Railways and the ‘Forgotten County’ – An Irishman’s Diary on Donegal’s vanished rail network

Co Donegal once had marvellously intricate narrow-gauge railways. At 225 miles long, it was the longest narrow-gauge system in these islands, a true marvel of railway engineering. By the end of 1959, the last sections of the system had closed.

The first lines in the county opened in 1863 and 1864, including Strabane to Stranorlar.

Other lines followed, so that by the start of the 20th century, major towns in the county could be reached by rail, including Letterkenny, Burtonport and Glenties in the west of the county, and Killybegs and Ballyshannon in south Donegal. On the Inishowen peninsula, a line went as far as Carndonagh.

A small section of the network was originally broad gauge, but soon narrow gauge became the working norm across the county. The Donegal railways also ran to Derry city, which at one stage, had four railway stations. One in the docks area linked Derry with Letterkenny, Buncrana and the Inishowen peninsula, while the Victoria Road station on the east bank of the Foyle provided a connection to Killybegs.


But consolidation came quickly to the network. In 1906, the County Donegal Railway Joint Committee was set up, with help from the Great Northern Railway (Ireland) and the Midland Railway in England. In the north of the county, services were run by the Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway company, usually called simply “The Swilly” .

The railways were useful in helping Donegal people reach emigrant ships, sailing from Derry and elsewhere. They also played a vital and integral role in the everyday commerce of the county, and during the second World War, they were well-used by the people of the twin towns, Ballybofey and Stranorlar, and many others in the county, travelling in their vital quest to win turf.

They were also widely used for excursions, such as those by pilgrims to the Holy Well at Doon, near Letterkenny, as well as by Orangemen going to Rossnowlagh for the Twelfth, and the Ancient Order of Hibernians on August 15th.

The Donegal railways were also very innovative; diesel railcars were introduced around 80 years ago and proved economical and reliable. They helped the railways keep going for far longer than if they had been steam-worked. Thrift was everything, and in many cases carriages were kept in service for decades.

The railways also induced a sense of friendly competition, like the race between a diesel railcar and a motor car, driven by Maj Henry White of Lough Eske Castle, along the Barnesmore Gap.

One lethal crash happened in January 1925, when a train on the Letterkenny to Burtonport line was blown off the viaduct at Owencarrow. Four people were killed. In 1949, a railcar driver and two passengers were killed when two trains collided head-on near Donegal town.

But as happened everywhere else with the railways, motor cars and lorries provided unbeatable competition. The station at Carndonagh shut in 1935 after a mere 34 years in service. The line to Burtonport clung on, as far as Gweedore, until 1947, while the lines to Buncrana and Letterkenny closed down in 1953. By 1960, the last of the Donegal system had been obliterated. The Swilly company, which became bus-only for passengers, managed to last until two years ago.

Such was the attachment to the Donegal railways that after the line from Donegal town to Ballyshannon closed down in 1959, two of the railway workers continued to operate a freight service between the two towns for a month before the bosses in Dublin realised what was happening.

With so many railway memories still so vivid in Co Donegal, it’s hardly surprising that the county has two excellent heritage sites. The old station in Donegal town has been converted into the Donegal Railway Heritage Centre, packed with artefacts of all kinds, and even an old railway carriage that can be hired out for functions.

At Fintown, you can take a trip in an old railcar along five kilometres of track, the last remaining segment of the Co Donegal railways, on the old Stranorlar to Glenties line. It opened in 1995 and now there are plans to restore the old station. Its lakeside setting is so spectacular that the late Brian Friel said that it was as scenic a stretch of railway as anything to be found in Switzerland or Minnesota.

Derry had the Foyle Valley railway museum dedicated to the Co Donegal railways, including old locos and carriages and a working track, but sadly, it has been long closed.