Monday, January 6, 2014

Epiphany

She looked up from her chair by the window, as though she’d just awoken from a pleasant dreamless nap when I walked into her room overlooking the lake. She was fully dressed, her hair washed, looking radiant. At 91, she still cut a dash. ‘Happy New Year’ she beamed, drawing me into a warm, heart-felt hug, surprising me by her strength and her awareness of the date.
‘I brought you a little present Mum’, I said. Her eyes twinkled, a little girl smile. I opened my bag, carefully setting out two, too-dainty Waterford crystal glasses that I’d picked up from her house a little earlier. They sparkled in the pale winter sunlight that reflected off the frantic little waves dancing endlessly across the lake outside.
She edged a little closer, my co-conspirator, as I reached into the bag again, rummaging for the little bottle of Baileys I’d bought in McInerneys on the way to the nursing home. ‘Ooh, that looks nice’ she cooed, eyeing the festive bottle, anticipating the molten delight inside, ‘I don’t know when I last tasted Baileys, must be years. Dad used love a glass when he was in the nursing home, do you remember, how he’d lick his lips afterwards, he really looked forward to his night-cap and a chat before bedtime, he’d love to be here with us now, listening to all the news.’
I poured a measure into each glass, the scent of coffee and chocolate and whiskey immediately filled the room, banishing the other smells that mark a long-term stay home, conjuring up a party atmosphere, excitement in the whiff. ‘Slainte’ I said, ‘Happy New Year’ she replied, ‘To absent friends’, I toasted, as we both raised the glass to our lips, sipping the café-crème delight, a burst of delicious flavours and memories suddenly all conjured up together in the delicate glasses. She took a tiny sip, delighting in the taste, savouring the Baileys in her sore mouth, loving the salve and the change, smacking her lips and her eyes together, all smiling. She sat back against her pillow, replacing the glass carefully on her day-table. She’d hardly drank a drop, I noticed.
‘I haven’t seen you since your trip to New York. Tell me all about it, what did you do, who did you meet?’ Though it was almost two months ago, and I’d told her a half-dozen times already, I proceeded to tell her again of the weekend I’d spent visiting friends in Manhattan, the business function I went to, the chilly weather, the Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings.
‘Sweet Potato, they must be nice,’ she said, drying her lips with a tissue, ‘I cannot imagine what a sweet potato tastes like, must be odd putting butter and salt on something sweet, you wouldn’t do that to a strawberry, or a bowl of trifle.’ She took another tiny sip, delighting again at the treat. ‘Did you have a nice Christmas?’ she asked, ‘were the girls home? Is everyone ok, at home, in your house?’ Her face changed, as a tiredness came over her. ‘Yes, we were all home for the holidays Mum. We had a lovely Christmas. The girls really enjoyed meeting you on Christmas day at Mary’s house, after the Christmas swim at Blackrock, they thought you looked great.’ She pressed her head back against the pillow, concentrating, as though waiting for a small pain to pass.
‘I don’t remember Christmas. I don’t remember meeting your lovely girls. Isn’t that terrible? How are her children? Is everyone ok?’ She looked so vulnerable, so innocent and fragile, needlessly worried. ‘Yes Mum, everyone is fine, thank God.’ She relaxed, tried another sip, again, hardly a drop, but nonetheless delicious.
‘Swimming on Christmas day! Did you do that? The water must have been terribly cold, brr! ! love my room here, its so warm and cosy, you don’t even hear the wind here and look’, she pointed out the window at the aurora of pastels the sunset was creating, ‘look at the gorgeous colours, purple, pink, silver, the blues, the reds, all changing and matching, like a fashion parade. I love this time of day, I love this view, the colours are so striking, every evening is different, it is so nice here.’
She gazed out the window, lost in her reverie, in her thoughts. I looked at her face, so soft and beautiful. She was silent, lost in the moment, content, as she drifted away to another place, hypnotised by the kaleidoscope the sunset on the lake was creating. Inside her gaze, I imagined her remembering her life, as a young girl, a beautiful woman, a nurturing mother, a businesswoman, a wife, a mum, a grandmother, a great-grandmother.
We sat together, silently, comfortable, my hand on hers, surrounded by the scent of the Baileys and the fresh flowers my sisters had brought. I wanted that moment to last forever, to remember this peace forever, our shared happiness, imprinted in my mind, soothing my heartache. It struck me it could possibly be my last shared sunset with Mum. For a moment, I was incredibly, profoundly sad. We sat, and looked and listened. A flight of crows passed by the window, silhouetted in the sunset, heading for the nights roost. A few cars passed, their lights replacing the sinking sunset’s glow.
It seemed like an age before she looked up again, strong again, gazing intently at my face, wordlessly reassuring me, startling me.  ‘What day is it?’ she asked, breaking the silence. ‘Today is the 5th of January, mother, and tomorrow is Little Christmas.’ ‘Little Christmas’ she repeated. I raised my glass, motioning her to do the same. ‘Lets have a toast Mum, a special toast for today, for you.’ She raised her tiny, almost-full glass. We clinked. ‘Cheers’ she said. ‘Cheers Mum. Here’s to Nollaig Na mBan’. She looked at me, quizzically, ‘Nollaig na mBan?’ ‘Yes mum, you know, Nollaig na mBan. Women’s Christmas, remember, the day the women of the house get to put their feet up and their men get to wait on them, hand and foot, for the entire day, doing all the house work, making the dinner, a day off for the women, just for them, a big thank you for all their hard work over Christmas.’
She looked back down at her glass and raised it up, excited now. ‘Imagine that? Women’s Christmas, a day off, just for us? Whoever would have thought of that? What a smart idea. I’ll certainly drink to that! Slainte! To tomorrow! To Nollaig Na mBan!’
I went to leave. ‘You’ll come again tomorrow, won’t you? We have so much to talk about and I want to hear all about that swim and tell your girls to be careful out there, in Dublin, in London. Tell them to enjoy the present moment, who knows what tomorrow may bring.’ ‘I will Mum, I will, love you Mum, till tomorrow then, love you.’

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Winter Solstice, Yule and An Mairgead Mór

