09 July 2019

How the Lartigue monorail was
brought back to life in Listowel

The Lartigue Monorail ran for 15 km between Listowel and Ballybunion from 1888 to 1924 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

For a long time, I thought Lartigue was an Irish place name. I had seen signs for Lartigue, and thought it was a townland or a village on the road between Listowel and Ballybunion, with an old railway station on a long-closed train line.

I had seen the signs … and I was wrong.

Last weekend, I visited the Lartigue Monorail and Museum in Listowel, Co Kerry, and heard the story of a steam-powered monorail that ran for 15 km between Listowel and Ballybunion on the coast from 1888 to 1924. And it was designed by Charles Lartigue, an inventive French engineer.

This unique railway has a special place in Irish railway history as the only monorail of its type to operate successfully on a commercial basis. It carried passengers, livestock and freight along a rail supported on A-shaped trestles. But the original Lartigue Monorail also created interest, curiosity and amusement.

The weekend visit included a short demonstration journey on a full-scale diesel-powered replica of the original monorail. On the journey, volunteers showed the unique features of the monorail and its ingenious switching system.

The Listowel-Ballybunion line opened in 1888 at a cost of £30,000 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Listowel-Ballybunion Railway opened on 1 March 1888. It ran 15 km between Ballbunion and Listowel and was the only railway of its type in the world.

The monorail was invented and developed by Charles Lartigue, who had built a prototype monorail in Algeria that was 90 km long and was used to carry esparto grass across the Sahara. The cargo was carried in pannier-like wagons slung on either side of a single rail, mounted on A-shaped trestles. The wagons were connected to bogies whose wheels ran along the rail.

Lartigue’s design is said to have been inspired by watching camels carrying large loads in panniers balanced on either side of their backs. The single raised rail was a distinct advantage in the desert where shifting sands made a conventional rail line virtually unusable.

Lartigue brought a length of his line to an exhibition in London in 1886, in the hope of selling his idea as a viable railway option. At the same time, people in North Kerry were lobbying for the railway to be extended to include a link from Listowel to Ballybunion.

The decision was taken to try out Lartigue’s idea on a Listowel-Ballybunion line. The new railway opened in 1888 at a cost of £30,000. The train carried passengers, freight, cattle and sand from the Ballybunion sandhills. The passengers included Ballybunion children on the way to school in Listowel, people from Kerry and Limerick making their way to the beach resort of Ballybunion and golfers going to the new golf course at Ballybunion.

But the line was barely financially viable and never made a real profit. Its closure was hastened by severe damage during the civil war in 1921-1923, and after 36 years it closed in 1924.

The restored railway line has about 1,000 metres of monorail track, (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

To mark the centenary of the line in 1988, local historians Michael Guerin and Michael Foster published histories of the line, and Michael Barry of Lisselton assembled 50 metres of salvaged track and an original carriage.

A Lartigue Restoration Committee set up in 1990s was chaired by Jimmy Deenihan TD, with Jack McKenna, who had travelled on the footplate of the original Lartigue, as President.

Work on building a new Lartigue began in 2000. The building work was carried out by the Restoration Committee and a team of FAS workers, and the train went into operation in June 2003.

The railway has about 1,000 metres of monorail track, three switches, two turntables and three platforms representing Listowel, Lisselton and Ballybunion. There is one engine, which is an exact reproduction of the original engines, although this is diesel driven, and two third-class carriages, modelled on the originals. The replica engine, carriages, switches, turntables and the track were built by Alan Keef Ltd of Ross-on-Wye, Monmouth, builders of many theme railways in Britain.

The present journey on the Lartigue starts less than 100 metres from the point where the original Lartigue began its journey to Ballybunion. The site of the original Lartigue Listowel Terminal is preserved in a park beside the new Lartigue, along with the bases of two switches and the foundations of the Engine House.

The original goods shed for the main Limerick-Tralee line has been converted into a museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Before the journey, I visited the museum to see a video presentation of the original monorail and models, displays and memorabilia of the Lartigue and mainline railways.

The original GW&SR (later CIE) goods shed for the main Limerick-Tralee Line has been restored and converted into a museum and interpretative centre. This also acts as the entrance hall and ticket office.

The museum exhibits include memorabilia, photographs, posters, tickets, signs, lamps and newspaper cuttings. An audio-visual room has film footage of the original steam-powered Lartigue. There are scale models of the original Lartigue train, a model of the Lartigue station and the mainline station, and interactive models of some of the unique features of the Lartigue line. A touch-screen PC has original photographs, documents, and video clips illustrating the history of the Lartigue railway.

The Lartigue Railway and Museum in Listowel, Co Kerry, are open this summer (1 May to 7 September and 15 to 30 September 2019) daily from 1 pm to 4.30 pm.

The Lartigue Railway and Museum in Listowel are open throughout summer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Angel-voices ever singing
round thy throne of light

The Archangel Michael … one of seven icons of the archangels by Olive Donohoe in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The opening hymn at Freddie McKeown’s Requiem Mass in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin yesterday [8 July 2019] was ‘Angel-voices ever singing.’ Later, I had my first opportunity see the icons of the seven archangels written by the Revd Olive Donohoe and presented to the cathedral earlier this year.

The icons, mounted in the South Ambulatory at the East End of the cathedral, are written in the Romanian tradition and are the work of by the Revd Olive Donohoe, Rector of the Athy, Kilberry and Kilkea group of parishes in the Diocese of Glendalough.

