Archive | August, 2019

A walk along a disused railway line – Yes, I really am that dull

23 Aug

Signboard along the disused railway line

I had a fabulous walk on a disused railway line in Donegal (north-west Ireland) a few weeks ago and it got me thinking about globalisation, modernity and connection. The railway line was the ‘Burtonport extension’ – a relatively late addition to Ireland’s railway network. It winds through very scenic countryside and served isolated coastal communities. The line only operated between 1903 and 1947.

Walking along the line got me thinking though about the impact of the railways on geography, culture and economics. The area in question was – at the time when the railway extension was built – desperately poor. The ‘Land Wars’ were not long over and had seen multiple evictions in the area. Landlord John George Adair had evicted 47 families (about 220 people) in nearby Derryveagh in 1861 to improve the view on his hunting lodge. The early passages of Michael MacGowan’s, The Hard Road to the Klondike, serve as a useful reminder of the poverty in the area and of the drivers of emigration.

Telegraph equipment – made in Scotland

The immediate impact would have come from the building of the railway and the influx of skilled workers. While unskilled labour would have been available locally, skilled technical labour probably had to come from outside of the area. Surveyors would have built on the work on military cartographers, with Brian Friel’s play Translations capturing the political exercise involved in map-making and rendering locality intelligible to outsiders. Land would have had to been purchased, although much of this could have been done ‘in bulk’ given that a few landowners owned large tracts of land (Adair’s Donegal landholdings ran to 28,000 acres). In a new innovation for parts of Donegal, land would have had to be fenced off to keep livestock away from the train tracks. Obviously legal ‘enclosure’ had taken place much earlier with various parties claiming land and excluding others, but physically fencing off large tracts of land would have been an innovation – and a cultural shock.

This cultural impact must have been quite profound: a reason to tell the time (other than mass attendance that would have been signalled by a bell), a new uniformed profession (other than the RIC), and greater numbers of touristic and commercial visitors to the area. News would have traveled faster, emigrants could have gotten to Derry more quickly, it became commercial to transport fresh fish …

Very study gatepost.

There are still a few physical reminders of the railway in situ. The remaining gateposts – where country lanes abut onto the railway line – are of a breadth that they do not look local or indeed Irish and it is possible to speculate that they came from overseas – perhaps Canada? It reminds us that the building and running of the railway was part of a much larger political economy of empire and globalisation. Indeed, the railway was not a standalone technology – it was part of a broader assemblage of technologies. Running alongside the railway line is evidence of a telegraph system (hardware from Kilmarnock in Ayreshire) – so the railway came as a package of communication.

A raised section of the line.

 

The line was quickly superseded by other forms of transport (principally roads) and communication. The lonely walk along the line (I saw seven people on a 15km stretch of line at the height of summer) was a useful reminder that technologies come and go.