deerpark climbing away to the left behind the Catholic Church. The photographer is standing roughly where the Texaco “Railway Garage “now stands. The Church has a painting of miners at Deerpark.

WOLFHILL BRANCH

There has been various mention of this branch earlier in the paper. The branch diverged from the Waterford line just south of Athy station. It was sanctioned by the Government and in March 1917 the GS&WR agreed to build the line at cost, which turned out at £125,000. The line was brought into use on 24 September 1918 and in the early days considerable tonnages were transported.

After the end of the War British coal was more freely available and by 1929 when the GSR were handed the colliery lines on a 99-year lease, coal traffic had ceased at Wolfhill. The track was lifted beyond Ballylinan. After crossing the River Barrow on a 6 span concrete bridge, there was a trailing siding into the Asbestos Cement Ltd. Factory, later called Tegral. In the 1950s and 1960s much of the cement came from Drogheda Boyne Road in what were then the new GNR bulk cement wagons. In more recent times, the bulk cement came from Limerick, but this traffic finished completely in 2005.

The 4½ miles to Ballylinan were over gentle gradients and this section was kept open for beet traffic until 1963. This small village had just the loading bank, run-round loop, and a hut with a telephone.

After leaving Ballylinan the line descended to the River Fuer and an embankment can still be seen here next to the Portlaoise-Carlow road. After that, the reoute takes to the hills where the coal deposits are, with some severe gradients and sharp curves. Typical GS&WR crossing cottages are still there in some cases. At about MP8¾, there was a branch, only ¼ mile long, to serve Gracefield pit. Board of Trade sanction was received for a cableway to connect with the pit at Gracefield.

The line then went south again and 2 concrete bridges are still visible to this day. Modubeagh pit was next and it was at Wolfhill the line terminated at Wolfhill, 10 miles from Athy.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I would like to particularly thank Oliver Doyle for great help and encouragement in preparing this article, also Peter Rigney and Herbert Richards for help with IRRS archival items and Ciarán Cooney for enhancing Norman McAdams’ slides for presentation and publication.

Further great help was provided by Dick Brennan of Castlecomer, a friend of Clifton Flewitt’s, to both of whom many thanks. I am also grateful to RoryMcNamee for sharing his research on the coal-mining branches.


[1] “Clinstown” is the townland referred to as “Clintstown” on the previous page. “Clinstown” appears to be used locally and was used by Capt Prior-Wandesforde in his letter, but the Ordnance Survey identifies the locality as “Clintstown”. Confusingly, there is also another “Clintstown” not far away, near Freshford.

The remainder of this article appears in IRRS Journal number 184, published June 2014 

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Revised: October 08, 2014 .