Old letter raises questions about Kerry’s Lartigue monorail

“I regret to say that some day you need not be surprised if an appalling accident is reported to you.”
      William Shortis letter of 16 August 1905 to Transport Ministry

The 1905 letter quoted above and reproduced below was written by Ballybunion merchant William Shortis. The building he operated from in the late 19th and early 20th century, pictured on his letterhead, still stands in the northwest Kerry town, now run as a pub.

Shortis was writing to Transport Ministry officials in London about safety concerns for the Listowel & Ballybunion Railway (L&BR), a unique 9-mile monorail that operated between the two towns from 1888 to 1924. The line was affectionately known as the Lartigue, after its French inventor, Charles Lartigue.

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Shortis was the Lartigue’s Ballybunion station manager for some period during the line’s first decade or so of operation. The distance between the station and his shop was barely a 5-minute walk. Shortis wrote about the Lartigue in the January-June, 1898 issue of Strand Magazine, a popular London-based publication of general interest articles and fiction. His descriptions of Ballybunion were pure tourism marketing: “…for no finer place to spend a holiday could be selected–what with good hotels, splendid bathing and grand scenery, etc., there is nothing to be desired.”

Most of the article, headlined “A Single-Line Railway,” detailed the Lartigue’s odd-looking rolling stock, which draped saddle-style over 3-meter-high, A-shaped trestles, and other aspects of the monorail’s operation. The train traveled about 10 to 15 mph, and Shortis wrote that each piece of rolling stock was fitted with Westinghouse air brakes.

Which brings us back to his 1905 letter, which alleges “the trains were run without any brakes being on them.” Shortis was not the only one to make such a claim to the Transport Ministry. Jeremiah McAuliffe, a self-described former “general mechanic” of the L&BR for 18 years (approximately to the 1888 opening of the line) wrote to the ministry on 17 August 1905, the day after Shortis. “Thousands of lives on the mercy of the Lord traveling on a railway without a brake,” McAuliffe wrote. He said the train only had hand brakes, that the Westinghouse air brakes hadn’t worked “in years.” He also suggested the train had a recent accident.

Shortis store in approximately 1901.

Shortis store in Ballybunion, circa 1901, is still there today.

I viewed both these letters (and several earlier letters from Shortis making similar complaints) during my 24 July 2015 visit to the National Archives in Kew, outside London. The file, referenced here, contains material from 1887 to 1907, including the railway’s initial inspection report of 2 March 1888, and a follow up correspondence of 31 December 1888, which do raise minor concerns about the operation of the passenger carriage brakes.

I did not review this material as closely as I would have liked due to the limited time of my visit. Based on 30 years of reviewing government papers as a journalist, I feel safe in saying the file is an incomplete record. It raises more questions than it answers.

But the brake and accident claims are curious. A Transport Ministry note of 28 August 1905, which references the Shortis and McAuliffe letters, says the following:

“The company state that there was no collision on this line on the date named. I suppose no further action need be taken.”

In researching and writing about Kerry’s unique monorail for several years now, I have come across a few references to accidents on the line. These appear to have been caused by vandalism, such as concealing branches or other debris within the A-shaped trestles, as reported with an October 1907 accident near Listowel, two years after the Shortis/McAulffe letters. The line had its share of mechanical breakdowns, to be sure, but appears to have operated in relative safety, no doubt helped by the plodding pace.

I keep thinking about Shortis. The fact that he wrote all these letters on his own business stationary indicates to me that he no longer was associated with the Lartigue. He never mentions holding a position with the line. Or was he writing secretly, as a whistle blower? McAuliffe wrote that he quit the line in May 1905, three months earlier. When did Shortis leave, and why? Was he bitter about the circumstances?

Shortis was 36 years old in 1905, based on the 1901 census record. (There are three men named Jeremiah McAuliffe from Kerry in the same census. Their occupations are given as farmer’s son, tailor and “no occupation.”) Shortis was a founding member of the nearby Ballybunion Golf Club in 1893, according to this centenary history. The grocery store proprietor and fish merchant was the father of five children. As a Roman Catholic, he likely contributed to construction of nearby St. John’s Church, which opened in 1897.

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William Shortis business card in the Lartigue file at the National Archives in Kew.

But matters took a turn for the worse for Shortis in 1905. His wife, Annie, died on June 7, according to dates on the family gravestone at the Killahenny burial ground near the golf course. An online genealogy posting suggests that Annie died during childbirth. She was the same age as her husband.

On the weekend before Shortis wrote his letter, Ballybunion would have held its annual Pattern Day celebration, a mix of secular activities blended with the Catholic feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (Though long celebrated on 15 August, the Assumption did not become official church dogma until 1950.) The Lartigue would have carried hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people to Ballybunion for the festivities. Shortis, a widower of just two months, must have dearly missed his wife at this holiday, which they surely had enjoyed together in earlier years.

His sorrow did not last much longer. William Shortis died 12 November 1905, according to the grave marker. The cause of death is unknown, though the genealogy posting suggests he died of a broken heart. (Eleven years later his oldest son, Patrick, would be killed in the fighting of Easter 1916.)

The Lartigue continued operating until 1924 without any significant accidents, at least that I’ve found in my research. The line, which never made much money, was repeatedly sabotaged during the Irish Civil War. It also was incompatible with the conventional railway system of the newly established Irish Free State. Automobiles were becoming a more common mode of travel across Ireland.

Is William Shortis one of the men standing next to Lartigue carriages at Ballybunion?

Is William Shortis among these men standing next to Lartigue carriages at Ballybunion?

Obviously, there is much more to this story than is presented here. There may be available details that I am unaware of, while other aspects of the story are lost to history and will remain unknowable to any of us. Perhaps some readers can help fill in a few of the blanks. I welcome additional information about William Shortis and the Lartigue.