New life for 124-year-old signal box that’s been in three Ulster counties

Railway History re-happens. Jimmy Donnelly (left) and David Crone (behind).
Railway History re-happens. Jimmy Donnelly (left) and David Crone (behind).

Most little boys back in the 1950ss had a train-set.

“It was brilliant,” Ivor Crean extoled nostalgically last Saturday in Downpatrick’s vintage railway station, “I had the real thing!”

He was standing beside the historic Bundoran North railway signal cabin that has been restored to its former glory by the Downpatrick and County Down Railway (DCDR).

His father, Jim Crean, was Porter, Signalman and then Stationmaster at Bundoran Junction in Kilskeery, County Tyrone and from 1955 to 1959 Ivor and his brother Maurice lived in the Station House, got free rides in the trains, and wandered in and out of the signal cabin.

Meanwhile singer Michael Holliday’s Runaway Train was a children’s favourite song in 1956.

It ended with the maverick engine blowing its whistle and going over a hill “and the last we heard she was going still” crooned Holliday.

When the GNR closed Bundoran North in 1957 the signal cabin embarked on a 60-year-long journey through three-counties.

It stopped in Downpatrick, where DCDR opened it to the public last Saturday, fully restored, in full working order and “going still” as a vivid reminder of our railways of yore.

It’s freshly-painted in its original colours - green, cream, and white - with its decorative facia, fixtures, fittings and fenestration handsomely restored.

An array of potted flowers is a memento from the days when folk cared about public property!

The little wooden building is as pretty (and as visually appetising!) as Hansel and Gretel’s fairytale cottage, boasting an additional internal garnish of signalling levers painted bright red, jet black and deep blue!

“The day Maurice was born in July 1955 I played in that cabin,” Ivor reminisced, almost misty-eyed, recalling his temporary confinement under the watchful eye of a relative for the duration of his brother’s birth!

“I was often in it,” Ivor recalled, “I watched my father pull the levers. I remember the steps up to it.”

The station’s name - Bundoran Junction - didn’t reflect its location, but rather the trains’ destination.

The cabin was one of three at the busy intersection, each raised above the lines so that the all-important signalmen had an unobstructed view.

“Bundoran North was basically a ‘control tower’,” DCDR’s Curator Neil Hamilton told me.

The stairway that Ivor recalled has gone to ‘railway heaven’ and the beautifully-restored upper part of the cabin rests firmly at ground level on “bricks reclaimed from Belfast’s Great Victoria Street Baptist church,” said DCDR’s Chief Engineer David Crone at Saturday’s opening.

“It has been further blessed with having lived in three counties,” he added.

The sign was still on it in 1997 when Ernie and Joan Fisher moved into their newly-purchased home in Ballinamallard, County Fermanagh.

The disintegrating structure was underneath apple trees in the garden “with branches growing through the windows and grass coming up through the floor,” Ernie told me.

It was moved there from Kilskeery when the railway closed and the previous owners used it as “a very superior summerhouse” explained David Crone, welcoming it back into the railway fraternity at Downpatrick

“It was built in 1893,” said David “and it looks as if it has been at the end of this platform for all of its 120-plus years!”

Though it has been renamed Downpatrick East, the original Bundoran North sign stands beside it as proof of identity.

“The top half of the signal cabin had lain for over 50 years,” David lamented “suffering somewhat in later years due to age and the orchard becoming a bit overgrown.”

Local railway enthusiasts knew it was there all the time, but held their hush till opportunity knocked.

Ernie Fisher gifted it to DCDR and “our friends from the Headhunters Railway Museum in Enniskillen helped us recover it in 2011” said Mr Crone.

“An initial inspection revealed that although the base was rotten,” he continued, “the vast majority of the structure was sound and would be suitable for restoration and a new use.”

A £10,000 ‘Sharing Heritage’ grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, along with a lot of hard work by volunteers and specialists, transformed it back to its former glory.

Eighty-seven-year-old Jimmy Donnelly, a former GNR Fireman and NIR train driver used to “sign in for the staff” at 5.30 in the morning.

The staff was a large metal ‘key’, one held by the driver and one by the signalman.

The train could only proceed through the junction when the keys were exchanged.

“It was a safety measure” Jimmy explained, before he used a much smaller key to ceremonially open the Bundoran North cabin on Saturday.

As he pulled the various signalling levers inside I wondered what it was like working with steam trains in the days before modern technology.

“If anything went wrong all you needed was a hammer, chisel and spanner,” he smiled, “today you’d have to phone a call centre in India!”

DCDR Curator Neil Hamilton backed Jimmy’s assessment of history - “the railway was the equivalent of the internet in terms of its effect on society.”

The restored cabin will allow visitors to watch railway history re-happening.

“This is pretty unique,” said Neil, “it’ll be doing what it was designed to do. It’s great to see a piece of railway history being saved from oblivion and taking on a new lease of life.”

For DCDR opening times and train timetable from 17 June see www.downrail.co.uk