Railways of Meath

Recent proposals to re-open the railway line from Navan to Clonsilla remind us that for almost a century that the iron road network stretched across the county and was a central part of the social and commercial fabric of Meath.

Today ore from Tara Mines is the only traffic trundling along the line from Navan to Drogheda, where it joins the Belfast-Dublin mainline. Since Gypsum Industries stopped ferrying their cargo by rail a few years ago the Navan-Kingscourt branch line has been lying idle.

Elsewhere, Laytown, Mosney and Gormanston are served on the Dublin-Dundalk commuter line, while similar services on the Dublin-Mullingar line stop at Enfield station, which was re-opened in May 1988 after being closed for nearly half a century.

It’s all in stark contrast to the situation that prevailed in the latter part of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century when the railway network, with the Navan-Clonsilla line as its anchor, reached Trim, Athboy, Kells and Oldcastle.

Construction of the line between Dublin and Drogheda was completed in 1844. Soon efforts were underway to extend the railway to Navan. Thomas Brodigan, of Piltown House near Drogheda, a prominent local businessman and a member of the Board of Trade, spearheaded the extension of the line from Drogheda to Navan.

On March 13, 1845 a meeting was held in Navan Courthouse to protest against Brodigan’s plan and advocating a direct link to Dublin. Work began on the Drogheda-Navan branch in 1847 and was three years later it was open for business.

At the same time the line between Dublin and Galway was completed and it proved to be a great boon to agriculture in the post-famine era. This line followed the route of the Royal Canal from Dublin to Mullingar and the waterway proved very useful for ferrying workers and construction materials.

The construction of the railways provided employment in the years during and after the Famine. This new and efficient mode of transport boosted the economies of rural areas at a time when travel and transport was slow, difficult and uncomfortable.

Before the advent of the railways it took several days to bring cattle and other goods from the west of Ireland to county Meath. Now it took a matter of hours. Business at the stations at Hill of Down and Enfield was boosted by the cattle trade.

Trim, Kells, Athboy and Oldcastle all benefited in turn from the arrival of the iron road. A new annual fair started in Navan in 1855 as a direct result of the coming of the railway. Held on November 14, it became known as "The Great Leinster Fair of Navan".

One commentator noted that "Meath has probably the richest land in the world. In Meath cattle are fat every summer and placed on the market weeks before cattle from other districts."
The Navan-Drogheda railway line was opened on February 15, 1850 and just over three years later it was extended to Kells. Such was the popularity of the new mode of transport that plans for a direct link to Dublin soon surfaced again.

Understandably the owner of the Dublin and Drogheda railway didn’t take too kindly to the idea of a rival. But influential people such as the Duke of Leinster, the Earl of Darnley as well as Lords Fingall and Dunsany supported the project.

The Dublin and Meath Railway company was set up in 1858 with a view to developing a rail link from Athboy and Trim to Dublin. Curiously, the contractors the Moore brothers began construction at the Meath end with the Duke of Leinster turning the first sod in the project on October 21, 1858. But it soon ran into difficulties as local landowners priced the land out of their reach.

Work ceased in October 1859 and the developers turned their attention to developing the line from Navan to Clonsilla. The 26-mile route was opened on August 29, 1862. A branch from Kilmessan extended to Trim and Athboy by February 1864.

Railway construction reached it peak around this time and by the summer of 1863 the line from Kells to Oldcastle was opened. Competition between the rival lines was fierce and both experienced financial difficulties.

The line from Clonsilla to Navan became known as "The Meath Road", but making it pay proved difficult. The Dublin and Meath Railway Company went into receivership in 1868 and the following year the Midland and Great Western Railway Company, which owned the Dublin-Galway line, took out a lease on it and eventually bought it out in 1888.

A link from Navan to Kilmainhamwood was opened in late 1872 and three years later the line was extended to Kingscourt, a full 50 miles from Dublin by rail. This section was worked by the Midlands and Great Western Railway.