Over most of Western Europe, particularly in those areas connected with the ancient Celts, December 21, the shortest day of the year fell during the Druidic festival of 'Yule'. Today it is better known as the festival of the ‘Winter Solstice’.
‘Thoul’, an ancient word for wheel, has been handed down to us as Yule. The sun was likened by the Celts to a wheel, traversing the heavens, giving long and short days. The shortest day, and thus a good reason to be of good cheer in anticipation of longer days ahead, was known as Yule. This celebration of light survives in many of our Christmas traditions with the hanging of mistletoe (a white berry), Holly (a red berry) and the lighting of the Yule-log, whose faint light kick-started the longer days Spring. It was an exciting festival for the ancient Celts, coming as it did at the darkest time of year.
In Ireland Yule was eventually replaced by the Catholic traditions surround the religious feast-day of the Immaculate Conception, on the 8th of December and the longer festival of Christmas. However, outside the city, the old pagan traditions continued to be marked by the holding of the Mairgead Mór or the "Big Fair Day, in country towns all around Ireland.
"Brian Nolan, a Loughrea, County Galway native, remembers it as a day of great celebration, when farmers would converge on town to sell their crops, livestock, and poultry, and women would come with them to spend their "butter and egg money" on holiday gifts and goodies.
According to Nolan, "Mairgead Mór was an amazing sight to me as a child in the early 60s before marts and supermarkets modernized everything. On that day, everyone came to town — the ruddy-faced, wool-capped men with their sturdy womenfolk; the too-thin gaggles of wide-eyed children — on horses, in donkey and cart, on bicycles, and on foot, and everyone carried something for the fair. They arrived before dawn, and left, a mess of straw and leavings behind them, after dark".
"Geese by the hundred, turkeys and chickens by the thousand, all 'live,' tied to the back of upturned donkey carts between loads of turf. Mounds of potato sacks brimmed with Kerrs Pinks and Banners from Clare; huge heads of cabbage and turnips; bunches of parsnip and carrots, and the very rare bushel of brussels sprouts. Wheels of hardy cheddar, and what seemed like acres of flats of eggs in hues of brown and white, with the bigger duck-eggs, bluish in the winter sunlight".
"The fowl would be raucous, hog-tied or closeted in bushel baskets with their heads poking out, or in more modern times, poking their heads out of car-boots, and all cackling and clucking and gobbling away to their hearts' content. The 'townies' and some city market buyers made their canny way, back and forth between the rows of sellers, examining here, feeling there, commenting on the size and weight, and what they were fed on, and whether they were spring or summer birds".
"Amid all that was the excitement of the shops, the bustle of the women going in to settle their account with the harvest, butter, and turkey money enabling them to pav down their tab and get some new clothes for themselves and the children, now wide-eyed in expectation and appreciation of the beautiful goods and sweet chocolates they were able to see and touch now and maybe even take home".
December 21st was one of the most important dates in the Celtic calendar as it marked the celebration of a farmer's success and the approach of the New Year. The Mairgead Mór did not always co-incide with December 21, in fact it was usually held on the Wednesday or Thursday that fell in the week after the next Sunday after December the 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.  So it was held approximately a week or so before Christmas, giving folks enough time to kill, hang and pluck their turkey or goose.
These days In modern Ireland, the Mairgead Mór is no longer held, it's now just another big shopping day before Christmas, but in country folks’ minds, the time for cutting mistletoe is nigh and they’d best be getting the turkey ready for market’ Today, the 18th of December would have been a perfect Mairgead Mór.
------------------------------------
The story above is typical of the tales I tell on my Galway's Horrible History Walks around the city. Please visit my website http://www.galwaywalks.com for more information on these fun and fact filled walks.

This particular story 'Mairgead Mór', which I wrote over a decade ago, appears in edited form in Margaret Johnson’s latest cook book, ‘Christmas Flavors of Ireland’ which is available now through her website or on Amazon.  The book is delightfully written and presented and would make a lovely Christmas gift.
It is published by Ambassador International., Belfast, N. Ireland 
Margaret M. Johnson

Monday, November 25, 2013

Shooting the Messenger

Shooting the Messenger! 
So...50 years ago, today, I was just 7, and was playing by myself in our back-yard on Main Street, Loughrea Town ('cause no one would play with me), hitting a tennis ball with my hurley against the big wooden gate that closed off our yard from the street. My brother Paul had numbered the squares on the gate, assigning scores to each target, the smaller the square, the bigger the score. I was aceing the hard-to-hit-for-a-seven-year-old #3 target that was the wicket gate, when the window above me opened up, in what was Sweeneys Grocery then, but now is AIB Bank. Gerry Sweeney popped his head out, a mass of ginger hair, animated, 'JFK has been shot' he roared, before slamming the window shut. 
I had no idea what this utterance meant, but given the nature of its delivery, felt obliged to drop the hurley and dash into our Kitchen, where mum and dad and who knows how many of my 6 siblings were having their tea (supper, whatever) and waiting for the 6 o'clock news to come on the warmed-up wireless, after the Angelus, that was chiming away sonorously amid the clack and clatter of cups and saucers and spoons. I blurted out Gerry's news, 'JFK has been shot' to be met by incredulous stares and the rebuke, 'Shut up, the news is only coming on, what would you know about JFK, sure wasn't he just in Eyre Square a couple a months ago, shot??? Shure who would shoot a man like that, shame on you for your wicked imagination, go up those stairs to your room, what a thing to say, shhh, here's the news just coming on now...get, get you up those stairs, and don't come down until you have had a long think about what trouble telling lies gets you, boyo, ...pass the milk Clare please, shush, whisth!!, ...what's that they just said?.. JFK, Oh my God......!'
"Don't let it be forgot
That once there was a spot.
For one brief, shining moment
That was known as Camelot."
-- Alan J. Lerner (a classmate of JFK's at Harvard)


Later I wrote a piece from the walking tours I give in Galway. I call the tours Galway's Horrible Histories Walking Tours...but in fairness, only some of them are horrible.

Earlier today I was asked what did JFK ever do for Ireland? What indeed, quite a bit I'd say...here's how I answered the question.

Social Media, Blog & Content Creator - Walking Tours
Earlier today I was asked what did JFK ever do for Ireland?
When I do my Galway's Horrible Histories Walking Tours ( www.galwaywalks.com ), I stop at the Browne Doorway in Eyre Square and tell the story of how JFK won the hearts and minds of Galway and Ireland ..and I quote from his speech (in Cork)..."I bring to you today the greetings of the people of Galway, New York; Dublin, New Hampshire; the people of Killarney, West Virginia; Kilkenny, Minnesota; the people of Limerick, Maine; and the people of Shamrock, Texas." Whoever wrote his speeches, knew his craft right well. I then tell how he and Eamon Devalera signed an agreement which limited future Irish emigration to the US, but the quid pro quo was the promise of FDI from US companies...including Boston's Digital Equipment Company (Digital), who 10 years later employed over 1,000 people in Galway. The rest is history. The foundation for modern Ireland's prosperity was laid right there in Eyre Square by JFK, who was assassinated in Dallas just 5 months later.

and Finally, just to cap it all off, two other progressive paople died the same day as JFK. They were C. S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley. What an astonishing co-incidence, three of the most visionary men on earth...all gone in one day. Air dheis De go raibh a h-anamacha.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Drowning At Sea - I Have A Dream

Baffle 2013

I have a dream, ladies and gentlemen, yes, I have a dream.
No, not the Martin Luther King kind, though it may seem,
that I might indeed have conjured up such a glorious triptych scheme.

No scheme, and it’s not a plan either, no grand design to conquer or win,
in some devilishly clever manner, the hearts of women and men,
nor even saving their souls, or taxing the wages of sin.

No my dream is much less laudable, far less fanciful and rare,
for my dream is simply the worst kind of scary nightmare,
where I am the hapless victim, the sacrificial lamb, in terrible danger

In my dream, I am alone in an angry ocean, of wave, after tumultuous wave.
No, I am not on a boat, or a ship, not even a raft, I am swimming, like mad, to save,
myself from drowning, from dying, from sinking helplessly into a cold, watery grave.

Yes, I imagine you have been there yourself, on occasion, permit me -
You are on holiday, had a few, went swimming, too far from the shore for safety,
you panic, swallow water, but just for a moment, it’s ok, you’re still in depth, you see.

Not me, in my dream the ocean is fathomless, deep, dark and forbidding
There is no reassuring shore, no tanned lifeguard to answer my frantic bidding
And by the way, there are sharks, all around, sharp-toothed and hungry, no kidding!

The ship that I fell off, though in my dream I can’t remember falling,
is sailing away, towards the horizon, totally ignoring my panicked bawling
I reach for my mobile, it’s on roaming, no signal, wet, no point calling

I’ve heard it said that when you’re dying your whole life flashes before you!
Not true, or at least not true for me, all I see is darkness around me, not a clue,
how did I get here, who I am, I’m alone, just me drowning again, hopeless déjà vu

Truth be told, this dream, this nightmare, visits me often, nearly every day.
At each replay, it gets worse, I’m worried, terrified, I’ve aged, I’ve gone grey.
The doctors can’t help me, prescribed everything, they even suggested I pray.

