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.


  1. Victor, your stories are delightfully written. They bring back fond memories of the many hours I spent in the living room on Sunday’s listening to my Dad; another wonderful story teller. His Mom was also a school teacher. One of five siblings, he grew up on a farm in the Midwest.

    I smiled so hard, while reading this blog, my cheeks now hurt a bit. Your words illustrate vivid action-packed pictures. Your stories captivate, thoroughly entertain and close with rewards for the reader.

    In ‘SURPRISE RAIL TRIP TO THE DENTIST’, I couldn’t help but hear in my minds ear, words I’ve read from your DNA about the romanticism of trains. Another connection I pictured was a very tall teen on the station platform stepping towards an arriving train in THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY with Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland. I am certain this lad was as equally enthralled by his Dad’s stories as was I in the 1950s and now with your blogs. Do you Fathers realize what a wonderful gift and foundation for life you gave to your children? Thank you George and thank you Victor.

    You were a commendable lad, to keep that thrilling event secret for 20 years. I can just picture your note-worthy Dad riding his bicycle laden with mushroom-stuffed boiler suits; as the neighbours peered through the shutters. And I can hear them shouting out across their gardens to each other, “Jimmy-in-Warners has a treasure!”