Monday, September 15, 2008

Jugular Train - Ballina Locomotive Discovers the World Beyond Manulla

An Spailpín Fánach has written before of the boundless courage and impossible spirit of daring that is the birthright of the Ballinaman. The events of the train journey from Ballina to Dublin last Saturday simply added further lustre to that fundamental truth.

As far as Irish Rail are concerned, Ballina is like Lerner and Loewe’s Brigadoon – it exists somewhere off in the mists, and can damned well stay there, as far as our masters are concerned. The train to Mayo runs from Dublin to Castlebar and Westport – fine towns both – while Ballina is served by a spur connection that runs from Ballina town to a block of concrete in a field in the townland on Manulla, about three miles north-west of the great town of Balla. The commuters descend from the Ballina train onto this block of concrete, and then board the Westport train all the way to Dublin. And vice versa on the way back.

Because it’s a spur line, the rolling stock on this route isn’t of the first water. It usually consists of a clapped out old locomotive and two carriages – if it were a car, it would be a Ford Cortina Mark IV, and two fluffy dice would hang from the mirror.

Last Saturday, that dauntless old locomotive and her two carriages chugged out of Ballina on her way east to the city. As the train approached Manulla, the commuters heard dread news on the PA. The train from Westport had been suspended due to “operational difficulties.” Hearts sank in the carriages, as the normally procedure in these not-at-all-uncommon circumstances is to put everyone in the train on a bus at Claremorris and send them off that way.

Imagine, then, the thrill that ran though the people when the driver continued his announcement: because the Westport train was suspended, that clapped out old Ballina train wasn’t going to stop at Manulla this time and slink back home again. She was going all the way to Dublin.

The train drove through Manulla without even slowing down as women wept and strong men clenched their teeth. The light brigade at Balaclava can have felt no more electric a thrill as they began their charge for the Russian guns. At Claremorris, the driver announced that there would be no “dining car” on this trip, none of that fancy-smancy “food” or “beverages.” The commuters were given five minutes at Claremorris to stock up on minerals and Mars bars, something they attended to with alacrity, and then off again on their gallant trip east.

Leaving the heather county at Ballyhaunis and cutting a swathe through Roscommon, the steadfast heart of Ireland, the scale of the undertaking became clear. The Westport train is normally blessed with eight to ten carriages. The Ballina train had but two, and carriages of a vintage that if one were to find Charters and Caldicott inside one of them discussing the cricket a person couldn’t be a bit surprised. But the two carriages were only meant to carry the Ballina contingent; now they had to carry the commuting population from all towns between the western Atlantic shores and the city of Dublin along that particular rail line.

Things quickly became crowded on the train. On leaving Mayo, the people were, quite frankly, crushed in a heap together. In Roscommon, a situation similar to the infamous black hole of Calcutta had arisen on the train. And after she crossed the broad majestic Shannon, the commuters waiting on the platforms recoiled in horror, staring at the windows of the train which now seemed to offer a glimpse into a nightmare vision from Hieronymous Bosch or Picasso’s Guernica, human forms crushed almost beyond recognition, heads the far side of shoulders, legs where arms should be, and even some people with the eyes moved to the one side of their heads from the squeeze of humanity.

And that’s what that Ballina commuter train looked like when she finally rolled into Heuston on Saturday – like a Mark IV Cortina driving up O’Connell Street, great clouds of smoke and steam coming from under the bonnet, and every single member of the Croke Park Residents’ Association jammed into the back. And there’s a lot of them.

An Spailpín Fánach doesn’t know what happened that train after her epic journey east. I do know that the passengers untangled and disembarked, and then went about their business in the city, including the one who drank the sweet porter with your correspondent in Mulligan’s of Poolbeg Street on Saturday night and told the grand tale. It’s possible that the old locomotive chugged her last, and then just fell down in a heap in Heuston, and could be there yet. But chances are she just took a fill of green diesel and headed back home again, to rest peacefully by the banks of the Moy until she hears the bugle once more.

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