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"The Hills of Donegal" tour recap

A sunny morning dawned in Dublin as our crew made its way to Connolly Luas stop for our first tour of the 2024 season. Ambitious perhaps, following the success of our previous bus trips to Downpatrick we decided go one further and try for a trip to Donegal and back in one day. Our bus, driven by Ewa,  for the day turned up well ahead of time, as did all our passengers meaning in a first, we were actually able to leave Dublin early without fear of leaving anyone behind. Not too bad, when making a journey of this length extra time is valuable.

David double checks his app to make sure everyone has checked-in for our tour.

David double checks his app to make sure everyone has checked-in for our tour.

Heading out along Dublin’s quays and through the Port Tunnel, we made our way up the M1 until the Ardree exit, not far from the site of the old Dromin Junction where the branch to Ardee left the Great Northern Railway mainline. (Incidentally, for those wondering about the name, the GNR ran excursions from both Dublin and Belfast under the Hills of Donegal name, and, like ours, they involved switching between different transport modes). Heading north west, we crossed through County Monaghan before entering Northern Ireland at the Tyrone border, heading through Omagh and close to famed GNR ‘Derry Road’ line which closed in 1965. Crossing back into the Republic of Ireland at Lifford, we arrived at Oakfield Park, Raphoe at around 12:05, just over 3 hours since leaving Dublin.

Our steam train awaits

Steam train on a tour

Lady in red, "Duchess of Difflin" becomes the third steam locomotive to feature on our tours. At 15" gauge, she also represents the third gauge to feature on one too.

Making our way to the station, we crossed the 15” gauge running line and it was not long before we heard a delightful chuff chuff sound and our first star of the day, “Duchess of Difflin”, arrived into view, her red paint gleaming and towing a lovely rake of carriages finished in a livery reminiscent of the original County Donegal Railway’s colour scheme.  The original Hills of Donegal tours run by the Great Northern Railway often involved changes between trains and buses, so this was very much in the spirit of those excursions.

As everyone boarded the carriages, an important question occupied our crew—would the headboard fit? “Duchess of Difflin” doesn’t have a standard lamp iron as such, so initially we thought we’d just pose the headboard on the front for photos. Our steam driver for the day, Tony, suggested we leave fit it atop the headstock, and sure enough, it was a secure fit. Our crew then boarded the carriages and we were off, the little engine taking the load in her stride as she took us on a pleasant chunter around Oakfield Park, though woods and past the shores of Difflin Lake, for which the railway is named. Many waves were exchanged between passengers on our special and those strolling around the park. The steam loco normally only operates on the last Sunday of the month but we had made special arrangements with the Difflin Lake Railway for it to haul our special. 

Our happy tour group poses with the diminutive steam engine.

On arrival back at Oakfield station, a group photo was kindly taken by Oakfield Marketing & Hospitality Manager Shona. Then there was much oohing and ahing as everyone had a look at the little tank engine. Built in 2003, “Duchess of Difflin” is the first ‘new build’ steam locomotive in Ireland (i.e. built after the steam era ended). She is 15” or ‘minimum’ gauge, anything smaller than this and you’re into the realms of model engineering.

Our tour group enjoys lunch at Oakfield House

Photos taken, our group made their way to the Oakfield cafe where a lunch of sandwiches and tea/coffee was provided, while the “Duchess” took a final lap of the estate. After lunch, there was time for a stroll, or to watch some shunting as the steam loco retired to Difflin shed while their diesel “The Earl of Oakfield” took over the rest of the day’s operations, swapping some carriages around in the process.

Touring the Hills of Donegal

Tour bus passing through Barnesmore Gap, Donegal.

Under a brooding sky, our tour bus passes through Barnesmore Gap. Photo: Frieder Engstfeld.

At 14:30, were back on the bus and heading on to Donegal town, on a winding road that very much lived up to the Hills of Donegal name, before descending Barnesmore Gap, through which the original County Donegal Railway also ran, towards our next destination, Donegal town.

Tour bus travelling through hills in Donegal, Ireland.

Drumboe and the Donegal Railway Museum

Tour group being given a talk on a steam train.

Mark, chariman of Donegal Railway Heritage Centre, gives our tour group a talk on the history of railways in Donegal.

Arriving at Donegal Railway Heritage Centre, we were left in no doubt as to our location by the sight of the lovingly restored original CDR locomotive, No.5 “Drumboe”, which is on static display. It hauled the last train on the original railway back in 1959, and is the jewel in the museum’s collection. With everyone off the bus, we gathered inside the former Donegal station building to marvel at an array of artefacts and a working model layout. Some of the models on display were handbuilt over 60 years ago and are very much museum pieces in themselves. We were then given a talk on the history of Donegal’s railways by the museum’s chairman, Mark Mc Daid, who was very informative and told us a lot of interesting tidbits about the Donegal railway system that you won’t find in the books. 

Model trains

After the tour concluded, a special presentation was held. One of the things we at Táilte Tours aspire to do is to help raise funds for Ireland’s smaller heritage railway groups. Being a voluntary group ourselves, this isn’t always easy but we have found the sale of enamel railway badges to be very effective. As such, we handed over a batch of 200 enamel badges to the museum, the sale of each will one will directly go towards the centre’s restoration efforts. Paid for using funds raised on our own railtours and events, we estimate that this batch of badges will bring in anywhere between €1,600 and €2,000 to the Donegal Railway Heritage Centre. The badge itself depicts original County Donegal Railways steam locomotive No.2 “Blanche”, which some of you may have seen on display in the Ulster Transport Museum in Cultra, near Belfast.

Red steam train with tour headboard

There was then time to explore the museum’s collection and Donegal town, and during the layover our crew took the opportunity for a quick trip on the museum’s 7¼”gauge miniature railway, behind their replica of County Donegal Railway diesel No.11 “Phoenix”. Will our headboard ever on an even smaller loco? We welcome contenders to the challenge.

Little train with tour group

Mark takes our team on their smallest railtour yet... Photo: Frieder Engstfeld

Shortly after 17:30, our happy passengers and crew reboarded the bus, and we made a start on our long journey back to Dublin. A comfort stop was undertaken in Omagh, much appreciated we’re sure given the journey time. In true railtour style, our journey back to Dublin involved a slightly different route to that we used in the morning; after Ardee we headed towards Ashbourne and the N2, still arriving back in Dublin ahead of time just after 21:20.

All in all, a long but highly enjoyable day, with a lovely bunch of passengers and some new locations added to our ‘where we’ve been’ list. Day trips from Dublin to Donegal are less common than one might think, and based on passenger feedback, the chance to do it in a day without having to drive very much went down a treat.

Our sincere thanks to all who made this excursion possible, our passengers for supporting us, our stewards, to Shona, Tony, Kerry and team at the Difflin Lake Railway. To Mark, Seamus, Niall, Jim and team at Donegal Railway Heritage Centre, and of course to our bus driver for the day, Ewa, who kept us moving swiftly and safely on some very varied road conditions.

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