In extenuation for his many crimes, it was once suggested that at least Benito Mussolini, the Italian Fascist leader, ‘made the trains run on time’. It’s hardly enough to erase the invasion of Abyssinia, and his alliance with Nazi Germany, nor the liquidation of a number of inconvenient political opponents.
But you can’t even offer that excuse, in the case of one of the great villains of Irish history, Captain William Henry O’Shea. The reason O’Shea didn’t make the trains run on time, was that he was one of the great parliamentary champions of the notoriously dilatory West Clare Railway. This narrow-gauge iron road ran, if that particular word doesn’t suggest far too much urgency, between Ennis and Moyasta, and thence west to Kilrush, or east to Kilkee, whichever was your preference. It travelled the route via Ennistymon, Lahinch and Milltown Malbay. It was the last operating narrow-gauge passenger railway in the country. The problem is that it just wasn’t very reliable.
Despite its lack of length—it was only twenty-seven miles long when it opened in 1887—it was actually two railways, the West Clare and the South Clare, which met at Milltown Malbay. Hardly comparable to the iconic junction of America’s Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads at Promontory Point in Utah, but very exciting for the good citizens of Clare nonetheless, who now found it much easier to get around and to connect with the country’s main rail network at Ennis. The line was later extended to forty-eight miles in overall length.
Although work had already started the previous November, the sod was not officially turned on the original construction site until January 1885. O’Shea, the semi-detached Nationalist MP for Clare, wanted his pound of flesh, after months of lobbying parliament to ensure that funds were made available for the project, so the party leader himself, Charles Stewart Parnell, was recruited to pop over from his unwedded bliss with O’Shea’s wife Katharine in London, and do the needful with a shovel. Also in attendance was the man chosen to build the railway, one William Martin Murphy, who would have his own days in the sun during the infamous Dublin Lockout of 1913.
Of course, the railway was immortalized by its hilarious brush with the songwriter and performer Percy French. He successfully sued the line for loss of earnings, after arriving four and a half hours late for an engagement in Kilkee, on 10 August 1896 thanks, he alleged, to the rather relaxed attitude of the railroad employees to the joys of timetabling. He won £10 and costs at the Ennis Quarter Sessions in January 1897.
Now most sensible corporations, when in a hole, stop digging. But not the West Clare Railway. They appealed the decision at the next Clare Spring Assizes, held before the formidable jurist, Chief Baron Palles. French might have forfeited the case, as he arrived an hour late for the hearing. But his explanation—‘I took the West Clare Railway here, your honour’—probably sealed the case in his favour, though unless he was travelling from coastal Clare it was a humorous porky.
In the course of his contribution French offered a couplet that suggested he had a certain composition in mind already. He informed the Chief Baron that, ‘If you want to get to Kilkee / You must go there by the sea’. The lines didn’t actually make it into his final revenge on the hapless railway line ‘Are you right there Michael’ which begins:
You may talk of Columbus’s sailing
Across the Atlantical Sea
But he never tried to go railing
From Ennis, as far as Kilkee
Incidentally, on the same day as Percy French’s court appearance, one Mary Anne Butler from Limerick was also suing the railway, alleging that she had been attacked by a malevolent donkey on the platform in Ennis.
The line closed down in 1961, but thanks to a group of local enthusiasts the West Clare Railway lives once more. Part of the line, between Moyasta and Kilkee, has been restored, and one of the original engines, the exquisite Slieve Callan, is back in use.
The national press reported, that the first sod of the West Clare Railway was turned by Charles Stewart Parnell, one hundred and thirty-two years ago, on this day.