I’ve tried that of course, and I’ve found that it helps, praying sincerely
to St. Anthony for my lost life-vest,  begging St. Christopher to steer me
and St. Jude, for lost causes and hopeless cases, God bless him, he hears me

He must do, ‘cause in the dreams, just as I am about to drown, or be eaten
I am rescued by an off-course helicopter, or a pod of dolphins have beaten
the sharks, a currach skips across the waves, I’m snatched to safety, death-cheatin’.

Saved from the sea, exhausted, I drift back to sleep, though my relief is short-lived,
as each mornings news brings word of yet another family, devastated, bereaved.
The sea claims her own, but if cheated, another is soon taken, ‘tis believed.

I’ve cheated the sea quite a few times, in life and in dreams, though I still love to swim.
Floating on my back in Salthill last Wednesday, I basked in my vast, outdoor gym,
rejoicing on being alive, keeping healthy, feeling young, slim, trim with a touch of vim

Life was good, I dressed, shivering, turned on the car radio, and then heard about Niall.
A young man in his prime, so much talent, so much to live for, what caused his travail?
How dark were his demons, how deep was his ocean, what made his world spoil?

He is not coming back. His hurl and white helmet are stored. His deeds on the field,
will oft be re-told, but his phone was no use, his calls went unheard, his shield,
proved no match for the vengeful sea dragon. Drowned in an ocean, his fate was sealed.

Suicide’s not the answer to that demon called depression. That monstrous scourge,
stalks the land, randomly preying on the young and the vulnerable. Lets stop this surge!
Help is at hand. Pieta, Samaritans, St. Jude and you. Let Niall’s be the last funeral dirge.

I drove on away home, tears in my eyes. I promised I’d do what not enough of us choose,
to open my door, to reach out my hand, to reassure the lost, and not fear to lose,
to try to help others, from drowning at sea, no matter the cost, I’m spreading the news.

----------------------------------------------
Drowning At Sea - I Have A Dream
This was my poem that I entered and read in the Baffle Poetry Festival that is held in Loughrea each Halloween weekend. This year's theme was 'Spreading the news'. 
Mine was not a winner, but I felt I had to write it because so many people, young men especially are committing suicide in Ireland every week. It is truly the saddest news that is spreading. We can all try to help those with suicidal thoughts or who are suffering from depression. Simply reaching out to them and speaking with them is a start. Being open to approach and being non-judgemental is also great. Lets do all we can to prevent more young people from ending their lives this way.
I would like to dedicate this poem to Niall Donohue, who was yet another victim to the monster we call depression. He died this week, a terrible shock to his family, friends and community. They are reeling from his loss. He was only, a lovely lad, a talented hurler and has left behind a saddened and stunned family and community. Air dheis De go raibh a h-anam.
Samaritans http://www.samaritans.org/your-community/samaritans-work-ireland Phone 1850609090
Pieta House www.pieta.ie/‎ or www.pietahousewest.com/
For more on Niall's short life and his tragic death...see
http://www.independent.ie/irish-news/galway-hurling-star-niall-donohue-22-dies-suddenly-29695323.html
St. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes, hopeless cases and depression. His saints day is October 28, co-incidentally, tomorrow. Brian Nolan

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Our Achill's heel

Driving around Achill in the soft rain, her delight at seeing the old country was obvious. Every turn in the road we swapped stories of parallel lives in two different countries in the sixties, her in Cleveland, Ohio, me in Galway, Ireland. We had a lot in common. She had been a kindergarten teacher all her life in a leafy Cleveland suburb, my father had taught in a primary school in Duniry near the Slieve Aughty mountains, for 42 years. She said, 'My father was a fire-chief in Cleveland and he worked every hour he could to provide for his family, though money was never flush. A proud man,he instilled in us the motto, 'If you can't make it, you can't have it'. He built them two boats for sailing on Lake Erie and a cottage on the shore there for summer vacations. He could fix and make most anything. We never owned a new car, nor even a new sofa. Everything was pre-owned. He would come home from work of an evening, dressed in his captains uniform, wool suit, cap, gold braid. He'd boom, 'Anyone need a new bike? I passed a broken bicycle at 23rd and Dean, you want it, go down and get it, I will fix it up for you like new'. We always had great bikes and skateboards and ice-skates and never wanted for anything. He'd often say, 'If you know how to fix a broken shingle, you will never need to call a roofing contractor'. 'I adored the ground my father walked on', she finished, tearing at the memories. 
A mile later, on the coast road at Dooega, we passed this deserted farmhouse and I thought of her father back in Cleveland, and how he could fix a shingle and save a rooof, and I was ashamed at the dependent, throwaway society we have become, unable to keep our own house in order, fix our own roof, plant our own garden. 

 — in Dooega, Mayo.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Fáilte don Éan or Welcome to the Bird by Séamus Dall Mac Cuarta (1650 – 1733)

I heard the first Cuckoo call this morning, 21st April 2013, echoing across the bogs and lakes at Poll na gCloch, near Barna, in west Galway. Around here the arrival of the Cuckoo and his signature call, is the definite sign of Spring, and although a few weeks late, it is surely better late than never.

Hearing his two note carillon this morning, brought to my mind the three-room national or primary school I attended in Duniry, near to the Sliabh Aughty mountains, between Loughrea and Woodford, in South Galway, where my dad was headmaster. He was a tough task-master, as befitted his time, a proponent of corporal punishment, no nonsense teaching and strict rules, but we all learned and did ok and above all he did instill in me a love of poetry, both in English and Irish. The cuckoo call reminded me of the wonderful poem by Seamus Dall MacCuarta who penned this about 400 years ago in his native Irish, Gaeilge or Gaelic language.

This bitter-sweet tribute to the cuckoo was written by Ulster poet, Séamus Dall Mac Cuarta (1650 – 1733). He was blind, a victim of smallpox or one of the many other debilitating diseases that took more children back then than were spared. His voice echoes like the cuckoo's call across the ages, the easy cadence of his lines and the wonderfully poignant words, well only a blind man could see the beauty of the arrival of spring in this way!

Despite losing his sight at an early age Seamus Dall Mac Cuarta lived to achieve an enduring reputation as one of the masters of poetry in Irish. Don't be put off by the Irish version, the language and words are easy to understand and pronounce. Go on, give it a go, try reading it aloud in Irish first, don't be embarrassed  don't worry about your accent, or pronunciation. Say the poem, hear your voice echo the words of a long-forgotten poet, in a magical, mysterious, still living language, the language of the Celts.

Here is his lovely poem, first in Irish, and then followed by a less-rich version in English. Enjoy!

Fáilte don Éan (Welcome to the bird)

Fáilte don éan is binne ar chraoibh
Labhras ar caoin na dtor le gréin;
Domsa is fada tuirse an tsaoil
Nach bhfeiceann í le teacht an fhéir.

Cluinim, cé nach bhfeicim a gné,
Seinnm an éan darb ainm cuach;
Amharc uirthi i mbarra géag
Mo thuirse ghéar nach mise fuair.

Gach neach dá bhfeiceann cruth an éin,
Amharc Éireann deas is tuaidh,
Blátha na dtulca ar gach taoibh,
Dóibh is aoibhinn bheith dá lua.

An tAmhrán
Mo thuirse nach bhfuaireas bua ar m’amharc d’fháil
Go bhfeicim ar uaigneas uaisle an duilliúir ag fás!
Cuid de mo ghruaim – ní ghluaisim chun cruinnithe le cách
Ar amharc na gcuach ar bhruach na coille go sámh.


Welcome to the Bird

Welcome to the bird, the sweetest in the trees
Who sings the beauty of the shrubs to the sun;
For so long a time I’ve been tired of life
For I cannot see her when the grass is new.

