The Far West of Ireland – A Tour Leader’s Experience of the Emerald Isle by Train!
This blog by Ffestiniog Travel tour leader, John Robson, brings to life one of our popular tours, a circular rail journey around Ireland, which he led in 2018 – a recollection from the viewpoint of a tour leader! A near identical 10-day tour will be repeated in June 2022 which is now available to book online. As travel continues to be restricted let John’s words and memories transport you on a written journey through the ‘Emerald Isle’!
Leading a tour is a very fulfilling experience, but it is not without its frustrations along the way as you face obstacles beyond your control en route! Such was the start of the 2018 Far West of Ireland tour. I took a leisurely rail journey to Holyhead, having stopped in Chester for a few hours to enjoy the sunny September day and completed a full lap of the walls! My onward journey took me on a pleasant run along the North Wales coast in the late afternoon sunshine and I was pleasantly surprised to find that my B&B, was one I had stayed at before, many years ago.
I had plenty of time the next morning to explore Holyhead and visited the remains of the Roman Fort and St. Cybi’s Church. The church is noted for its stained glass windows produced by William Morris to designs by Edward Burne-Jones.
Having enjoyed my time alone I was looking forward to meeting the 12 travellers booked on the tour, which included five couples. Arriving at the port in plenty of time I discovered the London train was running an hour late and as the days when the ship waited for the “boat train” (and vice versa) are long over, I was concerned that some would miss the ferry! But ‘Mother Nature’ had already stepped in as Irish Ferries informed us that the sailing of our fast ship “Swift” was cancelled as it had suffered damage in a storm the previous day. The replacement ‘Ulysses’ ferry added to our wait as it was delayed due to thick fog and we eventually travelled via the ‘Stena’ ferry, which agreed to accept our tickets despite not normally carrying foot passengers! Behind the scenes, I spent most of that day talking with Irish Ferries, rearranging pick-up times with our private transfer coach in Ireland and updating our hotel in Dublin with our arrival times and requests for a late meal. In times like these it is good to be leading a tour for Ffestiniog Travel, as the office staff are always there to provide excellent support (which I know isn't true of all travel companies).
An attempt to pick up our Explorer Pass tickets at the city’s Heuston Railway Station that night was unsuccessful so I woke at 5am the next day to pick them up and distribute to FT travellers over breakfast so that they could enjoy their free day in Dublin independently sightseeing with the option of travelling further afield by train if they wished. All were grateful for my efforts and used the rover tickets to enjoy the city’s trams too. They covered a wide range of different things, covering some serious mileage including a short trip to Howth. All reported to have had a good day so I was glad I'd managed to get the tickets to them.
Despite my early start I decided to travel by train to Limerick and back, sleeping most of the way there! It was a long time since I'd been in Dublin and on the last occasion most mainline trains were loco hauled, whereas Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs) now dominate. These are very comfortable roomy trains, far better than those in the UK. (The only loco hauled trains in the Irish Republic are on the Cork line where some trains are fixed formation push pull sets using Class 200 locos and Driver Van Trailers (DVT's). Even on this line many trains are DMU’s.)
On Day 3 we travelled as a group to Galway, Heuston station was just across the bridge from our excellent hotel. The bridge is used by trams and has very limited pedestrian clearance, so it was important to let our travellers know they should take extra care, especially when lugging cases! On arrival we had a free afternoon in Galway, which is an attractive town, with a traditional street market. Two FT guests recommended a visit to the museum (free). It has extensive displays on the joint themes of the struggle for Irish independence and the civil war, extending from Fenians to the modern Free State. With a focus on local as well as the national events it provides a very human picture. I asked one of the curatorial staff about some events, and, as it was quiet, I got an extensive account and learnt a lot about the many complexities of the struggle, given in a very non-judgmental way. I'd recommend this museum to anyone interested in learning more about Irish history. It certainly gave me a context for the memorials in many towns. Also most of Ireland's main railway stations are now named after national heroes, primarily from the 1916 uprising. It was raining heavily when I entered the museum, but by the time I left there was early evening sunshine, ideal for a walk along the coast.
On Day 4 we travelled to Ennis by train and were met by a private coach to take us to the West Clare Railway. This is owned and run by Jackie Whelan who everyone locally seems to know. As well as the railway, he owns Whelan Tractor and Agricultural Engineers, Whelan and Associates Tullygower Quarry, and a waste disposal operation. We had a short ride on the narrow gauge railway before a look at the Irish Traction Group standard gauge diesels across the road. Proposals for a museum building, and also a level crossing over the main road, were apparently not receiving a very warm welcome from the council. Jackie also arranged for us to see his steam locomotive in its shed.
