Riding the rails: An Irishman’s Diary about the Deise Greenway

‘Aerobics and scenery apart, the journey still offers an education in both history and geography’

Cyclists on the Waterford greenway

Cyclists on the Waterford greenway

 

Finding myself in Waterford city recently, with a few hours to spare, I rented a bicycle and, taking to the county’s spectacular new greenway, set off for Dungarvan. This is not the direction I recommend, should you have a choice. On the contrary, Ireland’s prevailing winds would usually advise the opposite one.

But Waterford-Dungarvan was the only direction available to me. Besides which, the day I was there, a cool northerly crosswind, for which I had neither bargained nor dressed, swept over the River Suir from my right.

So in the interests of self-heating, I had to tear into the first stretch of the route like a Basque breakaway on a Pyreneean stage of the Tour de France. And to go with the sweat, I soon had the unusual experience of outpacing a train: albeit the little Waterford Suir Valley Railway one, chugging along on the single gauge line to Kilmeaden.

A seasonal tourist attraction these days, that is now the last working part of what, when opened in 1878, was Ireland’s most expensive rail route. The Waterford-Dungarvan line was also one of the most scenic: hence the cost, since what others call scenery, engineers call problems.

In their own way, some of the solutions were beautiful too. But with the railway long defunct, the old telegraph poles now lie mouldering alongside the 46km track like soldiers fallen in an ancient war. Train travel’s loss, meanwhile, is recreational exercise’s gain.

Aerobics and scenery apart, the journey still offers an education in both history and geography. The main geography lesson is that Waterford is almost bisected by the Comeragh Mountains, dividing the county’s eastern side from the west.

This has been a political divide too, especially during the revolutionary years, when the Redmondite east was peaceful compared with the wilder west, a fact reflected in the railway. During the Civil War, the Ballyvoile viaduct was a favourite target for anti-treatyites. First they bombed it, later they sent a hijacked train, via the broken bridge, on a one-way trip to the ravine’s bottom.

Handsome job

Alas, the viaduct’s post-war reconstruction was a less handsome job. But on the plus side, nearby, Ballyvoile retains intact its original 150-metre- long tunnel, blasted through rock.

This, by the way, will be most children’s favourite part of the greenway, because not only is the tunnel impressively unlit (a sign urging cyclists to dismount is universally ignored) and spooky, it also opens on the Dungarvan side into what could be a fairy glade of moss-covered rock walls.

For all the efforts of 1920s Republicans, it was the economics of independent Ireland that finally did for the Waterford-Dungarvan railway. So as well as fortuitous in its own right, the route’s reincarnation as Ireland’s longest greenway was also well timed. When it opened last month, it was 50 years to the day since the trains stopped.

Cycling

And it’s apt that Waterford should enjoy this new distinction. More than most counties, it has a claim to be the home of Irish cycling. As I learned in Dungarvan’s impressive museum, that town hosted not only the country’s first bike club but was also, in 1868, the starting point of “what we think is the first documented cycling holiday in Ireland”.

Both were the idea of Richard Edward Brenan, a postmaster, whose cycle took him into darkest west Cork. Riding the bone-shakers of the time, and bearing in mind Flann O’Brien’s law of molecular interchange, he must have been mostly bicycle when he returned.

At the end of my brief tour of the area, I returned the rental to John Purcell, one of the new greenway entrepreneurs who has shops along the route and operates a shuttle-bus service too. En route back to Waterford (it was €20 for the bike, €10 for the taxi), he told me he used to be unemployed “and it was doing my head in”. But he knew the old line well from his hunting days and when he saw the greenway coming, spotted an opportunity.

Last year, to start with, he borrowed 10 bikes. Now he has 120 and needs at least 60 more soon. His phone rang constantly with inquiries: partly because, in a sharp piece of business, he also bought the Internet domain waterfordgreenway.com for €6.

That was how I found him. But of course, if you have your own wheels, or walking boots, the Deise Greenway, as it is officially known – is free. All the information you need, apart from the weather, is at deisegreenway.com