I can hear it, though I cannot see her,
The chant of the bird they call cuckoo;
To look on her in the branches above
‘Tis my bitter grief that I don’t have that gift.

Each one may behold the charm of the bird,
For all Ireland is gazing, north and south,
With all of the flowers on the hills around,
And everyone can speak of such things with delight.

Refrain
My sorrow that I did not receive the gift of sight
So that in my loneliness I could watch the beauty of the leaves as they grow!
Part of my sadness – I’m not along with all those people
As they go at their leisure to watch the cuckoos at the forest’s rim.

Other Cuckoo Poems
Of course many other poets have written about the cuckoo, William Wordsworth among them.

'O blithe new-comer! I have heard,
I hear thee and rejoice:
O cuckoo shall I call thee Bird,
Or but a wandering Voice?
The same whom in my school-boy days
I listen'd to; that cry
Which made me look a thousand ways
In bush, and tree, and sky.
O bless'd Bird! the earth we pace
Again appears to be,
An unsubstantial, fairy place,
That is fit home for Thee!

The Cuckoo;

The cuckoo is an amazing bird really, with an extraordinary life-cycle. The Cuckoo over-winters in Africa and migrates here and to other northern European countries to mate, in April. 
The cuckoo is one of almost 50 'brood parasite' birds in the world. The male Cuckoo does all the calling, from dawn to dusk, attracting a female mate and also spotting suitable nests for his young. The female cuckoo lays her eggs, not in her own nest, but in that of specific smaller birds. She waits 'til the hen leaves the nest to feed and quick as a flash, the female cuckoo lays one egg in the vacated nest in less than 30 seconds and flies away, taking with her one of the other bird's eggs, before the smaller bird returns. While birds do count their eggs, they do not differentiate among them. After hatching, the fledgling cuckoo baby proceeds to eat all round it and the other chicks (of the surrogate mother) die of starvation or trampling, or eviction.  The demanding young cuckoo chicks do this in order to have all the foster-parent's care and attention showered on themselves, the shameless usurpers.
The male cuckoo stops calling in late June and presumably he and she return to Africa. The young birds follow suit later in the year, after they have fully grown (they look like a small hawk) usually in September, though how they know where to fly to, is anyone's guess.
The cuckoo's journey to Ireland has been summed up very briefly in the following lines of a children's skipping rhyme:-
'The cuckoo comes in April,
He sings his song in May;
He plays his tune in the middle of June,
And then he flies away.'
,

Monday, January 7, 2013

By Rail and By Tram - A Loughrea Excursion

Bertie Kelly was our local postman in Loughrea for almost 40 years until he retired in the early 70's. He was also crazy about about greyhounds and that was how I got to hear some of his stories, accompanying him and my father all over the country, to coursing meets and draughty racetracks, with dogs of disparate ability, who usually took up the entire back seat of the car, myself, dad and Bertie sitting together in the front, on the bench seat in the old Austin Cambridge. He told tall tales of the Black and Tans, German Spies and Betting Strokes. He loved an audience, especially after a few pints and I loved his stories.

On one such journey he recounted to me how he had gotten his first job in the late 1920's, when as a 14 year old boy, he started working in the Loughrea Post Office as a telegram delivery boy. He told me about cycling a big black bicycle that was too tall for him to ride conventionally, so he had to pedal it sideways by putting one leg under the crossbar. His job was to deliver telegrams to businesses big and small and to the big houses around Loughrea, there not being any telephones at that time in rural Ireland.

The telegram messages would come into the post office by telegraph, all dots and dashes and be transcribed by the telegram operator onto a telegram slip, which was sealed in an envelope so it could not be read by anyone but the recipient. The envelope was then delivered personally by Bertie. Telegrams were expensive to send as you were charged by the word. They often contained bad news, about somebodies death or perhaps a missed boat connection coming from England. Sometimes it was good news like a birth or a business success, or it might be a notification of a delivery date for an order for a shop or a delay in one, or just simply a way to catch someones attention, more than a letter would do. Bertie told me he could be gone all day if a couple of telegrams came in for two houses either side of the town. He delivered as far as Kilrickle, Kilchreest, Bullaun, Gurtymadden, and even as far as Craughwell and Peterswell.

Dunsandle House, just 3 miles north of Loughrea, was Bertie's favourite and busiest telegram destination, as he would get a cup of tea in the kitchen and a tip from Major Bowes Daly himself, or from one of his many well to do house guests. The Major, a descendant of Baron Dunsandle, was in the midst of a scandal. Having divorced his first wife, he then married another divorcee Mrs Hanbury, whose first husband, Guy Trunbury, had had an affair with Wallace Simpson, yes, she of the Royal-stealing Simpsons. So you see there were always telegrams to-ing and fro-ing at Dunsandle and important guests arriving and departing at Dunsandle station. The Major being master of the Galway Blazers Hunt also meant that 'The Season' kept Dunsandle busy for months on end. Bertie the telegram boy was in his element and he knew the road from Loughrea to the Dunsandle gate lodge like the back of his hand.

Ironically, Bertie ended up serving in the Irish Army during 'The Emergency' as we colloquially refer to WW2 in Ireland and he was quartered in none other than the self-same mansion he used to deliver telegrams to, Dunsandle House which had been commandeered by the Irish Government for the duration of the war, as a billet for Bertie's unit. Nice lodgings for a private from Loughrea eh!

After the war ended, many of the Big Houses around the country, long the ancestral homes of the benign ascendancy, were sold off, the big farms rightly divided by the Land Commission into 20 and 30 acre farms for local people. The mansions themselves were not viable without the estate income and consequently had their roofs taken off in order to avoid the punitive rates or house taxes that our enlightened government imposed on the relics of the British Raj. they forgot however in their rush to vengeance that these houses were built by skilled Irish craftsmen, stone-masons, plasterers, carpenters etc  and many were now being lived in by families that were more Irish than ourselves. Coole Park is one such example and Dalystown and Masonbrook locally the same, all gone now, with O'Leary in the grave. Such a pity that these beautiful country mansions were deliberately ruined by a short-sighted government determined to wreak vengeance on a part of our own society. Pity they didn't mothball them for another generation's use. Imagine what it would have done for tourism? Imagine if we had hundreds more Cartron Houses and Ashford Castles. Anyway, enough about De Valera.

Regrettably, Dunsandle house went the way of many other Irish big houses after the war. In 1958, the land was divided up by the Land Commission, the oak forests cut down and the house de-roofed. It had been the most beautifully furnished house in Galway, with 3 storeys, 5 bays and gorgeous plasterwork inside. So ended a really important house with an indelible connection to Loughrea and to Loughrea Railway Line and the family that lived there, the Dalys, were instrumental in having the line built, and they even got their own railway station to prove it.

Before Dunsandle House was demolished,  a grand auction was held there and my father went and bought a few small lots, including a lovely long pine kitchen table on which Angelica Huston and I made our acting debut in 1963, in the much lauded production of Hansel and Gretel. (Admission 1d). I played the chicken, who ate the bread trail, and Angelica played Gretel, of course, with my sisters as the other characters, all of us in beautiful costumes flown in from Hollywood by Angelica's father, John Huston, who at the time lived nearby in another great Irish house, St. Clerans, near Craughwell. Anyway, I digress.

In one of the job-lots that Dad bought at the Dunsandle auction, was a beautiful clockwork train set, It was a large-scale train set, 'O guage', and each item was true to life in every detail. It had what seemed like miles of track, loads of carriages and two steam engines, a green one and a brown one. They were my favourites and despite their rough handling by many children over decades, they worked perfectly.

