If you were due a court appearance in Ennis over a counter claim by the West Clare Railway, simply claiming you had travelled by one of its trains to court and been made late would have earned the judge’s deepest sympathies. That is because the West Clare had a most disreputable image in terms of tardiness, which promptly lost the company its libel claim against Percy French.
The West Clare, opened 130 years ago this month, was a result of the Tramways and Public Companies Act of 1883 which promoted the building of new tramways in Ireland. The idea was to provide money to encourage new lines to be built and diminish the burden on localities. As a result many substantial three foot gauge railway systems were built with the help of Government funds.
The last of the West Clare locomotives. No 5 Slieve Callan as an exhibit on the old platform at Ennis 26 July 1991.
Percy French, one of Ireland’s foremost song writers of the day, wrote Are Ye Right There Michael. This poked fun at the railway and made it a national laughing stock. Everyone knew the company just couldnt keep its trains running on time. That was an image the railway had to deal with throughout its working life. Was it fair? It all depends how one looks at it. From French’s (and many others’ views) the railway was simply hopeless at understanding the concept of timekeeping. From the railway’s own perspective it managed quite admirably despite the huge problems that were faced because of the line’s construction.
The problem with the West Clare is it was built in two stages, ultimately making a very long and circuitous line with numerous operational problems and far less back up infrastructure compared to Ireland’s other narrow gauge systems. The main workshops and locomotives sheds were at Ennis and Kilrush, at the far extremities of the line, 48 miles apart. These places were actually the headquarters of the two companies, the West Clare and the South Clare. The trains, in normal service achieved 25mph, but could barely run more than 35mph maximum. and were expected to complete the distance in just under three hours. The locomotives built for the original line to Miltown just could not manage the much longer distances to South Clare, so more powerful ones had to be acquired.
Its also why, looking at a map, the West Clare seems to go to other places than where its meant to be going. The road distance from Ennis to Kilrush is 26 miles, the railway is double that!
“The West Clare Railway is not, strictly speaking, the mere mechanical equivalent of the longest possible distance between two points, but, rather, a definite personality, mysterious, incorrigibly humorous, a successful failure eternally in revolt against the despotism of a fact.” (Times Pictorial, Dublin, Feb 1944)
Had the railway originally ended at Miltown Malbay as first planned the Percy French incident would have not even happened. Nevertheless the separate concern, known as the South Clare was eventually built and the stretch south from Miltown to Moyasta Junction was sixteen miles without a single authorised passing place! The South Clare was the poorer of the two companies, it owned no trains and depended on the West Clare for these. The South’s earnings were much less than the West’s, there were disputes on running costs, and the South never paid its share of maintenance for the jointly owned station at Miltown Malbay.
Following the debacle with French, the South Clare railway had no choice but to try and improve matters by providing two extra passing places on the unduly long section to Moyasta. The debacle in fact amplified matters, and by December 1898 the West Clare was so dissatisfied with its southern counterpart that threats were made to withdraw all trains beyond Miltown. That would have made the South Clare a railway with no trains!
The incident with Percy French took place in August 1896. He arrived at his destination, Kilkee, twenty minutes late for a concert advertised to start at 8pm, but had originally planned to arrive in Kilkee at 3.30pm and giving him plenty of time to prepare. Instead he arrived on the dot at 8pm, four and half hours late, leaving him just a few minutes to get to Moores Hotel in Kilkee. French asserts the railway had no clue what it was doing and claimed the driver stopped in the middle of nowhere. Actually it was Miltown station, a little distance west of the town itself.
OLD IMAGES OF CLARE: Miltown Malbay Railway Station, Co. Clare, on Wednesday, September 21, 1960. Image Roger Joanes pic.twitter.com/PgerXg0Osk
— The Clare Herald (@theclareherald) November 12, 2014
Most sources will tell you the driver stopped because it was discovered weed had got into the locomotive’s tanks during a refilling stop at Ennistymon. By the time driver Michael O’ Laughlin had reached Lahinch the engine’s injectors were playing up. Nevertheless he continued to Miltown Malbay where fearing the locomotive blowing up, he decided to shut down the fire for fear of it causing that to happen. A replacement locomotive was needed, it took hours and French arrived at his concert late – and that’s how the story usually ends.
Here’s the story with a bit more detail. Much panicking went on behind the scenes as the staff tried to sort out the mess. In fact when the case came to court in January 1887 the railway officials explained the gigantic efforts they made to get trains moving, they were simply brushed aside as being liars because of the line’s tarnished reputation.
To make matters worse the relationship between the West and South Clare railways didn’t help very much which meant they were also inept at defending litigation cases. On the very same day as the Percy French trial, compensation was paid to a woman who had been kicked by an ass at one of the stations.
When it came to requesting a replacement engine for the stricken train Percy French was stuck on at Miltown Malbay, there wasn’t one immediately available. Miltown had a locomotive shed but no engine and the nearest were at either Ennis or Kilkee, a pretty long way off in terms of the narrow gauge. The up Mail from Kilrush, already allocated a locomotive from that place, was too important a train to be stopped as it needed to make its connection with the Dublin bound mail at Ennis.
One of the major problems for the railway staff was the train token for the long section south was in the wrong place. It had to be raced by horse and cart along sixteen or so miles of narrow country lanes to Moyasta where it could then be given to the replacement locomotive waiting to come up to Miltown Malbay. Only when that happened could the up mail also follow.
The West Clare trackbed (on the left) thirty years after it shut. Only the broad gauge survives. Ennis 27 July 1991.
