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GALLERY: Donegal's maritime and transport heritage a rich reservoir

Paddle steamers on Lough Swilly

The folks at Inishowen’s Maritime Museum in Greencastle are using their ‘lockdown’ time well with research into Donegal's fascinating transport heritage continuing apace.

Seamus Bovaird, Chairperson of the Museum, paid tribute this week to recently deceased Buncrana native, Thomas ‘The Miller’ Doherty, who he described as “most generous with his time and advice” in this enterprise.

Speaking to Donegal Live, Seamus said: “Research into Inishowen’s maritime and transport history is ongoing at the Museum and we would like to acknowledge the assistance received from sources as disparate as the Donegal Railway Heritage Centre, Lough Swilly Yacht Club, RNLI Lough Swilly, Fort Dunree Museum and the late Thomas ‘The Miller.’

“If Thomas did not have a particular photograph requested, he invariably knew who did and was most generous with his time and advice.”

Discussing paddle steamers on Lough Swilly, Seamus revealed there was a ferry service running from Newton Quay to Marshall’s Point in Inishowen, well before the Plantation of Ulster.

He said: “On the main Bridgend to Letterkenny Road, immediately past Kernan’s Café, there is a road to the right, to Moyle Primary School. Newtown Quay is at the very end of that road. Marshall’s Point is immediately opposite Newton on the other side, in the Fort Stewart direction.

“Both quays are very old, more like slipways to look at. They are built of loose stones, which move with the waves and do not get wrecked. They must work as they are more than 500 years old. Both are visible on Google satellite map, just under the water.

“A price list for passengers, cattle, horses and freight using the service is retained in the Donegal County Council archives,” said Seamus.

In 1609, Sir Arthur Chichester was granted title to the lands of Inishowen and, in 1611, John Browne, of Inch Island, was granted ferry rights between Fahan, Inch and Rathmullan.

According to Seamus, from the 1700s onwards, there were several projects advanced to join Lough Swilly to Lough Foyle by canal.

Works on a canal from Blanket Nook to Pennyburn, via Burnfoot, commenced in 1836 but progress was slow and costly. The project collapsed when the Derry to Coleraine railway line, finished in 1853, highlighted a cheaper means of transport.

Seamus said: “In 1845, the County of Donegal Railway Company proposed a rail and paddle steamer service to be centred on Ramelton. Railway lines from around Donegal would terminate at Ramelton, where there would be a hub for cross-channel services to Scotland and local steamers on Lough Swilly.

“This would have been a threat to Derry as a railway terminus and cross-channel port so the Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway Company (L&LSR) was formed, in 1852, to join Derry to Lough Swilly and to develop a rail transport network in the area proposed by the Ramelton project. 

“A rail line from Derry to Farland Point was opened on 31 December 1863. The Tooban to Farland Point section was built on top of the embankment which had been built as part of the canal project.

“From Farland Point, a paddle steamer service took train passengers across Lough Swilly to Ramelton or Letterkenny. The Letterkenny berth was at The Thorn, downriver from the town. A horse-drawn omnibus carried passengers between The Thorn and Letterkenny town,” said Seamus.

Farland Point is just to the south of the carpark and viewing area at the Inch Wildfowl Reserve Looped Walk. The remains of the original paddle steamer berth are still visible there.

The service was originally operated by the paddle steamers ‘Admiral’ and ‘Vista’, chartered in from existing Lough Foyle services. 

Seamus added: “The PS ‘Swilly’, built in 1849, joined the Farland Point service in the summer of 1864. She developed boiler trouble and was replaced by the PS ‘Alexandra’, from the Moville to Derry service.

“The ‘Swilly’ lay unattended for several years but was eventually bought and repaired by Green & McCool, of Derry, and returned to the Lough Swilly service in 1869.

“In September 1864, the L&LSR opened a new branch line between Tooban Junction and Buncrana, with a spur to Fahan, where the railway line extended into sidings at the pier for the transportation of goods and passengers to and from the paddle steamers. Much of the Farland Point line was closed in 1866 and the ferry service moved to Fahan.

“From 1863 until 1877, the steamers were either on charter or contracted in but, from 1877, the steamers on the Swilly service were owned by the Lough Swilly Steam Boat Company, which was owned by McCrea & McFarland, directors in the railway company,” recalled Seamus.

The L&LSR had 3 railway stations along the river Foyle, in the Derry Docks. The Harbour Commissioner’ dockside light rail system ran alongside it for easy transfer of goods. 

The main terminus was at the bottom of the Buncrana Road, where Home Bargains and Harry Corry’s are today.

The Graving Dock station opened on November 12, 1863 and closed on September 6,1948 and was approximately where KFC is today. The Middle Quay railway station was further upriver near today’s Quayside / Mandarin Palace.

Seamus said: “Fahan served as the hub for the L&LSR passenger and freight services on Lough Swilly. New services to Rathmullan and to Portsalon were established as well as an excursion trade for passenger trips around the Lough. 

“Some of the bought-in, or chartered, paddle steamers on the service were the PS ‘Admiral’, PS ‘Vista’, PS ‘Swilly’, PS ‘Alexandra’ (built by Williamm Coppin, in Derry), PS ‘Elizabeth’, PS ‘Menai’ and PS ‘Kate.’ The PS ‘Innishowen’ was built, specifically, for the Swilly service, in 1881, and PS ‘Lake of Shadows’ was built for it, in 1905.

“The service peaked in 1905. Three paddle steamers serviced 5 runs a day to Rathmullan, a daily run to Ramelton and twice a week to Portsalon. There would also have been excursions and one-off freight runs.

“TSS ‘Aberfoyle’ was built in Dartmouth, in 1813, and arrived on Swilly in 1912. She was bought by the Admiralty in 1914. She was the first non-paddle steamer to enter the Swilly service,” said Seamus.

An extra timber structure pier was built at Fahan, in 1921. Silting was a problem, believed to be due to the steamers lying alongside the pier. 

Seamus said: “In 1923, the paddle steamers on the Rathmullan run were replaced with motor boats. The first ML ‘Maureen’ was built by Beattie’s, of Moville. She was sold locally in 1929.

“A second ML ‘Maureen’ and ML ‘Inish Isle’ entered service in 1923. The ML ‘Aberfoyle’ was an ex-US navy launch bought, in Derry, by Sir Basil MacFarland, in 1947.

“The ‘Lake of Shadows’ worked regularly between Fahan and Ramelton conveying merchandise from 1923 to 1929. She was then taken out of service for necessary repairs and traded only spasmodically until she was sold for scrap in 1934.

“The Rathmullan service was retained using the three motor launches until the Londonderry & Lough Swilly Railway Company transferred the boats and service to the Brown’s of Inch who had started the original service in 1611,” said Seamus.

The ‘Aberfoyle’ was in McDonald Boats, Greencastle, for refurbishment about 10 years ago and is still going.

The steering wheel from the ‘Lake of Shadows’ is on display in the Maritime Museum, having been donated to the museum by Sir John McFarland, Dunmore House, Carrigans.

“Any information, photographs or corrections on would be much appreciated by Inishowen Maritime Museum,” said Seamus.


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