Are Ye Right There, Michael?

Kilkee, County Clare

Photo of 19th-century Kilkee from National Library of Ireland

You may talk of Columbus’s sailing
Across the Atlantical Sea
But he never tried to go railing
From Ennis as far as Kilkee

– Are Ye Right There Michael (Percy French, 1902)

The railway boom in the 19th century brought many societal changes. Towns that had kept their own idiosyncratic time, marked by the passage of the sun and the church clock, now needed to standardize their hours in line with train schedules. The paperback novel took off as a source of mass entertainment, sold at stations by the likes of WH Smith. Distances that had once daunted all but the most intrepid travellers were now open for middle-class day trippers.

Even the remote area of West Clare was affected. Kilkee became a seaside resort in the 1820s, when a paddle steamer service from Limerick to Kilrush was launched; the author Charlotte Brontë spent her honeymoon there. But when a narrow gage railway was built between Ennis and Kilkee in the 1890s, the tourist trade expanded and the town became known as “the Brighton of the West”. In summer, holidaymakers brought buckets and spades, taking to the waters in their billowing Victorian swimwear.

In 1898, a concert was advertised in Moore’s Hall. At 8pm on the 10th of August, the townsfolk would be treated to a performance by Percy French, one of the most popular entertainers of the day. Famous for his magic lantern shows and his comic songs like Phil the Fluter’s Ball, he would have been a big attraction. French was due to arrive by train at 3:30pm, which would give him plenty of time to prepare.

Unfortunately, his train got as far as Miltown Malbay, some 30km (19 miles) away, and stayed there. Weeds were in the boiler and the driver was afraid it would explode. The replacement train didn’t arrive until 5 hours later, by which time the driver was probably afraid Mr French would explode. By the time French made it to the hall, most of the audience had given up and gone home.

French was later awarded £10 expenses from the West Clare Railway, and the song he wrote about the experience became one of his most popular.

Are ye right there, Michael, are ye right?
Do you think that we’ll be there before the night?
Ye’ve been so long in startin’
That ye couldn’t say for certain’
Still ye might now, Michael,
So ye might!

– Are Ye Right There Michael (Percy French, 1902)

The company tried to sue French for libel. He turned up late to court, with the excuse that “Your honour, I travelled by the West Clare Railway”. The case was thrown out.

The West Clare Railway was eventually closed in 1961. A short portion of the railway was reopened for tourists in the 21st century, and you can now take a 15-minute trip from Moyasta Junction on the “Slieve Callan” steam engine.