Even before the Civil War, railways north and south of the new border were causing trouble for the governments on both sides. And the train lines of Ireland would become a battleground over the course of the conflict, as Peter Rigney explains
Conflict on the railways was a headache for both the Northern and Southern governments six months before the outbreak of the Civil War. As early as January 1922, there was conflict about whether wages should be cut, whether trade unions should be recognised and how the twenty-eight different railway operating companies should be rationalised. While attacks on trains by the anti-Treaty IRA has dominated the popular understanding of the railways and the Civil War, the labour conflict, and clashes over the future of the railway companies in the context of the Treaty, are just as important.
Railway Strike Threat
The British government took control of the Irish railway companies in 1916 and during the subsequent five years under state control, Irish railway workers secured improvements in wages and conditions as well as recognition of their unions. When government control ended in August 1921, the railway companies refused to be bound by the agreements made with the workers in the intervening period. As a result, they faced threats of a railway strike throughout Ireland for much of 1922.
Such was the gravity of the situation that one of the points included in the five-point Craig-Collins pact of January 1922 was 'a joint approach to the railway issue'. This joint approach consisted of a proposal for a commission of enquiry into the state of the railways together with efforts to avoid industrial conflict and establish a mechanism for regulating railway wages and working conditions.
While the former did not proceed, with separate commissions of enquiry being established North and South, collaboration continued at civil servant level in 1922 and 1923 to resolve industrial relations issues. Nonetheless, a number of strikes occurred during this period and, during once such strike in October 1922, the largest company, the Great Southern and Western Railway (GS&WR), threatened to close.
Status quo maintained
One of the first acts of the Provisional Government in early 1922 was to establish a commission to look into the condition and future of Irish railways. The commission report was published in October 1922 and recommended nationalisation, an option which was rejected by the government. The amalgamation of the multiple railway companies emerged as the preferred option.
In late 1922 the Great Northern Railway (GNR) and the Midland Great Western Railway (MGWR) entered into discussions on a merger which would have created a cross-border company with a virtual monopoly on rail transport north of the line from Dublin to Galway. This proposal did not succeed due to concerns that it would cause the diversion of traffic from Dublin port to Belfast. And so, for the duration of the Civil War, the status quo was retained, and the railway system remained under the aegis of twenty-eight private companies.
Disrupting the Railways
IRA attacks on trains and stations were a notable feature of the War of Independence and the so-called ‘munitions strike’ of May – December 1920 was one of the most significant expressions of passive resistance during that conflict. The truce period saw republicans continue to raid trains as part of the enforcement of the Belfast Boycott. Attacks on railways was not a significant feature of the conventional phase of the Civil War between June and August 1922. They featured prominently, however, during the guerrilla phase and attacks by the anti-Treaty IRA severely affected the rail system until April 1923.
On 8 August 1922, Cork was isolated from the national rail network when the anti-Treaty IRA blew up the viaduct over the Blackwater River in Mallow. This was the most spectacular example of bridge destruction and railway disruption during the Civil War, an important aspect of the anti-Treaty IRA strategy to prove that the Free State government could not govern effectively.
With that intention in mind, the anti-Treaty forces wrote to the trade unions on 3 August threatening that railway workers who facilitated the transport of National Army troops or munitions would be regarded as combatants. This letter demanded what railwaymen had freely given during the munitions embargo two years earlier. The strategy failed, and while many railway workers supported the anti-Treaty side, the trains continued to run.
For its part, the Provisional Government would not countenance a railway strike and facilitated a solution to industrial relations issues. In January 1922 John Bagwell, general manager of the GNR, reported to his board that the Provisional Government would
‘under no circumstances allow a railway strike to be fought out, (and) and gave the railway company to understand that they…would take control of the railway unless the company agreed to submit to arbitration’.
This approach contrasted with the government's hardline response to the postal workers strike in September 1922, when pickets were fired upon by the military.
The Railway Protection and Maintenance Corps
The Provisional Government also sought to combat anti-Treaty IRA attacks on trains. In August 1922 it bypassed the railway companies and approached the National Union of Railwaymen, seeking its help in establishing a force to protect the railway network. The union agreed to the creation of the Railway Protection and Maintenance Corps under Colonel Charles Russell.
The corps operated through a network of blockhouses, supplemented by armoured trains and Lancia armoured cars fitted with rail wheels. At its peak in June 1923 the Corps consisted of 3,095 officers and men.
The Corps had two categories of soldiers, Class A who were railwaymen and Class B who were regular National Army soldiers. Class A soldiers operated and maintained armoured trains and rail-mounted armoured cars, while Class B soldiers manned blockhouses and guarded stations. Both groups worked to repair damage to track and structures. While subject to military discipline, Class A soldiers enjoyed railway rates of pay and conditions, paid full social insurance contributions and had access to trade union officials.
Derailments and Fatalities
All of the railway companies suffered during the conflict. The company most intensely affected relative to its size was the Dublin and South Eastern Railway, which linked Dublin and Wexford. Forty-seven Great Southern & Western Railway locomotives and carriages were derailed or damaged between June and December 1922. Seventy-one signal boxes were also destroyed and 255 bridges damaged.
The Midland Great Western suffered multiple train derailments in Streamstown County Westmeath, and the spectacular destruction of Sligo station in January 1923. While the Great Northern Railway (G.N.R.) was least affected, it still claimed damages of £40,200 from the Free State government in the aftermath of the Civil War. This was a considerable amount, particularly when compared to the British government’s claim of £6,666 for pre-Truce damage.
Seven railwaymen were killed while on duty in 1922 and 1923, six of whom were locomotive crews. The most serious incident occurred in Ardfert, County Kerry in January 1923 when anti-Treaty forces blew-up an under-bridge and a goods train fell into the void. The driver and fireman were scalded to death.
After the Civil War
Repairs were made quickly once the Civil War ended in April 1923. Considering the scale of the destruction, however, care was still necessary, and in early July 1923 the GS&WR had imposed speed limits of 5mph on sixty-one damaged bridges. By December, speed limits remained on forty bridges, ten of which were in Kerry.
The physical effects were transient. The Mallow viaduct, for example, was officially reopened by W.T. Cosgrave, President of the Exceutive Council, in September 1923. The most profound effects of the tumultuous years of Civil War on the Irish railways were in the realms of corporate restructuring and industrial relations.
The Irish Railway Wages Board was established in May 1923. This was an all-island body and most of the effort to establish it was undertaken by the Northern government. Discussions on consolidation continued until eventually it was agreed that the Northern Ireland and Free State governments would take different approaches. In Northern Ireland the private companies continued their existence, and remained independent until after the Second World War. In February 1925 all the railways lying wholly within the Free State area amalgamated to form the Great Southern Railway. The G.S.R. was the direct ancestor of Iarnród Éireann .
This article is part of the Civil War project coordinated by UCC and based on The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil, Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.