The autobiography tells of the author travelling from his home in Manchester to spend his summer holidays with his grandparents in Athy, Co Kildare. Driving the car on a cold and wet evening, thinking of the journey on a June day seemed a pleasant way of passing the time. The writer made the journeys in the late 1970s, it wasn’t so hard to re-create a mental picture of its stages.
Flying was for wealthy people, it would only be contemplated by ordinary people in the event of emergency; for a boy, going to Ireland probably meant travelling by train. Wasn’t it Oxford Road station in Manchester that was near parts of the city where the Irish community was strong? From there, a train could be caught to Chester, maybe it was called the “Chester Flyer.” It was a diesel multiple unit, perhaps two or three carriages long. At Chester, the change could be made to join the train to Holyhead.
The Holyhead train would fill the length of one of the platforms at Chester. A locomotive and a full train of carriages behind it, first and second class and a dining car. Second class carriages were open plan, pairs of seats on either side of a table, in times before social life was destroyed by iPods and the like, journeys could be opportunities for interesting conversations..
A daytime train meant catching glimpses of the North Wales coast. There were dozens of caravan sites and station names were familiar from holiday brochures: Prestatyn, Rhyl, Colwyn Bay, Llandudno. There was the sturdy timelessness of Conwy castle before Bangor was reached and then the crossing of Menai Strait. Only when passing through by car years later did there come an opportunity to stop at the railway station that bore the name, “Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.” It was disappointing to discover that the name on the sign had been invented in the 1860s and that its original form was considerably shorter.
The autobiographer would probably have taken little notice of Welsh towns and villages, the object would be to reach Holyhead and the ferry for Ireland. The port had always an ambiguity about it, sailings to Ireland were to somewhere outside of the United Kingdom, but not to somewhere that was foreign – there were customs officials, but no passport controls.
The Sealink sailing to Dun Laoghaire lasted three and a half hours, an unpleasant time in stormy conditions. The ship was filled with bars and duty free shopping and offered little comfort. There seemed a sense of delight as the harbour was entered and the vessel tied up at the Carlisle Pier. Irish customs would stand and watch foot passengers as they walked through the port buildings, mostly disinterested in the arrivals.
In those times before the arrival of the DART, the journey to the city centre was probably easiest in one of the orange-brown coloured Dublin buses. There were still conductors to take the fares and to give advice to passengers arriving in Dublin for the first time.
Then what? Might the writer have gone to Busaras for a bus to Athy, or taken a bus west along the quays to Heuston Station. It seemed a much more exciting prospect, an orange and black train pulled by a diesel locomotive heading south toward Waterford. The journey to Athy would have meant just three stops, and then stepping out on the platform of the Victorian stone station.
Dull as it might seem now, would not such a journey have been filled with excitement for a young boy?