Photo: Irish Emerald Gifts
Before the Blacksod bus was the Blacksod bus, it was the Belmullet bus … if you follow me. It left Ballina at six pm sharp and meandered its way through Crossmolina, Corrick, Bangor, Geesala (on Saturdays and Mondays), onwards through the Glen, up Fanny’s hill and into Belmullet.
That was until 1950. Then in 1951 it trickled the last twelve miles to Blacksod. My father drove it. From what I gather he was the first driver, before that he drove the road freight CIE lorry back there, once carrying a brand new US bomber that landed in the fields of Elly before wrecking itself on the lazy beds.
To understand the bus you got to understand the times. Van Morrison captured it in “The Days Before Rock ‘N’ Roll”. Very few cars, the delivery from the bread vans of O’Hara’s and O’Donoghue’s and the road freight truck, Ruddy’s beer lorry from Ballina, a travelling salesman and the post car. The bus was the link with the village and many points in between.
My father left home six days a week at 08:15 and returned around 20:45. From May until the first week in October he did the Pilgrimage run to Croagh Patrick. In essence I hardly knew the man but others vouched for him many years after he went to the great bus depot in the sky. His sturdy bus, whom he nicknamed and cared for as if it was a Formula One car was his pride and joy, brushed out last thing at night, an occasional bucket of water thrown where the twisty bends at Bangor allied to a swilling pint leaving its residue on the floor.
Standing six feet six and weighing around eighteen stone of loose granite, you couldn’t miss my father. His pockets were deep and full. In the right-hand coat pocket was a list of notes looking for everything from knickers, corsets, false teeth to be left in or collected. His right-coat pocket also had a list that contained requests to collect a length of chain, an engine part, a dry or wet battery, day-old chicks or a tube for a burst tyre on a bike.
After docking the bus in Ballina and counting his fares, he crossed the road to his cousin’s pub, Rouse’s. There he had a medium and a whiskey and swopped stories with the lifers within. On a table he sorted his notes, in to Hanley’s for the knickers and corsets, not a word spoke bar the proffered note. Down to the International Stores for the batteries or up to Jones for the radio parts, McConn’s and Archer’s for anchor chain and engine parts, Meenaghan’s for meat and Carney and Hunt’s for groceries that weren’t to be found on the sea front.
Dinner was in Brogan’s, a read of the papers and then back up to the bus. Down to the middle of town and parked outside the Gilmartin’s pub beside the bus station. I hated the bus station, it stunk of Dettol, was pea green and dismal. It reeked of misery and depression. He then started the trek to the various shops, stores and betting offices … Oh I forgot to mention that he laid on the bets for the boys from behind. He delivered Dodie Shevlin’s copy to the Western People, Dodie’s ‘Erris Notes’ that we hungered for. A quick trip into Rouse’s and Gilmartin’s along with Moclair’s, to root out his flock for the journey homewards. “You’ll have one yourself Tom?” the patrons offered. Occasionally he did, an old tin box full of gold and silver medals under a cupboard testify to forty years of safe driving.
The bus was the link, my father the visible face of that link. “Cheep cheep” went the chicks, ducks in the overhead storage area, bicycles on the roof, anchors and a chandler’s shop in the boot. But the route driven daily from 1950 until 1974 was also a route of pain and sadness interspersed with joy. The harvest saw the bus wend its way to Faulmore, Glosh, Tarmon, Eachleam, Tirrane, Elly and Belmullet collecting the men and youth for the seasonal picking beyond in Blighty. Early spring saw the girls heading to the factories in Coventry, Luton and Birmingham. Tears shed until Corrick tower disappeared.
My father saw that his flock got the proper bus or train to Dublin before setting off on his own search for the village beyond. Remember he was a bus driver not a travelling salesman. His job was to drive but he saw his vocation as a server. Come Christmas the return journey from England began. Not all but definitely the fathers, often the younger generation remained beyond. Anxious, until they saw the grey head six foot six man and his sturdy steed, the returning heroes knew that only one leg remained before the last lap and the sweet scent of the home turf.
The packed bus, lit up for Christmas, headed, packed to the gills towards Crossmolina. “Have we time for one here Tom?” asked an elder. My father nodded. “Just the one then”. In they went and the shepherd and flock traipsed out, voices singing the December air. The same thing happened in Corrick, McAndrew’s in Bangor, McAndrew’s in Glencastle. Finally they reached Belmullet and into Agnes Gaughan’s. “An cean deirneach Anseo Tom” the men announced. Miraculously year in year out the bus on the Christmas run ran only about twenty-five minutes late.
Later years as people prospered they took a direct route to Dun Laoghaire with a hackney van. They felt that they betrayed my father but they didn’t. Once, as a hackney flew the trip from Dublin to Blacksod, a suitcase parted company from the roof containing a family’s Christmas presents. As Tom’s bus meandered around Commons house in Duleek, its lights picked up an errant suitcase in the middle of a foggy road. The bus stopped and the suitcase was placed in the boot. The next morning a mournful and slightly embarrassed returned grafter hailed the bus on its way through Eachleam. “Sorry for not travelling with you Tom” went the opening line. “You might keep an eye out for my case; I lost it between Dublin and here”. Suitcase and owner were reunited a minute later.
Last year someone called my name out at home. An elderly man came to me. “I knew your father, one night I had a few too many, we lived across the river, he walked me across the old stream and left the bus and passengers on the road side … I’ll never forget him”. I laughed, kinda pride and kinda embarrassment.
The men of Tarmon went to lift the beet crop of the autumn of 1951. My father ferried them to Ballina. From there they made their way to Dublin, stayed in a lodging house and attended Mayo’s last winning senior final. That evening they got taxis to Dun Laoghaire and crossed to Holyhead. They did their bit for the Fair County. So did the footballers. Ni fheicimid a lethid daioine aris. I didn’t really know my father but others did. It’s thanks to them that I have such memories. Nollag Sona do gach éinne.