It was late August in 1982, travelling from Kinsale in Co Cork, north to Co Down was planned as a two day journey. We stayed overnight in Roscrea on the border of North Tipperary and Offaly and the next day set out on a route that would take us through the Irish Midlands and so avoid the gridlock of early-80s Dublin. Heading through Laois, we turned north at Portlaoise and passed through Mountmellick. It was on the road from Mountmellick to Tullamore that we came to a virtual standstill. There was a circus heading northwards; vast, ungainly lorries pulling trailers painted in garish shades of red and yellow. The road was uneven and overtaking hazardous. The time lost was never regained, for having reached Dundalk, we joined the back of a line of cars following a funeral, which was moving at walking pace because the mourners were on foot.
That month in 1982 came, in memory, to epitomise the old Ireland. Staying in Belmullet, Co Mayo on the journey south, there had been no dial on the telephone; a blank disc filled the space in the Bakelite phone. To make a call, you picked up the receiver, pressed a button on the top of the phone, and spoke to the operator. One day it had stopped working and a man from the Posts and Telegraphs had come to fix it. Turning it upside down, he had removed a large, flat Ever Ready battery and inserted a new one.
Our host was a pharmacist in the isolated town. There would be callers at the house on a Saturday evening. Frequently the callers would arrive by tractor; the only journey of the week from a remote farm. The trip would take in shopping, Saturday evening Mass, a couple of pints in a bar, and, when necessary, a call with Paddy. “I can’t turn them away – I go and open up the shop. Do you know what really annoys me? The lawn mower. I work six days a week and like to have Sunday quiet, so I cut the grass on a Saturday evening and the old lawn mower takes ages to get started and I no sooner have the thing started than someone arrives, ‘Paddy, I know it’s after hours, but could you help me out?’”
Driving on down the West coast, the roads were often in a poor state of repair. There wasn’t money in the County Council budgets for plastic cones, instead, oil drums were used to mark road works in the country. Painted yellow and black, they were a tougher proposition than orange cones. Of course, even oil drums were not plentiful, were difficult to transport, and not easily handled, so sometimes even quite substantial excavations would be marked by no more than a handful. (A year later, a colleague from the North would lose the sump of his car on a main road when hitting an unannounced ramp at forty miles per hour).
Driving from Tullamore to Mountmellick this afternoon, a circus was parked on the hard shoulder of the road. It did not impede the progress of traffic moving at 100 kmh. Heading through Portlaoise towards the Regional hospital, a call to the Rectory telephone number came through to the mobile: a loved one had been taken into hospital, the call allowed the opportunity to walk alongside the loved one as they were taken to the operating theatre. There were roadworks on the Abbeyleix to Durrow road, but who needs to travel far on that road when the M8 will carry you south to Cork in half the time?
The times are not good; but the 1980s, they are not.