Photography: 2c image/Getty Images
Buoyed by increasingly expensive car rentals and an appetite for sustainable tourism, visitors to Ireland are discovering the lure of public transport. Irish public transport fares were reduced by 20% in April to the end of this year and halved permanently for those aged between 19 and 23, the first such reductions in Ireland since 1947. Add to that online fares with great discounts – or the Leap Card, which offers even greater discounts – and now is the time to discover Ireland’s most scenic rail journeys. We’ve chosen six epic voyages that cover every corner of the country, from the Atlantic coast to the sunny south east – to the dramatic coastline of Northern Ireland.
Rosslare to Dublin
Look out the window, and the countryside of County Wexford is flat, an endless sky stretching over the water and swampy plains. This entire area of southeastern Ireland lies below sea level, and the landscape itself is a feat of engineering in the 18th century, when the local mud flats and some islands were drained and harnessed to become productive land, known as Sloblands. . They now offer a winter sanctuary for geese and swans from Iceland, Greenland and Siberia. It’s also the starting point for a two- to three-hour journey on one of Europe’s most scenic rail routes from Rosslare Europort, the French and British ferry hub of southeastern Ireland.
In 15 minutes, the church spiers of Wexford Town appear above its brown brick and plaster architecture – the urban layout looks like it crosses water and land as the train cuts through the harbor like a tram, in front of an arched bridge. pier flanked by beautiful three-story buildings. The sea is on either side – a statue of Commodore John Barry, a local man who is often credited as the father of the US Navy, presides over the peaceful scene. It seems to challenge the city’s past as Ireland’s first port of call for bloodthirsty Vikings and Cromwellian troops. As the train leaves the city, it casts a shadow over the Irish National Heritage Park, where this turbulent history and invasions are explored in detail.
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A train emerges from a tunnel on the coastal rail line in the cliffs between Bray and Greystones in County Wicklow. Photography: Alasabyss/Alamy
The train moves north and inland but stays close to the water as it curves and twists along the contours of the River Slaney. You reach Enniscorthy – an impressive old Norman settlement – via a series of tunnels and a minimalist railway bridge. It is the hometown of novelist Colm Tóibín – and regularly features as a setting in his books or film adaptations (along with Curracloe Beach, near Wexford Town, which also landed a role in Saving Private Ryan – as the gory landing site). from Normandy to troops on D-Day). On the outskirts of Enniscorthy on Vinegar Hill, local rebel forces held off British infantry during the notorious 1798 Rebellion. The stalemate lasted a month, and this brief glimmer of triumph is chronicled at the National 1798 Rebellion Center on Parnell Road.
Related: Emerald Heart: A Guide to Ireland’s Six National Parks
As the trail heads further north past Arklow in County Wicklow, the scenery becomes positively alpine. We pass gushing streams and the tracks hug tall conifers as the train climbs higher and higher. It winds through curves of pine trees and over ancient dry stone bridges before entering Avoca Valley – a lush valley where the Avonmore and Avonbeg meet at the Meeting of the Waters to become the River Avoca – and eventually stopping at Rathdrum. A short walk from the village is Avondale Estate and Forest, the birthplace of politician and Home Rule pioneer Charles Stewart Parnell. The house is currently undergoing extensive renovations, but the large expanse of gardens reopened to the public last month.
Further north, the train leaves Wicklow Town and turns east, running parallel to the pebbled coastline. To the left, the swamps are full of kingfishers and herons up to the fertile rolling hills that shape the horizon. On the approach to Greystones, lone figures stroll along the beach, and in town, charming restaurants like Happy Pear, a plant-based cafe and bakery, line the streets.
As the track continues further north, past Arklow, the scenery becomes positively alpine.
From Greystones, Bray Head approaches, a high rocky peninsula that juts out into the Irish Sea. The train offers stunning views of the white crested waves and sandy coves. It darts through the tunnels, emerging into the blinding sunlight that heralds yet another dramatic view of the coast, more spectacular than the one before, then stops at Bray. From here, passengers can head to Dublin city center with a few stops, or board the DART service that winds and stops at idyllic seaside towns like Dalkey or Killiney.