I remember some of the carriages had the marks of the Great Southern and Western Railway company and were painted in the proper colours. They were incredibly well made, hand-painted pressed tin, and the train set included a station house, a carriage shed, a turn-table and signals and wagons, just like the ones in Loughrea Railway Station. Dad loved that train set and he minded it carefully. We only got to play with the set for 1 week each year, at Christmas and for the rest of the year it lived in a big old tea chest in the attic.

Each Christmas my mother, Josephine Nolan, closed her ladies clothing shop on Main Street, from the 25th of December through the 2nd or 3rd of January, as indeed did most businesses and shops in Ireland at the time. It was the festive season and everyone rested, especially everyone in the retail trade, having had worked so hard in the run-up to Christmas. How different and heartless it is to be in that business now, re-opening on St. Stephens day for 'The Sales'.

While Christmas dinner was being prepared dad would set about getting us all to help him move the racks of coats and skirts in the shop back to the walls and he would lay out the train set on the tiled floor of the shop. It was a huge circuit, with turntables and points and signals. The trains worked by clockwork and had to be wound up carefully with a big key. Those trains were wound and re-wound hundreds of times while we shunted and towed the wagons for hours on end. We played station master and we had the best time emulating what we had seen in real life down at Loughrea Station.

Loughrea Railway Station had been built to terminate the spur line from Attymon Junction, which was on the main Dublin-Galway rail-line, just 9 miles north of Loughrea town. The line was the pet project of Lord Dunkellin and Robert Daly of Dunsandle House, the local MP, who saw it as an opportunity to increase access to and the value of their vast estates in east Galway. Despite their power and money, it took over 40 years to get permission to have it built. In 1879 the Loughrea Railway act was passed in the Parliament, in no small part because Robert Daly, the '4th Baron Dunsandle and Clanconal', was then the assistant private secretary to Benjamin Disraeli, the British Prime Minister. Imagine, being that close to the man who ran the largest empire the world has ever seen! No wonder that Mr. Daly managed to get the Loughrea Railway built.

The Attymon and Loughrea Light Railway Company was incorporated in 1881 and eventually 14,000 £5 shares were issued, a huge amount of money. Work started in May of 1889 on the 9 mile line, which cost about £7,000 per mile to build and took 18 months to complete. It opened for business in December 1890. This line was one of only a few spur or branch lines in the country. It was the last to be built and by coincidence, the last to close, 85 years after opening, in November 1975.

The railway line at Loughrea connected Loughrea and all of south-east Galway to the main Galway Dublin rail line at Attymon. There were 4 trains a day in each direction and there was one intermediate stop, at Dunsandle where other passengers could join the train. Little did we realise back then when playing with the Dunsandle Model Railway that it probably had been delivered to Dunsandle decades before on the very same train we now took when going to Dublin. We were children and had no intrinsic value on the train set. It really was beautiful. I wish I had it now!

The train from Loughrea to Attymon carried all kinds of freight in its day, including trade goods from the suppliers in Dublin and Cork for the shops in Loughrea, lumber, machinery, plate glass, boxes of clothing, whatever was needed. Outward bound the wagons carried. the post of course, all the mail from the surrounding post-offices and anything else that needed shifting, including turf, chickens, eggs, sheep, pigs and especially cattle.

The bustle at the station after a Fair Day in Loughrea was a sight to see and hear. The busy stock-yard was loud with looing pens of cattle waiting to be loaded aboard the waiting cattle wagons, eight cattle per wagon. Having been bought with spit and hearty hand-shake early that morning by jobbers for the big buyers in the east, the cattle were destined for onward transport to Dublin or perhaps Mullingar for more feeding, depending on the time of year. Naturally they were thirsty and hungry after a long journey from their farms across Loughrea's grassy hinterland, so they were bellowing up a storm, and the drovers were anxious to get going too, but all had to wait for the shunted cattle-trucks to arrive and be aligned to the pen gates, before the loading could begin. The wagons were always late and the banter between the train crew and the jobbers was always rich!

The station yard also was used to collect sugar-beet which was brought in from the local farms to Loughrea and piled into huge, steaming, pale-yellow mountains of beet, to be transported to Tuam, or one of the other Suicre plants around Ireland. As children we used to go there in the evenings after school and have sugar beet fights between rival gangs. I once brought a sugar beet home to cut up and boil like a turnip or parsnip as a vegetable for dinner. Sweet it was, but not much to write home about. Not a patch on a parsnip or turnip.


For a few years after the branch line to Loughrea opened,  there was much talk that the railway line would be continued to Gort where it would meet the Great Southern Railway and link the line to Cork and Killarney in the south and Sligo in the north. A great idea, but it never transpired. The golden age of railway building was over just as Loughrea station opened. The boom was over, the bust was hot on its heels. Despite good local support, the line constantly lost money. With the arrival in Ireland of container trucks the end was inevitable. Within a few short years all railway lines lost their freight business and with competition from buses and private cars the passenger traffic also fell off. Railways were a thing of the past, unprofitable and needed massive publicly funded subsidies to keep them running, then and now.



I recently drove by the old Loughrea Railway Station. I was driving through the Loughrea Mart development on the shortcut behind the Walks and the Abbey orchard, to cut onto the Cosmona road to access the new dualway linking Loughrea to the fabulous east-west, Dublin-Galway motorway. As it happens, much of the link from Loughrea towards New Inn, has been built over the old railway track, the 'permanent way', that went from Loughrea to Attymon. It is still a permanent way, though for cars now.

I was really taken aback when I saw the derelict state of the Station. 
The beautiful Victorian cut-stone and red brick station house is now a bricked-up mausoleum. The Waiting room and the Ticket office are boarded up. The station platform is gone, dug up for the cut stone kerbing I suppose.
The loading bay and store-room are walled up. The hanging baskets and bright borders of flowers dug up and the two yew trees that we used play on are long felled. The Turntable on which we used to play, where the old steam engines would be turned (modern engines can drive in either direction, the old engines only drove forward), has been tarred over and forgotten. The grass and even trees are growing wild on the path where the railway track used to be.

The air of abandonment and of municipal disrespect was all pervading.
The busy new development of shops and offices that has sprung up on Station Road is hardly enhanced by the decaying skeleton of the once proud railway station.



I suppose it was just the starkness of the contrast. the new buildings with their modern offerings, justaposed beside the out-dated, defunct railway buildings. An anachronism that jarred, rather like comparing ones laptop to an old reliable typewriter. It was really a shock and it brought me down memory lane, a lane that many people in Loughrea must have visited recently. 

One of my abiding memories as a child dating to the early 1960's, is of hearing the steam engine being stoked up and the steam whistle sounding across The Walks and in through my bedroom window, really early in the mornings. The train back then was pulled by a coal-burning steam engine. Someone had to go down to the train shed in the wee hours to stoke the fire in the engine's firebox back into to life. They had to shovel coal from the bunker into the back of the engine, while the fire caught and burned hotter. Then they had to fill the engine's water tank with water from the water tower and bring it up to boiling point, building up a high-pressure head of steam, before the engine could shunt into the siding to hook up with the carriages.

The Train Driver was a specialist, so he wouldn't have been doing the shoveling and the stoking. That was the fire-mans job and nothing moved until that fire was good and hot. It was really hard work getting a train to run on time back then. You didn't just show up and turn the key to start the engine! It took two men over an hour to get the engine warmed up, and sufficient steam pressure to move the pistons and drive the wheels. That must have been a cold and thankless job on a wet winter's morning.


The iron tracks themselves were taken up in the 1980's, the sleepers sold off to garden centres to adorn suburban gardens. The Engine Shed (above centre) was sold in 1975 for £10 and was taken away. The beautiful arches hopefully grace a bar or a building somewhere in Ireland now but I doubt it. Probably used to fill a hole in a building site.

