Saturday, 13 August 2011

Back on the Rails I - Railways and Traditional Society

The Irish Rail Network in 1845

The earliest of my posts on this blog explored Cork along its rivers. I've been making a hobby of Cork geography for years and it seemed like a good idea to trace Cork's Catholic heritage along its river valleys. A good example is my post (you all remember it, don't you?) about
St. Lachteen and the valley of the River Schournagh.

This summer I hope to make a hobby of the railways of Cork and to post a sort of blogger tour along the railways, past and present. That post is also a good example of my present thesis that Cork's Catholic heritage can also be traced along its railway network, especially along the network that has since been abandoned. For example, in my St. Lachteen post I noted that a branch of the Muskerry Railway runs alongside the River Souragh to Donoughmore going upstream from Blarney.

At first, I didn't think I could find a traditional or Catholic angle on the railways but the more I looked at it, the more I realised that that they reflected and supported the traditional life of old Cork in a way that Motorways and National Road Networks just don't.

The Irish Rail Network in 1887

First, the railways generally respect the topography of the place. You will often find the railway sharing the path of a canal or a river, even in the lowlands but especially through valleys. Topography is not only a static historical constant but also is a dynamic constant factor in the formation of traditional culture. We all know the story that every ancient Irish Diocese was tied to a route to the sea. If we understood the changes in the flow of rivers, we would see how ancient Irish monasteries were close to a river or the sea. Thus, the railways share a common constant of development with the Catholic heritage of the place in a way that the roads do not.

The idea is my own but, like all good ideas, it is not mine alone. Hilaire Belloc repeats it many times. For example in his The Historic Thames he says "Upon all these accounts a river, during the natural centuries which precede and follow the epochs of high civilisation, is as much more important than the road or the path as, let us say, a railway to-day is more important than a turnpike." He also addresses the significance of rivers in The Path to Rome and Warfare in England.

Second, the old railway network of Ireland was more human, as far as I can tell. It supported local societies, whereas the roads seem to have drawn people away from the local towards cities, Dublin in particular, and the ascendancy of the road has even forced the railway into a radial pattern that was not true of the railways before the 1960s. The few non-radial routes left, Limerick to Wexford and the 'circle line' to Roscrea may soon have added the Cork to Cobh/Youghal line to their number and may yet be joined by the Western Rail Corridor but it is a long way from the 1906 rail network.

Reputable commentators consider the railway was a destructive force for traditional society. A UCC Multitext article says "It has been claimed that the railway was a negative influence on Ireland, economically and socially: it made emigration easier and opened the Irish market to cheap imported goods which quickly destroyed Irish local industries, unable to compete in scale and cost." However, it goes on to say "Certain groups in Ireland benefited greatly from the coming of the railway. If small local industries were put out of business by cheaper rail-assisted imports, the Irish consumer equally benefited from cheaper prices and improved choice which stimulated the retail sector...The movement of goods was not all one way and the railways greatly accelerated the commercialisation of Irish agriculture by opening up new markets to Irish producers and allowing perishable goods to be moved quickly and safely. By the end of the nineteenth century insulated railway vans enabled the shipment of fish from the western seaboard to markets in Dublin and even in Britain. Eggs, traditionally too fragile to transport over long distances, became a major Irish export commodity. This trade raised the incomes of Irish farmers and their fowl numbers greatly increased in the later nineteenth century. Railways were very much a life-changing experience for the Irish in the last decades of the nineteenth century, giving the rural population access to cheap consumer goods and improved markets on the one hand, while destroying local industries and ‘traditional’ life styles on the other."

That's the economic element but even the economic influence facilitated as much as it undermined traditional society. My view is that the railway was a threat to traditional society only in the way that the Bianconi coaches were. As Newman said "To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often." Traditional society can't be static but it must be stable and I don't think the railways destabilized traditional society in Ireland in the way the growth in road transport has.

The Irish Rail Network in 1906

The railways are now recognised as a key element of "public transport" for economic purposes but they are also societal in the way that people interact on a train as they never can on a bus and a fortiori in a car. On a train journey you can walk the length of a train with ease and meet whoever it is you are to meet. I often wander to the buffet car on train journeys between Cork and Dublin and it's rare that I won't meet a friend or a cousin, sit for a while and chat. On a bus, you sit down and you're lost in your own little world. Who would doubt that the popular culture of the train is unequalled by the bus, the coach, the car? That is why I will be getting back on the rails over the next few months to look at the Catholic heritage of Cork.


Veronica Lane said...

I had to do a double take when I saw this post on my blog reading list but now that I have read it in its entirety I can see that this is an interesting premise. I am looking forward to the rest of the series.

Michael Clifton said...

A very fascinating thesis. I am a long stand railway fanatic and have travelled many of the Irish lines also including the little preserved bits like the West Clare, the Listowel and Ballybunion, plus Fintown on the old Co.Donegal railway network to Glenties. I shall looke forward to more. Much of what you say is true of our railways except that conversation on trains and buses is drowned out by noisy louts or mobile phone users.

Philly said...

I hadn't seen your river post before but it looks really interesting. Roll on the railways!

Ollie said...

Go 4 it!

Shandon Belle said...

Thanks Veronica, Father, Philly and Ollie. I'll be posting monthly or thereabouts so watch out! Good to hear your own views too. Keep the comments coming.

Jim'll Fix It! said...

It's very true that the railways had a role in keeping communities together. The children up in Dublin or the cousins living away from the home place could all visit more easily. The railways station was a local hub for exchange and gossip. The carriages are still a place for people to get together and talk. I don't find that they are drowned out by noise unless you are on the train with the students going to school or the fans for the match. Even there I met up with many old comrades on the way up to Headquarters and even on the way up to hospital. Mostly when I'm on my own I can sit and say the rosary. I've never done that on a bus but it surely must be possible.

Bagenal Harvey said...

It would be interesting to do a similar exercise in the Dioceses of Kildare and Leighlin. There are several train routes past and present that pass through or used to pass through many of the ecclesiastical sites of the Dioceses, for example, the now lost routes to Tullow and Edenderry and the old branch lines to Mountmellick and through Abbeyleix and Borris (all easily identifiable on the 1906 map).

Anonymous said...

You should look at 'The Rising of the Moon'. It is film narrated by Tyrone Power with a series of dramatised short stories including one about an Irish railway. It was the first thing that came into my head when I read your series. Anton.

In Petto said...

There is something more to Catholic heritage than liturgy. I enjoy the way that you are capturing this.

Phographic Mementos said...

Sounds really good Belle. Looking forward to more.

Shandon Belle said...

Not long to wait now guys! Next post next weekend! Thanks for all your kind comments. It's so good to be supported in this. I was expecting to be panned for it.

Just a Girl said...

This series is great Shandon. I've always found the development of the transport infrastructure and its impact on wider society really interesting. Looking forward to reading the rest!