At a glance:
Builder: Great Southern & Western Railway (Inchicore Works)
Build date: 1875
Original company: Castleisland & Gortatlea Light Railway
Withdrawal date: 1961
Final company: Córas Iompair Éireann
Arrived at DCDR: 2007
Current status: Under restoration
Current owner: DCDR

Perhaps Ireland’s most beloved steam loco, 90’s story began in Dublin when it was designed by the Great Southern and Western Railway’s locomotive engineer, Alexander McDonnell, for the Castleisland & Gortatlea Railway in Co. Kerry. At a cost of £1585 (including eight spare boiler tubes!), it was constructed at the GSWR’s Inchicore Works in 1875 and entered service in Kerry that year. As it was the only engine owned by that railway, it was simply designated as ‘C’ for ‘Castleisland’.

Loco ‘C’ was constructed as a very early type of ‘railmotor’, with a small carriage permanently attached to the rear. It had a passenger compartment that could seat six third class passengers on wooden benches, as well as a guard’s compartment which was accessible by a veranda on the back. It weighed only 23t 7cwt as the 4.5-mile line’s cheaply-laid 40lb rail meant that engines travelling on it could only have a maximum axle load of 6.5t and were limited to 25mph. Originally, water was kept in a well tank between the frames, while coal was in small bunkers on either side of the boiler; it could probably haul one conventional passenger carriage or a few lightweight wagons. The Castleisland & Gortatlea company was absorbed by the GSWR in 1879, at which point ‘C’ was renumbered to ’90’; two more railmotors built to slightly different designs, Nos. 91 and 92, were constructed by the GSWR in 1881. The line was soon relaid for use by heavier locomotives, and the native engines were displaced. 90 subsequently worked on the Fermoy to Mitchelstown branch, still in railmotor form, but its poor fuel capacity and limited driver visibility severely impeded its usefulness. The GSWR therefore removed the carriage portion and added side tanks in 1915, and from then on it was used as a conventional locomotive similar in appearance to Nos. 99 and 100, built in 1890 and 1891 respectively.

90 made its way from Kerry to Cork, finding employment on the former Cork, Bandon & South Coast Railway after it and the GSWR were merged into the Great Southern Railway in 1924. 90 was assigned initially to what had been the Timoleague & Courtmacsherry Light Railway, and spent most of the next 36 years on the ‘new’ branch line there.

However, 90 often strayed from its home turf, such as when it regularly made its way across Cork City Railways to transfer newly-constructed Ford cars to Victoria Quay for export, or every Autumn when it could be found on sugar beet trains all across the former CBSCR. Its only surviving sister, No. 100, was scrapped after being replaced by CIÉ’s new ‘C’ class diesels in the mid 1950s, and 90 itself was withdrawn at Cork shed in October 1959.

This withdrawal was brief however, and 90 returned in October 1960 as the Glanmire Road shed pilot. In that role, our diminutive branch engine brushed buffers with the giants that operated in and out of one of Ireland’s busiest stations, such as the GSR 800s and the newly-built B121 diesels. This return to service was equally short though, and final withdrawal for 90 came in 1961 after 86 years of work. Thankfully CIÉ (who had taken ownership of 90 in 1945) recognised it was of historic interest and it was marked for preservation. Initially, it was moved to Fermoy on the Waterford – Mallow line for static display in the station’s defunct bay platform, but with the closure of that route in 1967, 90 was moved to Mallow. It resided there for 16 years on its own special plinth where the Waterford platform had once been. The elements hadn’t been kind during 90’s time on display – by the early 1980s, the engine was suffering badly from corrosion and was seen by many to be almost beyond restoration. In spite of this pessimism, in 1983 it was moved into the goods shed at Mallow for overhaul by the newly-formed Great Southern Railway Preservation Society. Ultimately the GSRPS was not able to carry out the necessary work to return her to steam, and she remained at Mallow for another two years until Westrail came on the scene.

Westrail (the West of Ireland Steam Railway Association) set up base in the goods yard at Tuam station in Co. Galway in 1985, and was in need of a steam locomotive for their excursion trains. No. 90 was selected by the group and moved to Tuam that year, where it would undergo an extensive restoration to operational condition; there, it shared its shed with another locomotive currently at Downpatrick, ‘G’ class G613. The work included modifications which allowed it to keep up with a modern diesel-powered timetable, such as a mechanical lubricator, GM headlights, and a hopper ashpan. The boiler was overhauled at Kinsale, which tided 90 over until 1992 when a new-build boiler arrived from the Severn Valley Railway in England. Its first steaming in preservation took place in August 1990 and in September it was cleared for mainline trains on the Irish Rail network. Under Westrail auspices, 90 ran trains from Tuam to Claremorris, Athenry and Galway, and in conjunction with the Cobh Heritage Centre even ran some specials as far as Cobh from her former stomping ground in Cork.

For a number of reasons, particularly due to a lack of Iarnród Éireann steam drivers in Connacht, Westrail’s mainline operations came to an end in 1993 along with 90’s adventures on the mainline. It and its diesel partner E428 were moved to Inchicore Works in 1996 for participation in the ‘Inchicore 150’ open day. The steam engine later returned to Tuam but the deterioration of the loco shed there meant that its safety was at serious risk of vandalism. As a result of these concerns, 90 was moved to Inchicore in December 2004 and was acquired by DCDR the following year – just in time, as the Tuam shed was destroyed in an arson attack a few months later.

After an extensive overhaul at Whitehead, 90 arrived at Downpatrick in 2007 and worked our line – her current numberplates, ironically made out of scrapped diesel locomotive components, were kindly presented to us by Iarnród Éireann in 2009. After being extremely popular with both the public and our loco crews, a series of significant, but rectifiable, issues brought about her early withdrawal in 2010. It is currently on display in the Carriage Gallery as one of our prized exhibits – though hopefully not for much longer, as 90 is next in the queue for overhaul. It is hoped that 90 will return to passenger traffic in the mid-2020s once O&K No. 1 comes out of traffic.

At almost 150 years old, 90 is Ireland’s oldest steam locomotive capable of operation and still retains key original components such as its frames, wheel centres, and cylinders – the only older engine, GSWR 36 in Cork, is beyond steaming again. It has had a long history, spanning three centuries, extended stays in all four provinces of Ireland, and countless changes of ownership, but we know that it has now found a safe and permanent home in Downpatrick. We are indebted to the efforts of those who have went before us, most significantly the GSRPS and Westrail, without whom 90 might not be around today. 90’s days on the Galway and Cobh lines may well be over, but in an age where even top-link express locomotives can struggle to find paths for steam railtours, today’s mainline is no place for our little Victorian marvel. Although 90 may have started its career in the Kingdom of Kerry, we think it’s more than content to reside today near the Kingdom of Mourne.

In June 2023, 90 was extracted from the Carriage Gallery and moved to our engine shed for restoration. For more details, watch this space…!