Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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THE DOCKLANDS - Great Northern Railway (Ireland)

'Dublin Docklands - An Urban Voyageis a work in progress, commissioned by the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, and due to be completed in the autumn of 2008. The following tale represents research I have undertaken for the project which may or may not be used in the final book.

Great Northern Railway of Ireland

The Great Northern Railway of Ireland operated as an independent existence for 77 years from 1876 to 1953. It was the second largest – and by far the most enterprising - of all the Irish railway systems.

NB: There is an excellent image of Dublin from railway bridge at Hollybrook in d’Alton’s ‘History of Drogehda', p. lxx.

The Link to Belfast

Its origin stemmed from the need to link Dublin and Belfast by rail in the 1830s, a time when Ireland’s population had risen to more than eight million. Dublin was still Ireland’s only real city but the industrial age was in motion and Belfast’s golden age was about to commence. The Ulster Railway opened its first line from Belfast to Lisburn in 1839. The Ulster Railway reached Portadown in 1942 en route to Clones and eventually Cavan. Meanwhile, several schemes were attempting to link Dublin and Belfast, either along the coast to Drogheda or inland via Navan. The Dublin & Drogheda Railway Company line was the successful scheme and powered ahead under its brilliant engineer Sir John MacNeill. In 1844, the company established its main terminal at Amiens Street (renamed Connolly Station in 1966) near the Custom House docks. This was reached by crossing the North Lotts, over the Royal Canal (by a wrought iron latticed bridge) and over Seville Place (by a 30 foot elliptic viaduct of metal girders and brick arches). The Boyne Viaduct, over which the line later travelled (and on which young Bindon Blood Stoney was Resident Engineer), is considered one of the finest engineering triumphs of its age. In May 1853, the first train crossed the Boyne Viaduct and a through line service was finally established between Belfast and Dublin, using the metals of the Dublin and Belfast Junction Railway between Drogheda and Portadown.

Boom Time

In 1876 - the year of the first telephone call – the four main lines operating north of Dublin were amalgamated as one and the Great Northern Railway (Ireland) was born. A forty year boom followed as Dublin and particularly Belfast boomed in pre-war Europe. All along the line, people gathered to watch the GNR’s green locomotives steaming along the tracks, pursued by its mahogany coaches. In 1876, the GNR's locos were in a green livery but this changed to plain black in the late 1920's. The sky blue livery for locomotives was first introduced in 1936 for the Compound engines (of 1932) and was later applied to the S, S2, U and VS class engines - 28 engines in all. In 1891 the GNR’s links extended considerably when City of Dublin Junction Railway and the Loopline Bridge connected Amiens Street station with Westland Row Station (renamed Pearse Station in 1966) on the city's south side.

The End of the Line

The prosperous years of 1876 – 1914 paled considerably against the onslaught of partition, civil war, tariff restrictions, trade wars, the 8-hour day and the ever-evolving road transport in the decades that followed. While traffic almost doubled during the Second World War, competition from road and air, falling receipts and soaring operating costs brought the company to its knees. In November 1950, the shareholders authorised the Board to close the line as soon as possible. The GNR’s independence officially ended in 1953 when it was bought out by the two governments in Ireland and administered by the Great Northern Railway Board - the first 'Cross-Border Body'. Five years of shared nationalisation followed, during which much of the system was closed. In 1958, the remainder was split between the Ulster Transport Authority (later Northern Ireland Railways)and by Córas Iompair Éireann. Today, all that remains of the Great Northern is the Belfast - Dublin line, Howth to Howth Junction, Drogheda to Navan and the "mothballed" Lisburn - Antrim line.

Further Reading

D'Alton,J.D., 'The History of Drogheda: With Its Environs, and an Introductory Memoir of the Dublin and Drogheda Railway' (J. D'Alton, 1844).
Johnson, Norman, The Great Northern Railway (Ireland) In Colour, (Colourpoint Books, 2005).
Patterson, EM, The Great Northern Railway (Ireland) (Oakwood Press, 2003).



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