No locomotive was available from Ennis as they had been allocated for the day’s later southbound services. The only choice then was to requisition the locomotive running the local shuttle service between Kilrush and Kilkee. Its locomotive, No 4 Besborough, arrived at Kilkee at 3.25pm, and was immediately allocated to head Percy French’s stricken train. Besborough was immediately dispatched to Moyasta, where it had a long wait for the train token which had to be brought by road. Besborough eventually arrived at Miltown 5.15pm. The problem was then compounded by Miltown having two down services, one running late and one on time, trying to pass the up mail train – and the staff seemingly uncertain which they wanted to send first!
Percy French, stuck on his stricken train, would have been positively fuming. From his viewpoint nothing seemed to be happening and no-one seemed to be doing anything or giving any reason for the crisis. Not another single train movement was seen in the three hours or so before No 4 Besborough arrived at Miltown. Any assurances or condolences from the station master, William Marrinan, would have been to no avail.
It would seem as if the railway had decided to shut down for the day to avoid the makings of a crisis. However behind the scenes staff were working greatly extended hours trying to get services moving and trains back on time. Remember these were the days a barebones telephone network existed and two railway companies that didn’t get on well together.
Jumping ahead to the court hearing at Ennis, 10 August 1897, His Honour asked French: “I suppose they were waiting for some other train?” French: “Yes your Honour: the train from Kilkee came and passed and then I thought we would go on but we waited for the train from Ennis.” His Honour: “Why were you left there?” French: “I cannot tell. That’s for the Company to tell you. They did not explain why they waited for the train from Ennis.”
It is indeed a mystery why they waited for the train from Ennis. When it arrived things got more messy because French was forced to travel without his luggage.
The mail train, which French mentioned to the court, had left Kilrush on time at 5.10pm, but was forced to run via Kilkee as the local shuttle train could not run without a locomotive (remember No.4 Besborough had been requisitioned for the stricken train at Miltown.) As a result the mail train ran 35 minutes late but still made the main line connection at Ennis. The problem was not one train could venture southwards until the up mail had arrived at Miltown, which it did at 6.50pm. This means Besborough had to wait an hour and twenty five minutes before travelling south.
The other issue arising was in the meantime the company debated whether to use one locomotive to haul the two trains southwards. This included the later train, the 4.40pm from Ennis which they ultimately decided to send on first. In preparation for that Besborough shunted French’s train into the sidings in order to make the road clear for the 4.40pm from Ennis. It seems the company were thinking of keeping this train on time – sort of!
Railway Station, Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare in September 1956. Pic: O'Dea Photograph Collection / NLI pic.twitter.com/siqMAK54sO
— The Clare Herald (@theclareherald) May 22, 2016
Once the up mail had passed the 4.40pm from Ennis was indeed given special dispensation to run non-stop to Kilkee, a distance of 21 miles with Besborough put in charge as she was by now fully watered, serviced and coaled for the long trip. Percy French was quickly ushered from his train (that had been shunted into the sidings) onto the 4.40pm. Surprisingly the staff refused he be allowed to transfer his belongings and instruments to the other train as it was about to leave!
That meant French had to travel to Kilkee without the props and instruments needed for his performance. This didnt help!
French’s original train was shunted out of Miltown’s sidings by the locomotive that had come from Ennis with the 4.40pm. These were rostered to work as an all stations stopping service. Alas it carried French’s luggage too! These were destined to take a more leisurely trip southwards before being reunited with its famous owner.
No 4 Besborough left Miltown at 6.55pm and the non-stop run ensured it reached Kilkee at exactly eight. French arrived at the concert hall adjacent to Moore’s Hotel in Kilkee at 8.20pm. Most of the audience who came to see him had left, and he didnt have any instruments to even do a performance for the few who had stayed. This included a Magic Lantern used to show images as he performed his songs. The luggage in question did not arrive at Kilkee station until 8.55pm and it was hugely embarrassing for Percy French, whose takings barely managed thirty shillings.
Having got French to Kilkee, Besborough took over the Kilrush shuttle once again and maintained its 9.15pm connection with the 6.50pm ex Ennis at Moyasta.
In the months that followed the incident, Percy French decided to sue the railway for loss of earnings and damage to his professional reputation. The earnings French had lost were around £34 but he requested only £10 from the court.
Are Ye Right There Michael was a further result of this, making fun of the railway’s apparent inability to keep to time. The West Clare ironically become Ireland’s very last public narrow gauge system, surviving long after the country’s other narrow gauge lines had folded. Would Percy French have been impressed? I think not.
Who was Michael?
Michael Talty the guy who features in French’s song parodying the railway, was actually an employee on the South Clare. He was the head porter at Kilrush and doubled as train guard when required, and on the train that befell Percy French.
Talty of Moore Street, and later Stewart Street, Kilrush, was born in 1857. He had been a labourer who worked on the line’s construction from 1885-92. The book, In The Tracks of the West Clare (Lenihan) says Talty was a locomotive fireman, however an obituary in the Irish Times confirms his position was guard and porter. Talty retired in 1929 and died at the age of 99 years in 1957, four years short of the railway’s closure. The obituary says Talty was a personal friend of Percy French and inspired French to write the famous song. As a South Clare man Talty may have held grudges against the more powerful West Clare company.
Both companies were merged when the Great Southern Railways Company took over their lines. C.I.E. (Córas Iompair Éireann) came along in 1945 and right from the dot C.I.E. tried to shut the West Clare because it lost so much money. Protests regularly ensued the railway’s continuation and ultimately C.I.E. tried to make the best of it by introducing an all diesel service giving faster, more frequent trains. Nevertheless losses rose to a massive £23,000 per year and the West Clare was finally closed on 31 January 1961.