Next stop was the enchanting Vandeleur Gardens and despite the late arrival I convinced the cafe to stay open a little longer and they agreed to serve coffee, cake and light snacks to the group. The gardens are fairly compact, but very attractive. With high walls on all sides, they are sheltered allowing exotic plants to grow. It also made it very pleasant for us as the day was both sunny and windy.
I found a quiet spot to confirm our return ferry details and discovered that the ‘Swift’ ship was now out of service for an unspecified time and we would need to book the ‘Ulysses’ ferry departing at an earlier time. I rang the FT office to notify them of the change and having got the go-ahead, I got the return ferry booking change confirmed, and rebooked the coach to collect us an hour earlier. Tour admin complete I enjoyed a stroll around the gardens before escorting the group onto the coach for our onward journey to Limerick and a stay in a luxurious hotel with rooms overlooking the river.
Next day was free for some independent travel and sightseeing, using the Explorer Pass to travel around the region. My plan was to travel to Athenry along the re-opened “Western Corridor” line. We'd travelled as far as Ennis the previous day, but I hadn't travelled on the section from Limerick to Ennis before. Several other passengers were thinking of doing the same thing, and we travelled to Ennis together. They returned to Limerick, but I travelled on to the rather eccentric station of Limerick junction. I wanted to make sure I knew the layout of this operationally very odd station before travelling through it later in the tour with the full group. On my return to Limerick there was still time to look around the city. The church and swing bridge were interesting as were many other buildings. I noted that the swing bridge was fabricated and built by Cleveland Bridge in Darlington. Their large factory was just behind the house where I spent my early childhood!
On Day 6, we travelled by private coach again to the Foynes Flying Boat Museum. There has been a proposal to reopen the rail line (lifted) for container traffic, but I think this has now been long forgotten. The museum was very interesting as I hadn't realised that flying boats were used on transatlantic services and for how long they remained in service. The demonstration of how to make Irish coffee was fun. A volunteer was needed, and one of our brave passengers was arm twisted into accepting. I won't give the game away here, but would say that it is worth being the volunteer, especially if you like your Whiskey (with an “e” of course).
Next we went out to the Listowel and Ballybunion Railway. I'd always assumed that this was classically Irish, but its balanced monorail, with dual boiler steam locos astride the central rail, is a system designed by the French engineer Lartique. Inspired by the use of balanced panniers on camels, one of the major problems is balancing the load. They do claim to have successfully (although with some difficulty) carried grand pianos, and at least one elephant. Needless to say the system didn't really catch on, although there are other examples.
Later we moved on to Tralee for the night, home of the Rose of Tralee competition which is now international, and claims to attract Ireland's largest TV audience every year! It is worth walking to the Tralee Rose Garden which is spectacular if you like roses. Like many rose gardens with an international reputation, there are a large number of new varieties sponsored by David Austin.
Our driver stayed with us overnight, and on day 7 we headed to Dingle, roughly following the route of the long closed, but much missed, Tralee and Dingle Railway. At the request of several passengers we stopped at Tralee narrow gauge station, but there was little to see here as the “preserved’ railway had currently suspended operations. It was then on to Blennerville windmill which includes a rather nice model railway representing the Tralee and Dingle Railway. As the terminus to the preserved section of railway was obviously just over the road from the windmill I asked the information desk staff about it. I was surprised to find that the railway and windmill were associated projects. When I asked if we could view the locomotive, they said “yes”, but a search for the key to the shed (which hadn't been opened for a considerable time) was proving fruitless. However just as we were leaving the car park one of the staff ran after us, waving the key! They opened the shed for us, still with some difficulty as the hinges were rusting up.
I've asked the FT office to book a viewing of the loco for 2021/2022 trips so the windmill staff are warned in advance! Staff at the windmill had differing views on whether the railway might reopen. Our allocated guide who demonstrated the windmill was optimistic that it would soon restart, although probably with diesel motive power. (The steam loco looked to be a case of a long stalled heavy overhaul.) The model railway operator thought there was no chance of it ever running again.
