Royal Rail – Frank McNally on the history of ‘Irish State Coach 351’

An Irishman’s Diary

Among the prize exhibits at the recent 175th anniversary open day in Inchicore Railway Works was "Irish State Coach 351".

One of the more storied railway carriages in Ireland, it may also be the most opulent, designed in Art Nouveau style with French renaissance-type wall panelling in oak, mahogany, and walnut.

The coach was first designed for the royal visit of 1904, when King Edward VII was the main beneficiary of its "smoking room" while his wife, Alexandra of Denmark, enjoyed the "Queen's boudoir".

That event is overshadowed in history books by Edward's private visit of a year earlier, when Maud Gonne famously improvised a black flag of protest from one of her old petticoats.


But it earned literary immortality via James Joyce, who used it as the pretext for an argument that dominates his short story Ivy Day in the Committee Room.

In that, on the anniversary of Parnell's Death, the characters debate the upcoming visit and the question of whether Dublin Corporation should deliver a welcome address.

The carriage was eventually restored by the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland, with Connemara marble wash basins, light fittings in Waterford Crystal, and wood panelling in the original Francis I style

They also touch delicately on the king's colourful private life. "Why now would be welcome a man like that?" asks Mr Lyons.

This threatens to reopen the bitterness of the Parnell divorce split. But a more liberal Mr Henchy argues in the monarch's defence: "He's just an ordinary knockabout like you and me. He's fond of a glass of grog and he's a bit of a rake, perhaps ..."

Apart from the word “ordinary”, Henchy’s verdict seems to have been a considerable understatement of the facts.

At the peak of the king's social life, when he was Prince of Wales in the 1880s and 1890s, his favourite pastimes included visiting the most exclusive brothel in Paris where he sometimes bathed in champagne with the company of several of the in-house service providers.

A man of generally large appetites, he was also known for dining five times a day, with up to 10 courses for dinner, which resulted in a 48-inch waist by the time of his coronation. Acknowledging his reduced mobility, the Parisian brothel’s amenities included a specially designed “love chair”.

There was no such furniture in the Irish royal railway carriage, of course. And his habits had probably moderated by then.

Even so, his train journey from Dublin to the Punchestown Races had echoes of the notorious event by which his life of philandering was inaugurated. That had happened at another Kildare racing venue, the Curragh, when as a 19-year-old prince, and a virgin, he visited the army garrison.

Taking it upon themselves to help launch his sexual career, his hosts smuggled the actress Nellie Clifden into camp to perform the official opening.

On his return to England, where the rumours preceded him, the prince received a dressing down from his father, who rose from his sick bed to deliver it and died soon afterwards, a consequence Queen Victoria blamed on her son.

Edward VII was in one sense a precedent for the current Prince of Wales, in that he too had a very long wait to be king. This also merited mention in Joyce’s and caused the author problems.

In the published version, he has Henchy saying: “Here’s this chap come to the throne after his old mother keeping him out of it until the man was grey.” But in earlier versions, the phrase was “bloody owl mother” and even “bloody old bitch of a mother”.

Even after those cuts were made, the story was still considered disrespectful to the (by then dead) king. Exasperated with his editors, Joyce in 1911 took the trouble of writing to Edward's son and heir, George V, enclosing a copy and asking if he considered it offensive. The new monarch declined comment.

After the 1904 visit, the royal carriage had little else to do for a generation. By the time of its next high-profile appearance, Ireland had undergone dramatic change.

It was 1923, and the guest of honour then was the executive president of the Irish Free State, WT Cosgrave, opening a restored Mallow Railway Viaduct, sabotaged in the Civil War.

It later became the presidential coach, used especially by Eamon de Valera. Then, following retirement, it was stored for years in a shed in Cork before being moved to Inchicore where it came close to being destroyed by a fire in 1991.

Saved from that and various forms of rot, the carriage was eventually restored by the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland, with Connemara marble wash basins, light fittings in Waterford Crystal, and wood panelling in the original Francis I style.

The carriage had survived the change from monarchy to republic, while retaining its considerable dignity. When it won a British Heritage Railway Association award in 2000, the adjudicators declared it in "a class of its own".