Thursday, August 25, 2011

Surprise Rail Trip to the Dentist, by Victor Sullivan

 ©   2009.    Overcoming travel problems in Ireland during World War 2

World War II had brought increased hardship to many people in Neutral Ireland in the early 1940s but at the age of five or six I was barely aware of any such difficulties apart from being unable to sample things I heard about or had seen illustrations of, such as bananas. It was a time when initiative was admired and rewarded. A time for turning the blind eye and for rule bending. Winks and nods became more meaningful while furtive glances and calculated silences became a communications art form. A flair for living on one’s wits ensured the survival of the fittest in reasonably comfortable circumstances.
My mother was principal teacher at Meenies National School two miles from Drimoleague and my father was manager of Warner’s grocery store and bakery in Bantry, twelve miles away. He commuted between Drimoleague and Bantry six days each week in his black Ford Prefect, ZB4004.


            Ford Prefect ZB4004 outside 'Aurora' in 1940

We lived half a mile outside Drimoleague in a house named Aurora that overlooked both the road and the single-track railway that led to Bantry. I learned to count the wagons on each passing goods train at a very early age and still, many decades later, I automatically begin to count the wagons whenever I see a moving freight train. Wave at the Driver and Fireman on the locomotive or at the Guard in his Guard’s van at the end of the goods train and the response was usually a reciprocal wave. Like many boys of my age I wanted to be an Engine Driver or a Guard on a goods train. I envied that Guard in his own private accomodation, trundling along behind the swaying wagons, day after day, with nothing to do but blow a whistle and wave a green or red flag occasionally.
Rationing and ration-books, shortages of tea, sugar sweets, kerosene and associated black market dealings had little impact on me but when private cars were banned from the roads of Ireland and ZB4004 was propped up on wooden blocks 'to ease the tyres,' I had to cycle two miles up-hill to school.

My father was confronted with a more serious commuting problem as the only morning passenger train ran from Bantry via Drimoleague to Cork. It returned from Cork to Bantry each evening but he needed to go in the opposite directions. As the limited bus service would have got him to his workplace much too late, he borrowed his brother’s bicycle and undertook to cycle the twelve mile journey to Bantry each morning and pedaled home each evening to Drimoleague, exhausted and frequently wet and cold.
He was a respected and popular figure in Bantry where he seemed to know hundreds of people by name and they all knew him as Jimmy-in-Warners. Back in those hard times, to know someone with access to sources of extra tea, sugar and cigarettes was a status symbol. To be on cosy, first-name terms with Jimmy-in-Warners was a status to be envied indeed.


Officially the following event never happened… But it did and I am the only living participant and first hand witness.
Following a bout of severe toothache, I was told one morning that I was not going to school that day. I was to go to Bantry with my father, to visit a very close friend of his, a dentist. All that way to Bantry! Twelve miles on the crossbar of that bike! It sounded potentially more painful than the toothache.

We started out with me perched grimly on the crossbar but we immediately headed in the wrong direction and after only half a mile we turned left and dismounted at the level crossing on the Bantry side of Drimoleague railway station where the gate-keepers were the Dinneen family, who we knew well. With the bicycle, we went inside the stone wall and waited as the heavy white and red level crossing gates were closed against road traffic and the lever pulled to signal to the Driver of the morning goods train waiting at the station that the way was open to Bantry. One short whistle blast followed by heavy chuffing soon brought the familiar black tank engine into view as we edged our way towards it between the railway tracks and the high hedge that separated the rails from Garda Sergeant Murphy’s vegetable garden.

I had never realised just how big those wheels were until the moment they passed so close to me on that morning. They were really big! Even the small wheels were big! I could have reached out and touched them. I felt the heat of the locomotive on my face as it passed with an accompaniment of swirling clouds of steamy vapour wrapping around us. There was a lovely hot, oily, engine smell too. The Engine Driver looked down and raised one finger to my father as the queue of wagons rumbled slowly and steadily past. For once I was too overawed and too close to count them. As the Guard's Van approached, the train slowed to a crawl but did not stop.
'Put your arms up for the Guard to catch.' My father ordered and hoisted me into the air, sidestepping along beside the moving train as he did so. Two strong hands hauled me up into the very dark interior of the Guard’s van. The bicycle followed, then my father was hauled up, the door was firmly shut and the chuffing grew louder and more rapid at the front end of the train.

