The newly-opened Ballina and Killala sections of the Monasteries of the Moy Greenway, the 10km walking and cycling trail, partly follows the route of the old railway line that once linked the two north Mayo towns.
The Ballina part of the Greenway through Belleek Wood to Knockatinnole, including a 5km loop, and the 4.3km Killala Greenway are now finished and proving very popular with walkers and cyclists.
The Ballina to Killala Greenway has renewed interest in the 19th-century railway line that once connected Ballina to the harbour-side in Killala. The line was once part of a grand scheme to develop a transatlantic shipping port at Blacksod that would have linked Mayo to New York.
There is a fascinating and colourful story behind the railway line – and it’s fun to speculate had the grand plans for the line that were hatched in London ever come to fruition how different North Mayo might be today.
There are few if any people still alive who can recall seeing the Ballina to Killala steam train, making its twice-daily short 10-mile journey.
But, as a child, I can recall the old disused railway bridges at the entrance to Leigue cemetery in Ballina where the retaining wall can still be seen – and a bridge at Rathroeen on the Killala Road, a few miles outside town beside the recycling centre.
Built at a cost of £29,000
The local stories about young lads jumping on top of the carriages as the steam engine emerged from a tunnel under Convent Hill to spend a few idle hours in Killala before returning the same way were fascinating even if we realised leaping on moving train roofs only happened in the fantasy world of cowboy films.
However, my interest in the railway line was stirred once again when I walked the new greenway and passed under Meelick Bridge, one of the line’s two remaining railway bridges. The second railway bridge at Kilroe can be seen nearer to Killala and is not part of the walking trail.
The Midland and Great Western Railway (MGWR) Ballina Branch Extension to Killala was opened in 1893 with the grandest of plans to extend the line to Blacksod via Ballycastle where it was hoped a transatlantic shipping route could be developed using the deep water of Blacksod Bay.
The Ballina line opened in May 1873 following the opening of the Manulla to Foxford line on May 1, 1868, and the earlier opening of Claremorris and Castlebar railway stations in 1862. Westport train station opened in 1866 and Westport Quay extension in 1874.
Ther proposed rail line from Ballina to Killala was put out to tender in March 1891 with Thomas Falkiner (TH) winning the £29,000 contract. The line was completed in less than two years and opened on 2 January 1893.
Blacksod Bay Railway Terminus
The earliest plans for the transatlantic port at Blacksod for passengers and mail went all the way back to 1835 when The Great Atlantic Railway and Steam Packet Company proposed a railway line from Dublin to Blacksod via Ballina and Crossmolina with an estimated construction cost of £152,000.
The plan detailed constructing a line from Dublin via Mullingar, Foxford, Ballina, Crossmolina to Blacksod Bay to operate a steam service to Halifax Nova Scotia and New York for passengers and mail.
However, the Killala branch extension which was proposed under the Balfour’s Light Railways Ireland Act 1889 became a rival to the Crossmolina route.
The two routes were examined by the All Port Commission which favoured the route via Killala, Ballycastle, Belderrig, Glenamoy and Belmullet despite it been 7 miles longer.
Such was the excitement in the area that two hotels were built in anticipation of the business that the railway would bring. The former convent secondary school in Ballycastle was originally built to be The Grand Hotel. In nearby Belderrig, although the original owners were never able to realise their dreams, the hotel was still in use up to recent times as a guesthouse and public house.
The plans for what was known as Blacksod Bay Railway Terminus were impressive and architects drawings from The Building News and Engineering Journal on October 13, 1915, outlined a magnificent railway station to be built on a reef of rock projecting into Blacksod Bay and to be a terminus for the transatlantic traffic.
“The largest liners are able to berth at the end of this reef, which is the reason for the railway station being so placed. The construction of the building is intended to be carried out in reinforced concrete. The main feature is the concourse, which forms a waiting-place between the platforms and the harbour. The interior perspective shown by our double-page plate was included in the Royal Academy Exhibition this year. The architects are Messrs. E. B. Hoare and M. Wheeler FF.R.I.B.A. of Portman Street, Portman Square W,” The Building News and Engineering Journal reported in October 1915.
We can only speculate now as to the impact such a transatlantic crossing between Mayo and America would have had on North Mayo, but the advent of faster steam travel and better wireless communications saw the plan shelved to become nothing more than a curiosity of history.
The end of the line
Carrying both passengers and freight, the Ballina to Killala line had five gatehouses, one tunnel, four bridges. At Killala station, a turntable, two sidings, a signal cabin, warehouses, and a splendid railway station and stationmaster’s house that is now a private dwellinghouse.
The Ballina-Killala Railway passed through the townlands of Ballina, Kilmoremoy, Laghtadawannagh, Cullens, Rathroeen, Coonealcauraun, Rosserk, Derreens, Knockalough, Rathglass East, Newtownwhite, Carrowreagh, Crosspatrick, Moyne, Meelick, Kilroe, Townplots East and Townplots West, Killala.
There are many stories told about the railway and none more poignant than that of Sir Charles Gore, Belleek Manor, who provided most of the land on which railway was built and whose mortal remains were brought back to Ballina on the first train to enter the town. He had died in Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin, on May 20, 1873.
The Killala line was closed to all traffic on October 1st, 1931 when it fell victim to the bureaucratic hatchet after it was considered to be unprofitable. Goods trains continued daily from Ballina, at 13.45 and returning 15.15. The line finally closed July 1st, 1934 – it was the first of Midland branches to be closed completely.
Today, at Ballina railway station, the only remaining part of the Killala extension line is a short siding beyond the level crossing towards the bus terminus. Running alongside Station Road, this short stretch of track is now used as a freight siding by Irish Rail.