An overcast sky did nothing to dispel spirits as our group gathered at Connolly station Luas stop on the morning of the Saturday August Bank Holiday weekend. Our friendly coach driver, Tom, had arrived with plenty of time to spare as our passengers gathered aboard his plush and modern Higer coach. As is now tradition for our tours, the opportunity was taken to pose the vehicle with our Táilte Tours headboard. With our Dublin contingent on board, we then proceeded along the quays and through the Port Tunnel, before picking up our second contingent of passengers at the City North Hotel. Our passengers came from far further afield than Dublin, with some hardy souls making their way from Cork and Limerick to join us.
Leaving the M1 motorway near Newry, our coach then made its way up the long and winding road through Kilcoo, Castlewellan and Clough, with the Mourne mountains looming in the distance. Our passengers were kept entertained by an informative and oft amusing commentary by our own Jonathan Beaumont, railway historian and seasoned tour guide.
Our second steam train tour
Arriving at Downpatrick at 12:30, there was time to take in the surroundings before our participants boarded the first steam trip of the day, headed by 1936-vintage steam locomotive No.3. Built by the German firm of Orenstein & Koppel, it was used at the former Mallow sugar factory, and is one of two such engines preserved at Downpatrick, affectionately known as "Sugar Puffs". For the occasion, the locomotive sported our Táilte Tours headboard, the second steam locomotive to do so (the first being the Cavan & Leitrim Railway's Nancy) and the first standard gauge one.
A tour of Northern Ireland TV?
On the left is the 450 class 'thumper' train used in the Derry Girls episode "Strangers on a train".
At Inch Abbey, passengers had the option of disembarking to explore the remains of eponymous 12th century Cistercian abbey, used as a filming location for Game of Thrones. This was not the only TV connection to be explored, for parked at Inch Abbey station was the very train used in the final season of Derry Girls, that being the Downpatrick & County Down Railway's 450 class 'thumper' diesel railcar set No.458 "Antrim Castle". Fortunately for our passengers, on this occasion it was actually selling KitKats for and for a fairer price than that proffered in the show!
Diesel traction delights
Meanwhile, our friends in the Irish Traction Group had a special surprise waiting for us—cab rides. And not just any cab rides, Driver Mike Beckett had been up all morning preparing their G Class Deutz shunter No.G617 especially for our visit. And rather than merely operate them within the Downpatrick premises, these cab rides took participants for a trip along the lesser used 'South Line' to Magnus' Grave, with photo stops both at that location and the Downpatrick Loop Platform, which was originally used as an exchange point between trains from Belfast to Newcastle and Downpatrick and Ardglass.
Touring the Carriage Gallery
At Downpatrick itself, passengers had the opportunity to view the extensive Carriage Gallery which contains many treasures from Irish railway history, including a beautifully restored Belfast & County Down Railway 'railmotor' carriage of 1905, designed for suburban trains out of Belfast, and a 1902-built carriage once used by the Great Southern & Western Railway on the lines from Dublin to Cork among other routes. Also on display was E Class diesel shunter No.E421, built in Dublin's Inchicore Works in 1962.
After the final steam train arrived back in from Inch Abbey, there was plenty of spectacle to be had from watching the various shunting operations at Downpatrick, with the Irish Traction Group's popular 141 class GM Bo-Bo No.146 making a cameo appearance. However, there was on last item of important business to attend to...
A real Irish railway gem
Táilte Tours' David Walsh (right) presents the Downpatrick & County Down Railway's Jonathan King (left) with a contribution towards the restoration of 1875-vintage tank engine No.90, which was buiit in Dublin's Inchicore Works.
One of the primary aims behind the Tailte Tours initiative is to help raise awareness and funds for railway preservation in Ireland. Downpatrick is the first of a number of groups to benefit from this, and it was with pleasure that our own David Walsh made his way to Downpatrick loco shed to present Jonathan King, Downpatrick & County Down Railway board member with a contribution towards the restoration of their Great Southern & Western Railway tank engine No.90. Built in Inchicore Works, Dublin, in 1875 for the Castleisland Railway in County Kerry, this is delightful little engine has a connection to all four provinces in Ireland. It spent a lot of its working life in the Cork area and its early preservation career saw it restored by the Tuam-based Westrail group, who completely overhauled the loco in the late 1980s. Moving to Downpatrick in the 2000s, she is next in line for restoration at Downpatrick and a fundraising appeal will be launching presently. You can read more about her history here.
A sweet trip back to Dublin
Having said our farewells, it was time to board our bus back to Dublin, once again entertained by Jonathan Beaumont's insights and anecdotes. Our friends at Downpatrick had even given us some sweets for the journey home, which were hastily devoured. It seemed like no time at all before we were back in Dublin and on time too. All being told, everyone seemed to have enjoyed the day and some were not even off the bus before asking when and where our next trip would be...
Our huge thanks to all at the Downpatrick & County Down Railway and the Irish Traction Group for pulling out all the stops to ensure we had a fun-filled day at Ireland's only standard gauge heritage railway. Special thanks also to our coach driver Tom for the excellent service throughout—we think he enjoyed the day too.
To find out more about the Downpatrick & County Down Railway and the Irish Traction Group, click the links below: