The Flying Snail

Iarnród - between Ballydehob and Schull 1939

Iarnród – between Ballydehob and Schull 1939

In the heydays of transport by rail, the south of Ireland was served by a network of lines radiating out from Cork. Most of these were scenically picturesque – the nature of the countryside saw to that – and all were imbued with Stories, still recounted with relish by the local people who remember them, or whose mothers and fathers remembered them. Here’s one of the stories – told about the Chetwynd Viaduct, coming out of Cork on the way to Bandon.

Chetwynd Viaduct today - a scheduled monument

Chetwynd Viaduct today

This structure was designed by Charles Nixon, a pupil of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and built between 1849 and 1851. It’s still in place today, passing over the main  N71 road from Skibbereen, and is a scheduled monument. The railway, track and track bed have all gone. For quite a while after its construction it was known as “The Bowlers’ Everest”. Alert followers of these posts will know about Road Bowling already (don’t forget to pronounce it correctly: Road Bowelling) – a very skilful and ancient Irish sport involving hurling a heavy iron ‘bullet’ along a road, and getting it from one place to another in the shortest number of throws. For Bowellers, the viaduct presented an obvious challenge: to throw the ‘bullet’ on to it. This was attempted many times year after year, but it took a mighty man to do it: Mick Barry, widely acknowledged as the greatest bowlplayer ever. My informant was careful to add “…This has been said by many and denied by very few…” The Cork Examiner takes up the tale:

“…Barry conquered the Bowler’s Everest, the Chetwynd Viaduct on the Cork-Bandon Road on Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17th, 1955. He lofted the 16oz bowl on to the 100 foot high parapet; an incredible feat which required almost superhuman strength, virtually defying the laws of physics. This feat was witnessed by thousands of spectators…”


Bowlers’ Everest – the viaduct at Chetwynd and a 16oz ‘bullet’

Less commonly cited is another Chetwynd story: on September 8th, 1985, watched by over 10,000 people, Hans Bohllen from West Germany lofted a 28oz bowl clean over the viaduct, clearing the top by ten feet.

clonjunctionLines from Cork eventually penetrated surprisingly far into the south west extremities of the state: to Kinsale, Bandon, Courtmacsherry, Clonakilty, Bantry, Baltimore, and – on a 3ft gauge narrow line snaking out of Skibbereen – to our two local towns of Ballydehob and Schull. It’s worth mentioning the colourful history of railway track gauges in Ireland: the standard now is 5ft 3in – something shared in the world with only Brazil, Australia and New Zealand – but earlier lines had 4ft 8½ins [UK and Europe standard], 6ft 2ins and 5ft 2ins, and when trams were first introduced to Dublin they had 5ft 2 and a bit.


Local history: plaque on the viaduct at Ballydehob

In 1925 all the railway lines in the new Irish Free State were amalgamated to become the Great Southern Railway, and in 1945 the system was consolidated with road transport concerns and trams to become Córas Iompair Éireann. The logo used by CIÉ until 1964 was affectionately (and, perhaps, cynically) known as The Flying Snail.

Córas Iompair Éireann - the national rail and bus company - logo used between the 1940s and 1964: known affectionately as 'The Flying Snail'

‘The Flying Snail’

ballytrainmcThe line out to us here in West Cork was particularly eccentric and would have been a magnet for present day railway enthusiasts if it had survived. In places the narrow gauge track ran along the main road; it reached speeds of up to 15 miles per hour… But how we all wish it was still possible to catch a little train out of Schull, Ballydehob or Skibbereen and arrive in Cork in a bit. It would be grand!


Water stop – with a view…

schull station

Leaving Schull Station, 1939

skibb station

All aboard at Skibbereen!

13 thoughts

  1. A group of us visited the old West Cork Railway Stations last Sat 5th July with Ray Good from Bandon it was a great day out. I remember Colm Creedon on one visit to the Railway Museum in Castlerea a habit he had was to put his bag on the ground in front of the camera and it appeared in the photo. The West Cork Railway was great in it’s day.


    • Thank you for the comment, Sean. I was exploring around Skibbereen the other day and found some more bits of the old railway lines – it would be nice to think that the preservation of these artefacts could be ensured in some way.


  2. Very interesting piece of ‘Industrial Archeology’ Robert. I seem to remember that there was a line in the Fens that ran along the street – hence Annie and Clarabell …..


  3. An addition to your note re gauges of rails in the world. Russia is also broad gauge, i.e 5 ft 3 in. For your informion, and I am sure you’ll be quite fascinated, if you cross the border from Russia in to China, your train will be jacked up at the border and depending in which direction you are travelling, the wheels under your carriage will be removed fron one gauge and replaced with another set of wheels for the appropriate track on which the train will be travelling. I understand that the occupants of the carriages are required to ‘dismount’ for the duration of this exercise.

    In many days gone by, when the state of New South Wales was standard gauge (4ft 8.5 in)and the bordering state of Victoria was broad gauge, a similar routine to that described above took place at the border city of Albury. However it would appear that this operation took place in the wee small hours of the morning so travellers were awakend, (those lucky few who managed to sleep) and had to huddle on the cold platform while their carriages undertook this gauge transformation.

    However I am pleased to advise that eventually sense and creativity prevailed and a standard gauge line was built parallel to the broad gauge line through Victoria so that humanity could travel on standard gauge from Sydney to Melbourne without having to change trains or wheels in Albury.

    Having started the exposition on variations on a theme of In this instance, Queensland opted to go ‘narrow’ gauge (3 ft 6in) so that passengers travelling between the two major cities of these states, namely Brisbane and Sydney had to suffer the same indignities of having to change trains or wait for a wheel change usually in the middle of the night or early morning. However some bright spark managed to convince the powers that be, and who usually make questionable decisions, especially when it comes to railways. that a simple solution to this problem would be to run a third rail on the outside of the 3 ft 6 im track, thus allowing the same section of track (in Queensland to Brisbane from the N.S. W border) to be used for either narrow gauge traffic or standard gauge traffic. I don’t now if this is still done, but this dual track system was in operation quite a few years ago.

    Here endeth this epistle.



    • Thank you, David, for such an erudite comment. Didn’t anyone ever think of just changing trains? We musn’t forget Brunel’s broad gauge of just over 7ft: in places there were three lines put in so that the track could be used by broad and standard gauges: there’s a bit of this left – at Swindon, I believe. Ok – so – now… how about a discussion on the different weights of bowling ‘bullets’ across the world…?


  4. Not sure if Finola has told you, but Jack and I started married life in a First Class dining car of the Cork, Bandon and South Coast Railway. You’ll have to talk to Jack about the gauge!


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