By Jack Holland
She still looks pretty good for a lady who is 113 years old. Perhaps it is because she has led such a busy, active life — working nonstop until the age of 72. It was then that the Lady Edith ran out of steam, as it were.
Now, this most venerable of Irish ladies sits in a shed in New Jersey, bedecked in green and red paint, an item in the local transport museum. But a group of railway enthusiasts who belong to the Irish Railways and Transport Foundation hope to change that and bring the 113-year-old steam engine back home to Ireland.
For the first 72 years of her life, the Lady Edith could be seen chugging along the Cavan and Leitrim narrow gauge railway line. Her career spanned the golden days of Irish rail, when nore than 3,000 miles of track crisscrossed the country with broad and narrow-gauge lines. A rail traveler could go from Carndonagh, near the most northerly tip of the country in Donegal, all the way to Schull, in southwestern Cork. Some of the lines ran through the most spectacular and beautiful scenery in the country. The Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railroad ran along the shores of that lough — one of the most beautiful in Ireland — into Inishowen, and went west, skirting the wild beauty of Bloody Foreland; an electrified branch line took passengers from Bushmills along the Giant’s Causeway, in County Antrim; County Louth had a narrow-gauge that took passengers along the southern shore of Carlingford Lough, under the shadow of the Carlingford Mountains, to Dundalk; a line ran all the way to Clifden in County Galway; farther south, the billowing steam could be followed through Kerry to Dingle and Velentia Harbor.
That changed, unfortunately, in the 1950s and 1960s. The Cavan and Leitrim was closed down in 1959, the Lady Edith was shipped to Allaire, N.J., along with another engine that worked the Tralee and Dingle line in County Kerry.
As the Lady Edith sat gathering dust — and a little rust — in her shed, the entire narrow-gauge network in Ireland was torn up, north and south of the border, and the main lines were drastically cut. Today the Irish rail system has less than half that it had when at its peak. It is a depressing experience for rail enthusiasts to go from a old rail map of Ireland to one representing the year 2000, rather like going from a living body to its skeleton.
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However, the Irish Railways and Transport Foundation is one of a number of organizations (most of them not-for profit) set up by railway enthusiasts that are determined to try and restore something of Ireland’s railway heritage.
The IRTF was incorporated in New York State in 1999 as a not-for-profit organization. Its executive director is Gregg Ryan, the heritageofficer for Coras Iompair Eireann, the Irish transport company. The foundation was originally set up by Irish American transport enthusiasts who met in the newly opened Fitzpatrick’s Grand Central Hotel at 141 East 44th St. in Manhattan, where the Wheeltapper bar can be found, full of Irish railway memorabilia. The surroundings proved inspirational. They contacted Ryan, who, they discovered, had helped put together the railway theme bar at Fitzpatrick’s.
According to Martin Murphy, the IRTF’s secretary, they first heard of the Lady Edith’s plight when they received a telephone call from Chicago. It was from Jim O’Connell, who had worked as a fitter in the Inchicore engineering works near Dublin. He told them that his brother had been the last driver of the Lady Edith, which was now in New Jersey. Murphy’s curiosity was aroused and he went down to take a look. He saw the steam engine for the first time in August 1999. It was love at first sight. But even so, he realized that she wasn’t perfect.
"There was some wastage in the boiler tubes," said Murphy, "and the pitting was pretty extensive. That’s like acne. There was corrosion in the firebox ring. But her motion is in great condition The sliding rods, the cross heads and all the running parts are in good shape."
The Lady Edith was built in 1887 at Stephenson and Co. in Newcastle-On-Tyne for the Cavan and Leitrim, and probably named after one of the company director’s wives. She spent most of her long working life pulling passenger coaches. She was refitted at Inchicore Works in Dublin in 1950. Toward the end, when rail passengers became scarce, she was switched to hauling material for a local mine. Her only accident came in 1951, when she wrecked a car at a crossing. She had a "cow-catcher" at the front, but it is not known if she ever needed to use it to remove any large bovine impediments that may have wandered on to the line. The IRTF has been in intermittent contact with the current owner in the hope of coming to an arrangement that would see the engine returned to Ireland.
Murphy said that the Lady Edith could never run on the American gauge, so she is doomed to remain motionless unless they get her back to Ireland where a five-mile stretch of her old track is being restored between Dromod and Mohill. The restoration is one of three projects aimed at reopening sections of disused narrow gauge lines, the other two being the West Clare Railway and the Waterford and Suir Valley line in the south east of the country. The West Clare is perhaps the most famous railway line in Ireland thanks to the Percy French song "Are Ye Right There, Michael, Are Ye Right?", which immortalized it. It is hoped that a several miles of the track through County Clare will be open again by next summer. The Waterford and Suir Valley line runs along the banks of the River Suir from Waterford to Kilmeadan and work on it was due to begin this year.
The Cavan and Leitrim line has a functioning canal and among the plans being dreamed of at the moment by the IRTF is one which would provide a rail trip one way and a return journey by water.
The IRTF has its own CIE-sponsored website (www.irtf-ie.org) and is linked to other groups of like-minded enthusiasts, such as the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland, the Irish Traction Group, and the Irish Railway Record Society. Its projects are supported by CIE and its subsidiary, Iarnrod Eireann, the Irish railway company.
The IRTF is a manifestation of a growing interest in the history of the Irish railways and a desire to try and recapture something of their golden days. This is definitely a cross-border phenomenon. Up North, the Northern Irish Tourist Board is currently involved in reopening the Giant’s Causeway electrified line. The Railway Preservation Society of Ireland runs regular jaunts on a steam engine from Whitehead, Co. Antrim.
"One of these days," said Murphy, "we hope to be running tours for U.S. visitors on steam trains all over Ireland." A major step in that direction would be to bring the Lady Edith back home.