The P. & P. B. R. or The Stolen Railway

Tipperary Historical Journal 2012, pp. 64-73


It's not often that a railway line becomes more notorious for what happens after it ceases to operate than for anything that happened during its lifetime but such is the case of the P. & P. B. R. or the Parsonstown & Portumna Bridge Railway, which ran from the town of Birr to a terminus on the east bank of the River Shannon at the Ferry about a mile from the town of Portumna.
In 1853 a railway was authorised to connect Parsonstown (Birr) with the main Dublin-Cork line of the Great Southern and Western Railway at Ballybrophy. It was opened from Ballybrophy to Roscrea in October 1857 and extended to Parsonstown in March 1858.

No sooner was this extension opened than landowners and developers began to see another railway possibility stretching towards the river Shannon. One route was through the parish of Lorrha. While such an extension would be a boon to the district of Lorrha, it would also be of more than local value as it would open up possibilities of a large development of goods and passenger traffic on the Shannon. As well it provided for another possibility of a much-needed connection with the Midland and Great Western Company which might be persuaded to extend from Loughrea to Portumna and connect with the terminus east of the Shannon.

However, this was based on the premise that a bridge would be built over the Shannon.

Engineering developments revealed that building a bridge would not be easy. The existing bridge had cost £18,000 to complete, though it had the advantages of the best site and of the approaches and materials of the old bridge it replaced. To construct a new railway bridge would cost much more. One engineer involved alluded to the many engineering obstacles involved: 'Any capital a local company would probably raise would be swallowed up in the forty feet of mud it would have to contend with.'

The alternative route to The Shannon was that proposed by the Midland Counties and Shannon Junction Railway. This envisaged the connection between Streamstown and Clara, which the Midland Company was already bound by Act of Parliament to construct, continuing on from Clara to Meelick on the Shannon. The bridging of the river at this point would be much easier than at Portumna because the rock formation was over ground and the promoters were hopeful that a connection with Loughrea would be made from there. The short connection from Parsonstown to Meelick, connecting with Banagher, would not be a major obstacle.



Following plenty of public debate opinion came down in favour of the Portumna crossing, no doubt helped by the influence of the Marquis of Clanrickarde and others, who were willing to invest their money in it, and an Act authorising the Parsonstown & Portumna Bridge Railway was passed in the House of Commons in July 1861. It received the Royal assent in October.

In an editorial in the King's Chronicle on October 23 the writer informed the readers that the line had already been marked out between the two termini. It continued: 'The next matter to be negotiated and carried out is the purchase of the land from the proprietors, and we feel bound to say that the terms upon which this shall be effected, will be of the highest consequence to the eventual realisation of the project. The construction of railways serves the interests of no class of persons so much as it does those of the owners of lands and therefore it is to be hoped that proprietors of lands to be taken for this railway will deal liberally and encouragingly with the company and accept some part of the payment in shares in the project which must result in enhancing the value of their respective estates.'

There is a report on the Court of Arbitration in reference to the claims made by the proprietors of the land taken by the railway company in the King's Chronicle on June 17, 1863. It appears that the owners of the land were compensated for the property while the tenants were only compensated for inconvenience. The article reports on 'A man named Carroll, who had a small holding near Riverstown, which he holds from Lord Rosse as a tenant from year to year, was informed that he had no valuable interest in the land, but as to the house in which he resides, and which is to be taken from him, he should be awarded £7.10.0 for inconvenience.'

A Mr. Pert, who had a lease on ten acres and a house for a term of twenty years, of which eleven had expired, was given £18 for severance.

Mr. Wilson of Harvest Lodge claimed some level crossings for his convenience and, after a lengthy conversation on the matter, it was agreed he should have them.

Mr. Head of Derrylahan was awarded £294 for land taken from him. However, he failed in another claim. He sought compensation for the proximity of the railway to his mansion but this was turned down because the mansion was a new structure which was built after the decision was taken to build the railway.

The claim of Mr. Stoney of Portland was considered and he was awarded £494 for the land taken from him and for severance.

There were many other lesser claims and it appears that the total compensation eventually paid for land, severance and inconvenience was £4,829-7-6.

The authorised capital for the project was £65,000 in £10 shares, with loans of £21,000. Most of the latter was contributed by the Public Works Loan Commissioners and the Great Southern and Western Railway Company. Most of the authorised capital was contributed by the people of the district, with the Marquis of Clanrickarde of Portumna Castle contributing £10,000.

