Grab a window seat on Ireland’s finest train journeys

Grab a window seat on Ireland’s finest train journeys

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Fueled by increasingly expensive car hire and an appetite for sustainable tourism, visitors to Ireland are finding the lure of public transport. Public transport fares in Ireland have been cut by 20% in April through the end of this year and permanently halved for 19-23 year olds, the first such reduction in Ireland since 1947. There are also heavily discounted online fares – or the Leap Card, which offers even bigger discounts – and now is the time to explore Ireland’s most scenic rail journeys. We’ve handpicked six epic voyages, covering all corners of the country, from the Atlantic Seaboard to the sunny South East – right down to Northern Ireland’s dramatic coastline.

Rosslare to Dublin

Looking out the window, County Wexford’s landscape is flat, an endless sky stretching far across the water and marshy plains. This entire area of ​​South East Ireland lies below sea level and the landscape itself is a feat of 18th century engineering when the local mudflats and a few islands were drained and exploited to become productive land known as the Sloblands. They now provide winter quarters for geese and swans from Iceland, Greenland and Siberia. It’s also the starting point of a two to three hour journey on one of Europe’s most scenic rail routes, departing from Rosslare Europort, Ireland’s south-east French and British ferry hub.

Within 15 minutes Wexford Town’s church spiers appear above its brown, brick-and-plastered architecture – the urban design seems to stretch across water and land as the train cuts through the harbor like a tramway in front of an arching quay, lined of pretty three-story buildings. The sea is on either side — a statue of Commodore John Barry, a local man often credited as the father of the US Navy, towers over the peaceful scene. He seems to question the town’s past as Ireland’s first port of call for bloodthirsty Vikings and Cromwellian troops. As the train pulls out of the city, it casts a shadow over the Irish National Heritage Park, where the turbulent history and invasions are explored in detail.

A train emerges from a coast railway tunnel on the cliffs between Bray and Greystones in County Wicklow.

A train emerges from a coast railway tunnel on the cliffs between Bray and Greystones in County Wicklow. Photo: Alasabyss/Alamy

The train moves north and inland but stays close to the water as it winds and curves along the contours of the River Slaney. Through a series of tunnels and a minimalist railway bridge, she arrives at Enniscorthy – an impressive old Norman settlement. It’s the hometown of novelist Colm Tóibín – and a regular feature in his books or films (along with Curracloe Beach, near Wexford Town, which also got a role in Saving Private Ryan – as a bloodstained landing site for troops in Normandy on the D day). Just outside Enniscorthy, at Vinegar Hill, local rebels held off the British infantry during the infamous 1798 Rebellion. The standoff lasted a month, and this brief glimmer of triumph is recounted at the National 1798 Rebellion Center on Parnell Road.

Related: Emerald Heart: a guide to Ireland’s six national parks

The further north the route runs, past Arklow in County Wicklow, the more alpine the landscape becomes. We pass babbling brooks and the track hugs tall conifers as the train climbs higher and higher. It meanders around bends of pine and over old dry stone bridges before entering the Vale of Avoca – a lush valley where Avonmore and Avonbeg join at the Meeting of the Waters to become the Avoca River – finally stopping at Rathdrum on. Just 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 a major refurbishment but the extensive gardens reopened to the public last month.

Further north, the train leaves Wicklow Town and heads east, paralleling the pebbly coast. To the left, swamplands teem with kingfishers and herons down to the fertile, rolling hills that form the horizon. As you approach 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 route continues north, past Arklow, the scenery becomes downright alpine

Approaching from Greystones is Bray Head, a high rocky peninsula jutting out into the Irish Sea. The train offers breathtaking views over crashing white-tipped waves and sandy coves. It shoots between tunnels and emerges into blinding sunlight heralding another dramatic coastal view, more spectacular than the last, and then comes to a halt at Bray. From here, passengers can continue into Dublin city center with a handful of stops, or hop on the DART commuter service, which meanders and stops at idyllic seaside towns like Dalkey or Killiney.
Book with Irish Rail, from €7.49 single journey

Cork to Cobh

Cobh, County Cork.

