The Letterkenny to Burtonport Railway Extension

In recent times there has been much talk about the possibility of the Railway coming back to Donegal after a long period of years. The proposed route is to link Letterkenny to Derry and from there passengers could travel further afield throughout Ireland, both North and South.

It’s worth remembering that for a period between 1903 and 1940, this area was served by trains operated by the Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway Company on a narrow-gauge railway before the line was closed in 1940 to save the company money. The coming of the railways provided a boost for the commerce of the area because it meant that goods produced in the area could be transported to vital markets much quicker by rail rather than the old system of horse and cart. This was especially true for the fishing industry and the piers at Burtonport and Downings. It flourished so much so that, according to a British Parliamentary, herring landed from boats and cured in Downings by Scottish and local girls in 1906 fetched record prices in St. Petersburg in Russia and the Congested Districts Board had plans to export Mackerel caught in Donegal to the American market. Downings was one of the top Piers in the country back then and this can be seen in photos from the time.

The coming of the Railway meant that there was a bit more choice of items for the local shopkeepers to sell and local produce such as eggs, rabbits and potatoes could be sent to market quicker. Unfortunately for those living in Dunfanaghy there was a bit of a journey to get to the train as the local Dunfanaghy Road Station was in fact located at Cloone in Creeslough so a train journey would start by either a walk, or journey to Creeslough to get the train. The building of a train station far from a town was not an unusual occurrence as the building of stations were often at the whim of local landlords who sometimes did not believe in the new-fangled train technology or did not want the cost of having the railway on their lands as each landowner was responsible for the upkeep of the railway line.  They were given a ‘cut’ to maintain and there were a number of those in this area. 

Nevertheless, many canny businessmen saw the chance to make money from the railway and among those was Mr Sterritt from the Stewart Arms Hotel (Now the Carraig Rua) in Dunfanaghy who transported tourists from the Dunfanaghy Road Station to his hotel. There was also Master McGinley who done the same when he built the Port na blagh Hotel in the early 1920s, pioneering tourism in the area which before was confined to mainly the more well off or friends of the local gentry. Many people would also have travelled on the train to get the Derry boat to go Tattie Hoking in Scotland, or to emigrate to far off fields or to go to the hiring fairs in Letterkenny or Strabane and an often-uncertain future.

The essence of the Letterkenny to Burtonport Railway Line was brilliantly captured by the former P.P,. of Dunfanaghy when as a young curate he filmed the journey and this footage is now available online to view and offers a fascinating insight into the journey.

The tracks were lifted in 1959 and over the years, the only reminders left are the little Station Houses, the flat areas of ground that the tracks were laid on and the bridges and viaducts you can see from the roads.  In this area, the Owencarrow Viaduct was the scene of a disaster in 1925 when the train was blown off the tracks during a storm, resulting in the loss of 4 lives.

The Railway may be gone but here in this area it still provides a great amenity for the Railway as the Railway Walk between Muckish Mountain and Dunfanaghy continues to provide a great tourism amenity for the area.

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