Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Athy Wolfhill Railway Line (2)

On the 18th of June 1917 the property agent to the War Department in Ireland advertised that the lands required for the construction of the railway line between Athy and Wolfhill “are taken under the powers contained in the Defence of the Realm Regulations.”   By the 5th of May the Nationalist and Leinster Times reported that “the railway works have caused crowding and congestion in Athy.  The influx of workers has caused overcrowding.”  A further report indicated that the railway line had been extended as far as the River Barrow and that work on the bridge was to start.  In fact the foundations for the bridge were laid in June 1917.  In early July a large number of men arrived from Dublin to work on the railway.  Their arrival prompted the local Medical Officer, Dr. Kilbride, to warn the Urban District Council of “overcrowding in the lanes of Athy.”  The overcrowding was alleviated somewhat by the erection of large structures, akin to field hospitals, on the outskirts of Athy and Ballylinan to accommodate the workers.

During the year fifty Dublin men, previously unemployed, who were brought to Athy with a promise of 30 shillings per week wages and free bed and equipment returned to Dublin soon after their arrival.  Apparently their demands of a wage increase of 8 shillings per week and a reduction of working hours from 60 to 58 hours per week was not accepted.  The local newspaper noted that the Dublin men had a spokesman “who like the agitator Larkin was a bit of a stump orator however he did not succeed in fooling the local workers who remained at work.”   A later newspaper report indicated that about 300 workers went on strike for a few days in August 1917 demanding an increase in the wages of 6 pence per hour for a 60 hour week.  The strike was called off when the workers agreed to terms of 5 shillings and 6 pence per day with a slight reduction in the working hours. 

The air of prosperity about Wolfhill noted by the local newspapers, which was absent in previous years, prompted a claim of overcharging by some railway workers.  Not so, claimed John Meier of Simmons Mills who wrote to the papers on the 27th of August 1917 outlining the prices he charged the miners for various food stuffs.  His prices of 3½ pence for a loaf of bread, 1/8 for a pound of smoked bacon, 3/6 for a pound of tea and sugar at 7 pence a pound did not represent over charging he asserted.

By September 1917 with so many farm workers having enlisted in the British Army the Town Clerk, J.A. Lawler, met Mr. Waller the chief Engineer on the railway project to secure the release of men to help with local harvesting work.  Waller agreed to the release of 200 men for a short period and guaranteed to keep their jobs open for them.

The bridge across the river Barrow was nearing completion in January 1918 and work on the railway was expected to be finished in two to three months thereafter.  As the project neared completion on the 14th of February 1918 the workers went on strike again.  200 men marched into Athy in what would appear to have been an unsuccessful attempt to get Athy men to join the strike.  It was noted in the local press that “tradesmen engaged on the bridge and other skilled work was not affected”.  However, a week later skilled workers were compelled to stop work on the railway line while the railway strikers sought to increase their wages from 5 shillings and 6 pence to 7 shillings and 6 pence per week.  The strikers returned to work following intervention by Denis Kilbride M.P., P.J. Meehan M.P. and Fr. W. Wilson a curate in Luggacurran.  It was agreed to wait for the decision of the Board of Trade regarding the workers demands.  The intervention by a Catholic curate was indicative of the importance of Church figures in Irish society at the time.  It can also be seen as a service to a neighbouring cleric, Rev. James Parkinson P.P. of Ballyadams, whose brother was proprietor of the Wolfhill colliery.

In September 1918 work commenced on taking up the second railway line between Athy and Cherryville, Kildare to be used as the new line between Castlecomer and Kilkenny.  The double line from Athy to Carlow had earlier been reduced to a single line and the lifted rail used to construct the branch line to Wolfhill.  The Railway Bridge across the river Barrow forming part of the Athy Wolfhill line was the first recorded reinforced concrete railway bridge constructed in Ireland.

The Athy Wolfhill railway line opened on the 24th of Sep 1918 and while it was operated by the Great Southern and Western Railway Company in remained in the ownership of the British Government until it passed to the Irish Free State following the Treaty.  In 1929 the Great Southern Railway leased the Athy/Wolfhill rail line from the Irish Government for 999 years.  It was one of the few Irish railway lines never privately owned.  As for the Wolfhill colliery, it’s operating company went into receivership in the summer of 1925 and was later liquidated.

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