Cobh, County Cork. Photo: Joana Kruse/Alamy

This 24 minute train journey starts at Kent station in the city but in this short time the tracks offer spectacular coastal scenery all the way to Cobh, a very picturesque town on one of the world’s largest natural harbours. The train navigates the contours of the Belvelly Channel and then stops east at Little Island before continuing to Ireland’s only wildlife park – Fota Island. Cobh’s red-brick station is the terminus – and it was also the terminus for many aboard the ill-fated RMS Titanic as the ship’s final departure point on 11 April 1912. Visit the Cobh Heritage Center next door to learn about the history of Cobh to discover Annie Moore, who left Cobh just before Christmas 1891 to be the first immigrant to be cleared at Ellis Island, New York.
Book with Irish Rail, €3 single journey (Leap Card)

Western Railway Corridor

Thoor Ballylee was once the home of poet WB Yeats.

Thoor Ballylee was once the home of poet WB Yeats. Photo: David Lyons/Alamy

This old line, which departs from Galway for Limerick, follows the less-travelled tourist trail through old town areas and out-of-the-way villages for 80 minutes. Low stone walls cut through the landscape, creating a green patchwork quilt all the way to Gort, a market town near the historic gardens of Coole Park Conservation Area, or Thoor Ballylee, where poet WB Yeats lived (and director John Ford shot the opening scene of the film The Quiet Man from 1952). From Ennis the train skirts Mooghaun Hill Fort and Woods before stopping at Sixmilebridge. From this riverside village it’s an easy bike ride to Craggaunowen – a park exploring Celtic life during the Bronze Age – or to the pretty village of Quin with its magnificent ruined Franciscan abbey. Spend the evening at Locke Bar in Limerick City, in a river setting in the shadow of Saint Mary’s Cathedral.
Book with Irish Rail, €7.49 single journey

Dublin to Belfast

Malahide Marina.

Malahide Marina. Photo: Eimantas Juskevicius/Alamy

Departing Dublin’s Connolly railway station, the train bypasses Malahide Marina and crosses the estuary before heading north through the countryside. Expect long stretches of coastline all the way to Drogheda – a walled town with narrow streets spanning the River Boyne. It is only 8 km from the UNESCO World Heritage-listed archaeological site of Brú na Bóinne, a landscape of impressive prehistoric tombs. As the train ducks and dives through fields and banks on the two-hour journey, it crosses the 18-arch Craigmore Viaduct, which spans a quarter of a mile across a valley. When you reach your destination at Lanyon Train Station, walk north along the River Lagan for just over a mile to discover the birth of an ocean colossus on Titanic Belfast.
Book with Irish Rail or Translink, €13.99 single journey

Derry to Coleraine

Down Hill Beach, Co. Derry.

Down Hill Beach, Co. Derry. Photo: Johannes Rigg/Alamy

Described by Michael Palin as ‘one of the most beautiful railway journeys in the world’, this breathtaking 40-minute journey meanders along the banks of the River Foyle before reaching a vast stretch of lowlands at the estuary. On reaching the coast, the train follows the sand dunes of Benone Strand, whizzing in and out of the tunnels like strobe lights, with breathtaking views coming in and out. Mussenden Temple, a folly – and once the tiny library of an ancient estate – looms high on a cliff. The quiet seaside village of Castlerock leads to Coleraine, where visitors can continue by bus to the windswept Antrim Coast.
Book with Translink, £10 each

Longford to Sligo

Path along the River Shannon;  Carrick on Shannon.

Path along the River Shannon; Carrick on Shannon. Photo: Design Pics Inc/Alamy

From Longford, rail and river intertwine for an 80-minute journey. Within 40 minutes the train crosses a bridge over the Shannon, the longest river in Great Britain and Ireland. It connects counties Roscommon and Leitrim before passing alongside Albert Lock where pleasure boats wait patiently on a canal. Approaching Carrick-on-Shannon, the boating capital of Connaught, the river occasionally disappears from sight and can then magically reappear from behind a thicket. Linger in this pretty, flower-strewn port town to see Ireland’s smallest chapel before heading to Boyle. It’s the hometown of actor Chris O’Dowd and screen legend Maureen O’Sullivan, mother of Mia Farrow, as well as a magnificent medieval abbey. The final leg of the journey ventures into rolling Yeats Country – Sligo.
Book with Irish Rail, €9.35 single journey

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