Had world events turned out differently a century ago, then north Mayo would have been transformed economically. And Blacksod Bay would have become the crossroads of the world, the bridge between old and new.
It was a time when the sun never set on the British Empire, and so was born the concept of the All Red Route, a global pathway for passengers, mail and trade to link London to the furthest flung parts of the empire, an Imperial chain connecting the colonies to the motherland. It was so called because the route from London to Australia, the furthest outpost, would be entirely over British territory, traditionally coloured red on world maps.
After years of deliberation, the route was finally agreed. Journeys would start in London, cross the Irish Sea, by rail from Dublin to the west coast, across the Atlantic to Halifax, Nova Scotia, thence across Canada to Vancouver on the Pacific, to Honolulu and then south to Britain’s territories of Australia and New Zealand.
In 1907 came the crucial decision by the British Admiralty as to where the Irish point of departure should be, and Blacksod was named the chosen port. It had, said the Admiralty, unrivalled natural advantages; it would be by far the most expeditious, safest and cheapest route to north America, cutting 400 miles off the Liverpool route.
Blacksod, it went on, was capable of receiving the biggest ships either built or projected, and its openness to the Atlantic meant that ships could attain full speed immediately outside the breakwater.
When the Colonial Conference in London finally gave the green light, having secured the vital assent of the Canadian Pacific railway authorities, the first priority would be a rail service to Blacksod. Having considered three options, a Royal Commission recommended the route from Killala along the coast to Belmullet, with an eastern extension to Collooney, to cater for the expected volume of traffic from Scotland and the north of England.
The British Government allocated a grant of £500,000, and the awkwardly named Collooney, Ballina, Belmullet Railway and Piers Company was set up by the banker and financier, Sir Thomas Troubridge, with an authorised share capital of £2.5 million. The county councils of Mayo and Sligo gave guarantees to make good any shortfall in a return of 4 percent to shareholders. Ahead of the boom, hotels were built in Ballycastle and Belderrig.
Grandiose as the All Red Route may have been, it was no pipe dream. In 1915, the drawings for a magnificent Blacksod Bay Railway Terminus Station were put on display at the Royal Academy Exhibition by the London architects, Hoare and Wheeler. The stunning edifice, comparable to the best railway buildings in the world, was described by the architects:
“We show an interior of the station hall or concourse, with an exterior perspective, which has been designed to be built on a reef of rock projecting into Blacksod Bay, and to be the terminus for trans-Atlantic traffic. The largest liners are able to berth at the end of the reef, which is the reason for the railway station being so placed. The construction of the building is intended to be carried out in reinforced concrete. The main feature is the concourse, which forms a waiting place between the platform and the harbour.”
The design and drawings, which still exist, were put on public display at Ionad Deirbhle in Belmullet some years ago, a poignant reminder of what might have been for north Mayo had not the Great War, and its aftermath, overthrown the plans of King and Empire.