05 Oct 2022

GALLERY: Donegal's fascinating railway history recalled

Model of Ferry and Jetty on display in Inishowen's Maritime Museum

A recent Donegal Live article regarding the whereabouts of a ‘missing’ Donegal Pier railway crane jogged a few memories it seems.

Speaking to Donegal Live, Seamus Bovaird of Inishowen Maritime Museum said the article about Fahan Pier had “regenerated interest in the ferry services from Fahan to Ramelton, Rathmullan and Portsalon.”

Seamus added: “The Maritime Museum, in Greencastle, had begun to research the history of connections between Lough Foyle and Lough Swilly, going right back to when the first plans to join the loughs by canal were mooted. However, Covid-19 restrictions have slowed down the research. 

“In 1763 and 1765, petitions were made to the Irish Parliament in Dublin, for funds to dig a canal from Pennyburn to Burnfoot. The project was resumed in 1836 and works on the 3 sea embankments, required to facilitate the canal, were completed in 1856. However, the works were slow and expensive, and the railways were quickly overtaking canal developments.

“The Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway Company (L&LSR) was formed in 1852, to join Derry to Lough Swilly. A rail line from Derry to Farland Point was opened on December 31,1863. The line from Tooban to Farland Point was laid on the embankment built for the canal project. A ferry service from Farland Point to Letterkenny, Ramelton and Rathmullan was provided by two paddle steamers, chartered in from existing Lough Foyle services.

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

This photograph, from the Lawrence Collection in the National Library of Ireland, shows the original layout of the rail terminal at Fahan.

Seamus said: “The paddle steamers alongside are thought to be the ‘Kate’ and the ‘Lake of Shadows.’ This original layout remained until 1921, when a more extensive timber structure pier was installed to access deeper water due to siltation at the old berth.

In 1923, the paddle steamers on the Rathmullan run were replaced with motorboats, ML ‘Maureen’ and ML ‘Inish Isle.’ These were transferred to Brown’s of Inch Island in 1950.

“The models of the ferry and jetty, on display in the Maritime Museum, are reported to have been part of a larger layout built as demonstration pieces for a court case. We have no information on the case. They were stored in the railway yard of the Londonderry & Lough Swilly Railway Company, Buncrana Road, until the ‘Swilly’ yard, in Derry, was closed down. They were rescued by a member of the ‘Swilly’ staff and stored in his home, before being donated to the museum.

“The motor launch is the ‘Inish Isle’ which was bought in 1923, to replace the paddle steamer on the Rathmullan run. She was 40ft long with a 6-cylinder Wolseley petrol/paraffin engine and cabin seating for 25 passengers,” said Seamus.

According to Seamus, the jetty model had four nail marks where the crane should have been.

He added: “However, the actual model crane and rail carriages were never received.

“Anyone with information or photographs about the ‘Swilly’ services on Lough Swilly is invited to get in touch with the Maritime Museum on Facebook or by e-mail at

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