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1917 on the Irish Railways



In 1917, the war entered its fourth year – with no prospect of victory in sight. From the beginning of the war, the Royal Navy imposed a strict blockade on continental Europe, which caused food shortages in Germany and Austria- Hungary. As a response to the threat of defeat by starvation, Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare on 9 January. This meant that any ships trading with Britain were subject to attacks without warning. This caused significant losses of merchant shipping and the threat of a food shortage in Britain. However, a consequence of unrestricted submarine warfare was that the USA came into the war on 6 April. The other significant event of Spring 1917 was the first Russian Revolution in February. This brought down the Romanov dynasty and was a prelude to the Bolshevik Revolution in October, which took Russia out of the War. On the Western Front, the major military engagements, of 1917 was the battle of Passchendaele, which has become symbolic of the slaughter on the Western Front. Looking at material in the Society’s Archive and Library, the main themes which emerge are those of material and manpower shortages and of the movement of troops towards the front.



1917 was the first year of government control of the railway system, which was exercised by the Irish Railway Executive Committee. This body was made up of the general managers of the major companies, chaired by the government’s Irish Undersecretary. The minutes of the Committee are a mine of information, particularly in respect of companies whose archives do not survive. In addition to minutes, the IREC issued many directives on a wide variety of subjects, including a prohibition on the acceptance of soldiers’ kit and rifles in Left Luggage Offices and the arrangements to be applied for troops escorting loads of explosives.

 The first meeting of the IREC was on 2 January 1917, and it continued to meet at least weekly for the remainder of its existence. A major part of its work was the curtailment of train mileage and of traffic. This policy had in fact commenced in December 1916, when the Government banned excursion traffic. This badly affected the GAA, and the book The GAA & the Revolution in Ireland 1913-1923 contains no less than eleven index entries under the heading “rail travel”. However, some special trains were more special than others, and those involving horses or the killing of small animals received special treatment. A hunt special ran between Naas and Baltinglass on 6 March, while a special ran from Limerick to Kilgobbin on the North Kerry line for the coursing events at Clounanna on St Patrick's Day and in November. The first meeting of the IREC agreed to cancel special trains for athletic and football meetings. but not for race meetings - as lack of specials 'would seriously interfere with the working of ordinary trains.' In addition, all reduced fares for pleasure were abolished, as were concession fares for fairs and markets. In March, the IREC instructed that race specials were to be advertised inconspicuously.

In January, English railway companies who had notice boards at GS&WR stations requested that any notices ‘advertising holiday resorts or anything to encourage travel’ be removed. The newspapers in April gave details of the restrictions that would be applied to travel at Easter.

 Military traffic increased, and a GS&WR circular of 13 January gave general guidance on military specials. Among the things it specified was that every attempt should be made to have at least one lavatory coach per train.

A recurring problem was the demand by the Army for more men. Conscription was introduced in Britain in December 1916, but was politically impossible in Ireland, where the army relied on voluntary recruitment. A number of public relations measures were undertaken to promote enlistment. In February, the Irish Canadian Rangers – a unit of the Canadian Army composed of Irish migrants - toured Ireland. On 3 February, the GS&WR took over a train of GNR(I) coaches and worked it to Cork. The GNR(I) coaches remained with the Canadians and provided specials to Blarney and Limerick before returning northward. Later in February, the band of the Irish Guards toured Leinster. The circular ordained that ‘Rosslare coach 869’ was to be allocated to the band and it was attached to regular trains from Waterford in the week beginning 20 February, visiting Kilkenny, Clonmel, Tipperary, Mountmellick and Tullamore.

The minutes of the IREC also highlight manpower and materials shortages. The larger companies were asked to act as fairy godmothers to their smaller counterparts. In the first quarter of 2017, the West Clare sought help from the GS&WR in re-laying, the SL&NCR sought help from the GNR(I) and the GS&WR in re-laying and wagon repairs, while the L&LSR sought help from anywhere to cope with its problems of engine power. The newly created Ministry of Munitions regulated the engineering industry in the minutest detail. For example, the L&LSR needed their approval to recruit extra workshop staff to resolve its problems with locomotive availability.

















Another aspect of the manpower crisis was the recruitment of civilian permanent way labourers on three-month contracts for service behind the lines in France. This request was first raised by the War Office with the IREC in February. The initial request did not produce the desired results, as a month later an amending circular was issued which clarified a number of issues – volunteers would not be asked to serve within 50 miles of the firing line and the phrase ‘under military law’ meant that strikes would be prohibited.

This experiment was not a happy one as the Official History of the war records[i].

Eight companies of railwaymen from Great Britain and five from Ireland were supplied. As in Crimea in 1855 and Sudan in 1885, the experience of employing civilians in an overseas theatre of war did not prove altogether satisfactory, and further offers of assistance of this kind were declined. As civilians, they could only be deployed in safe areas. In view of the large pay they received compared with their fellow railwaymen who had enlisted, to employ them alongside the ordinary railway construction units would have caused discontent among the latter. The cost and trouble involved was out of proportion to the value of their help.




