The iconic Water Tower (above right with the old engine shed in the background and left, what is left today) is still there, but the victorian red-brick and cut stone is somewhat diminished now by its obsolescence and its unfortunate incorporation into a massively unimaginative and ugly shed that some 'developer' had built during the Celtic Tiger madness. It is a pity no one in authority felt that these iconic buildings were worth saving. We have saved and preserved many lesser buildings, with less connection to our past, why not these?

Loughrea Railway Station was managed by a Station Master. He would have had a few clerks under him who carried out the daily duties of selling tickets, loading baggage and goods on to the train, meeting each arriving train, maintaining the engine and the rolling stock etc. Bertie Devine and Hubert Reynolds are two names I remember. Hubert had the most beautiful hand-writing and his invoices and receipts were works of art.

The station master and his family lived in the station house itself. No train sets for his children at Christmas, no siree! They had the real thing outside their window. In the Sixties when I was a child, the family living in the station were the Mullens. they were from Dublin I think and there were two boys and a girl in the family. Tony Mullen was station master and I don't ever remember meeting the mum. Their Alsatian dog was called Bruce...now why do I remember that?

Ronnie Mullen was my age and we hung out with him often, playing games on the tracks and in the old station buildings. The water tower held a particular fascination for us and we climbed up there many times. It was pretty high, we would have been killed had we fallen and the same fate had we been found out. We dared each other to swim in the tank atop the tower, but luckily we never had the courage to see that it through. We did however catch minnows in the river and 'transplanted' them up to our own aquarium, where we were already breeding frogs, by lobbing frog spawn into the tank from below with our catapults.

We also had a great trade in our teens selling dog-tags to our buddies. We would place a few shillings (5 cents now) on the track just before the train would depart and after the train and carriage had rolled over them, we would retrieve the flattened silver discs on which a faint harp and maybe a date could barely be discerned. We would bore a hole in it, thread it with a leather thong and sell the resulting dog tag for a couple of pounds. Nice profit and it was a lovely keepsake too. We walked every inch of that line, tight-rope balancing on a single rail all the way to the Cosmona level-crossing, stopping every once in a while to press our ear to the rail and listen to see if a train was coming.

There was an old man lived on his own in a house on Main Street, who met almost every evening train, but who never seemed to meet anyone off it. His name was Sam Brown and we all heard stories that he was waiting for his sweetheart to return to him from England. Others told tall tales of him hiring prostitutes to visit him from Dublin. Whatever the truth, he was a figure of fun for the boys of the town and they taunted him, or talked about him all the time. I never did find out what the pathetic figure of an old man, wearing a faded mac, was doing down there each evening. Perhaps he was just a' train spotter'? He is long gone now. It was hard to be 'different in a town like Loughrea, without attracting all the wrong attention.

The train was a constant in our lives, though most people in the town never used it. It's whistle or horn was audible all over town and mostly, you could set your watch by it. My mother used the train to go to Dublin on buying trips for her ladies fashion shop. She would leave on the morning train and be back that evening. Sometimes she stayed overnight in Wynns Hotel, in Dublin,. It must have been a welcome break for mum, escaping from 'Smallville' Ireland, to spend a night away. Funny thing, Dad never went with her. Guess someone had to mind the 7 of us and the greyhounds. We used to wait for her to come home so she could give us the miniature jam pot that came with her cup of tea and scone on the train.
Simple pleasures indeed.


Every morning, after the train arrived back in Loughrea, from meeting the Dublin train at Attymon, one of the men harnessed up the station horse to the CIE dray. Yes, they had a horse in the station! It was a big cart, maybe 12 feet long and 6 feet wide, flat- bedded with four pumped wheels. It was painted green and there was a tarp to cover the boxes it carried. He would drive the cart up through the town, stopping at each shop or business and deliver the cartons of goods to them. They also delivered Guinness and other beers in barrels, though not regularly. I remember the smell and the sight of the mound of fresh horse dung outside my mothers shop after the cart had been. We would often hitch a ride on the back of the cart as it went through town, though we were roared at for doing so. I remember the big horse and cart being replaced by a tractor and trailer, before being replaced entirely by road couriers. I wonder sometimes about the driver, I think his name was Ned (Goonan). It was a lovely sight though, man and horse, delivering everything and anything to the shops, in a totally green, renewable, sustainable manner. 'Course we had no clue at all in the wide earthly world what the word 'Green' actually meant back then.

There were a small cadre of school children from Kiltulla and Dunsandle who went to school on the train each day. Talk about Harry Potter! The morning train would take the passengers bound for Dublin to Attymon and then return to Loughrea before 9am, just in time for school. It picked up children at Dunsandle station and likewise brought them home again in the evening. I always thought it rather exotic, though I suppose for the boys and girls involved and their parents it was a routine that soon became mundane. I know the railway carriage was often freezing cold so it cannot have been even as comfortable as the school buses.

The two shops next door to us, on either side of my mothers shop on Main Street, were Sweeney's and McInerney's. Though the two families were related to each other, they were in fierce competition. Both were big grocery stores, even by modern-day standards and employed lots of people. They both milled flour for the farmers and had big stores in the yards for bags of oats and other grains. They both had big yards where horses and carts and donkeys and carts came and went with sacks of grain piled high in the creels. Each yard had a big wooden gate with spud stones on either site to 'knock' the cart wheels away from the pillars of the gate. The yards were a hive of activity and I loved playing there, dodging under the carts and feeding oats or water to the tethered horses. Sometimes a good stallion would be brought into the stables and mares were brought there  to be 'serviced'. Though we always wanted to watch, invariably we were shooed out of the yard when that was going on, for our own safety!

Each shop had a fairly mutually exclusive core customer base. Sweeney's served the 'better classes', the big houses and wealthier farmers and estates around the county all did their shopping there, including the Dalys of Dunsandle and most of the 'gentry' locally.. Mcinerney's on the other hand served the smaller farmers and the middle class townies. I grew up with both families and could relate many tales, but for this story, I have to tell you about McInerney's donkey and cart.

Quite a few farmers' wives from round the Dunsandle area would come to town on the train each Thursday to do their shopping. They were doing the weekly 'shop and barter'. They came in to town on the morning train's return from Attymon, around nine o'clock, with butter and eggs and other produce which they traded to Mcinerneys (and other shops). Then they picked out the groceries they each wanted, or wrote out a list of  their 'messages'. Gerry McInerney would put the shopping together over the next few hours and have it ready for delivery to the Station. Meantime, in time-honoured fashion, the ladies went about their other 'important business' around the town, visiting family, or going to the doctor, dentist, hair-dressers and the like.

While his mother dilligently wrote up the Day Book, in which she itemised each customer's shopping for their account. Everyone worked on credit, or ran a tab back then and paid it off monthly or quarterly, as best they could. It was a busy morning for Mrs. McInerney making sure every item was recorded in the hand-written journals. No bar-codes or calculators then, everything was done by hand. Having bagged everything, Gerry McInerney would harness up the donkey to the little cart in the shop's back yard, load it up with the bags of  'messages' and head off out his front gate onto Main Street, usually only minutes before the afternoon train's departure time.

The donkey like all donkeys, was never in a hurry, but Gerry was always in a rush to make the turn at Kilboys so he could see the station, and the waiting train, or more importantly, to see his ladies on the platform, who were 'holding the train' for him, and their messages. No one ever boarded the Thursday train until the shopping was loaded. The flag-man, Martin Fergus, who also was the train's brake-man, would be furiously waving his flag and blowing his whistle for Gerry and the donkey to hurry up, but y'know, time and tide and the trains waited for the Dunsandle women and McInerney's donkey. So also though did the Dublin-bound Mail Train at Attymon, not for the groceries, but for the bundle of evening post that our postman Bertie Kelly would have in his mail-bag, idly strolling beside the donkey, chatting to Gerry about 'important' matters all the way down the town, while the train at Attymon, the night-shift at the GPO sorting office in Dublin  and the mail boat at Dun Laoighre waited for the Loughrea mail-bag!



