23 July 2020

Are you right there, Michael?
Do you think you’ll get to
Kilrush before the night?

The Percy French Bar in Kilrush … recalling a ballad about the West Clare Railway (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

On the way back from Loop Head to the ferry at Killimer on Sunday afternoon (19 July 2020), two of us stopped again in Kilrush to see the Percy French Bar on Moore Street, which recalls so many humorous memories of the West Clare Railway.

Earlier that afternoon, we had admired a monument and plaque at the Marina in Kilrush that also recalls the West Clare Railway, which ran until 1961, and became the inspiration for one of the many ballads written by the songwriter Percy French.

This was a steam driven 3 ft narrow-gauge rail that ran from Ennis along the west coast of Clare, stopping at many points along the way to two termini, one at Kilrush and the other at Kilkee.

The West Clare Railway opened on 2 July 1887. Two years earlier, Charles Stewart Parnell had turned the first sod for the tracks at Miltown Malbay.

Many attempts before 1887 to provide a rail service in west Clare failed because of this was seen as remote area and investors were reluctant to risk the capital needed. New possibilities opened when the Tramways Act was passed in 1883. A narrow gauge track halved the construction costs and guaranteed returns to the investors.

William Martin Murphy was appointed as the contractor to build the railway. Murphy later became a major newspaper proprietor and caused the cause of the workers’ lockout in Dublin in the early 20th century.

While the West Clare railway was being built, a number of the directors formed a second company to build a similar line serving Kilrush and Kilkee. The two companies worked closely and the southern part of the line was eventually completed at the end of 1892.

The locomotives were designed to pull loads at a speed of 25 mph over gradients as fierce as 1 in 50 along a track 48 miles long.

The West Clare Railway guaranteed faster delivery of goods and services and brought new life to the area. Postal services quickened, newspapers from Dublin became available on the day, Kilkee became known as the ‘Brighton of the West,’ and the Lahinch golf course was laid out at this time.

The Lisdoonvarna Festival each September gained a new lease of life as passengers could get as near as Ennistymon from all parts of Ireland. The Burren cattle trade was enhanced, and the Kilrush Horse Fair and the Lahinch Garland Day celebrations took on a new significance.

By the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, five trains ran each way between Ennis and Kilrush and Kilkee, with many stopping points along the way. More than 200,000 passengers travelled on the line, with two-thirds of the passengers travelling during the summer months, and 80,000 tonnes of freight and livestock were carried each year.

The only service lost during World War I was the excursion trips by steamboat from Limerick via Cappa Pier to Kilkee. German U-boats in the Shannon Estuary put an end to them and they were never revived.

Despite the violence of the War of Independence and the Civil War, the railway continued to run. With the grouping of Irish railways after independence, the line became part of the G&SR, and the maintenance of the locomotives was based at Limerick.

During World War II, Ireland had no coal reserves and fuel became a serious concern. The West Clare Railway used local turf that was plentiful but unsuited for a steam engines’ boilers.

In post-war economic problems of the late 1940s, many Irish railway lines were closed or changed to diesel traction. The WCR was recommended for closure, but there was strong local opposition and the line became the only narrow-gauge line to receive significant investment in diesel traction, line, signalling and operating improvements.

The national railway Córas Iompair Éireann (CIE) replaced the steam engines with diesel engines. However, Clare was still losing population and emigration was, indeed, increasing. There was just not enough traffic and the last steam passenger train departed from Ennis on 15 March 1952. The line finally closed on 31 January 1961.

The plaque at Kilrush Marina recalling the West Clare Railway (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Percy French wrote ‘Are ye right there Michael’ in 1902, parodying the reputation of the West Clare Railway. He was inspired by an actual train journey in 1896.

Because of a slow train and the decision of the driver to stop for no apparent reason, French, who had left Sligo in the early morning, arrived so late for an 8 pm recital that the audience had left. The ballad caused considerable embarrassment for the rail company, which was mocked in music halls throughout Ireland and Britain because of the song.

The song led to an unsuccessful libel action against French. It is said that when French arrived late for the libel hearing, the judge chided him for being late. French reportedly responded, ‘Your honour, I travelled by the West Clare Railway,’ and the case was thrown out.

Are ye right there Michael, by Percy French (1902)

You may talk of Columbus’s sailing
Across the Atlantical Sea
But he never tried to go railing
From Ennis as far as Kilkee.
You run for the train in the morning
The excursion train starting at eight
You’re there when the clock gives the warnin’
And there for an hour you’ll wait.
And as you’re waiting in the train
You’ll hear the guard sing this refrain:

Are ye right there, Michael, are ye right?
Do you think that we'll be there before the night?
Ye’ve been so long in startin’
That ye couldn’t say for certain
Still ye might now, Michael,
So ye might!

They find out where the engine’s been hiding
And it drags you to sweet Corofin.
Says the guard: ‘Back her down on the siding
There’s a goods from Kilrush coming in.’
Perhaps it comes in two hours,
Perhaps it breaks down on the way.
‘If it does,’ says the guard, ‘by the powers
We’re here for the rest of the day!’
And while you sit and curse your luck
The train backs down into a truck.

Are ye right there, Michael, are ye right?
Have ye got the parcel there for Mrs White?
Ye haven’t, oh begorra,
Say it’s comin’ down tomorra
And well it might now, Michael,
So it might.

At Lahinch the sea shines like a jewel,
With joy you are ready to shout,
When the stoker cries out: ‘There’s no fuel
And the fire’s tee-totally out!
But hand up that bit of a log there
I’ll soon have ye out of the fix
There’s a fine clamp of turf in the bog there
And the rest go a-gatherin’ sticks.’
And while you’re breakin’ bits of trees
You hear some wise remarks like these:

‘Are ye right there, Michael? Are ye right?
Do ye think that you can get the fire to light?
Oh, an hour you’ll require
For the turf it might be drier
Well it might now, Michael,
So it might.’

Memories of the West Clare Railway by Kilrush Marina (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

A popular version by Brendan O’Dowda adds lyrics which may not have been part of the original:

Kilkee! Oh you never get near it!
You’re in luck if the train brings you back
For the permanent way is so queer
It spends most of its time off the track.
Uphill the old engine is climbin’
While the passengers push with a will
You’re in luck when you reach Ennistymon
For all the way home is downhill.
And as you’re wobblin’ through the dark
you hear the guard make this remark:

‘Are you right there, Michael, are ye right?
Do you think that you'll be home before it’s light?’
‘Tis all dependin’ whether
The old engine holds together —
And it might now, Michael, so it might! (so it might),
And it might, now, Michael, so it might.’

Memories of a ballad and a libel case in Moore Street, Kilrush, Co Clare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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