Lartigue Monorail

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Kerry's Unique Railway Opened 120 years ago

THE LARTIGUE MONORAIL, A unique railway line that ran between the North Kerry towns of Listowel and Ballybunion in the late 19th century, celebrates the opening of its Museum and Interpretative Centre and Lartigue Park in June this year.

The opening completes a project originally conceived in the mid 1990's, to reconstruct one of the worlds most unique and fascinating railways, and enable visitors from all over the world to enjoy an eccentricity, which is still spoken of with a mixture of laughter and sentiment in North Kerry today.

Originally opened to the public in Listowel in 1888 the Lartigue Monorail was the brainchild of French engineer, Charles Lartigue, who had observed camels in the Algerian desert carrying heavy loads balanced in panniers on their backs.

Inspired by the~ camel's grace and power, he designed a new type of railway using a single rail raised from the ground and held approximately three feet off the ground on A-shaped trestles. Specially made carriages would sit at either side of the trestles like panniers or baskets.

The original locomotive was a strange machine with twin vertical boilers, followed later by three others with twin locomotive boilers placed on either side of the main rail and projecting from a central cab.

Listowel might seem an unlikely spot for such a revolutionary railway, but as a conventional railway had only got as far as Listowel, the seaside resort of Ballybunion remained isolated nine miles to the west.

As only two of the railways were ever built, one in France, which was never used, Lartigue was anxious to show the world that his railway could work and thought North Kerry as good a place as any for his showcase.

The railway carried freight, cattle, sand from the beaches and passengers. The passengers included Ballybunion children going to school in Listowel, Kerry and Limerick people making their way to the beautiful beaches at Ballybunion and, indeed, many emigrants making the first leg of their journey to distant lands.

It soon became one of the world's first tourist railways, especially in the years just prior to the First World War. It also attracted many golfers going to the then fledgling golf course also at Ballybunion, which was to become one of the most renowned, and still is to this day, golf courses in the world.

The railway became a source of much amusement, as the passengers had to sit back to back and be properly balanced to prevent the train from toppling over. Local folklore has it that two engaged couples turned up one day, one very large pair and one very thin pair. The two large ones climbed in one side and the two thin ones climbed in the other side. This of course upset the balance of the train and a very diplomatic gentleman explained to the two couples that they must part company. SO A large male and a thin female exchanged places and so well did this arrangement work that at the end of the journey the change of partners had been made permanent!

Because of it's uniqueness the railway remained financially viable throughout most of its lifetime and ran for 36 years until it was badly damaged during the War of Independence in 1924, when only a short section of track was salvaged.

However, all was not lost. The centenary of the opening of the Lartigue was in 1988 and several initiatives were taken to commemorate the event. One was the Restoration Committee and in 2000 they were successful in obtaining a Millennium Grant. This, together with the generosity of sponsors, allowed a short stretch of some 1,000 metres of the Lartigue Railway to be re-opened to the public in Listowel in July 2003. Although the engine is diesel powered, it is an exact replica of the original and with up to date safety standards there is no danger of it toppling over!

There are two third class carriages, closely modelled on the originals, using photographs and the memory of those such as Lartigue President, Jack McKenna, who travelled on the original.

The response so far has been amazing with visitors from all over the world enjoying the newly constructed double-side locomotive and two carriages. Not just adults, including a surprising number of women, are fascinated by this eccentric railway but children also, as the engine bears looks not dissimilar to that great children's favourite, Thomas the Tank Engine!

"Incredible experience", "Amazing feat of engineering" are among comments found on every page of the Visitor's Book at the Visitor Centre. Lartigue Park is adjacent to the present Lartigue track and is the site of the original Lartigue terminus and incorporates the remains of the original switches and engine shed. The Park also serves as a picnic area with walkways and seating.

At a total cost of €2 million and much of the construction work carried out by FAS, the Museum and Interpretative Centre complete this amazing journey into part of the rich heritage of North Kerry.

Gareth Williams, one of the volunteers said: "We are hoping that the new museum and park will bring more of a cross section of visitors and not just the railway enthusiasts."

• The Lartigue Monorailway, Museum and Lartigue Park is located on the John B. Keane Road, Listowel, just 30 minutes drive from Tralee and 45 minutes from Limerick on the N69 Route.

Article written by: Jackie Goodall

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