Why the golden age of steam may be gone but is definitely not forgotten

Bundoran Junction Station. Early 1950s
Bundoran Junction Station. Early 1950s

Apart from a weekly survey of the supermarket shelves for my now virtually obligatory Sunday roast-chicken, I’m not a bird-watcher!

But when I recently heard about the tragic effects of man-made pollution on some of our greatly-beleaguered feathered friends I seriously wondered if the human race is nearly over.

Probably heightened by school-day memories of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, I shed a poignant tear or two when I heard that albatross chicks are dying in their nests, unable to fly because their stomachs are bloated with cigarette lighters, bottle tops and anglers’ fishing-floats.

The magnificent birds which normally feed on squid and other animals swimming near the surface of the water at night, have instead been accidentally swallowing pieces of floating plastic that now litter the earth’s oceans.

The adult birds then return to their nests, regurgitate the plastic and feed it to their young.

What are we doing to our world?

Similar thoughts overshadowed my mind when a letter arrived in Roamer’s mailbox last week about the demise of our steam-trains.

Early last month this page reflected on the golden age of railways with news of the old Bundoran North signal cabin, beautifully restored and renovated by the Downpatrick and County Down Railway.

Built in 1893, the freshly-painted wooden cabin, packed with fully-working fixtures and fittings, is open to the public with visiting details on www.downrail.co.uk

Along with DCDR’s wonderful steam engines, rolling stock and museum exhibits, the colourful little signal box is a vivid reminder of an environmentally-friendly method of transport that was vital to every aspect of life in Northern Ireland.

That era is long gone - replaced by diesel trains on greatly-depleted tracks and more-so by grievously pollutant, big-performance cars.

It’s a sad loss with few and rather dubious gains.

The 100-year-old line that the Bundoran North signal box served for more than six decades was closed down in 1957, and next month railway-lovers from all over our Island and further afield will be commemorating the 60th anniversary of the closure.

On Saturday 30 September the last trains ran on the Great Northern Railway lines to Bundoran from Omagh, Clones and Enniskillen and on the Sligo, Leitrim and Northern Counties line between Enniskillen and Sligo.

On and around the anniversary of the fateful day that pronounced a greatly-changing world (and not for the better!) there’s a substantial calendar of events organised by Headhunters Barber Shop and Railway Museum in Enniskillen.

Their packed programme includes photographic exhibitions, illustrated talks, print and poetry workshops, film-screenings and guided tours of local railway stations and museums.

Events are also being planned by local folk in Manorhamilton and Bundoran, equally affected by the closures.

The note that arrived in Roamer’s mailbox last week about the demise of steam ran to 10 pages, by Hugh Dougherty from Glasgow, a prolific writer on railways. He recounted a steam-train journey to Bundoran 60 years ago, very warm memories revived by a recent and unexpected sighting in Tyrone.

As the anniversary of the GNR line-closure approaches there’ll be more of Hugh’s reminiscences here, but today’s page ends with an introduction to his enormously evocative memories.

“We were driving through the more remote parts of County Tyrone last year, on our way to Donegal, when an amazing sight came into view among the bushes near Kilskeery, for we passed over what was clearly a railway bridge below our narrow country road.

“For, there, almost lost among the sadly-lush undergrowth of a long-closed railway, was the station building of Bundoran Junction, looking sadly neglected.

“I was immediately transported back to a late June day in 1957, now 60 years ago, when, as six-year-old, I stood on its platform with my parents and sister, waiting for the train that would take us to our holiday in Bundoran itself, a holiday resort which, with the trains that ran to it, had a firm place in our family history.

“We had left the old Glasgow Airport at Renfrew that same morning in 1957 via a Pionair, BEA’s posh name for a World War II Dakota pressed into passenger service to Belfast’s now-long-gone Nutt’s Corner airport, and it was so unusual to fly in those days, that, Mrs Cairney, our upstairs neighbour, offered up special prayers all night, for our safe deliverance!

“An Ulster Transport Authority Leyland PS1, green-and-cream, single decker, took us into Belfast, our traditional, family-holiday wicker-hamper, carrying all we needed for our four-week stay, firmly secured on its roof rack - I can remember the driver and conductor cursing as they heaved it up - and we were dropped off at Great Victoria Street Station.

“Here was the gateway to the enticing lines of the Great Northern Railway of Ireland, with its blue locomotives, its pioneering railcars and the Fintona Horse Tram, which, if we were lucky, we might see on our epic trip westwards to Bundoran, at a time when distances seemed longer, West Ulster much more remote, and when steam railway travel had that indefinable romance, which so many heritage railways strive to recapture today, about it.

“I can recall my father, who had made the same journey as a boy each summer, away back about 1916, showing me a schematic map of the GNR system above the booking office, and pointing out far-flung Bundoran.”

More here soon about little Hugh Dougherty family-trip on the steam train and for the rail-closure anniversary events visit www.facebook.com/HeadhuntersMuseum