A strong stink of creosote and wood-smoke in a world of almost total blackness was my first impression of the Guard’s domain. As my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom I identified a pair of tiny slit windows at both sides of the creaking mobile dungeon. These windows were mounted in that bulge at the side of most Guard’s vans, one pane facing forwards, one backwards. My attempt to see anything clearly outside was frustrated by the grimy glass. I was not tall enough to see through the small glass pane in the door. The Guard fed scraps of wood into a tiny pot-bellied stove in the centre of the floor and engaged in solemn conversation with my father. The van’s two pairs of wheels made a thump-thump, – thump-thump, – thump-thump sound that I felt pounding through my feet, quite unlike the familiar clickety click rhythm of the passenger coach wheels.

After about twenty five minutes the goods train began to slow down as it approached Bantry and the Guard opened the door. Welcome daylight flooded in and I was instructed to stand by the door and be ready to disembark from the moving train at the Barrack Road level crossing, immediately after we had passed over the metal bridge that spanned the road to Glengarriff. Apparently we, the only unofficial passengers, would not be going all the way to Bantry station. Again the train slowed to a crawl but did not stop. My father jumped down first and the Guard lowered me into his arms from the moving train. Then the bicycle was handed down, a wave to the driver and the train increased speed for its last half mile approach to Bantry Station.

There, standing by the side of the shining rails, my father made me solemnly promise that I would not tell a living soul how we travelled to Bantry. It was a big, big secret and it demanded a huge amount of secret-keeping effort for many years. I could never tell my younger sister, Audrey, nor could I ever mention it to my playmate Stephen because his dad was a policeman, Garda Quinn. Prior to that momentous day I had never even suspected that my ever-so-respectable father travelled unofficially and illegally on the morning goods train.
Wheeling the bicycle between us we walked down Barrack Road which was then a steep, rough lane, that brought us directly onto Barrack Street and just a few dozen paces from my father's workplace at Warner’s grocery shop. The shop operated a delivery service and I was handed over to the message-boy for delivery by pony-cart to one of my father’s close friends, the local Jewish dentist. I was instructed to address the dentist as Mr.Birkahn, which I did as he welcomed me into his surgery. He told me tales of his adventures with my father while he deftly removed the offending tooth. He called me a very brave boy and gave me sixpence. Later that day I travelled home to Drimoleague, unaccompanied and minus one tooth, on a very ordinary bus. It stopped precisely outside the gate of Aurora, (Jimmy-in-Warners knew the bus driver and conductor also).

I kept the secret of my freight-train journey for two decades, then, when the West Cork Railway closed in the early 1960s, I felt it would be safe to tell the story. When I did tell the tale nobody believed me until my father added the following anecdote:

One September morning Jimmy-in-Warners was, as usual, commuting illegally to Bantry in the Guard’s van of the goods train when the train slowed to an unexpected stop. The Guard looked out and saw the Fireman running back towards him while the Engine Driver could be seen removing his overalls in a field, having climbed over a fence.
'The runs?'
'It’s the mushrooms. That field is white with them. Driver says pick all we can and Jimmy-in-Warners can sell them for us in his shop.'
Boiler suits were removed, their leg-ends knotted and the makeshift sacks were quickly filled with nature’s unexpected bounty of wild mushrooms. Delighted with an opportunity to repay the many favours he owed the train crew, Jimmy-in-Warners joined in the mushroom picking. How he managed to retain any degree of decorum while wheeling his bicycle, laden with two bulging mushroom-stuffed boiler suits down Barrack Road to his shop in Barrack Street is not recorded but word of mushrooms-in-Warners went around the town very rapidly. Soon a sign appeared in Warner’s shop window ‘Mushrooms Sold Out'. The mushroom takings were handed over to the train crew next morning together with two neatly folded boiler suits, each wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string.