One of the matters that operated disadvantageously to the raising of money for the project was the location of the terminus on the east side of the Shannon rather than in the town of Portumna. The chairman of the P&PBR board, the Marquis of Clanrickarde, addressed this matter at a shareholders meeting on November 6, 1861, informing his audience they had already 'authorised a survey, estimate and plan of such an extension to be made at a certain moderate cost.' At a meeting of the directors at Portumna on January 7, 1862 it was reported that all the required preliminaries to obtain a bill for the extension of the line across the Shannon had been fully accomplished.

The required Parliamentary cash deposit had been lodged, the necessary plans had been deposited, and all the requirements of the standing orders of both Houses of Parliament had been compiled with. However, at the next shareholders meeting in May 1862 the raising the money hadn't gone to plan and it was decided to suspend development for a period.


The Building of the Railway

The twelve and a quarter mile line traversed comparatively easy country from Parsonstown to the Shannon. The biggest difficulties were in crossing the Little Brosna at Riverstown, three cuttings that had to be made, at Killeen wood, east of the Lorrha road at Harvest Lodge, and just east of the terminus at the Ferry, plus some areas of bog that had to be traversed..

The contract was given to Edward Bond of London for £52,500, one-third in cash, one-third in debentures and the balance in shares. The company started work on July 27, 1863, no doubt encouraged by a decision taken earlier by the GS&WR board to purchase or lease the line when it was built.

There was an encouraging report on progress at the half-yearly meeting of the shareholders in Portumna, as reported in the King's Chronicle on November 11. The engineer reported that possession had been given to the contractor of all the lands upon the line, with the exception of a mile in length through the townland of Walshpark. Arbitration hadn't yet been concluded in this case. The permanent fences throughout were almost complete. Considerable progress was reported on the rock cuttings at Killeen, Harvest Lodge and the Ferry. The side ditches and many of the cross drains had been cut through the bogs of Curraghgloss and Portland. The formation of the line between Parsonstown and the River Brosna was almost complete. A large supply of dressed stone had been delivered to the site of the Brosna River waiting for the abutments and piers of the bridge to be proceeded with. The Skew Bridge over the public road at Harvest Lodge was in progress and one of the abutments was built to the required height for receiving the iron superstructure.

However matters didn't go according to plan. After the initial spurt of activity and the substantial progress made as outlined above, difficulties came thick and fast. One of these was a shortage of money which slowed down progress to a trickle. Another was the breakdown of negotiations for the remaining land required by the railway. In fact progress was so slow that in June 1866 an extension of time had to be granted by Parliament. The first contractor having gone bankrupt, the work was taken over by Henry P. Bradley of Liverpool. He too, soon gave up, and the railway was ultimately finished by Daniel Baldwin of Middlesex.

The report of the half-yearly meeting of the shareholders in May 1865 gives an idea of some of the difficulties the project faced. Poor progress was reported because of long delays with the cuttings, particularly at Harvest Lodge and Portland. It was also reported that the Marquis of Clanrickarde had made a large loan to keep the work on the line going. It was indicated that the contractor wasn't pulling his weight and had been before magistrates in Parsonstown, Lorrha and Portumna for failure to pay the workers on time. In an editorial in the King's Chronicle on May 24, it was stated: 'If the men be employed at all, they should be paid regularly and in specie and not by 'dockets' on 'tommy shops.'

Work on the line ceased during 1866 with the result that the county roads, which had been interfered with in the construction, had not been restored. Eventually work resumed in early 1867. The plans for the station house at the Portumna terminus were completed and it was hoped that the laying of the rails would proceed. At the half-yearly meeting of the shareholders in May 1867 the directors were confident that the measures they had taken would ensure the completion and opening of the line 'at an early period.'

It appears that the line continued from the station house to the edge of the Shannon. The line of the tracks and the turntable close to the river can be gleaned from the aerial photograph included in this article. Building the line so close to the Shannon was to facilitate the potential transfer of passengers and goods from barges on the river to the trains. Whether there was any such transfer is difficult to discover. Of course the eventual aim was to take the line across the Shannon by a new bridge, which never materialised, to Portumna and link up with Loughrea.
Eventually the end of construction was in sight. For the meeting of shareholders at the end of May 1868 some dignitaries travelled by train from Parsonstown by the new line to within a hundred yards of the new station house at the Portumna terminus at the Ferry. The cutting here, no more than the station house, wasn't yet complete. The passengers dismounted and were conveyed by other vehicles to the meeting in Portumna.

The engineer's report stated: 'We have the satisfaction to report that the preliminary notice to the Board of Trade for the inspection of the railway will be given in the course of the ensuing week, and we hope therefore to have the line opened for public traffic in July.'

