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Restoration of Bessbrook Tram gets a lift

December 15, 2014

A little piece of local history is set to be returned to its former glory as construction students from Newry’s Southern Regional College embark on the diligent restoration of a dilapidated carriage from the Newry to Bessbrook tram line.

Thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund, Southern Regional College and the Ring of Gullion Landscape Partnership Group, new life is to be breathed into the historic piece of rolling stock in a 18 month restoration project which will see the finished product put on public display near Newry railway station.

The carriage has resided on a south Armagh hillside in recent years where it was being used as a sheep pen by local farmer Conrad Sands, whose grandparents Peter and  Moninna Sands purchased it after the tram line closed in 1948.

Last week locals witnessed a dramatic sight as the first milestone in this challenging project was reached when a team of workers used a digger to lift the tram from the field in Sturgan Brae for its journey to the Southern Regional College in Greenbank for the restoration work to begin.

The restoration of the historic tram, which is still fondly remembered by many local people,  is the first of many projects which will be undertaken through the £1.4million Ring of Gullion Landscape Partnership funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), NIEA and Newry and Mourne Council.

The tram hails from Bessbrook’s own hydro-electrically powered tramway which was only the second such tramway in all of Ireland. It opened in 1885 and was used to transport workers, as well as raw materials and finished goods, between the mill and Newry.

Cleverly designed to run on both road and rail, the tramway remained in operation until 1948 before spending the last 60 years in a field at Sturgan Brae, hiding behind a bus shelter.

Chairman of the Ring of Gullion Landscape Partnership, Des Murphy has been a key player in bringing the ambitious project to fruition. Speaking to The Examiner after the launch of the restoration on Friday, Des told us he had the project in mind for many years and finally proposed it after this year’s £980,000 funding boost from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Mr Murphy paid tribute to CEO of Southern Regional College, Brian Doran, who he said “wholeheartedly embraced the idea” of enlisting SRC students to carry out the restoration and has given the construction and engineering students a “fantastic community based project which will also enhance and further their training.”

“The project has become a real cross community one which has been embraced by everyone in Camlough and Bessbrook,” said Des.

“UUP MLA John McAllister has shown his support this morning with a retweet of the restoration story. We had Sam Hanna and Richard Black from the Bessbrook Heritage Society with us on site during the recovery operation and the involvement of Southern Regional College as a community based college makes it very much a whole community project.

“The finished tram carriage will take pride of place just under the flyover at the Egyptian Arch in Newry.  The tram is 129 years old so its massively historical, it’s massively precious to the people Camlough and Bessbrook and Newry and it will be preserved forever more thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund and everyone involved in getting this project off the ground.”

People can follow the restoration project online at www.ringofgullion.org

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