Liam Donnelly’s railway passion

Workers pose for a picture at Dungannon back in the 1930s INTT1912-155JS
Workers pose for a picture at Dungannon back in the 1930s INTT1912-155JS

Every time I have met or spoken to Liam Donnelly for as far back as I can remember, two things are said before any other conversation takes place. The first is A reference to his ‘great goalkeeping prowess’ back in the early 1960s (was he really that good?) and the second is about his great passion in life, the old railways.

For years he wanted me to record his memories and I’d always told him to come and see me and his wish would come to pass; a couple of weeks he got round to doing just that. This is his story:

“The fact that I was born in Irish Street, not far away from the station, was a key factor in my developing a love for the railway in Dungannon during my formative years. It was a tradition OI delighted in watching as a young boy.

“The steam trains pulled into Dungannon station heading to and from the big population and commercial centres of Belfast and Derry.

“Centrally-located Dungannon was a junction one line connecting Belfast, Lisburn, Lurgan and Portadown to Donaghmore, Pomeroy, Carrickmore, Beragh, Sixmilecross, Omagh, Sion Mills, Victoria Bridge and into Derry City.

“It was a connection as well for holiday hubs like Bundoran, still a mecca for folk from this part of the country, with buses having to take over the transporting of Dungannon folk to the Donegal destination when that line closed in the 1950s.

“Tyrone visitors to the popular Warrenpoint was also served by the railway in my young days, with special trains running on summer Sundays to the county Down sea-front town.

“Again buses were the only alternative form of public transport for those heading to The Point and on to the short ferry crossing to Omeath when the line was closed in January of 1965, five weeks before the main Derry line was shut down.

“A second class excursion ticket from Dungannon or Trew and Moy to Warrenpoint cost eight shillings (40p) for the day - or six shillings (30p) for the Wednesday afternoon, first class 50 per cent more, with children under fourteen getting half fare and under threes travelling free.

“Everything - freight, livestock, newspapers, Royal Mail deliveries, bread, coal and so on - came to the town by rail in those good old days. When the lines closed, the Ulster Transport Authority then stepped in to take over the freight and livestock part of the business.

“For some, like farmers, this was perhaps a bonus because it meant the UTA lorries could go to the farms and pick up the livestock, rather than farmers having to go to the station with them.

“I recall the railway men saying that Pomeroy was the highest point in Ireland for any railway engine to negotiate but like the stations in Dungannon, Coalisland, Stewartstown and Cookstown, it continued with their freight service right up to the closure in 1960.

“When I was at school, I got a job as a paper boy working for Jimmy Quinn who owned the newsagents and confectionery shop at the top of Scotch Street - still there and run now by Robbie Hasson - and I had to the deliveries before rushing to school for nine o’clock.

“Part of the weekly duties was getting Ireland’s Saturday Night, the evening sports paper published by Belfast Telegraph, from the railway station - and that was my favourite part of job!

“The first railway in the province was from Belfast to Lisburn opened in 1839, almost twenty years passing before the line reached Dungannon because, after the initial boom, enthusiasm for the railway waned and progress became slower.

“Lurgan reached in November 1841, Portadown the following year, work on the Dungannon stretch was sanctioned in 1847 and began immediately. In the intervening famine years railway building was curtailed for obvious reasons and work proceeded at a leisurely rate until the contract was given to famous engineer William Dargan in 1851.

“The line was opened on April 5, 1858 but there were still problems. Lord Northland, who detested the idea of a ‘belching monster’ charging through his ground, meant the station had to be built on the Portadown side of the present tunnel. Thus caused, on the one hand, considerable inconvenience to travellers and, other hand, lucratibve returns to the Dungannon jarveys, who operated cars from the station to the town.

“When, at last, consent was obtained to extend the line a tunnel had to be constructed so that the metal monster would pass unseen and relatively noiselssly through the worthy Lord’s estate.

“The last passenger rail link with Cookstown was broken on Sunday, January 16 with departure of the 7.40pm for train for Dungannon, around fifty people gathering on the platform to see it pull out with quite a few sentimentalists aboard. Although carving its own little niche in local history, the fourteen mile journey via Stewartstown and Coalisland was really uneventful as it passed those station with no signs of additional interest.

“When the railway closed on Valentine’s Night, February 14, of 1965, it was described as the greatest act of vandalism of the era, leaving Dungannon and Cookstown without a supply line that was invaluable - and the years since have borne testimony to the wisdom of those words!

“Incidentally, the first public transport service was set up in 1935, Hobson bus fleet the first private operator in Dungannon running a service to Portadown six days a week” added Liam, who lives beside Donaghmore convent these days.

Great memories, Liam, and I’m reminded that, as a boy, local butcher Mick Cullen travelled many times on an annual Pioneer Total Abstinence excursion by train to Dublin in the 1940s and the cost was just two shillings, ten pence!