There were further delays and the Board of Trade inspection didn't take place until October 5, 1868, but permission to open was refused because of 'incompleteness of the line.' However, a month later sanction was given, with a 20 mph speed limit until the ballast would be settled.
The line opened on November 5 with the first train travelling towards the Portumna terminus. According to Lorrha native, Kevin Barry, the train driver's name was Hubert Hayden and he was to be a regular driver for the duration of the line. There is a record of his death in the parish on April 30, 1926. Another driver by the name of Hehir was sacked by the company. Apparently after a few drinks at the Ferry one night he decided to take some of his friends for a jaunt on the line. The company heard of the escapade and sacked him.

In welcoming the opening of the line the editorial writer in the King's Chronicle said: 'To the indomitable energy of the noble chairman {Marquis of Clanrickarde} alone we owe the fact that so much has been accomplished. To a less persevering man the difficulties which, almost from the very first, beset the line would have proved insuperable.' Then, as if anticipating some of the difficulties that lay ahead, the writer went on: 'The arrangements which are now made for the running of the trains are not perhaps what under more favourable circumstances would have been made, . . .'


Running the Railway

The P&PBR Company had no rolling stock of its own nor the money to provide it so it made an agreement with the Great Southern and Western Railway, which had three nominees on the P&PBR board, to work the line for ten years for forty percent of its receipts. The GS&WR moved its rolling stock on to the line and traffic began on November 5, 1868, with two trains daily each way.

The train times were at inconvenient hours and journeys took about half-an-hour. In 1871 the service was as follows:

Parsonstown, depart 12.29 pm 8.58 pm
Portumna Bridge, arrive 12.59 pm 9.28 pm
Portumna Bridge, depart 06.00 am 1.20 pm
Parsonstown, arrive 06.30 am 1.50 pm

Whereas the service catered reasonably well for a person from the Portumna end travelling to Dublin for a day and arriving back at 9.28 pm in the evening, the resident from Parsonstown, desirous of doing business in Portumna would have to overnight in the town. His train from Parsonstown arrived at the Portumna terminus at 12.59 pm and his only return train departed for Parsonstown at 1.20 pm, giving him a mere twenty-one minutes to transact business, pay a visit or see a sight!

One person who used the service was Walter Kent of Terryglass, the grandfather of Iris Kent-Dyer of Lorrha. He used to walk from his home to the Ferry on a Monday morning to catch the train to Birr, where he worked in Fayle's Hardware. He returned to the Ferry on Saturday evenings and walked home to Terryglass. Later he set up his own hardware business ion Borrisokane.

This poor service led to disputes between the owners and the GS&WR, with complaints about the meagre service and the starvation of the district's chance of development. The P&PBR shareholders had a point but they may have been overly optimistic about the potential traffic. The population of the district of Lorrha was small and not likely to generate much traffic, even if the service was more frequent and less inconvenient. Rathcabbin and Lorrha, mere villages, were the two main centres of population and it was most unlikely that the inhabitants of either place would use the service to travel to Birr or Portumna. Perhaps a stop in the Curragha area might have helped matters.


Closure of Line

The line carried on a struggling existence for ten years but on the expiry of the lease in late 1878, the GS&WR declined to renew the agreement. According to them the forty percent of the gross receipts from the line hadn't compensated them. Instead they had been losing £2,000 a year for some time on the transaction.

Marianne Egan, nee Barry, of Portland, an aunt of Kevin, recalled seeing the last train to traverse the line. As a under four-year old she was taken to a prominent position behind their farm by her mother to view it. The only thing she remembered was the smoke which seemed to envelop the whole train.

The company refused to change its mind in spite of several appeals. An appeal to the Government to take over the line also proved fruitless. They did offer the railway to the company for a job's lot offer of £10,000 but the latter refused and the railway was closed to all traffic in December of that year. Making the closure really final was the decision of the GS&WR to remove all its rolling stock and staff.

The Public Works Commissioners, who had advanced £12,000 on mortgage, now took possession of the railway but made no attempt to work it. This decision was based on the knowledge that the line had realised only £100 per mile per annum over its last three years in operation. An attempt was made to sell the railway and the GS&WR made an offer to work the line if transferred to it without charge. The offer was turned down.

Therefore, for five years the railway remained closed but, as it was patrolled by men appointed to keep it in order, it suffered little damaged. Observer in The Irish Press of June 22, 1945, described the scene: 'So there stood the branch line with its sheds, goods stores and its station house with cut stone front and imposing glass verandah, all dressed up and nowhere to go. But, not for long, for the line started to move again, this time in a very mysterious manner.'

Finally in 1883, the Commissioners withdrew their men and posted up notices stating that they would no longer be responsible for the line.


