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BUILT HERITAGE - The Galway Clifden Railway Line

Background and Further Information

The Midland and Great Western Railway Company received a grant of £264,000 towards the construction of a railway linking Galway and Clifden. The balance in the cost of constructing the railway was met by the Company. This development followed the passing of the ‘Light Railway (Ireland) Act’ in 1889.The single line railway was opened 6 years later with 7 stations at Moycullen, Ross, Oughterard, Maam Cross, Recess, Ballynahinch and Clifden.

Passing places or loops with up and down platforms were located at all but Ross, Ballynahinch and Clifden. A turntable was located at the terminus of Clifden. The line was of a standard guage (5 feet 3 inches), (Villiers-Tuthill, 2008). Twenty-eight bridges were built with 13 small ‘accommodation’ bridges and many culverts were constructed to mitigate against sudden increases in water following heavy rainfall (Villiers-Tuthill, 2008). The details of the construction of the many bridges and other works are contained in book entitled ‘The Connemara Railway’ (2008) by Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill.

The construction of the railway line was intended to increase prosperity for the region. However areas to the west including Spiddal, Carraroe and Roundstone were left out of the plan to the disappointment of many. Although the MGWRC designed a route to follow the coastline which would be in an area of 60,000 people, the Royal Commission on Public Works directed that the route would be located inland.

Lobbying of the Government prior to construction

In the 1880’s the people of Connemara experienced harsh conditions due to a variety of reasons including bad harvests, poor weather and a fall in agricultural prices. As a result, demands were directed towards the Government to take action in order to assist the public (Villiers-Tuthill, 2008). It was decided that the construction of a railway line would provide employment as well as opening up the Connemara area for enterprise in particular by transporting local produce to outside markets (Villiers-Tuthill, 2008). It was also thought that it would lead to the stabilisation of food prices since much of the food brought into Connemara came by sea which sometimes led to food shortages in the region (Villiers-Tuthill, 2008).

Following a meeting of magistrates, ratepayers and inhabitants of the Town of Galway and Neighbourhood, held in 1885 in the Court House in Galway, a document was produced which was addressed to William Gladstone (M.P. First Lord of Her Majesty’s Treasury) from the High Sheriff T.G.P. Hallet Esq. In the document which was published in the Galway Express newspaper (4 April 1885) 8 points of interest were produced in a plea to ensure that the construction of the railway line would commence.

The main constraints to the plan were financial due to the high rates that existed in the baronies of Moycullen, Ross, Ballinahinch and the County of the Town of Galway. The document suggested that the railway could be established as a “paying concern, free of all rating and taxation”.

A key objective outlined in the document was that the railway line would seek to ‘open up and develop the mineral, pastoral, agricultural, tourist and residential capabilities of this highland district and the important fisheries of its lakes, rivers and seacoast’.

At the time that the document was issued, Imperial Funds were liberally granted by Parliament to the Railway necessities of Ireland but that they were ‘fast disappearing’ since ‘the rich areas’ were ‘rich enough to take advantage of their conditions’ but were ‘useless to the poorer districts like Connemara for which they were originally intended’.

Another moot point stated that the proposed railway line was a question of ‘the complete moral and material isolation of the large district of her Majesty’s dominions through which it would run – a highland district that has bred the Connaught Ranger, and has given Him, as its world-famous contribution, to her Majesty’s armies; the unfortunate evils that this isolation tends to produce’. It continued by suggesting that the proposed line would have a role in ‘controlling these evils’ and in ‘destroying the cause on which they are so largely dependent’.

At the time, the railway was pronounced by the Lord Chancellor and Privy Council to be one of “immense” of “almost national importance”. Yet, the line closed in 1935 after only 40 years in operation having failed to attract sufficient customers. The last line left Clifden on 27 April 1935.

Bianconi’s Long Car

Prior to the operation of the Galway-Clifden line, Connemara was served by Bianconi’s long car from the 1830’s to the 1860’s. This four-wheel car departed daily from Galway at 9.30 a.m. while another car, both horse-drawn, departed Clifden at 9 a.m. (Villiers-Tuthill, 2008). The route travelled was through central Connemara, via Oughterard, at an average speed of between 6 and 7 miles per hour and reached their destinations in the late afternoon. Mail was also transported via a two-wheel mail car from 1851. The Bianconi service closed in 1867 and the route from Galway to Clifden was operated thereafter by Kennedy-O’Brien (Villiers-Tuthill, 2008).

Remaining Structures

Many relics of the old 48 mile long railway line can still be viewed today. Eighteen gatekeeper’s houses were erected at public road level crossings (single story structures with a living room, 2 bedrooms, an outside porch and outhouses). The houses were made out of local sandstone and red bricks. The gatekeepers manually operated the level crossings.

Employment and Construction

The line was designed by Engineers Mr. John Henry Ryan and by Professor Edward Townsend. The former had originally proposed a coastal route while the latter had proposed the direct line. Their function, as employees of the Midland Great Western Railway Company was to lay out the line, to prepare the contract plans and estimates for putting out to tender, and to supervise the work to completion (Villiers-Tuthill, 2008). The Board of Works made alterations to the plan; therefore fresh plans were designed and resubmitted for approval by the Grand Jury. Mr. John Ryan later argued that given the length of the line, the harsh weather encountered, they had insufficient time to properly conduct their survey (Villiers-Tuthill, 2008).

The line was divided into 3 sections and 2 of the Resident Engineers on the project were named as C.E. Moore and Robert J. Kirwan. The 3 Contractors involved in the construction of the line were Robert Worthington, Charles Braddock and Travers H. Falkiner (Villiers-Tuthill, 2008).

With the first Contractor, (Worthington) problems were encountered relating to labourers’ working terms and there were concerns over the quality of Worthington’s work. As a result, when the final contract was being awarded, Charles Braddock won out over Worthington. Braddock also ran into difficulty relating to the payment of wages to workers and was leaving debts with Galway traders unpaid. This led to deterioration in worker-employer relations culminating in a strike. The MGWR were forced to take possession of the entire works as a result of breach of contract leading to the appointment of Hertley Falkiner as the new Contractors (Villiers-Tuthill, 2008).

Labourers’ Living Conditions

Since many labourers lived some distance from the construction site, they were accommodated in huts located along the route. The huts had 10 beds approximately plus bedding and a stove, and in some cases it was 2 men to a bed (Villiers-Tuthill, 2008).

During the construction of the line over 1,000 men were given regular employment. On occasion the number rose to 1,500 – mainly skilled men who lived locally. Complaints were made that too many outsiders were given employment on the project (Villiers-Tuthill, 2008).


The hard labour involved in the construction of the line inevitably led to there being much thirst amongst the workers. Shebeens were set up along the line which sold poitín to the workers. The local Priest complained about the adverse effects that poitín was having on the labourers, however, the shebeens remained open until the works were completed (Villiers-Tuthill, 2008).


Only 2 fatalities were reported in the Local Press. In June 1892, a young person 10-12 years old employed on the line was struck by a wagon and later died of his injuries. In June 1893, John Naughton was killed near Oughterard when rocks and clay being loaded onto a cart fell on top of him (Villiers-Tuthill, 2008).


‘The Connemara Railway’ by Kathleen Villers-Tuthill (Connemaragirlpublications). A 52 page booklet giving the complete history of the railway.

Report: Carrig Building Fabric Consultants and Mary McMahon Urban Heritage Consultancy (2010). Galway Industrial Archaeology and Engineering Heritage Survey. Phase 1: Connemara Electoral Area.

TG4 ran a documentary on the railway Boithre Iarann