Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Malcolm goes off the rails

Irish trains have added significantly to general happiness, nowhere more so than with that incredibly well-kept (and fashionably three-hours late) train in John Ford’s The Quiet Man (a film which, in and around Cong, has become a major tourist industry in its own right).

The two railway scenes (Seán Thornton’s arrival, and his hauling the former Mary Kate Danagher off the Dublin train) were filmed at Ballyglunin (a.k.a. “Castletown”) station. When that was put on film, CIE was recently nationalised: even so, Engine 59 and a couple of vintage carriages were rounded up, and very fine they look. Malcolm is delighted to see Ballyglunin station is being brought back to life, in part because the Irish Government has an enlightened approach to reviving rail transport, in part to satisfy tourism: neither of which can be bad.

Now Iarnród Éireann are bringing new Class 22000 state-of-the-art DMU sets onto the Dublin-Sligo and other “Intercity” lines (and, in view of later events in this posting, long overdue). On looks alone, they are gorgeous: grey, Harrod’s green with gold.

Malcolm will contend (and frequently has done) that the finest piece of writing about Irish railways is by Flann O’Brien, doing a casual piece of Joycean criticism, and showing just how it should be done, in A Bash in the Tunnel (available on line).

O’Brien meets a suspected “toucher” (a cadger of drinks) in the Scotch House (which Malcolm is convinced he remembers, but of which there seems no relic). This stranger then narrates how:
his father had a pub and grocery business, situated near a large Dublin railway terminus. Every year the railway company invited tenders for the provisioning of its dining cars, and every year the father got the contract. (The narrator said he thought this was due to the territorial proximity of the house, with diminished handling and cartage charges.)
The dining cars (hereinafter known as 'the cars') were customarily parked in remote sidings. It was the father's job to load them from time to time with costly victuals--eggs, rashers, cold turkey and whiskey. These cars, bulging in their lonely sidings, with such fabulous fare, had special locks. The father had the key, and nobody else in the world had authority to open the doors until the car was part of a train. But my informant had made it his business, he told me, to have a key, too.

'At that time,' he told me, 'I had a bash once a week in the cars.' ...

When the urge for a 'bash' came upon him his routine was simple. Using his secret key, he secretly got into a parked and laden car very early in the morning, penetrated to the pantry, grabbed a jug of water, a glass and a bottle of whiskey and, with this assortment of material and utensil, locked himself in the lavatory...
'How long does a bash in the cars last?' I asked him.

'Ah, that depends on a lot of things,' he said. 'As you know, I never carry a watch.' (Exhibits cuffless, hairy wrist in proof.) 'Did I ever tell you about the time I had a bash in the tunnel?'

He has not--for the good reason that I had never met him before.

'I seen meself,' he said, 'once upon a time on a three-day bash. The bastards took me out of Liffey Junction down to Hazelhatch. Another crowd shifted me into Harcourt Street yards. I was having a good bash at this time, but I always try to see, for the good of me health, that a bash doesn't last more than a day and a night. I know it's night outside when it's dark. If it's bright, it's day. Do you follow me?'

'I think I do.'

'Well, I was about on the third bottle when this other shunter crowd come along--it was dark, about eight in the evening--and nothing would do them only bring me into the Liffey Tunnel under the Phoenix Park and park me there. As you know I never use a watch. If it's bright, it's day. If it's dark, it's night. Here was meself parked in the tunnel, opening bottle after bottle in the dark, thinking the night was a very long one, stuck there, in the tunnel. I was three-quarters way into the jigs when they pulled me out of the tunnel into Kingsbridge. I was in bed for a week. Did you ever in your life hear of a greater crowd of bastards?'


'That was the first and last time I ever had a bash in the tunnel.'