Olive wrote these icons during her annual retreats over seven years, with each icon representing a year’s retreat. She was trained in icon writing by the renowned Romanian icon writer Michai Cucu, who some years ago presented the cathedral with five icons in Lady Chapel.

At the time, Dean Dermot Dunne paid tribute to Olive for donating her work: ‘I am truly grateful to Olive for her decision to donate the icons to the cathedral.’

Olive began writing her icons at her retreats with the ‘Red Nuns’ – the Redemptoristine Sisters – in Drumcondra. She chose the Seven Archangels having seen an icon of the Archangel Michael in the Carmelite Convent in Delgany, Co Wicklow.

‘I saw an icon of Michael and really liked it and as I was doing it, the iconographer Michai Cucu began to talk about the Seven Archangels and I didn’t even know that there were seven, I thought of four, at a push, Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and I heard somewhere of Uriel. That was it. And as the week went by, I became more and more interested and was inspired I think, to say that I wouldn’t mind doing all seven, you know.

‘Of course, I wasn’t thinking straight because when you consider it, what on earth do you do with Seven Archangels in the house? So five years later here we are,’ Olive said.

During that first retreat, Michai explained the place of the Archangels in the Orthodox tradition, in which each has a role and a place in the hierarchy in Heaven.

The process of writing an icon is complicated and symbolic and done in an atmosphere of prayer and contemplation. Michai brings the ‘gessoed’ boards and gold leaf from Romania and the writing technique, a medium called tempera, involves using egg-wash and mineral paints to give a glowing lasting colour.

Mihai Cucu is a long-time resident of Ireland but comes from Suceava in Romania. From an early age, he was drawn to art and to religion, leading him naturally to his interest in icons which he calls an invitation to the divine. His university training deepened his understanding of the tradition as he learned how to conserve and restore old icons as well as generating new ones.

‘Orthodox Christians use icons of saints to focus their minds on meditation or prayer; they believe the icons are filled with the spirit of the person they represent,’ Olive said recently. ‘The theological significance of the icon is that it speaks in the language of art and the visual of deeper spiritual truths. Icons also lift up our minds from earthly things to the heavenly.’

‘Icons are a prayer. They are not an end in themselves, not a collectable, not a decoration although they are decorative, but they are ultimately a way into prayer,’ Olive said when she presented her icons of the Seven Archangels to the cathedral recently.

The cathedral has produced a booklet giving the background to each icon and offering themes for prayer. The seven Archangels in these icons are: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel, Selaphiel, Jehudiel and Barachiel.

Saint Michael is traditionally known as the defender of the Faith. The name Michael means, ‘Who is like unto God?’ The Archangel Michael is a warrior and commander of the heavenly army, and appears in prophetic texts that speak of the cosmic battle at the end of time (see Daniel 12: 1).

The Archangel Gabriel … the second of seven icons of the archangels by Olive Donohoe in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Saint Gabriel is the messenger of God. The name Gabriel means, ‘God is my strength.’ In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Archangel Gabriel appears to Daniel to bring an explanation of the prophetic vision he has received.

Gabriel also appears as God’s messenger in the Gospels, appearing to Zechariah to foretell the birth of Saint John the Baptist, and to the Virgin Mary to announce that she will conceive and give birth to the Son of God.

The Archangel Raphael … the third of seven icons of the archangels by Olive Donohoe in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Saint Raphael provides healing to the earth and its inhabitants. The name Raphael means, ‘The Healing of God.’

Raphael is mentioned in the Book of Tobit, performing miraculous works of healing (see Tobit 3: 17).

The Archangel Uriel … the fourth of seven icons of the archangels by Olive Donohoe in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Saint Uriel is the light or fire of God. The name Uriel means, ‘God is my light.’ Uriel is mentioned in II Esdras as a messenger who speaks to the priest Ezra. In later tradition and iconography, Uriel came to be closely associated with the sun, light and beauty.

The Archangel Selaphiel … the fifth of seven icons of the archangels by Olive Donohoe in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Saint Selaphiel is the patron saint of prayer and worship. The name Selaphiel means, ‘Prayer of God.’ In some Christian traditions, Selaphiel is considered the patron saint of prayer, and is associated with an anonymous angel referred to in the Book of Revelation (see Revelation 8: 3).

The Archangel Jehudiel … the sixth of seven icons of the archangels by Olive Donohoe in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Saint Jehudiel is depicted holding a crown and whip, symbolising reward from God for the righteous and punishment for the sinners. The name Jehudiel means ‘Laudation of God,’ and Jehudiel symbolises labour in whatever field or profession and at whatever level of responsibility that is devoted to the glory of God.

The Archangel Barachiel … the seventh of seven icons of the archangels by Olive Donohoe in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Saint Barachiel entreats the mercy of God for people. The name Barachiel means, ‘Blessing of God.’ Barachiel is often portrayed holding a rose, or with scattered rose petals, symbolising the abundance of God’s blessings.

With the proper, appropriate liturgical decorum at Freddie’s funeral yesterday, where one of his chosen readings was Revelation 7, I think he would have been pleasantly surprised with the association of the Archangel Selaphiel with the anonymous angel referred to in the Book of Revelation:

‘Another angel with a golden censer came and stood at the altar; he was given a great quantity of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that is before the throne’ (Revelation 8: 3).

Angel-voices ever singing
round thy throne of light,
angel-harps, for ever ringing,
rest not day nor night;
Thousands only live to bless thee
and confess thee
Lord of might.