Ireland and railways - a long history, but also a history of misguided modernization, as the thriving network built in the 19th century was closed and dismantled in the name of "progress" (read: road traffic) in the second half of the 20th century.
But the Irish railway fan still has a number of opportunities to engage in their train hobby. From working lines to static museums, with some models thrown in as well, there is lots of Irish rail history if you know where to look.
From the eclectic to the downright strange, here are a few ideas to delve into Ireland's railway history (in alphabetical order):
Castlerea Railway Museum
Adjacent to the (closed) Hell's Kitchen Pub, Main Street, Castlerea, County Roscommon.
This was known as "the pub with a train in the bar" but unfortunately, the pub has been closed and owner Sean Browne, a life-long railway enthusiast, and collector, is trying to find a buyer. He still keeps the museum running, but visits are by prior arrangement only. Call him on 087-2308152 to fix a date and experience the unique collection. And you may still walk through the diesel locomotive and see the old bar. There is a €5 admission fee to visit the private collection.
For more information, have look at the Castlerea Railway Museum website.
Cavan and Leitrim Railway
Narrow Gauge Station, Station Road, Dromod, County Leitrim.
Unfortunately, some of the exhibits have visibly suffered from the elements over the year, but a visit to the Cavan and Leitrim Railway (no relation to the original company of that name) should please any train enthusiast. True, the bumpy ride (these days more than likely diesel-powered) is short, but exploring the collection is simply magical. From an old steam engine via assorted buses and fire engines to a miniature submarine.
For more information, please look at the review of the Cavan and Leitrim Railway.
Donegal Railway Heritage Centre
The Old Station, Tyrconnell Street, Donegal Town, County Donegal.
This is an interesting Irish rail museum outlining the history of the narrow gauge railways in County Donegal complete with memorabilia, full-size exhibits, models and a huge image collection of Ireland's trains of the past. This is much a place to get lost in, not due to the layout, but due to the depth of information available. The station is also part of the "Trail o' Rail" through Donegal.
For more information, please look at the Donegal Railway website.
Downpatrick and County Down Railway
Market Street, Downpatrick, County Down.
This is where you can find a standard gauge heritage railway with steam and diesel trains running to Inch Abbey during the summer (weekends only) and for special events. The trains are all operated by volunteers and not for profit. Ever fancied yourself as a train driver? There are special "footplate rides" available for enthusiasts, but make sure to book these ahead.
For more information, please look at the Downpatrick and County Down Railway website.
Fintown Railway - An Mhuc Dhubh
Fintown, County Donegal.
The Fintown Railway is the only operational railway in County Donegal but only through the summer months. Based on a restored section of the former County Donegal Railway, the route winds through 3 miles (five kilometers) of highland and lakeside scenery. The train trip is very picturesque. The historic Railcar 18 might be coupled to a less glamorous diesel workhorse, but you are really riding on a piece of history.
For more information, please look at the Fintown Railway website.
Giant's Causeway and Bushmills Railway
Ballaghmore Road, Bushmills, County Antrim.
A narrow-gauge railway that runs between the historic town of Bushmills and the Giant's Causeway, a two-mile ride through fields. A small caveat regarding these delightful trains - they are not the historic railway that once existed along the "Causeway Coast", but a re-imagination of the experience, using rebuilt locomotives from other sources.
For more information, please look at the Giant's Causeway and Bushmills Railway website.
St. James Gate, Dublin
An unlikely place to look for railways, I freely admit, but there are two preserved locomotives of the company-owned rail system on display. Remnants of the actual train system can also be spotted around the brewery, mainly old tracks still in situ.
For more information, please refer to our full review of the Guinness Storehouse.
John B. Keane Road, Listowel, County Kerry.
This must be the oddest railway ever, in Ireland or anywhere. This is a monorail with a track raised above the ground like a fence. The unique train system actually operated between Listowel and Ballybunion from 1888 to 1924, carrying passengers, livestock, and freight. The modern recreation has only a "demonstration" track (and one look will tell you why it would be complicated to run this line through the modern landscape) and the "steam engine" is a faithful replica, but with diesel power. This is where to go for a very different kind of rail experience.
For more information, please look at the Lartigue Monorail website.
Stradbally Narrow Gauge Railway
The Green, Stradbally, County Laois.
Under the auspices of the Irish Steam Preservation Society, this woodland line was constructed in stages between 1969 and 1982, entirely by voluntary labor. The passenger trains are hauled by a steam locomotive, though diesel may be seen in operation too. And don't forget that a massive steam show is on at Stradbally every August bank holiday.
For more information, please look at the website of the Irish Steam Preservation Society.
Tralee and Blennerville Steam Railway
Blennerville (near the Windmill), Tralee, County Kerry.
The best (or most charitable) way to describe this attraction is "in hibernation", the steam has not been raised since 2006, and while the facilities are still there, the website concludes that "there will be NO trains running for quite a long time if at all".
For more information, please look at the Tralee and Blennerville Steam Railway website.
Ulster Folk and Transport Museum
Cultra, Holywood, County Down.
Located just outside Belfast (and with rail access too), this sprawling complex has two parts. Railfans will head for the transport section that includes almost everything from bicycles to the largest steam trains ever run in Ireland. It is a cross-border affair, so you'll see exhibits from outside Northern Ireland as well. All in all, maybe the best museum for railfans visiting Ireland.
For more information, please look at the review of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.
Waterford and Suir Valley Railway
Kilmeadan Station, Kilmeadan, County Waterford.
When the Waterford to Dungarvan route was abandoned, nobody really thought trains would run here again. However, the doubters were wrong and now the railway is open once more. At least, 10.5 miles (17 kilometers) were re-opened as a community heritage project and are now host to excursion trains. Coaches are pulled by refurbished diesel engines in a nice "old time" livery. A very pleasant experience, all in all.
For more information, please look at the Waterford and Suir Valley Railway website.
West Clare Railway
Moyasta Junction, Kilrush, County Clare.
Steam trains on a short, but historic, stretch of line. As is typical with railway attractions in Ireland, this train operates only during the summer months, with steam only on Sundays.
For more information, please look at the West Clare Railway website.
West Cork Model Railway Village
The Station, Inchydoney Road, Clonakilty, County Cork.
This is very much a family attraction, but should not be missed by the more serious railfan as well. The centerpiece is a recreation of local landmarks as scale models, with model trains winding their way from attraction to attraction, all of them quite well done. There are also real-life railway items on show (the café is an original dining car) and the station has been kept in good order as well.
For more information, please look at the Model Railway Village website.
Westport House and Country Park
Westport, County Mayo.
This small theme park has a miniature railway running, billed as "a short ride through the grounds". Though passenger-carrying, it might leave most railfans lukewarm at best. In all fairness, the owners claim it as a "particular favorite for the very little ones".
For more information, please look at the Westport House website.