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By Train to Distant Parts of Donegal

"Ballyshannon Alice". Does anyone even remember the name today? Not too many, I'll wager. No ode was written to her. She was not one of the Three Graces celebrated by the poet, Willy Allingham, "Lovely Mary Donnelly", "Kate of Ballyshannon", and "The Pilot's Daughter". That was not surprising because, unlike her elder sister, also named "Alice"--this was Ballyshannon, after all, where everything came in twos, cinemas, newspapers, railways--she did not appear on the scene until 1912, thirteen years after Allingham had died.

The two Alices belonged to a large family once known the length and breadth of Donegal. It numbered twenty-three in all, of which six bore feminine names, three male nomenclature, and fourteen boasted the names of rivers and towns. They were the steam engines that drew the trains on the narrow gauge (3 feet) County Donegal Railway system from 1860 to its closure on January 1st, 1960.

The CDR provided legendary service throughout its hundred years' existence, its passenger service achieving a standard that can only be marvelled at in the impersonalized times of present-day rail travel. It had its famous counterpart in the West Clare Railway immortalized by Percy French in his song with the refrain:

"Are you right, there, Michael, are you right?
Do you think we'll be home before the night?
Sure it all depends on whether
The old engine sticks together,
And it might now, Michael, so it might."
More recently, on another continent, "The Newfie Bullet" in Canada's Newfoundland, and "The Polar Bear Express" in northern Ontario shared some similar characteristics with Donegal's own railway line. By pre-arrangement, all three would halt to allow passengers to embark or disembark where no scheduled stop existed.

In the case of the CDR, if it was realized that a regular customer had not shown up in time for the posted departure, leniency was extended, and the train would not leave a station until a five-minute grace period expired. The time could always be made up on the next leg of the journey. My brother, Charlie, has recorded his own experiences in this respect and, if space permits, I hope to include his story in a later number.

My own connection with the CDR began early in life and continued throughout my years spent in Ballyshannon. Some of my first memories include short summer runs to the seaside at Rossnowlagh, population around 100. There as a small boy--please don't laugh--I once heard a leprechaun, tap, tap, tapping as he mended fairy shoes in a sandhill which sheltered the golf links from sand blowing from the strand. Now, some may say "insect", or "bird", or "small animal", but I heard a leprechaun for, whenever I went searching for him the tapping always stopped. Then, when I stopped, the tapping would resume.

As is well known, it's very difficult to catch a leprechaun unless you take him by surprise. This one was far too cute for me, and his pot of gold remains to be discovered to this very day. If you're ever in the neighbourhood and want to try to find him, concentrate on that area just to the right of the little road that leads from the old railway station to the strand. Unfortunately, you can't get there by train any more.

In later years I took the CDR to Rossnowlagh to report on the annual 12th of July Orange Parades when lodges from Donegal and surrounding counties sent bands and supporters to that venue. Save for one short period, this annual event has continued without incident to this very day, unlike the strife attendant on civil rights processions and Orange parades in the Six Counties. I have other memories of Rossnowlagh, but this tale is getting off the track and they can wait.

Throughout my years at St. Eunan's College in Letterkenny, I was a frequent traveller on the CDR, going and returning as term opened and closed. This was during the war years, 1941-45, and I have already described the Sunday excursionists from Derry to Bundoran who were obliged to break their journey in Ballyshannon to walk the mile and a half that separated the CDR station from the GNR (Great Northern Railway) station on the other side of town. See "Of processions and celebrations" in "The Kindly Spot".

The CDR stationmaster was Mr. MacMahon, the father of Malachy, one of my fellow students at the De La Salle Brothers school on The Rock. I remember Mr. MacMahon for many acts of kindness, both then and in later years when, on Friday afternoons, I would dutifully carry parcels of the "Vindicator" newspaper up to the CDR station for carriage to newsagents in "distant parts of Donegal". I am indebted to Lauri MacMahon of Ballyshannon for that all-embracive phrase. They included Donegal Town, Killybegs, Ballybofey, Stranorlar, and the like.

Mention of these towns brings back memory of a chant familiar to countless travellers on the CDR and Lough Swilly Railway who journeyed on the section running through the town of Carrigans. Being a small town, it provided few passengers either arriving or departing, but each train was obliged to stop at the station in spite of the fact that rarely did anyone either get on or leave it.

This led the lonely station porter to parade up and down the platform, as a train drew in, proclaiming in a loud voice, "Carrigans! Carrigans! Anybody there for here?"-- (pause)--"S'pose naw!"

The County Donegal Railway provided much needed employment throughout a county where stable employment was in poor supply. Regrettably, road transport cut deeply into its revenues, and the service came to a permanent halt, as already told, in 1960.

Nowadays its existence is perpetuated only among the ranks of railway buffs for whom the era of steam engines has a compelling fascination. They are to be found all over the world. Where possible, they travel long distances to seek out the few remaining railroads where "puff-puffs" still roll along tracks "broad and narrow". In fact one group in my current home city has restored section of a track running from Ottawa/Hull to Wakefield, P.Q., and make a profit carrying tourists in old-fashioned railway cars throughout the summer months, the cars being pulled by a beautifully restored steam engine.

The CDR's memory is also perpetuated on the Internet where, browsing last March, I stumbled on a site which, among information of all kinds, has a page titled "Irish Narrow Gauge Railways". There I discovered "Ballyshannon Alice", builder Naysmyth, Wilson, date 1912, and her elder sister "Alice", builder Sharp, Stewart, 1881.

For the record, and since this may be the last time to traverse this ground in the current millennium, I give the names and dates of their twenty-one sisters and brothers, as follows: "Blanche" 1881; "Lydia" 1881; "Meenglass" 1893; "Drumboe" 1893; "Inver" 1893"; "Finn" 1893; "Foyle" 1893; "Columbkille" 1893; "Sir James" 1902; "Hercules" 1902; "Eske" 1904; "Owenea"1904; "Erne" 1904"; "Mourne" 1904; "Donegal/Meenglass" 1907; "Glenties/Drumboe" 1907; "Killybegs/Columbkille" 1907; "Letterkenny" 1907; "Raphoe/Foyle" 1907; "Stranorlar/Blanche" 1912; "Strabane/Lydia" 1912.

"Alice", "Blanche", "Lydia" and the rest are fast fading from memory, but as long as any reader lives, the cry, "Carrigans! Carrigans! Anybody there for here?"-- (pause)- -"S'pose naw!" will continue as a faint echo in human consciousness.

POSTSCRIPT: Since the above was written, an event of some moment occurred in the 1997 General Election to Dáil Éireann, when electors in south-west Donegal returned an independent candidate to represent them in the Twenty-Six County Parliament, one Thomas Gildea. He has long been a principal figure in the restoration of portion of the CDR track from Fintown to Glenties, providing a train service that is a valued tourist attraction. Readers may be interested in visiting "Donegal's Only Operational Narrow Gauge Railway", which gives timetables, fares, and an introduction by Brian Friel.

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