The Twelve Arches of Ballydehob

As we are approaching the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas I thought it fitting to give you Twelve views of Ballydehob’s iconic viaduct. Our West Cork village of Ballydehob has many claims to fame. It has been the centre of a great Irish art movement in the mid-twentieth century (have a look at this site). But earlier – between 1886 and 1947 – it was an important stop on the Schull & Skibbereen Tramway. This was a three-foot gauge railway line which must have been a great wonder to those who witnessed it in its heyday. There are fragments of it still to be seen, but its most monumental structure remains with us: the twelve-arched viaduct at Ballydehob.

Above: Brian Lalor was one of the creatives who settled in Ballydehob back in the artists’ heyday (he is still here today). The railway viaduct was a great source of visual inspiration to him and to his artist colleagues.

Here (above) is another Lalor work depicting the viaduct (many thanks, Brian). Behind the arches in this print you can see the former commercial buildings on the wharf, now converted to private use. At first glance you might think what a fine masonry structure this is. In fact, most of it is mass concrete. Look at the close-up view of the arches below: they are cast and faced in concrete, albeit the arch-stones are made to look like masonry. Only the facing infills and the parapets are actually of stone. This is quite an innovative construction for its time. Barring earthquake it’s certain to endure.

I was not surprised to find how often images of this engineering feat have inspired artists and others working in creative fields. Here’s a particularly fine example from the days of the artist settlement around the village in the mid-twentieth century (below): this one is a batik by Nora Golden.

I really like this moody photograph by Finola: it demonstrates the elemental nature which repetition and shadow gives to the scene. (Below): we have to see the way over the top, now a public footpath. The railway was a single track narrow-gauge at this point.

The ‘Tiny Ireland’ creator – Anke – has sketched this wonderful caricature of our wharf area, showing the 12-arched bridge in context. Finola has written about Anke. You can buy your own piece of Tiny Ireland through her website, here.

How better to look at the bridge in context than this view from Aerial Photographer Tom Vaughan. Thank you, Tom, for allowing us to use this magnificent image. Here’s the link to his own website. You will find excellent gifts for the connoisseur here. The last of our ‘Twelve Arches’ (for now) has to show us the bridge in its rightful use. I think this postcard – from the Lawrence Archive -dates from the early 1900s. I can’t resist quoting the caption for the rail buffs among you!

. . . A Schull-bound train has stopped especially for the photographer: this is Ballydehob viaduct looking north. The train comprises GABRIEL, bogie coaches Nos 5 and &, brake vans Nos 31, 32 and 38 . . .

The Schull & Skibbereen Railway – James I C Boyd – Oakwood Press 1999

12 thoughts

  1. I was informed that a local man long since dead called Pakie Gallagher of Kilcoe said ” There is more Architectural merit in the Ballydehob Bridge than London Bridge. The only difference is the volume of traffic.”

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  2. Is there any folklore/oral history about this railway? In Co Cavan there was a narrow-gauge railway as well as a side to a mainline, now torn up, and sometimes mentioned in local accounts. The interesting was a local hill with a folk-name “Tunnel Hill,” not a name marked on the OS map. The lore (Or was it oral history? Hard to tell sometimes) was that they planned a RR tunnel but the hill was too sandy, so they just made it into a cut. Such stuff made me wonder if there was a kind of sub-category of RR lore expressing actual events, imagined events, and nostalgia relating to the regret of lost transportation.

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    • Wade – I’m always on the lookout for ‘local lore’ by way of stories told. I haven’t come across anything significant in the case if this narrow-gauge line. Read the ‘Irish RM’ by Somerville and Ross. There are stories there involving journeys on the railways of West Cork. Always written with the purpose of entertaining!

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  3. Robert, this might be a tad controversial. Last time I was in Ballydehob I noticed that the view, from the road and bridges into the village, of the famous twelve arches was being increasingly obscured by what was undergrowth but are now semi-mature trees.
    Has anyone else commented on this and the dilemma of: view or trees?

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    • An interesting comment. Trouble is, when you pass by something every day you don’t really notice slow changes. I’ll have a look for myself, and mention this to others.

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