New life along old lines – Norman Freeman on the greenways of Ireland

The most notable greenways follow the routes of long-abandoned railways

Anyone looking over the Irish tourist videos and glossy brochures can sense the amount of pride being taken in the greenways. Along these traffic-free routes cyclists and walkers can enjoy scenic vistas, linger by woody places, and smell wild flowers.

The most notable greenways follow the routes of long-abandoned railways. The initiative for transforming charming but forsaken stretches of countryside into places of enjoyment and new life was first taken by the intrepid persons who set up the Great Western Greenway in 2010.

It follows the 49km path of the disused line between Westport and Newport in an area of beautiful scenery along the shores of Clew Bay. Progressing this idea was a cooperative effort between those with the vision, communities and landowners and local authorities.

Its success in bringing pride and energy to the area inspired others to do likewise. The 42km Waterford to Dungarvan Greenway, the Old Rail Trail on the Mullingar-Athlone line, and the Limerick Greenway linking towns in the west of the county are now hubs of tourism and local enterprise.


It is easy to overlook or forget just how much human effort was involved when railway lines were first laid down in the middle years of the 19th century.

Initially, surveyors and railway engineers went on foot or on horseback across the land, over fields and streams and boggy places. They lugged with them theodolites and other measuring instruments, looking ahead to find the best route to link one place to another by rail.

Then, once a way had been decided upon, and the land bought, there began an extraordinary exertion of manual labour. Hundreds of men with picks, shovels and wheelbarrows began toiling to prepare wide paths across the countryside.

To the sounds of steady digging and the shouted orders of the gangers, these men had the gruelling job of clearing the ground before endless barrow-loads of gravel were unloaded into the open earth. The task was to lay down a solid foundation for the wooden sleepers and iron tracks that trains would run along.

The labour-intensive undertaking often involved the difficult task of cutting through rising ground. It was done to provide a reasonably level path that avoided putting a strain on the steam engines that pulled the trains. Then there were long stretches of soft or boggy ground where men had to build up a sturdy embankment to carry the line safely over areas of subsidence and flooding.

Far more than hand labour was involved. Immensely skilled artisans applied themselves to building bridges and aqueducts, some of remarkable elegance. One of the most outstanding examples of railway construction can be seen by cyclists and walkers on the greenway that follows the former railway between Waterford and Dungarvan. While enjoying the scenery of mountain and countryside, they cross 11 bridges, three viaducts and go through a 400m tunnel.

The success of the first railway from Dublin to Dún Laoghaire, opened in 1834, created an excitement about the prospect of a system of transport that was revolutionary. It could transform life and living for many. People could travel easily from one place to another. The quick transport of goods could encourage local industry and facilitate imports and exports.

Most Irish railways were laid down by William Dargan an engineer of exceptional enterprise and ability, rightly known as the Father of Irish Railways. Many were built during the devastation of the Great Famine and desperate men sought work on the sites. Sadly, some were so feeble and malnourished that they were not able for the heavy labour required. Dargan claimed that during that appalling era he had provided work and a living for some 50,000 men. The jobs brought steady and good employment to parts of the country where there had only been occasional and meagre income from agricultural work.

After their completion the lines provided employment for those who were required to man the trains, to work in the stations and level crossings and, importantly, to see that tracks were maintained in a condition that allowed trains to run safely and on time.

By the 1920s the country was covered by a webwork of railway lines, some reaching the most remote parts.

However, emigration, a feeble economy, and increasing use of motor transport led to the eventual closure of many of these lines. It has been a truly heartening development that at least some of these abandoned routes are now greenways. They can be enjoyed by many, while bringing new life to villages and towns along the way.