The first visit to Ireland, arriving at the end of August 1981, revolved around public transport: British Rail to Holyhead; the Sealink ferry through the night to Dun Laoghaire; and then CIE trains and buses. We bought a fifteen day bus and train pass from an office at the end of the platform at Pearse Station. The ticket clerk eyed us suspiciously, “Do you know how much these tickets are?”
“They are £52, aren’t they?”
We handed £104 through the window to him. The Irish Punt was at about 77p Sterling, so the tickets weren’t as expensive as they sounded; nevertheless, the thought of two twenty year old Englishmen handing over a hundred quid seemed not to bring out the best in him.
The tickets came with a railway timetable; something that was to provide hours of delight in the years to come. Dozens of imaginary journeys were made from stations we had not visited to places with interesting names. It was hard to imagine that thirty years later there would be far more stations on the network than there were in the turbulent year of 1981.
The town of Roscrea in Co Tipperary always seemed an attractive destination. A Catholic nun with whom I had worked for the previous year had moved to live and work in the town. There seemed to be four trains a day each way on the branch line that passed through the town’s station. When asked my career aspirations for years afterwards, I answered, “To be the stationmaster in Roscrea”.
It would have been a good achievement; railways always had a poetry about them, they inspired thoughts and imaginings that will never be possible with motorways.
Sitting in Limerick station one afternoon some twenty years or more later, the departure boards announced that some trains went via Ballybrophy. It sounded a place from a storybook; it seemed to be the place where the branch line joined the main line.
Moving to work in Co Laois, one of the special delights was to have Ballybrophy station close by. It is a place of former glories; beautiful buildings and trackside structures from the age of steam. Ballybrophy station cannot be passed now without pausing to look over the bridge and trying to imagine all the different people who might have travelled the line that day.
Travelling south from Borris in Ossory to Rathdowney, a reverie about being stationmaster in Roscrea, was interrupted by the sight of the workhouse at Donaghmore. It is a museum now; a fine piece of architecture, its stories probably far exceed those that might be told by Ballybrophy station. A monument to the suffering and profound sadness of former times, its juxtaposition with Ballybrophy seemed a dig in the ribs not to forget the contradictions and contrasts of the country.
1981 was a year of contrasts; the delight of being here for the first time overshadowed by the unfolding tragedy in the North. The violence has gone; but many of the contradictions remain.
Like Abraham in the Bible pitching his tent between the contrasting Bethel and Ai, perhaps life is metaphorically lived on the road between Ballybrophy and Donaghmore.