Donegal Museum Steams Ahead with Interactive Railway Experience

“There’s a stronger emotional tie to what we do than to a standard museum because people really miss the railway”


There is something about the Donegal Railway Heritage Museum in Donegal Town that the people of the county hold close to their hearts. 

The museum, based in what was Donegal Town’s train station, showcases the unique railway heritage that once connected the towns in the county but ceased operations in 1959. 

“What’s unusual about what we do is that there is a lot of emotion attached to the railways and also, in some ways, a lot of hurt, because we had a fantastic railway network and when it was shut down, it had a devastating effect on the county,” says Niall McCaughan, the museum’s manager. “There’s a stronger emotional tie to what we do than to a standard museum because people really miss the railway.” 

Such is the attachment of Donegal people to their rail heritage that a group of people from the town set up a Donegal Railway Restoration Group in the late 1980s with the aim of opening a bit of railway line and having running stock on it. At the time the obstacles to their ambitions proved too great, but in 1995 they acquired the old station house in the town, and they parked their ambitions to get a railway line up and running and launched the museum instead. 

Since then, it has gone from strength to strength, though it has experienced lean times too. When Niall became manager of the museum six years ago, it had nearly been forced to close down. 

“Things were quite challenging, and we needed something to rally the staff, rally the board and something for the local population to get behind,” he says. 

A steam engine called Drumboe was located in a restoration yard in Whitehead in Co Antrim, and they set about fundraising to bring it back to its former glory and relocate it at the museum.  

“That was the very last steam engine to operate in the county. On the very last journey on the 31st of December 1959, it left from Donegal town and went to Stranorlar and then on to Strabane, so historically that steam engine is very famous,” Niall says. To mark the occasion, the museum organised for the engine to stop at the locations of every former railway station in Donegal on its journey home on a lowloader in 2021. The event captured the imagination of the people of Donegal and received national media attention. “The amount of people that came out on the roads to see it was incredible,” he says. “People got very teary-eyed about it.”

Photo Caption: Niall McCaughan, Manager of Donegal Railway Museum 

The museum’s most recent initiative came about with the support of National Lottery Good Causes funding in 2022 when it commissioned the design and build of an interactive railway steam cab to be hosted within an original carriage onsite. “We wanted to give people the experience of riding in a steam engine without physically having to leave the building. We have been blown away by the success of it. It has an interactive panel with a touchpad and on it are five or six activities. It is engaging and educational, but it is also fun.” 

As well as these major installations, the museum has a host of smaller exhibits, and a recent call out for items to display resulted in a metal plate originally from the railway station in Burtonport returning to Donegal from New Zealand. “I received an email from a woman in Auckland whose husband’s aunt used to work in the station. When it was closing, she was given this large metal plate from the Londonderry & Lough Swilly Railway noticeboard. It’s amazing to think that this went from Burtonport to New Zealand and then came back again to Donegal.” 

As well as showcasing and educating people about Donegal’s railway heritage. the Donegal Railway Heritage Museum places itself at the heart of its community by acting as a hub for various groups to meet and host events. 

It is now focused on realising its founders’ original plan. “The museum actually started as an organisation to bring back rail, and we’re looking at having rolling stock up and running somewhere near the town as part of our medium to long-term plan,” Niall says.  

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