Stealing the Railway

The line remained intact for some time. The people awaited its re-opening and treated the permanent way with respect. But gradually there was a change in attitude.

According to one account the inception of the plot to steal the railway originated with outsiders, 'County Galway farmers who, returning from the barley market in Birr, and having to cross the line on their journey home, began the work of pilfering by appropriating to themselves such portable articles as iron bolts, etc.'

The police at Lorrha heard of this and prosecuted the parties suspected. The police were astonished, however, when, on the cases being brought to court with proofs fully prepared, they found that the Government refused to prosecute as the Commissioners had abdicated their responsibility for the line.

One account describes what happened in vivid detail: 'The dismissal of the cases for want of persecution emboldened these Galway men, who did not hesitate to pursue the pilfering process in the most open way. Then the farmers along the line, many of whom had contributed to its original cost, felt that if its material was to be filched away by any one, they undoubtedly had the first claim. They gathered in crowds over every yard of the permanent way, and working day and night soon 'left not a wrack behind.' At first they were satisfied with the wooden material, and stripped of this the line was what the Americans call 'two streaks of rust and a right of way', but in time the rails went, and then the station house, sheds, platforms and all adjuncts at Portumna bridge. The stone bridges under public road crossings could not be touched being under the control of the Grand Jury, who would have prevented any attempt any attempt to rob them.'


The Station House

An illustration of the extent of the facilities at the Ferry terminus can be gleaned from the following extract from an advertisement of the proposed sale of the effects in 1880: 'At Portumna Bridge there is a station with booking office, waiting rooms, offices, engine and other sheds, iron crane, cattle pens, turntable for engines, siding for trucks, and the necessary switches, points, etc. A landing stage fronting the Shannon, with crane, turntable, and rails to goods sheds,'

It should of course be remembered that this station was intended to serve not only Portumna and a large area in counties Tipperary and Galway, but also to afford connection with the steamers of the Shannon Navigation, with which a valuable exchange of traffic was hoped for.
But this grandiose scheme for the future came to an end with the disappearance of the station house and its effects, as well as the material on the permanent way. The station disappeared in the course of a single night as the following lines from a song attest:

He came to the bridge as eve was declining
The station was there, safely resting upon
Shannon's green banks, but when morning was shining
The banks were still there, but the station was gone!

Iron founders were predominant in the stealing of the railway, especially the iron rails. There are stories of severe fights among them for the pickings.


The Girder Bridge at Riverstown

About the only thing that escaped the general theft was the girder bridge at Riverstown. It was saved through the intervention of one Patrick Ferns. Spanning the little Brosna River at Riverstown it was about to be dismantled by a group of men armed with the required implements. To gain access to the bridge the men had to cross Ferns' lands, which was denied by the owner. The account goes on: 'The police were called but said that they had no power to interfere, and Mr. Ferns, alone and unsupported, asserted his rights as a citizen and an individual and, defying the intending raiders, saved the bridge.'

The Republicans also contributed to the disappearance of the line. A column of them arrived in Portland on July 27, 1922 and blew up the railway weighbridge that evening.
The steel structure that carried the line over the road at Harvest Lodge was still there after the Second World War, and then it was dismantled. Apparently it had become dangerous and an animal had wandered on to it and got killed. In the interests of safety the North Tipperary County Council decided to take it down and compensated the adjoining landowners, Michael Moylan and Con Mahon, for it. It would appear to be the last piece of the railway to disappear.


Hopes of Re-Opening the Line

Various efforts were made to re-open the line, most of them on the assumption that its working would be in the hands of the GS&WR. In 1899, under the leadership of two local landowners, Colonel J. F. Hickie of Borrisokane and Mr. W. T. Trench of Birr, an influential public meeting was held at Portumna following which a deputation met Mr. A. J. Balfour, Chief Secretary for Ireland and placed before him the views of the local residents. 'It was pointed out that the present deplorable condition of the railway was due largely to the action of the Loan Commissioners in neither handing over the line to the GS&WR, nor placing it in bankruptcy. Even the latter course would have resulted in the realisation of some of the assets, and might even have led to the re-opening of the line, whereas at that time, through the wanton pillage permitted by the Commissioners, nothing of value was left.'

The Government was urged to make a grant of £12,000 to the GS&WR to re-open the line, the sum estimated by the company to be necessary to put the line in repair. After considerable negotiation and delay the Government agreed but on the company being approached, it raised the ante and stated it wouldn't re-open the line without a grant of £24,000, the sum they now estimated would be the cost of restoring the track. Understandably the Government declined to increase its grant.