Soon after that incident Ford Prefect ZB4004 reappeared traversing the road between Drimoleague and Bantry and one evening Jimmy-in-Warners brought home bananas. The War was really over. There would be no more illicit rail travel.

The Guard's Van in which we travelled illegally.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Midnight Cow: by Victor Sullivan

Can a long dead cow save a life?

© 2010
Driving home alone through many miles of dark, narrow country roads in the early hours of the morning; gorse and briars occasionally scraping against the side of the car; avoiding potholes in the road surface; struggling to keep awake; another thirty miles to go according to that last signpost.

Graphic by Marie Guillot

Suddenly, from a high rock outcrop on my left a cow is tumbling down onto my car. I see her vividly in the headlights for a moment. COW! Two wild, glaring eyes stare at me as we rush towards each other. I see eye-lashes, a wet nose and dribble of saliva in that final millisecond before her full weight crushes down on the car and her huge, heavy head comes bursting in on me in an explosion of windscreen glass and......
My legs ram the brake and clutch pedals into the floor sending screaming tyres spinning the car into an uncontrolled juddering stop facing the direction from whence I had come. Heart pounding, sweating, panting for breath, surprised that I could feel no pain. Was I dead? No. I still gripped the steering wheel. I was in a car– my own car! The windscreen wasn't shattered, the bodywork wasn't crushed. The headlights still worked and I could see that they illuminated the black semi-circular streaks my smoking tyres had imprinted on the road. THE COW! Where was the COW? How could I have missed hitting her and she me at that speed?
Now trembling violently, I opened the car door and stepped unsteadily out into the night. In the headlights' beam I followed the skid-marks to where they first began. Nothing! Not a trace of a cow, no blood, no glass, no evidence of an impact. I looked up to where the animal had appeared from. It was an unbroken line of gorse twenty feet or more above the road, with no gap that a cow could possibly have come from. To this day I find it difficult to believe that THERE WAS NO COW. My sleep-starved brain had created the cow and possibly saved my life as I fell asleep at the wheel. THERE NEVER WAS A COW....

Or was there....?
When I was very young, four years old or less, one of my uncle's cows named Brownie lunged towards me causing me to fall backwards into a shallow drain with the cow glaring down at me with her head only a few inches above my face. I knew of the incident as it was recounted among the family many times but I had no memory of what happened until several weeks after my sudden stop on a clear road.
Quite unexpectedly I suddenly recalled the image of Brownie's huge head, eyelashes, dribbling muzzle and eyes glaring at me through a clump of rushes while I lay in the drain.
It was exactly the same close-up image of the cow's head that I 'saw' through the car windscreen on that lonely stretch of road.
Thanks for saving my life, Brownie!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Ode to the Old Cat by E. Alana James

© 2010

I had a friend who used to say her cat was "older than dirt" – our cat, Samson may also fit that description.  At 22 human years old, he was going strong until last week, when he obviously had a stroke.  His spirit is still strong, and although his body no longer moves much at his command he still has us – and his command over us remains as it ever was.  We are well trained and will do anything for him.
Samson is king over our household, ruler of dogs, and the one who sits wherever he wants whenever he wants.  No one would ever know that he came from humble origins, having been adopted from the humane society in Denver, USA.  Later, when transported by plane across the pond he settled into life in Castlepark as the one cat in residence  among all the holiday homes.  
He earned the name Samson his first day home.  Small bit of fur, sitting at my feet when  Caesar, my three year old Great Dane came roaring down the stairs and decided that this cat would be fun to play with.  Out goes all of Samson's hair (for a little guy he fluffs up brilliantly) and WHAM! he takes a big swat at Caesar's nose.  The Dane immediately sits down, looks crushed and gives me a face as though to say, "What did he do that for?"
For 22 years, he has shared our family's ups and downs, sitting on our laps and allowing himself to be stroked through all of it.  He mourned when Ceasar died and took the puppies that followed him quickly in hand (or paw as it were).  My life partner, Margie did not come from a house with cats and so believed that she did not like them.  Samson's purr, his gentle insistence on affection, and his demanding ways changed all that.  He played with toys until just a year or so ago, and easily leaped over the barrier into the bathroom where he is fed until just last week.  
He will move on to join the spirits of our other animal family members soon and will be buried on the hill with the other two who travelled with him from the US.  I will forever remember seeing their three crates get loaded into the plane at Newark, and their  affectionate companionship after that long flight.  Whatever was going on, Samson, Shadow and Stefan knew that the others were close by and obviously found comfort in that.
In his last years, as Shadow and then Stefan moved on, Sam showed us the power in flexibility.  Undaunted, he accepted puppy love and while no longer needing to dominate over the dogs as he did as a younger cat, he still maintained his unique space in their lives.  All the pack that our dogs run with come in, say hello to Sam, and then go out for their walks in the mornings.  He weighs less than five pounds, he stands less than 10 inches yet the size of his spirit has been enormous and he will be greatly missed.  