Later it was proposed continue the line to join the Great Northern Railways but it never materialised. By now there were almost 20 railway stations in County Meath; Gormanston and Laytown on the Dublin-Drogheda line. Another station at Bettystown was closed within a few years of being opened.
On the Clonsilla-Navan line there were stations at Dunboyne, Batterstown, Drumree, Kilmessan, Bective and Navan. Kilmessan was the junction for Trim and Athboy. Between Navan and Kingscourt there were stations at Gibbstown, Wilkinstown, Nobber and Kilmainhamwood, while on the Kells-Oldcastle section there was a station called Virginia Road.

On the Dublin-Galway line there were stations at Hill of Down, Enfield and Ferns Lock. In 1877 the railways in Meath reached their fullest extent when a branch line from Enfield to Edenderry was completed.

Such was the level of traffic on the "Meath Road", particularly cattle specials, that it proved impossible to work it efficiently on a single track. Work began in the late 1880s to create a double line between Clonsilla and Navan. It was only brought as far as Drumree and lasted from 1889 to 1919.

Shortly after the Midland Great Western Company took over the Clonsilla-Navan line a new station was built a Fairyhouse to cater for race day traffic. The last special train to the Easter Meeting ran in 1940.
A platform was opened in 1924 at Proudstown on the Kingscourt line to service the nearby racecourse and it continued to operate until 1939.

The new operators were also responsible for erecting platforms as all stations on the line.
Rail travel in the early days was restricted to the wealthier classes. Around 1870 fares were approximately 1 penny per mile and with the average wage around three shilling per week, working class people could only afford to travel short distances.

However that began to change when rail companies began to drum up extra business with the introduction of day trip and seaside specials around the turn of the century. The railway played a key role introducing new and exotic goods into rural areas.

The heyday of the railways didn’t last very long. The introduction of a regular bus service between Dublin and Kells in 1927 lessened the demand for passenger services.

The Midland and Great Western Railway Company was absorbed by Great Southern Railways in 1925. Passengers services on the Enfield-Edenderry branch ceased in 1931 and the line was closed in the great railway cull of the early 1960s.

The rail service to Navan Racecourse ended in 1939 but there were two notable developments around this time. A siding to the Gypsum factory at Kingscourt was opened in the same year and a decade later a new station was opened at Mosney to service the newly opened Butlins Holiday Camp.

During the Emergency rail services were restricted and those that ran did so at a slower pace due to the poor quality of the fuel. Passengers services on railways in Meath were suspended altogether.
In 1946 passenger services were restored on the Clonsilla-Navan line before being suspended for good the following year. The decline of the railways was accelerated in the Fifties with the closure of the Kilmessan-Athboy line in 1953.

No trace of Trim station remains, while the ones at Kilmessan and Virginia Road have been transformed into restaurants.

‘Football Specials’ apart passenger trains were rarely full and as part of an economy drive a ‘bus’ on rails was introduced between Navan and Drogheda but on April 12, 1958 the last regular passenger service to Navan ceased. Five years later the line to Oldcastle closed and redundant tracks in the county were uprooted the following year.

The ‘Football Special’ between Navan and Dublin was revived for the 1991 All-Ireland Football Final between Meath and Down and again five years later for the drawn Meath-Mayo decider.

Interestingly, former Meath County Board secretary Liam Creavin came to live in the county when his father was appointed Station Master at Bective in the early 1930s.

Navan remained an important rail-head for freight traffic until 1977 when the business was transferred to Drogheda. A portion of Kells line was relaid to cater for the shipment of lead and zinc from Tara Mines to Dublin port and it constitutes the only traffic on the line now since the transport of gypsum ceased just a few years ago.

Finally, the county’s railways have featured in a few features films. In the late sixties I can recall the steam train and appropriate carriages travelling to Beauparc station where part of "Darling Lili" was filmed. Directed by Blake Edwards and starring Julie Andrews and Rock Hudson it was the story of an American ace who falls for a German female spy.

In later years the iron bridge over the River Nanny at Laytown has featured in several Neil Jordan films, most notably the Oscar-winning "The Crying Game".

Recent proposals to re-open the Navan-Clonsilla line have costed the project £460m, the same price as a couple of Hollywood blockbusters

Taken from Royal Meath
December 2003