Photograph: 2c image/Getty Images
Driven by increasingly expensive rental cars and an appetite for sustainable tourism, visitors to Ireland are discovering the lure of public transport. Fares on Irish public transport were cut by 20% in April until the end of this year and halved permanently for those aged 19 to 23, the first such reductions in Ireland since 1947. Add to that heavily discounted online fares – or Leap Card, which offers even steeper price cuts – and now is the time to discover Ireland’s most scenic train journeys. We pick six epic tours that cover every corner of the country, from the Atlantic coast to the sunny southeast – as far as Northern Ireland’s dramatic coast.
Rosslare to Dublin
Look out the window and the County Wexford countryside is flat, an endless sky stretching far beyond the water and marshy plains. This entire area of southeast Ireland is below sea level, and the landscape itself is a feat of 18th-century engineering, when the local mud flats and a sprinkling of islands were drained and exploited to become productive land known as the Sloblands. They now offer a winter reserve 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, which rolls off from Rosslare Europort, Ireland’s south-eastern French and British ferry hub.
Within 15 minutes, the church spiers of Wexford Town emerge above its brown brick-and-plaster designed architecture – the urban design feels like it straddles water and land as the train cuts through the harbor like a tram, in front of an arched quay lined with handsome three-storey buildings. The sea is on both sides – a statue of Commodore John Barry, a local man often credited as the father of the US Navy, presides over the peaceful scene. He looks to challenge the city’s past as Ireland’s first port of call for bloodthirsty Vikings and Cromwellian troops. As the train creeps out of town, it casts a shadow over the Irish National Heritage Park, where its turbulent history and invasions are explored in detail.
The story continues
A train emerges from a tunnel on the coastal railway line on the cliffs between Bray and Greystones in County Wicklow. Photo: Alasabyss/Alamy
The train moves north and inland but stays close to water as it curves and twists along the contours of the River Slaney. It reaches Enniscorthy – a striking old Norman settlement – through a series of tunnels and a minimalist railway bridge. It is the home town of novelist Colm Tóibín – and regularly the setting of his books or his film adaptations (along with Curracloe Beach, near Wexford Town, which also featured in Saving Private Ryan – as the bloodstained Normandy landing site for troops on D -day). Just outside Enniscorthy, at Vinegar Hill, local rebel forces resisted British infantry during the infamous Rebellion of 1798. The battle lasted a month and the brief glimpse of triumph is recounted at the National 1798 Rebellion Center on Parnell Road.
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When the course goes further north, past Arklow in County Wicklow, the scenery becomes positively alpine. We pass over gushing streams and the track hugs tall conifers as the train climbs higher and higher. It snakes around bends of pine and over old dry stone bridges before entering the Vale of Avoca – a verdant valley where Avonmore and Avonbeg join at the Meeting of the Waters to become the Avoca River – finally stopping at Rathdrum. Just a short walk from the village is the Avondale Estate and Forest, the birthplace of politician and Home Rule pioneer Charles Stewart Parnell. The house is currently undergoing extensive renovations, but the vast expanse of gardens reopened to the public last month.
Further north, the train leaves Wicklow Town and turns east, rolling parallel to the pebbly coast. To the left, moorlands are alive with kingfishers and egrets as far as the fertile, rolling hills that shape the horizon. As you approach Greystones, lonely figures walk the beach, and the town is home to charming restaurants such as Happy Pear, a plant-based cafe and bakery lining the streets.
When the track goes further north, past Arklow, the scenery becomes positively alpine
From Greystones, Bray Head is approached, a high rocky peninsula jutting out into the Irish Sea. The train offers soaring views of white-topped waves and sandy beaches. It whizzes between tunnels, emerges into blinding sunlight heralding another dramatic coastal view, more spectacular than the last, and then stops at Bray. From here, passengers can continue into Dublin city center with a handful of stops, or board the DART commuter service which meanders and stops at idyllic seaside towns such as Dalkey or Killiney.
Book with Irish Rail, from €7.49 single Cork to Cobh
Cobh, County Cork. Photo: Joana Kruse/Alamy
This 24-minute train journey departs from Kent station in the city, but during the short time the tracks offer spectacular seaside scenery as far as Cobh, a very picturesque town on one of the world’s largest natural harbours. Navigating the contours of the Belvelly Channel, the train turns east and stops at Little Island before moving on 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 point of departure on 11 April 1912. Stop by 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 processed at Ellis Island, New York.
Book with Irish Rail, €3 single (Leap Card) Western Rail Corridor
Thoor Ballylee was once the home of poet WB Yeats. Photo: David Lyons/Alamy
Departing from Galway to Limerick, this old line follows the tourist trail less traveled through old towns and off-the-radar villages for 80 minutes. Low stone walls cut through the landscape, creating a patchwork of green as far as Gort, a market town near the historic gardens of Coole Park nature reserve or Thoor Ballylee, where poet WB Yeats lived (and director John Ford filmed the opening scene of the film The Quiet Man from 1952
). From Ennis, the train curves around Mooghaun Hill Fort and the forest, before stopping at Sixmilebridge. From this riverside village, it’s an easy cycle ride to Craggaunowen – a park exploring Celtic life in the Bronze Age – or the pretty village of Quin, with its magnificent Franciscan abbey ruins. Spend the evening at Limerick City’s Locke Bar, in a riverside setting in the shadow of Saint Mary’s Cathedral. Book with Irish Rail, €7.49 single Dublin to Belfast
Malahide Marina. Photo: Eimantas Juskevicius/Alamy
The train leaves Dublin’s Connolly station, passes Malahide Marina and crosses the estuary before heading north through the countryside. Expect long stretches of coastline as far as Drogheda – a walled town with narrow streets straddling 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 dips and dips through fields and land on the two-hour journey, it crosses the 18-arch Craigmore Viaduct, which spans a quarter of a mile over a valley. When you reach your destination at Lanyon Station, follow the River Lagan north on foot for just over a mile to discover the birth of a sea colossus at Titanic Belfast.
Book with Irish Rail or with Translink, €13.99 single Derry to Coleraine
Downhill Strand, Co Derry. Photo: Johannes Rigg/Alamy
Described by Michael Palin as “one of the most beautiful railway journeys in the world”, this stunning 40-minute journey winds along the banks of the River Foyle before reaching a wide stretch of low estuary plains. Reaching the coast, the train follows the dunes of Benone Strand, swerving in and out of tunnels, like strobe lights, with a stunning view that comes in and out of focus. The Mussenden Temple, a folly – and once the small library of an old estate – teeters high on a cliff edge. The quiet seaside village of Castlerock leads to Coleraine, where visitors can travel on to the windswept Antrim coast by coach.
Order from Translink, £10 single Longford to Sligo
Path along the River Shannon; Carrick-on-Shannon. Photo: Design Pics Inc/Alamy
From Longford, rail and river intertwined in an 80-minute journey. In 40 minutes the train crosses a bridge over the Shannon, the longest river in both Great Britain and Ireland. It connects counties Roscommon and Leitrim, before running alongside the Albert Lock, where pleasure cruisers patiently wait for a canal. On its way to Carrick-on-Shannon, Connaught’s boating capital, the river periodically disappears from view, then can magically reappear out of a thicket. Stay in this beautiful, flower-drenched marina town to see Ireland’s smallest chapel, before moving on to Boyle. It is the hometown of actor Chris O’Dowd and silver screen legend Maureen O’Sullivan, mother of Mia Farrow – as well as a magnificent medieval abbey. The final leg of the journey enters the hilly Yeats country – Sligo.
Book with Irish Rail, €9.35 single