A major mouthful of memories at launch of GNR express engine ‘Q’ class 4-4-0 no 131

Engine No 131 on a trial run between whitehead and Belfast in 2017
Engine No 131 on a trial run between whitehead and Belfast in 2017

“Volunteers are the lifeblood of every community,” stated the Queen’s letter in the glossy programme for a remarkable event held in Newtownabbey’s Theatre at the Mill last Thursday evening.

“They address almost every kind of need and make a significant contribution to the lives and wellbeing of people across the United Kingdom,” Her Majesty’s message continued, sent from Buckingham Palace to the gathering of VIPs and volunteers celebrating 15 years of the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

Entitled Voices of Volunteers and hosted by the BBC’s Helen Mark, representatives from a stunning array of awardee organisations across Northern Ireland introduced and illustrated their work.

Queen’s Awards Chairman, Sir Martyn Lewis CBE, congratulated the many local groups here who’ve received the award since 2002 “who beaver away at grass roots level to transform some aspect of life in their local community”.

There’ll be more Voices of Volunteers on this page on Friday, but one of the winning organisations at last Thursday’s event had another important appointment two days later!

After five hectically busy years of renovation, restoration and refitting, the former Great Northern Railway (Ireland) express engine ‘Q’ Class 4-4-0 No. 131 (quite a mouthful!) was officially brought back into service on Saturday morning at Whitehead’s Railway Preservation Society of Ireland (RPSI) railway museum.

Engine driver Adam Lohoff prepares No 131 for the blue tape

Engine driver Adam Lohoff prepares No 131 for the blue tape

RPSI received its Queen’s Award in July 2015 and won the Heritage Railway Association’s top prize – the Manisty Award – in Birmingham last month, reported in full on Roamer’s page.

Built in 1901 at the Neilson Reid works in Glasgow, RPSI’s newly-restored 55-ton engine No 131 originally ran between Belfast and Londonderry via Omagh and Strabane.

It also steamed between Dublin, Cavan, Warrenpoint and Banbridge until the break-up of the GNR(I) in 1958, when CIÉ took it over and No 131 stayed south of the border, ‘retiring’ in 1962.

In honour of its proud past, the historic locomotive was displayed for around a decade on a plinth at Dundalk before it was dismantled and then brought to Whitehead’s Queen’s Awarded museum, piece by piece, in 2003.

Norman Brown with coal shovel and Arthur Darragh, back right, in Engine No 131 with fireman Andrew Davidson

Norman Brown with coal shovel and Arthur Darragh, back right, in Engine No 131 with fireman Andrew Davidson

Shortbread also boasts an impressive history and, it seems, Royal approval too!

The much-loved, sweet, crumbly biscuit was apparently baked for the court of Mary Queen of Scots.

Shortbread also gets a mention in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor.

No one knows if those early versions were like today’s shortbread but a mouth-watering variety was much applauded at Saturday morning’s launch of engine No. 131.

Canon John McKegney (right) pays tribute to Peter Scott's "incredible commitment and skill" at launch of Engine No 131

Canon John McKegney (right) pays tribute to Peter Scott's "incredible commitment and skill" at launch of Engine No 131

“Chef Martin Black’s steam engine shortbread was delicious,” said Canon John McKegney, chairman of RPSI, speaking in the museum’s impressive new carriage shed.

Surrounded with immaculately restored vintage engines and carriages, the event was held to thank funders and supporters and to celebrate what has been achieved in bringing No. 131 back to life after more than 50 years.

The steam engine shortbread, from the museum’s quaint Edwardian Tea Room, preceded the official speeches and presentations before engine No 131 puffed proudly through a blue ribbon strung across the line, with funnel, whistles and pistons enshrouded with plumes of white, steamy smoke.

“The launch of GNR Locomotive No 131 is a pinnacle of pride,” said John McKegney “it marks the biggest overhaul ever undertaken here at Whitehead.”

John said that the event marked, “the culmination of years of dedicated work and commitment by many people. We are witnessing the resurrection of 131 which was scattered in various parts of Ireland and what couldn’t be found or reused was lovingly created here in Whitehead”.

Railway historian and RPSI curator Charles Friel clicked every chuff and clickety-clack on his camera as No 131’s immense wheels trundled along the lines.

"Enshrouded with plumes of white, steamy smoke" Engine No 131 approaches the blue tape at Saturday's launch

"Enshrouded with plumes of white, steamy smoke" Engine No 131 approaches the blue tape at Saturday's launch

“It’s working really, really well for an engine that’s over 100 years old,” said engine driver Adam Lohoff, adding “and it’s very nice to drive.”

“It’s now back to mainline condition,” announced Charles, “it’s a minor miracle.”

No 131 was rebuilt in 1920, painted with plain black livery and red lining.

“She looks every bit like she looked in 1920,” said Charles.

The £400,000 project received funding from Generating Rural Opportunities within South Antrim (GROW), through the Northern Ireland Rural Development Programme, which is part-funded by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and the European Union.

Guest of honour Emma Stubbs, manager of GROW, unveiled a plaque marking the engine’s restoration.

“If it were not for Peter Scott of Heritage Engineering Ireland and his team along with RPSI volunteers, all of whom have shown incredible commitment and skill to allow the locomotive to be restored, we wouldn’t be here today,” said Canon McKegney, adding, “getting rusty chunks of old steam engine back to Whitehead was only the beginning of the story!”

“She has been stripped down to every last nut and bolt,” Charles Friel explained.

“There are no seat belts,” quipped 90-year-old Norman Brown, settling back on his upholstered seat under a characteristic wicker luggage-rack in one of No 131’s beautifully restored, curved-ceiling carriages.

“I hope the inspector doesn’t come,” bantered 90-year-old Arthur Darragh, “I haven’t got a ticket!”

Norman and Arthur, former GNR(I) engine drivers and firemen in the 1950s, thoroughly enjoyed their trip down memory line with engine No 131.

And they needn’t have worried about tickets.

“We don’t sell train rides,” said conductor Patrick Walker, “we create memories!”

For museum information, the Easter trains and other steam trips, visit www.steamtrainsireland.com.