Probably the most widely-known railway journey in Irish literature is Percy French’s trip on the West Clare Railway. This took place in the summer of 1896. French was to give a performance at Kilkeel, but the West Clare Railway failed to get him there in time (explanation: “weeds in the boiler"). Out of that came French’s ballad:
You may talk of Columbus's sailing
Across the Atlantical Sea
But he never tried to go railing
From Ennis as far as Kilkee
You run for the train in the morning,
The excursion train starting at eight
You're there when the clock gives the warnin'
And there for an hour you'll wait
And as you're waiting in the train,
You'll hear the guard sing this refrain:

Are ye right there, Michael, are ye right?
Do you think that we'll be there before the night?
Ye've been so long in startin',
That ye couldn't say for certain'
Still ye might now, Michael,
So ye might!
This is one of those stories where the facts should not get in the way of the myth. And according to the myth, French sued the Railway for loss of earnings and was awarded £10 compensation. The Railway appealed the judgment (and seem to have have counter-sued for libel). The legend has it that French arrived late for this hearing, and was taken to task by the judge. French gave his apologies with the excuse he had travelled by the West Clare Railway. Various accounts have “case dismissed” and an award of one penny damages. Malcolm cannot find a totally reliable source for this part of the story; and and has always suspected French himself improved on the facts considerably. However, there is a “transcript” of the trial on line.

French studied engineering at TCD, and spent rather more time in the music-halls than the lecture theatre. Eventually he took his degree and went to work for the Midland Railway. Later he became the drains-inspector for the County Cavan.

Malcolm feels he spends an unhealthy amount of his recent literary life reading about and writing about drains-inspectors. "Captain" W.E. Johns of “Biggles” fame was in the same trade, in Norfolk; and Terry Jones maintains that Chaucer’s role as Clerk of Works qualified him, too, as an “inspector of drains”.

It was while French was nosying down Cavan sewers he wrote the Mountains of Mourne, and his career took off. It also provided him with the material for the Song of William, Inspector of Drains (which featured in the King William College quiz last Christmas.

Now, every parade (including one of Malcolm's useless knowledge) runs the risk of rain. Today’s comes courtesy of Frank McNally doing An Irishman’s Diary for the day’s Irish Times. McNally had been relating the problems suffered last Sunday by the 5.05pm from Dublin, Connolly, which took seven hours to reach Sligo. He suggests this endurance trial might also provide:
excellent material for a simple, 36-verse ballad.

As I envisage it, the song would begin optimistically, with the train racing towards Kilcock, full of high spirits (if not water). A note of concern might creep in at Enfield, where the engine would be making strange noises. Then the breakdown would occur and it would be a low descent into horror: from the depletion of tbe tea trolley, to the passengers’ desperate but vain sortie out into Apache country—Westmeath, as it's known locally—to the terrible moment when the passengers first contemplate cannibalism.

That thought would quickly turn into action (“.. .and before we left Killucan/The poor trolley boy was cookin’', etc); so that when the train finally limped into Sligo, the surviving passengers would disembark sadder, wiser, and united by a dark secret.
To Malcolm, this sounds a direct steal from W.S.Gilbert's Yarn of the Nancy Brig.

Unfortunately, in his piece, McNally also dismantles the Percy French story:
The Irish Times archive's last word on the subject is from April 1961, when the newspaper's radio reviewer tracked the myth back to a documentary of a few years before, which had attributed such a sweet resolution of the dispute to the imagination of the composer himself.

The documentary had made clear that "no action came into court". Nevertheless. the event had entered folklore. Our radio reviewer noted that a Sunday newspaper had since found at least one elderly Clare man who remembered seeing French board the train in Ennis en route to attend the case.

Earlier the same year, on February 1st, 1961. this newspaper also recorded the tearful closure of the railway. Even this event was mishandled by CIE. To prevent embarrassing scenes, the company cancelled the final scheduled service out of Ennis, so that what was supposed to be the penultimate train was in fact the last.

Such a dastardly ploy had been foreseen, however. The earlier train was packed and hundreds lined the route to watch it pass. The final passengers drank bottle of stout when the engine pulled into Kilkee for the last time, a large crowd serenaded it with French's song, proving that there really is no such thing as bad publicity.
Malcolm’s view on the West Clare Railway is that, like the old adage, if he wanted to get there, he wouldn’t start from here.

A three-foot gauge railway, with authentic vintage steam traction, from Ennis to Kilrush, would be a modern promoter’s dream to rival any other Oirish attraction. William Percy French would be vindicated, particularly if (inevitably) the journey ran late.

That closure in 1961 now seems very short-sighted.
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