We continued towards Dingle. We'd planned a short stop at a pub at the site of the junction around half way along the railway. Our driver missed it, and rather than turn around we continued and I let everyone know we'd call on the return journey. As everyone had coffee at the windmill, we didn't need a stop. We did however stop to view the asymmetric viaduct, which had been included on the model railway we'd seen at the windmill. Our driver thought it might have been demolished as he'd driven the road many times, and never noticed it. It was there! On arrival in Dingle we had a couple of hours to explore, time for a late lunch and a stroll around. Being at the seaside, I had fish and chips washed down with a half of Guinness. A licensed fish and chip shop seemed very Irish!
On the return run we did stop briefly at the “Railway pub”. I found it rather disappointing. Although the walls were covered with “relics”, they were all fakes, and not particularly interesting. I thought it was all rather kitsch, most being fake American car registration plates. The surviving remnants of the railway track bed, which was just across the road were worth a quick look, although very little remains.
We were due to carry on by coach to Killarney, to connect with a train to Cork, but someone suggested we return to Tralee, to travel over the full extent of the Tralee line. It would give us the chance to experience the odd arrangement at Killarney, where the train runs past the station, then reverses into what are terminal platforms. This met universal approval, including the bus driver! He would be heading back to Ennis, so it saved him time and mileage. (This minor adjustment is pre-planned in the 2021 and 2022 tours). It also fortuitously solved another problem. One passenger realised he'd left his hand luggage at the Tralee hotel, which he only realised shortly before we arrived back in Tralee. A quick phone call established it had been left in the reception area and was held behind the desk. With a reasonable amount of time available before the train departure, our driver kindly drove to the hotel to collect it before taking us to the station. We then had an uneventful run to Cork, changing trains en route at Mallow. We admired the early locomotive preserved in Cork station before walking to another excellent hotel, located on the waterfront.
Day 8 was another free day. I saw everyone at breakfast, and they were all as organised as they wanted to be. After a relaxed breakfast, I decided to take a return trip to Dublin, the first time I'd made the full journey on this mainline. Then I went to Cobh. This isn't very far and the journey is very scenic, including a causeway over the sea. Cobh itself is interesting with a splendid cathedral and connections to the Titanic. It was very pleasant walking along the promenade in the evening sunshine.
On Day 9 we headed back to Dublin but travelled via Waterford where there was enough time to explore. I agreed to guard everyone’s luggage on the platform inside the barrier so they could wander freely. Unfortunately, no sooner had they gone but a railway worker told me I couldn't stay on the platform or leave the luggage inside the barrier. I pleaded weakly but gave in gracefully and had the job if moving it all. It had turned out to be one of those things that seemed a good idea at the time....
On arrival in Dublin we returned to the same excellent hotel and the rest of the afternoon was free to sightsee. Everyone enjoyed a final dinner in the hotel that evening. Earlier I had been notified that the “Swift” ferry was back in service, but having rearranged the transfer I decided to leave things and return on the “Ulysses”. I always try to avoid last minute changes, which can easily lead to more problems than they solve. Everyone had been happy with the change - the conventional ferry might be slower, but it is a much nicer ship to travel on. There is very little outside deck space on the high speed ships. I emailed FT to inform them of my intention, as they often track us and would have noticed the information from Irish Ferries.
So day 10 was an early start, nine of us actually queued at the door waiting for breakfast to open! I was a bit worried about the other three, but they simply preferred a little more sleep to having breakfast. It turned out to be a good move to stay with the “Ulysses” as the “Swift” was cancelled due to a “technical issue”. We sailed on time, so anyone travelling on the “Swift” would have had a major delay. We had a pleasant crossing with only a slight swell. Everyone caught their intended train home. I had a light lunch and caught the through train to Euston.
I found this to be a really excellent holiday. The trains in Ireland are very good, the hotels were really luxurious, and the scenery was attractive. I learnt a lot about Irish history too. I am looking forward to leading this tour again in the future.
It was unfortunate that we hit problems on the first day, but I did appreciate the passenger response. Seven had travelled with FT before and their confidence that everything would be sorted out was much appreciated. Inevitably, if you spend 10 days on a complex itinerary based largely on public transport, there is always the possibility of a few glitches, usually quite minor, and often not noticed by passengers. It is important to know that good support is provided, and FT is really good at this. This is reassuring for tour leaders as well as passengers! Whatever happens, you will have a hotel organised every night, and the itinerary will be followed as closely as possible. Of course many tours operate seamlessly, thanks to good planning. FT does a remarkable job designing one-off tours which usually run perfectly. Every guest said that they had thoroughly enjoyed this tour. Either Day 1 had been forgotten, or no-one had been worried.