Funny thing, my father and my mother both had school and train experiences to tell. My Dad, Dermot Nolan, though he was born in Balinasloe, county Galway in June, 1914, was raised in Kilkee, county Clare. He used to go to school in Kilrush on the Kilkee to Kilrush train. Yes, on the very same West Clare Railway that Percy French made famous in his ballad 'Are you right there Michael are you right'. He only rode the train in the winter months and in Spring and Autumn he and his brother made their way, the 6 miles to Kilrush, on horseback. He went on to attend secondary school in Mallow, county Cork and later in Waterford for his teacher training, all of which involved trains. By the time he was doing his masters degree in Galway University, he owned a car, a Baby Ford, but because of the Emergency, there was no petrol for cars, so he cycled each week to Galway from Killimor, for lectures, staying in 'digs' in Wards Hotel in Salthill.

My mother Josephine Brody, was born in Kilimor, county Galway in 1922. She was sent off to boarding school in Swinford in county Mayo in 1936 and that involved Brigie Head, the Brody's housekeeper driving mum to the railway station in Craughwell, where she would board the train with her 'trunk' before journeying on to Athenry and Tuam and on up through Mayo to Swinford. On the train she would meet other girls who were being similarly sent away to be taught by the Mercy Nuns, each of them in their Sunday best, crying at the thought of not seeing their homes for perhaps 3 months, laughing at the prospect of meeting up with their friends. And you thought that Harry Potter had all the fun? Mums boarding school was cut short by the second world war and 'The Emergency'. Mind you were it not for that self same 'Emergency' my parents may never have met!

I suppose the oddest memory I have of the Loughrea Railway was the unannounced arrival on a couple of Sundays each summer of the 'Mystery Train'. Some smart, but rather sick marketeer in CIE in the 1960's came up with the bright idea of selling tickets to the inner city Dubliners for what they aptly termed 'the Mystery tour'. the tickets were cheap and the opportunity to get out of Dublin on a train, and go to a 'Secret Destination' chosen at random by a computer, and perhaps go to a beach in Tramore, or a ramble in Cork or Killarney, or even Sligo was too irresistible. Whole extended families fell for the ruse and bought tickets on the Mystery Tour. Their 'surprise' when they landed in Loughrea was palpable to say the least! I have to confess to my chagrin, that I come from a town in the west of Ireland where in the 1970's, you could not get a cup of tea after 2pm on a Sunday...no way, no how! So they would make their way up to the lake where we swam at the long point and as part of their frustration the Dublin kids would either rob our clothes and money or pick fights, or both. Pitched battles would ensue and we would chase them back to the station where they pressed their faces up against the glass, made faces and waved our underwear at us as the train pulled out of the station. Some day CIE will apologise to both sets of 'disapointeds'....not!


The last train that left Loughrea for Attymon was sometime in November 1975. I was going to university in Galway at the time and had a day off, or took it off...whichever, anyway, I ended up at the station at 2pm for the last whistle-blast...I took a few photos that day with an old Russian Camera I was trying to master, but you know it was pre-digital, so I will have to look up the negatives...however, there was only a small crowd there that day, no Press, or CIE officials, or politicians or clergy, not really any kind of recognition that this was 'the last train' on the last branch line.As memory serves me there were perhaps only 80 or 90 people mainly from the town, including the one and only, Dr. Martin Dyar, a rather imposing figure, short and bespectacled.

I liked him, he was our family GP and he was a unique figure in Loughrea, He did the English Sunday Times Mephisto Crossword every Sunday, an extraordinary feat, so I was rather in awe of his intellectual prowess. To me he was a very intelligent man, and he held great sway in Loughrea, championing the services at the County Home (now St. Brendan's Nursing Home) and indeed generally a good community man. When I say I liked him, I have to confess that we did have a couple of run-in's. The day he came to give us all the dreaded BCG shot, when I locked myself into the upstairs toilet. And the week I spent in bed, when I nearly died of an asthmatic attack after smoking 2 cigarettes on an altar boys tour to Shannon Airport. Oh, and the time he wanted to bring me to the Garda station after I had nearly blown my hand off after heating up a a rifle cartridge with a candle. Yes, the good doctor and I had history, but none more bonding than my lifetime commitment to asthma.

I have had asthma almost all my life and that entailed going to Dr. Dyar at quarterly intervals for my constant wheeze. Back in the Sixties, there was no cure for asthma or bronchitis, no inhalers or quick-fixes, just spells in bed, coughing and wheezing, and feeling crap, taking expectorant and drinking Ribena and being on every anti-biotic then known, while reading every book in the house, age appropriate or not. I spent 4 weeks a year in bed with asthma, 2 weeks in October and 2 weeks in February/March. Like clockwork, when the damp, cold crept in off Loughrea Lake and flooded my immature lungs with mucus and phlegm! Charming...like hell it was. Doctor Dyar said I'd grow out of it, at every visit, but I didn't. I still use an inhaler to this day. I do remember the many visits to his surgery where I'd be happy that there was a queue as it gave me time to read all his magazines, ones we didn't have in our house, like Natural Geographic and Time.

One day on one such visit he said to me...'How old are you now Brian?' I answered 'I'm eighteen Doctor'. 'And you're coming to me two or three times a year now, for how long, it must be ten years or so with this asthma of yours,' as he poked a thermometer in my mouth. I nodded 'yes', 'And you're in University are you?' I took the thermometer out for a second, 'Yes, doctor, finishes next year'. 'He nodded sagely, pushing the thermometer back under my tongue...'Well, will you do me a favour, when you graduate?' I nodded again. 'As soon as you get your degree will you feck off to the Canaries and never come back!'

That was Dr Martin Dyar, larger than life, but he knew when he was beat. He was a comical character too, kind of waddled, reminded me of Penguin in Batman. And he hummed all the time. I can still hear him humming Wagner as he teed off on the first tee in Loughrea...never broke a note as he swung, and was still humming as he strode up the fairway after his ball.


Anyway, I digress, he was on the station platform outside the waiting-room door, with a rather expensive looking camera. 'Ah Brian', he says, 'You're in time for the last train. This is the end of an era, you know, we will never see the likes again in Loughrea. First all the young folk leave and now the train is chasing away after them.' Hum hum hum. Click, he took a shot of the engine and the number on the front.

We chatted for a while, and when he spotted the train driver, Joe Noone, in his CIE cap, he grabbed my elbow and we followed him up to the cab of the engine (there was only one carriage, a pre-1960's groaner). Anyway, however the Doc managed it, he persuaded Joe Noone to let us ride in the train engine's cab for the last run. Well he was the Doctor, it was probably difficult to say no to him on anything. It was magical, being so high up, and seeing the driver's eye view of the railway tracks snaking away in tandem in front of us. The train cab itself was small and fairly spartan, not much comfort there, but Joe was lord of this space and he loved it.

