Thursday 23 November 2017

Walk of the week: Great Southern Trail Co Limerick

Christopher Somerville

Great Southern Trail, Co Limerick

'Ah, well now, I'd say the Great Southern & Western Railway was run for the benefit of the staff, and not for the customers!" Tom McCoy, works officer of the Great Southern Trail, gives a wry and affectionate chuckle as he gazes down from Barnagh viewpoint over the railway's home territory, the rolling plains of west Limerick, bathed today in honey-coloured sunlight.

"It wasn't exactly a racehorse of a railway, you might say!"

Where the trains of the GS&W once clanked and puffed along the North Kerry line from Limerick to Tralee, today there's a green snake of a trackbed winding through the countryside.

It's the dearly held dream of the Great Southern Trail Action Group to open the full 53 miles, from Ballingrane outside Rathkeale all the way to Tralee, for walkers and cyclists, a grand open-air trail through the gorgeous back country of west Limerick and north Kerry.

For some 20 years, the ladies and gentlemen of the GST group -- Tom McCoy, Denis McAuliffe their vice-chair (who'd first tugged my sleeve about the trail) and the rest -- have been cajoling, fundraising, lobbying and proselytising for their project.

So far they have a 17-mile stretch, from Ardagh to Abbeyfeale, open and ready for the pleasure of exercise, superb views and pure, unashamed steam-train nostalgia.

One long glance from Barnagh viewpoint tells you exactly what kind of constituency was served by the GS&W during its sleepy century of existence. Between 1880 and 1975, it hauled farm stock and farmers, country goods and schoolboys from one small town to the next. The trouble was the north Kerry line's gradients.

Leading up to the Barnagh Tunnel between Newcastle West and Abbeyfeale, the rails climbed for two miles at 1 in 80, then the same again at 1 in 60 -- an incline you wouldn't even notice on foot or on a bike, but a terrible struggle for a wheezy old steam locomotive with a hundred tons or so to haul.

The north Kerry trains could only manage half the load of those on the south Kerry line via Mallow, a weakness which proved fatal to this rural poor relation of a route.

Exploring west along the line on this sunny afternoon, we sensed the cold breath of a rock cutting up ahead. The dark walls were shaggy with ferns, liverworts and mosses, all thriving on mineral trickles from high overhead. "I remember coming through here," Tom's voice reverberated in the cutting. "Seven of us went to college by train -- a lovely part of the country to be travelling through, but it was smoky in the tunnel all right, with two engines up the front."

The tunnel mouth seemed dressed in velvet, a collar of vivid green moss. Inside the bore of dressed stones, drips and plops of water echoed. The light at the far end, a ghostly green glow, expanded until we were out in the cutting beyond, a natural water garden of sphagnum and sedges.

Back along the line we went, to cross the Tralee road at the viewpoint. From a beautiful cast-iron viaduct we gazed down at Garryduff House in its shadowed dell, then followed the GS&W's track between ancient lichen-bearded oaks and on through the quiet west Limerick farmland.

"Isn't it the lovely place?" enthused a man we met riding his bicycle up to Barnagh. "I bike it from Newcastle West up to the tunnel twice a week, and I'm 70 -- so I'll be doing it another 15 years yet. Or am I asking too much, would you say?"

No, we wouldn't at all. Robins sang the day down from their hedge-top sentry posts. The sun came slanting behind Rooskagh's ridge to the north-west, gleaming through the mane of a brindled horse cropping grass, flashing scarlet in the bull's-eye glass of a railway lamp still fixed in a white-barred level crossing gate. 'GS&WR,' sternly announced the notice in the hedge. 'Any Person leaving this Gate open is Liable to a Penalty of Forty Shillings.'

Don't mess with the GS&WR, pal -- ya hear?

A crunch and a whizz and our bicycling friend was among us, breathing hard. "'Tis all downhill from now to Newcastle!" he cried, and shot gleefully away.

Irish Independent

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