DFueled by increasingly expensive car hire and a hunger for sustainable tourism, visitors to Ireland are increasingly seeking the lure of public transport. Irish public transport fares were cut by 20% in April until the end of this year and permanently halved for 19 to 23-year-olds, the first such cut in Ireland since 1947. Add that to deeply discounted online fares – or the Leap Card, which offers even more price reductions – and now’s the time to discover Ireland’s most scenic rail journeys. We pick six epic journeys that cover all corners of the country, from the Atlantic coast to the sunny south-east – all the way to the dramatic shores of Northern Ireland.
Rosslare to Dublin
Look out the window, and the County Wexford countryside is flat, an endless sky stretching away over 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 islands were drained and used to create productive land, known as the Sloughlands. 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 train routes, rolling from Rosslare Europort, Ireland’s south-eastern French and British ferry hub.
Within 15 minutes, the church spiers of Wexford Town appear over its gray brick-and-plaster-rendered architecture – the urban layout feels like it clings to water and land as the train cuts through the harbor like a tram, in a bow-shaped front. A ghat surrounded by beautiful three-storied buildings. The sea is on either side – a statue of Commodore John Barry, a local man often referred to as the father of the US Navy, presides over the peaceful scene. He sees the city’s past as Ireland’s first seaport challenging the bloodthirsty Vikings and Cromwellian armies. As the train exits the city, it shadows the Irish National Heritage Park, where its turbulent history and invasions are explored in detail.
The train moves north and inland, but stays close to the water as it twists and turns along the contours of the River Slaney. It reaches Enniscorthy – a charming, ancient Norman settlement – through 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 (Curracloe Beach near Wexford Town, which also played a role in Saving Private Ryan. – as the bloodstained Normandy landing site for the troops on D-day). Outside Enniscorthy, at Vinegar Hill, local rebel forces resisted British infantry during the infamous 1798 rebellion. The protest lasted a month, and that brief glimpse of victory is chronicled at the National 1798 Rebellion Center on Parnell Road.
Past Arklow in County Wicklow, as the track heads farther north, the scenery becomes positively alpine. We cross rushing streams and the track hugs tall conifers as the train climbs higher and higher. It snakes over pine inclines and old dry stone bridges before entering the Valley of Avoca – a picturesque valley where Avonmore and Avonbeg meet to form the River Avoca – and finally stops at Rathdrum. A short walk from the village is the Avondale Estate and Forest, birthplace of politician and Home Rule pioneer Charles Stewart Parnell. The house is currently under extensive renovation but a large extension of the garden reopened to the public last month.
Farther north, the train leaves Wicklow Town and turns east, winding parallel to the rocky coastline. To the left, the marshlands are alive with kingfishers and egrets to the fertile, rolling hills that shape the horizon. At the Greystones approach, lonely people walk the beach and in town, lovely restaurants like Happy Pier, a plant-based cafe and bakery line the streets.
From Greystones, reach Bray Head, a high rocky peninsula jutting out into the Irish Sea. The train offers soaring views over crashing white-crested waves and sandy coves. It darts between tunnels, basking in blinding sunlight that heralds another dramatic coastal scene, more spectacular than the last, then stops in Bray. From here, passengers can continue into Dublin city center with a handful of stops, or board the DART commuter service which stops at picturesque seaside towns such as Dalkey or Killiney.
Book on Irish Rail, from €7.49 single
Cork to Cove
This 24-minute train journey departs from the city’s Kent station, but in that short time the tracks offer spectacular seaside settings to the picturesque town of Cove, one of the largest natural harbors in the world. The train navigates the contours of the Bellevue Channel, then turns east, stopping at Little Island before it heads to Ireland’s only wildlife park – Fota Island. The Cove’s red brick station is the terminus – and it was also the terminus for many aboard the ill-fated RMS Titanic on 11 April 1912 as the last departure point for the ship. Stop by the Cove Heritage Center to discover the story. Annie Moore, who departed Cove just before Christmas 1891 to become the first immigrant to be processed at Ellis Island, New York.
Book on Irish Rail, €3 single (Leap Card)
Western Rail Corridor
Departing from Galway to Limerick, this old line follows a less-travelled tourist trail through old towns and off-the-radar villages for 80 minutes. Low stone walls cut through the countryside, creating a patchwork of green from Cool Park nature reserve or the historic gardens of Thur Ballyley to the nearby market town of Gort, where poet WB Yeats lived (and director John Ford filmed its opening scene. 1952 film The Quiet Man). From Ennis, the train loops around Moghoun Hill Fort and Forest before stopping at Sixmilebridge. It’s an easy cycle from the riverside village of Cragouwen – a park that explores Celtic life in the Bronze Age – or the pretty village of Quin, with its magnificent Franciscan abbey ruins. Spend an evening at Locke Bar in Limerick City in a riverside setting in the shadow of St Mary’s Cathedral.
Book on Irish Rail, €7.49 single
Dublin to Belfast
Leaving Connolly Station in Dublin, the train skirts Malahide Marina and crosses the estuary before heading north through the countryside. Expect a long stretch of coastline all the way to Drogheda – a fortified town with narrow streets stretching along the River Boyne. It is only 8km from the UNESCO-listed archaeological site of Brú na Bóinne, a landscape dotted with impressive prehistoric tombs. As the train dips through gardens and banks on the two-hour journey, it crosses the 18-arch Craigmore Viaduct, which spans a quarter of a mile across the valley. Reaching its destination at Lanyon Station, follow the river north on foot for a mile to discover the birth of Titanic Belfast, an oceanic colossus.
Book on Irish Rail or Translink, €13.99 single
Described by Michael Palin as “one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world”, this stunning 40-minute ride winds along the River Foyle from its estuary before reaching a wide stretch of lowland. Approaching the coast, the train follows the sand dunes of Benon Strand, flying in and out of tunnels, like strobe lighting, coming in and out of breathtaking scenery. Mussenden Temple, a folly – and once a small library of ancient heritage – is perched high on a cliff edge. The quiet seaside village of Castlerock leads to Coleraine, where visitors can travel by bus along the windswept Antrim coast.
Book on Translink, £10 single
Longford to Sligo
From Longford, the train and river linked together for an 80-minute journey. Within 40 minutes, the train crosses the 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 wait patiently in the canal. At Carrick-on-Shannon, the boating capital of Connaught, the river periodically disappears from view, then can magically appear beyond the weeds. Before heading to Boyle, stop in this pretty, flower-drenched marina town to see Ireland’s smallest chapel. It’s the hometown of actor Chris O’Dowd and silver-screen legend Maureen O’Sullivan, Mia Farrow’s mother – as well as a magnificent medieval abbey. The final leg of the journey goes to the hilly Yeats Country – Sligo.
Book on Irish Rail, €9.35 single