by ehistoryadmin on December 5, 2014

The Blessington tram: “the longest graveyard in Ireland.” 

Liam Kenny

For more than forty years a transport service from Blessington to Terenure was famous for everything except its primary purpose of getting people and goods from country to town.  The Blessington trams’ notoriety for unreliability was only surpassed by its history of colliding with careless pedestrians. On its fifteen miles route from Terenure to Blessington, and beyond to Poulaphuca, the tram tracks were laid along the public road – sometimes occupying the right hand side of the road surface and sometimes the left.

Some observers drew a plausible link between the proliferation of accidents and the number of taverns which adjoined the route as being the cause of many dreadful accidents involving pedestrians; however this was not always the case. The wind could whip a howling storm in the Wicklow hills that could overwhelm the hearing of the most sober. And the tram — despite the noise of its struggling engine and its acetylene head lamp — could steal up on a pedestrian disorientated by the wild night.

Such were the factors at play at an inquest held in the Downshire House Hotel, Blessington in mid-February 1914, to enquire into a fatal accident involving the tram and a pedestrian, and reported in the Kildare Observer. The report set the scene in its opening line: “An accident of a shocking nature, resulting in the death of a labourer named Thomas Greene, occurred on Saturday night about 9pm, at Burgage, one mile from Blessington.”

Dr. D.P. McKenna, Coroner for West Wicklow, presided at the inquest with Mr. John Wallace as foreman of the jury.

The first witness, John Hendy, deposed that he knew the deceased, Thomas Greene, who was about 59 years of age. He said that Mr Greene had attended Naas hospital three weeks previously suffering from a sore leg. He also said that Greene’s sight was defective. And he said that he never saw the deceased drunk. All of this was valuable testimony to the inquest in relation to its duty to determine the cause of accident.

Patrick Hanlon, grocer’s assistant in Mr Mullaly’s licensed premises said that the deceased had come into the bar about 6pm. He had drunk a couple of pints of porter standing at the bar. Mr Greene then left the bar and, as far as Hanlon was concerned, Greene was sober.

The most detailed evidence was given by the tram’s driver Mr John Taylor. He told the jury that he was driving the No 2 engine on the Saturday night and had arrived into Blessington at 9.10pm. His engine was pulling two passenger cars and a wagon with a horse on board. He said that as he continued on the tramline out of Blessington towards Poulaphuca that he saw a man about five yards in front of him staggering from right to left across the road to where the tram tracks ran. He immediately applied the brakes and the reverse gear for the engine. Although he was only travelling at 10 miles per hour the tram’s momentum continued for another 20 yards.

Mr Taylor said the man seemed to stagger to the rails before the buffer of the tram struck him. When the tram stopped the driver went back and with the guard found the man “quite dead” between the wheels of the tram. One of the carriages had become derailed from the impact or the sudden stop.

Taylor added that the engine had a strong acetylene lamp which could be seen for twenty yards in advance. Whether the jury welcomed his speculation that the man “must have been drunk or that the wind carried him across the road towards the engine “is not recorded.

Constable McGowan gave evidence of bringing Mr Greene’s body back to Blessington when the tram was on its return journey from Poulaphuca.

Having listened to a medical report tendered by Dr William P. Dunne who examined the deceased, the jury returned a verdict in accordance with the medical evidence which found that the Mr Greene had died from shock.  And thus ended another inquest into the sad circumstances of a pedestrian’s fatal encounter with the Blessington Tram.

On a more cheerful note the Blessington Tram rendered a service to passengers from 1888 to its closure in 1932.  Passengers, sand, poultry and horses, were all carried on its eclectic mix of passenger and goods wagons.

The story of the Blessington Tram had begun in 1887 when an act was passed by the Westminster parliament entitled “the Dublin & Blessington Steam Tramway Company Act.” The effect of this legislation was to establish a company with the same title to build a tramway from a depot at Terenure on the south side of Dublin to Blessington. The directors were men with property and business interests in the area including William Owen of Blessington, Fletcher Moore of Kilbride, William Domville Hancock of Templeogue, Thomas Guinness of Rathfarnham, and John Walker of Dublin.

In many ways the Blessington tram was a little tramway trying to be a big railway. The tramlines were set apart at five foot three inches – the same as a standard railway line – but this meant that the Blessington tram took up an inordinate width on the road.  In addition it was plagued by the hilly profile of the route on the Wicklow-Dublin boundary and especially at Crooksling where it had a long and severe climb in both directions.

As a result services were unreliable and many of the early engines were unable to negotiate the Crooksling hill with any efficiency. However the tram had some attractions particularly for day-tripping parties out of Dublin at weekends and thence an extension was built from Blessington to Poulaphuca where the big waterfall under Nimmo’s bridge was a popular sight. In fact so popular was the tram for such excursions that one local wit, making a comparison with a place name familiar in battle news from the 1914-18 war, crafted the following ditty: “The Battle of Ypres was only a sham/Compared to the rush for the Blessington steam tram!” 

However, the tram’s reputation was also shadowed by the proliferation of accidents such as that described and soon it was getting a name as “the longest graveyard in Ireland.”

The story of the Blessington tram, in guises happy and sad, came to end on New Year’s Eve 1932 when a plaintiff tram whistle echoed over the Wicklow valleys as the last ever tram made the final journey from Blessington to Terenure. Leinster Leader 18 February 2014, Looking Back Series no: 370.

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