We went through a few level crossings, Joe sounding the horn, waving to the few folks in cars at the crossings or to some who were waving from their houses. the Doc was taking photos and every now and then engaging Joe in conversation. 'Who lives in that house? Where does that road go? Would you see many pheasants on the line? Did you ever meet John Huston?' Or anyone famous? etc. Joe was not used to so much conversation in his cab and he was not in such a mood to expound either, given the day that was in it. Let's face it we were intruding on a very peculiar day really. At best, the conversation in the cab was sporadic, much as you might hear I suppose, in the cabin of a passenger jet, with messages coming in from air traffic control, and short responses from the pilot, more informational than conversational, only in this case Air Traffic was the Doc. Joe was withdrawn, not really engaging as he drove on towards Attymon Junction. It was after all a very sad day for Joe and indeed for railway folks all over Ireland and Britain. the last branch line in the British Isles was closing down.

I asked Joe had he'd ever crashed the train, as one does. His train he said was rarely off the line, 'save for the one time last year when I ran into a  flock of sheep that were being driven up along on the line from the Mart and the drive wheels come right off the rails'. Saying that I remember as a child seeing cattle and sheep being herded along the track after the big fair days in the town. It was the easiset way to 'drove' them home to Bullaun, Kiltulla and New Inn I suppose, but not exactly safe as it turned out.

His recounting of that accident, reminded me of the story my Dad used to tell me of a station-master in Kilrush on the West Clare Railway, by the name of Brannigan The engine used derail regularly in Kilrush or Kilkee, or both. Brannigan, being a diligent civil servant, used to send off volumes of paper, pages after pages of accident reports, to his bosses in Dublin. So frequent were the derailments and so long were his reports and so tired of it were the powers that be in Dublin, that they issued him with a stern warning, 'Brannigan, keep the reports short and to the point, just the facts, in future, or your career will be derailed next along with the engine'.

Poor Brannigan, just doing his job, was angry, but chastened. As luck would have it, the very next morning the train derailed again in Kilrush. Brannigan's crew got it back on the tracks within a few hours heavy lifting and then, having  cleared his line, he started on the paperwork to send to Dublin. Imagine their surprise when they opened the envelope, to find a single sheet of paper with just 5 words on it? (You will have to read to the end to see his immortal and succinct description...mysterious isn't it?)


Yes, I digressed again, sorry, where was I? Ah yes, The last train to Attymon...(you hum it and I'll sing it) The train carrying, The Doctor, The Driver and The Asthmatic, rattled on, moving very slowly, especially on the bends. Perhaps Joe was just enjoying his last run, easing back on the throttle, or maybe, just maybe this was always how 9 miles should be travelled on late 19th century rails. The countryside we were traversing was was really beautiful, even for November, pristine green fields and Galway stone walls. Sheep and horses bolted when the train passed and I saw at least one fox. I was happy as a trout.

We were about a mile from Attymon when Dr. Dyar comes up with the gem that I have remembered fondly ever since.

'So Joe, do you ever get tired of this journey, over and back, what three, four times a day, 5 days a week, it's got to be boring after a while, eh? How long you at it now, 20 years or more, how do you stick it?'

For some reason I see Joe, in my mind's eye, he's smoking a pipe? Maybe he did, or didn't, but that's my memory anyway. He took (the real or imagined) pipe from his mouth, and fixed the good doctor with a stare like you'd give a dog that had just jumped up on your clean pants with wet paws before replying.

'I'm surprised at you Doctor, a man of your education, asking me a question like that. Sure, don't you know, travel broadens the mind!'

I have recounted that tale many times and still get a kick out of it. My memory of the day may be hazy in some areas, for instance I do not remember how we got home from Attymon...it was the last train after all, so I may have taken some poetic licence, but I am pretty sure it was Joe Noonan driving the train and I know for certain it was Martin Dyar and I up in the cab with him. There was a conductor with a flag and whistle too, but I don't remember his name.

I started this tale with Bertie Kelly, the postman, and I suppose I should finish it with him too. Bertie retired as postman around 1975. He lived on in retirement as he had all his life, mad into GAA, Coursing, Greyhounds and Pints, fully engaging with his many friends. He did stints as Town Commissioner and was instrumental in the protest against the ownership by the Harewood Estate and Lord Lascelles of the entire lake in Loughrea. Imagine having to pay rent to an absentee landlord in the 1970's for the rights to our own lake. It incensed many folks, but especially Bertie.

Later that year, Bertie was accused of painting graffiti (yes, a grown men, tut tut!) on the walls of the courthouse one night, that shocked the town. It was a parody on a very nationalistic Walter Scott quote, in 4 feet tall letters, picked out in white paint along the courthouse wall. 'Breathes there the man with soul so dead  who would so belittle our martyred dead!' He denied responsibility, but who knows? It did however spur debate and action and the absentee landlord, The Harewood Estate, did the right thing and sold our lake rights back to Loughrea. The Lake is now owned by the Loughrea Anglers Association, who do a great job managing this wonderful public amenity, (though they dislike sail boats and wind-surfers).

After retiring from An Post, Bertie lived on in his house with his wife Mary, and after her passing, he lived for a time on his own on Cross Street, before spending the last of his days living with his daughter Maura.

My last memory of Bertie, was when I picked him and my dad up one cold October day at his house in Cross Street. They were too old for hare hunting then, but they were still involved in the Coursing Club. They were making the big cauldron of tae for the hare beaters, who that day were out beating the runs for hares around Kilchreest for the Connacht Cup Coursing meet. These two doggie men with a combined age of over 170, were sitting in Bertie's kitchen waiting for 5 gallons of pre-sugared milky tae to boil. The 10 gallon metal dust-bin that was their 'tea-pot', was hanging off a 'crane' over an open fire in his hearth. Meantime, the two codgers were surrounded by dozens of blue-rimmed white enamel mugs which they were dunk-washing in a small basin of water and drying with newspapers. It was quaint! Not hygienic, just quaint, but hey, when you've walked miles over fields chasing hares, that tin mug of tea and a two-slice 'hang sangwige' was divine and refreshing! Nothing else ever quite tasted like it...and I know why!

Bertie wrote some great short stories and a few plays in his time, but his true forte was poetry. He won the inaugural Baffle Poetry slam in Loughrea in 1983 and continued to enter and even win right up to his death in February 2003, a few months short of his 90th birthday. Like all self-respecting poets, Bertie liked his pint and when he had had a few scoops around the town he would return to his cozy little home on Cross Street, as he said himself, 'travelling by rail and by tram', to his house, because to steady his walk, he would feel his way along the convent railings, before passing the antique horse-drawn tram that had been used by his next door neighbor (another Kelly), as a greenhouse for many years and even as a hair-dressing salon for years before that. The tram I believe was originally used in Dublin, on the Kingstown route, though no one can tell me how it ended up in Loughrea, as a 'coiff house' for the ladies of the town. It disappeared a few years ago, like a lot of gems and characters from our town, only to be replaced by something or someone, less interesting or intriguing.

Bertie is gone now, and my Dad, and the Railway Station, and Doctor Dyar and John Huston, the Damn Divil Dalys, Dunsandle House, and the Train, with fire-man and driver, gone, all gone!

The conductors cry of 'All change for Attymon, Dunsandle and Loughrea' will ne'er be heard again.

Thank You. You have reached the 'end of the line'. Just one more thing, because I nearly forgot.
Here are the five immortal words that Station-master Brannigan in Kilrush sent to Railway HQ after the latest train derailment in Kilkee.

'Off Again. On Again. Brannigan!'

Thanks for reading - feel free to share this with your friends. There are lots of other stories to read here, so come back again anytime. Do leave me a comment on this page or blog if you wish. Any feed-back is always great. My apologies if I have any inaccuracies in the blog. I'm only human. Oh, yes, and if you are ever in Loughrea, take a stroll down to the railway. I wonder if anything could be done to showcase this beautiful old Victorian station that was so important to Loughrea for almost a full century? Such a shame.
Brian Nolan. January 9, 2013

For more information on Loughrea town and its environs see http://www.loughreaonline.com/