The battle of Passchendaele commenced on 31 July with a British assault near Ypres. We can trace the movement of men to this battle from the GS&WR circular. The first indication came in February when the regular Saturday military leave special from Kildare to Kingsbridge stopped running[ii]. Further signs that much of the Army was now in France came in a note in the circular of 25 August which reminded ticket checkers and booking office clerks to ensure that NCOs and men ‘returning to France off leave in Ireland must travel by the Kingstown mail route as the North Wall route will not allow the men to arrive in London to catch the special train leaving Victoria station at 07.50 am’. Presumably officers travelled on regular trains or on a later special train.

The concentration of troops for the battle began in early July. On 10 July, three specials conveyed a large group of men to Cork, each special conveying 23 officers and 750 men. The pattern was repeated on the following day. On 19 August, eight specials from the Curragh carried approximately 2,700 officers and men together with horses and bicycles. One special conveyed 54 tons of baggage and two vans full of explosives. The trains took one hour between Curragh siding and Kingsbridge Goods.

The war brought about a shortage of materials. A coal shortage prompted the building of rail links to Ireland’s coalfields. In February, the Government sought the cooperation of the IREC in the opening of a railway to Wolfhill Collieries. On 23 March, the GS&WR board agreed that construction of the line should proceed at Government expense. With exception of the viaduct over the Barrow at Athy, undertaken by William Arrol and Co, the work was undertaken directly by the GS&WR, and required the singling of the Cherryville Junction to Carlow section to provide rails. For Sunday 10 June, the circular advised that ‘the down line between Mageney and Carlow stations will be dispensed with after the passing of the 08.45 down passenger train and ETS working will be substituted.’ On 18 June, the points leading to the Wolfhill branch at Athy were brought into use. This was the first of the colliery railways to come into use, the other two being the Castlecomer branch and the Arigna valley extension on the C&LR.

Shell production continued in Inchicore. Weekly production reports were given to the Board with that of 26 April being typical, recording an output of 8,500 fused bodies and 11,040 fuse adaptors. The Ministry of Munitions built a bonded testing area in the grounds of the Royal Hospital just opposite Kingsbridge. Two sidings were laid to serve the facility. The GS&WR board was advised that Guinness was not charged for repairs worth £80 on their loco No. 2 undertaken in Inchicore, as Guinness did all the shunting in the Ministry of Munitions sidings (which were connected to the GS&WR via the Guinness tramway).



The railway was also witness to the growing instability of national politics in the wake of 1916.

On 14 September there was a near riot in Ennis station, when a group of prisoners under RIC escort were transferring from the West Clare train to the GS&WR train bound for Limerick. The district superintendent reported ‘The prisoners were ordinary prisoners convicted of petty offences. The crowd was set in motion by a telegram from Kilrush which suggested that the prisoners were in fact Sinn Féiners’. On 10 October, the RIC were besieged in Listowel station by an angry crowd, and the assistance of the railway staff was acknowledged by Dublin Castle, while on 20 November, the GS&WR complained that Limerick and Nenagh stations were taken over by crowds and that ‘At Nenagh military drill was exercised on the platform, members of the constabulary being present but no notice was taken by Police’[iii].

At the level of National Politics, the main event of 1917 was the Irish Convention, an attempt – ultimately unsuccessful – to bring together all the political parties in Ireland and agree a form of Home Rule. In late September the convention visited Cork and on 27 September a special train was run for delegates. The Irish Times reported:

‘The railway journey, which was made in splendid time, revealed the high efficiency of the system … The train left Cork at 3 o’clock, and Dublin was reached at 5.55 pm, the Northern delegates being enabled to catch the evening train to Belfast. The run of 165 miles was thus made in what is probably the “record time” of 175 minutes. The services of the engine-driver and fireman were suitably recognised by the party.’[iv]

Further information was given by P.J. Currivan in the Journal, as witnessed by his father, driver of a down train:

‘In the failing light of a September evening, as they approached Clondalkin, Martin drew my father’s attention to what looked like a dull-red poppy coming along on the up road. This turned out to be Bill Breen with 328, completing what was to be one of the fastest runs ever done with steam in Ireland. … The load was 140 tons – two 45 ft 1sts; two 30 ft six-wheeled vans; and one 50 ft saloon. The 79 miles from Cork to Thurles were covered in 75 mins, and the 155 miles to Islandbridge in the fast time of 155 minutes. Breen’s average speed was 62 mph, and between Limerick Junction and Thurles it was 74.’[v]



In December 1917, both sides in the war were reaching exhaustion. We now know that 1917 was to be the last full year of the war, but contemporaries had no such assurance. The October revolution took Russia out of the War, giving Germany a chance to transfer troops from the East for one final push on the Western front before thousands of fresh American troops arrived in Europe. It was still all to play for.

In addition to the sources noted below, the sources for this article were:

GS&WR weekly circulars,

GS&WR board minutes,

IREC minutes,

IREC instructions.

[i] A. M. Henniker, Transportation on the western front, 1914-1918, London, HMSO, 1937 p 223.

[ii] For details of these specials see The Great Southern and Western Railway in 1915, IRRS Journal Oct 2015, Vol 26, No 188, p 349.

[iii] GS&WR Secretary Files 2865 Assembly of disorderly crowds at stations; 2872 Assistance rendered to police by staff.

[iv] Irish Times, 28 September 1917.

[v] PJ Currivan, Engineman’s Son, IRRS Journal Oct 1974, Vol 11, No 65, p 277.



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Revised: May 17, 2018 .