Book on Irish Rail, from €7.49 single Cork to Cobh
Cobh, County Cork. Photography: Joana Kruse/Alamy
This 24-minute train ride departs from Kent station in the city, but before long the tracks offer spectacular seaside scenery to Cobh, a very picturesque town in one of the world’s greatest natural harbors. The train navigates the contours of Belvelly Channel and, turning east, stops at Little Island before heading to Ireland’s only wildlife park – Fota Island. Cobh’s red brick station is the terminus – and was also the terminus for many aboard the ill-fated RMS Titanic as the final departure point for the ship on April 11, 1912. Hop off alongside the Cobh Heritage Center to discover the story of Annie Moore, who left Cobh just before Christmas 1891 to become the first immigrant to be prosecuted on Ellis Island, New York.
Book on Irish Rail, €3 single (Leap Card) West Rail Corridor
Thor Ballylee was once the home of poet WB Yeats. Photography: David Lyons/Alamy
Leaving from Galway to Limerick, this old line follows the tourist trail less traveled by old towns and under-the-radar villages for 80 minutes. Low stone walls cut through the countryside, creating a patchwork of green to Gort, a market town next to the historic gardens of the Coole Park or Thoor Ballylee nature reserve, where poet WB Yeats lived (and director John Ford filmed the scene from opening of the 1952 film The Silent Man
). From Ennis, the train curves around Mooghaun Hill Fort and woods, before stopping at Sixmilebridge. From this riverside village it’s an easy cycle to Craggaunowen – a park exploring Celtic life during the Bronze Age – or the pretty village of Quin, with its magnificent Franciscan Abbey ruins. Spend the night at Limerick City’s Locke Bar, on a river in the shadow of St. Mary’s Cathedral. Book on Irish Rail, €7.49 single Dublin to Belfast
Marina Malahide. Photography: Eimantas Juskevicius/Alamy
Leaving Dublin’s Connolly Station, the train skirts Malahide Marina and crosses the estuary before heading north through the countryside. Expect long stretches of coastline all the way to Drogheda – a fortified town with narrow streets that straddles the River Boyne. It is just 8 km from the UNESCO-listed archaeological site of Brú na Bóinne, a landscape etched with impressive prehistoric tombs. As the train lowers and plunges through fields and along the coast on the two-hour journey, it crosses the 18-arch Craigmore Viaduct, which spans 400 meters over a valley. Arriving at your destination at Lanyon Station, follow the River Lagan north on foot for just over a mile to discover the birth of an oceanic colossus on Titanic Belfast.
Book on Irish Rail or Translink, €13.99 single Derry to Coleraine
Downhill Strand, Co Derry. Photography: Johannes Rigg/Alamy
Described by Michael Palin as “one of the most beautiful rail journeys in the world”, this stunning 40-minute journey winds along the banks of the River Foyle before reaching a wide stretch of plains along the estuary. Upon reaching the coast, the train travels through the sand dunes of Benone Strand, in and out of tunnels like strobe lights, with breathtaking views in and out of focus. Madness Mussenden Temple – and once the tiny library of an ancient estate – sways high on the edge of a cliff. The quiet seaside village of Castlerock leads to Coleraine, where visitors can travel by coach to the windswept coast of Antrim.
Book on Translink, £10 single Longford to Sligo
Path along the River Shannon; Carrick-on-Shannon. Photography: Design Pics Inc/Alamy
From Longford, the train and river intertwine in an 80-minute journey. In 40 minutes, the train crosses a bridge over the Shannon, the longest river in Great Britain and Ireland. It links Roscommon and Leitrim counties, before running alongside Albert Lock, where pleasure cruisers wait patiently in a canal. As you approach Carrick-on-Shannon, the nautical capital of Connaught, the river periodically disappears from view, then can magically reappear beyond a thicket. Stay in this pretty, flower-filled sea town to see Ireland’s smallest chapel, before moving to Boyle. It is the hometown of actor Chris O’Dowd and film legend Maureen O’Sullivan, mother of Mia Farrow – as well as a magnificent medieval abbey. The last leg of the trip ventures into the mountainous country of Yeats – Sligo.
Book on Irish Rail, €9.35 single