And so the matter remained until 1907 when a Viceregal Commission was appointed to consider Irish Railways. This generated enthusiasm once again for the re-opening of the P&PBR railway. A high-powered committee was formed and its representatives, Mr. Trench and Laurence Taylor, presented their case to the Commissioners on April 25 and 26. They presented the history of the railway and the arguments in favour of Government assistance.

The result was a suggestion that the chairman of the Commissioners, Sir Charles Scotter, should be asked to arbitrate between the Government and the GS&WR board in case negotiations were resumed. Nothing came of this suggestion and the 'stolen' railway was left to its fate. With the advent of motor transport for passengers and goods it was most unlikely that any further attempts would be made to re-open it.

Nevertheless, there was further talk on the re-opening of the railway. The following report appeared in the Nenagh News on August 8, 1911: 'Much satisfaction is expressed by the people of the surrounding districts with the near prospect of the disused railway from Birr to Portumna bridge being re-opened, and in a way too that was quite unexpected.' The report continued with a history of the railway and previous attempts to open it. 'Now, however, there is at least a chance of the district reaping once more all the benefits derivable from the line. A syndicate of English capitalists have acquired it from its present owners, the Board of Works, and they intend putting it into working order, and extending it to Loughrea. It has often been said that without such an extension as this it would never pay. The Shannon will be crossed by a new bridge and the Portumna station will be in the town and not where it was under the old arrangement, a mile distant on the Tipperary side of the river. At Loughrea the line will form a connection with the Midland Great Western Railway. Mr. Irwin, the syndicate's engineer, is at present engaged in 'walking the line', and preparing his estimate of probable cost of putting the old line into working order and constructing the new branch.'

In an editorial on the proposal the Nenagh News thought this plan too grandiose and expensive and suggested instead the linking of Nenagh and Portumna and eventually on to Thurles.

A letter on September 1 from Mr. Irwin commented on the suggestion favourably and proposed joining the GS&MR at Cloughjordan as the most likely way. However, nothing came of these plans and discussions.



The building of the P&PBR could be regarded as part of the railway 'mania' of the time. In the same year as the company started building the line, 1863, the third greatest annual increase in railway mileage, 143 miles of line, was built. As a result of the new mileage brought into use, the Irish route mileage at the end of the year was 1,741, of which 493 miles were double track. Railways were regarded as good investments and the raising of money for their construction wasn't too difficult. Feasibility studies weren't carried out at the time so that the potential traffic on a line such as Parsonstown to Portumna was never really assessed. The population of Lorrha parish, which was just over 9,000 in the 1841 census, declined to 5,522 in 1851. It is reasonable to assume that it had declined still more by the time the railway opened for business in 1868

It would appear that the promoters saw the line's potential in the connection with the Shannon traffic of goods and passengers, but this was never properly investigated. The other potential was in the connection with the GW&MR through an extension of their line from Loughrea to Portumna. Even had this been built there was the problem of connecting the terminus east of the Shannon with Portumna. This necessitated the crossing of the river and the building of a bridge. It was hoped that the Government would pay for that but there was no guarantee that they would.
There is an argument that the Great Southern and Midland Railway board never wanted the Parsonstown and Portumna Bridge Railway to succeed in spite of their investment of £15,000 in the project. This argument is based on the belief that if the company were serious about making the line a success they wouldn't have had such an inconvenient and meagre service on the line. The argument continues that the company by this policy hoped to reduce the value of the property and then succeed in acquiring it for nothing. The fact that the company later refused to acquire it even with a grant of £12,000 may suggest that it had come to the conclusion that there was no potential at all in the line.

There is one other argument to explain the company's behaviour. Had initial plans come to fruition and the Shannon crossed and the line linked up with that of the GW&MR at Portumna, this connection might have been hostile to the commercial interests of the Great Southern and Western Railway. They may have feared that their rivals west of the Shannon would have been facilitated in drawing off some of the southern traffic to their own main line.

The result of it all is that what is left of the Parsonstown and Portumna Bridge Line is derelict and wobegone. Apart from the 'stolen' aspect of the narrative it doesn't appear to have left many stories in the folk memory. One would have expected that the building of the line would have created an impact on the people, probably one of the biggest engineering projects ever carried out in the parish. The building must have provided unheard-of opportunities for employment, plus compensation to farmers for the land acquired for the permanent way. There are stories of people walking out the line from Birr as it was built in the hope of getting a job and being ready to take over if someone dropped out for some purpose. There are also stories of 'faction fights' taking place as people stole the railway. But, these are few and far between. A search through the 1937-38 Schools' Folklore Collection from Lorrha, Redwood and Gurteen schools reveals not a single mention of the Stolen Railway. Is there some kind of collective guilt at work to explain this loss of memory?