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The RPSI, how it all began...
However, it looked as though the railways would escape any further closures, and the investments in new locomotives, railcars and coaches seemed to suggest that the future for the surviving lines was secure. It was in such a climate that the following events unfolded.
Shortly after a railtour to Portrush, organised by the Inst (Royal Belfast Academical Institution) Railway Society in September 1963, an ad hoc organisation was set up to run steam railtours in the last days of steam. This was known as the "Northern Ireland Railway Societies Joint Committee", and was empowered by the committees of the Irish Railway Record Society (Belfast Area), the Royal Belfast Academical Institution (Inst) Railway Society, the Northern Ireland Road and Rail Development Association, and the Friends of the Belfast Transport Museum to organise and run railtours on their behalf, as none of these societies felt that they had enough financial resources or a large enough membership base to do so on their own.
Derek Young (NIRRDA), Michael Shannon (FBTM), Denis Grimshaw (as secretary), Sullivan Boomer (RBAIRS), John McGuigan (IRRS) and Craig Robb were the members of the NIRSJC.
Incidentally, the NIRSJC had absolutely no constitution, official or legal status whatsoever - but people didn't worry about things like that in those days!
A successful railtour was operated from Belfast to Loughrea and back on 4th April 1964, with VS No.207 from Belfast to Dublin and back, although the Dublin - Loughrea section was operated by a diesel railcar set instead of steam traction as originally intended - not because CIÉ would not agree to steam, but purely on grounds of cost.
The major factor which had killed off the idea of using one or two of CIÉ's remaining J15s (or GNRI Qs No.131 or No.132, at least one of which was considered to be repairable) from Dublin to Loughrea and back was CIÉ's estimated locomotive repair costs.
The only market for railtours in the 1960s was considered to be the railway enthusiast market - no Portrush Flyers, Santa Trains or other general public ventures were considered viable - really because the general public still thought of steam trains as normal everyday transport.
The virtual end of steam operations on CIÉ, and the apparently rapidly approaching demise of steam on the UTA (before the Magheramorne Spoil Contract deferred the evil day!), together with the experience of the Loughrea tour were instrumental in turning the thoughts of three of the Joint Committee's members to establishing a preservation society which would own the locomotives, keep them in traffic, and could overhaul and maintain them largely with volunteer labour.
The examples of the Bluebell and Keithley & Worth Valley Railways in Britain were noted, but widespread main line operations were always considered vital, rather than an attempt to purchase and operate a branch line or other section of closed railway.
The other fundamental decision, based on market potential for railtour passengers, availability of representative locomotives and rolling-stock from all former Irish railways and a larger variety of routes for special trains, together with the potential for a larger membership base, and not from any political considerations, was to establish the new society on an all-Ireland basis. Even the very limited experience of the Loughrea tour had indicated that better access to the potential railtour market in the Dublin area could have helped the venture.
So it was that following the Loughrea railtour in April 1964 Derek Young, Michael Shannon and Denis Grimshaw met in York Road waiting room (quite a spacious and comfortable place in those days) on several occasions. And it was there, in the early summer of 1964, that the decision to set up the RPSI (and the choice of name) was made.
The remaining NIRSJC members (Sullivan Boomer and John McGuigan) and a number of other prominent members of the various railway societies were then roped in, to help to establish the new organisation, and gain acceptance and credibility from the railways (UTA and CIÉ) and other external bodies. It is always dangerous to name individuals, as someone will feel left out, but Laurence Liddle, John Harcourt, Lord O'Neill, Craig Robb, Harry Frazer and Drew Donaldson, were all involved.
An inaugural meeting of the "Railway Preservation Society of Ireland" was held in Belfast in September 1964 - and the rest, as they say, is history. On that occasion, Denis Grimshaw was elected as Secretary - the first of two spells in the post.
Of the original three, Derek Young and Denis Grimshaw are still active RPSI members - Michael Shannon left Belfast to live in England shortly after the RPSI was formed. Of the original committee, Sullivan Boomer is active on the footplate, John Harcourt is a regular supporter, Laurence Liddle maintains contact in Five Foot Three, although he now resides in Australia, and Craig Robb still takes an occasional photograph.
Subsequent Society history is recorded in the various issues of Five Foot Three, some of which are on-line.
Having acquired our first locomotive in 1965, the RPSI moved into our Whitehead, Co.Antrim headquarters in 1966. It is here that the Societies major locomotive and carriage refurbishment takes place. We have erected specialist buildings and acquired a lot of specialist equipment including a travelling overhead crane (of 1897 vintage) and a full forge/smithy. This is all necessary to ensure that our maintenance continues to the very highest quality levels.
Visitors are welcome at Whitehead on most weekends or by prior arrangement. Visitors MUST BE ACCOMPANIED by a Society member at all times.
The Society also has a Southern base in Mullingar. This depot opened in 1974, but is really just a maintenance base, rather than a visitor centre. We regret that it is not currently open to visitors.
For a full description of our Whitehead base and Engineering Works, click here.
Keeping Steam alive in Ireland since 1964