About the author:
E. Alana James lives and writes in Kinsale, Ireland where she moved as she reinvented the second half of her life.  Her website: is a repository of inspirational stories, big ideas and practical wisdom on how to stay flexible, change gracefully and create the life you want.  She loves to blemd science, subjective reality and metaphysics to help focus the power of our minds on the lives we want to live.
Alana enjoys the company of other nonfiction writers in Cork, Ireland as they meet on alternate Thursdays at the Cork City Library.  You can find more of their work at:

Sunday, August 14, 2011

People, Kids, Dogs And Warm Summer Days: Flourishing with PERMA

  by E.Alana James –  © August 2011

Would you agree that people seem to flourish more in the summer?  Don't you just love to celebrate warmth, friendship, and the sheer joy of being alive at this time of year? Living in Ireland, as I do, I have found that I have become a sun worshiper, as we often seek out those things that we enjoy, over which we have no control, and it seems that here the sun is more out of control than anywhere. In fairness, I appreciate sunshine more now that I live in a place where it is rare, than when I lived in Colorado where it was in evidence 300 days a year or more. This is the second article in a series focused on what it takes to lead a life where we flourish, something that perhaps it is easier to feel on warm summer days.

I just finished drinking a cup of coffee looking down from the 2nd (in Ireland it would be the first) floor window of our home as a group of kids wrote signs saying "Go David" and the like, in support of a young lad, 12 years old, about to participate in his first triathlon.  He is certainly flourishing and the other children are showing their support.  While very unusual, in fact a first, for a lad in his age group to compete, he is confident and secure as are all his family and friends around him.

We all have different things we find pleasurable...

For me there are two main joys to summer: walking our dogs on the hill above our house and taking a barbeque to the beach.  Early mornings add a lusciousness to the walk on the hill, which, even though it is over familiar ground, brings new lovely moments each day.  One morning it will be the sunrise, another morning it is the colors of the blooms on the blackberry brambles, another it is the sight of the tall grasses and then, later, the smell of it right after it is harvested.  

While in the middle of writing this I took an hour off to sit with neighbors as we cheered David on as he ran in the triathlon mentioned earlier. The gathering was very pleasant as we chatted about this or that, waiting for the three brief moments when he came within range and we could cheer him on. While this year it was sunny enough and dry, I suspect we would have been there even if it had been slogging down rain.

In a similar fashion, I would be walking my dogs in the rain - some mornings or evenings with the three of us all in our rain gear. Of course, the water and being bundled up do nothing to deter the dogs.

Why do I tell you these stories, hoping to provoke your own memories of kids, dogs and summer events?  Because I want to tie them to pleasure, engagement, positive relationship, meaning, and accomplishment (PERMA) – and the Theory of Wellbeing by Martin Seligman.  Perhaps it is easier to feel our wellbeing at this time of year as we notice experiencing and flourishing, in life.

The points I want to leave you with are that while triathlons aren't my thing, being a member of this community is.  That while there was some pleasure in hanging out with neighbors and a small amount of natural engagement, it was more about positive relationships and the meaning was about community and cheering on the accomplishment of someone else.  Relative to each other the five attributes of PERMA rise and fall.  What are your PERMA events this summer and how are they stacking up to help you lead a flourishing life?