Simon Qualter, driver with Bus Éireann
in conversation with Mary McCarthy
The first lockdown was especially lonely in the evenings with nobody out.
I was homeschooling and was working late shifts and often there would be no passengers for a couple of hours but a few would get on off to late shifts at one of Galway’s hospitals or other essential workers. People would see the buses and think things were in place.
Myself and my colleagues were in the same situation. You are driving an empty bus and you see another empty bus and wave, we would chat on breaks and make the most of it.
I would go to sleep thinking “I don’t want to wake up with this virus’, but it felt good to provide a service to those who needed it.
We are running on 25pc capacity and if I have to tell someone we are full I sometimes get an earful. I understand people are frustrated and try to be as nice as I can.
It’s a huge change from before when we would always be busy, especially at weekends taking people to matches and there would always be stag and hen parties.
The buses run from 6am to after midnight. I’m working tonight so will start at 4pm.
My routine depends on what shift I’m on and if I start later in the morning I get up around half seven and get the kids’ breakfast and ready for school.
I train the under-8s at the Oranmore camogie club so I can arrange shifts around that.
I work two weekends in five but if there is a special occasion, like my daughter Emily’s eighth birthday this Saturday, the roster can be rearranged.
My other daughter Fiadh is four and myself and Orla, who works for Ability West, work out the week. If I had a nine-to-five job this would be more difficult.
I give myself plenty of time and stop in Oranmore to grab a coffee before work. I park and walk up to the square to collect the bus off another driver and have a bit of a chat.
The job means I’m also a bit of a tour guide, especially in the summer with the students.
After a few hours, I go on a break. In normal times I would arrange with the lads to go out to lunch. I would sort it in the morning and then look forward to it. I’m really missing this.
I would usually have my main meal then but these days I am bringing in a packed lunch – tonight it’s a toasted cheese sandwich. It’s a bit sad and I’m looking forward to when we can meet up for lunch.
For the second half of my shift I do a different route. There is always a rush with the kids coming home from school. They are in great form and there’s a good buzz.
Then it’s the factory workers and bringing them home. Around 8:30, I’m getting ready to finish, I park up the bus, pay in my money and head home. I watch a bit of TV with Orla or read a book.
I could have a day off the next day or if I am on a late shift I can pick up the kids.
When I started fifteen years ago I did all the routes – Cork, Dublin, Sligo, Ballina. I have friends all over and would meet them for coffee but now I stick to the city routes as it suits my life better.
Sport, music and diggers
I grew up in Oranmore outside Galway city and loved school. I still have the friends I made there. My dad had a business hiring out diggers, and from a young age I was interested. I was mad into sport, music, lorries and trucks and would read Commercial Motor, NME and Shoot magazine each week.
When it came to filling out my CAO I had no idea so put down engineering in Sligo IT which wasn’t a great choice.
I had not done physics so was always playing catch-up. After two years I had a couple of exams I didn’t pass and didn’t pursue it.
I applied to Boston Scientific. The assembly line work was boring but the social side was great. Half of Galway worked there and it was always someone’s 21st. After two years I had enough and went to work with my dad to save to go to Australia with friends.
We lived in Sydney and afterwards travelled to New Zealand and the US.
I worked in the Royal Hospital for Women. I was working doing a bit of everything to do with the stores, changing oxygen bottles. It was my first job dealing with people and I liked it.
Coming home we flew back from Logan airport and missed the September 11 hijackers by 20 minutes. We didn’t have a clue what happened until the special forces got on at Heathrow.
I arrived back to Ireland and the question of what I was going to do with my life.
Keep on trucking
When I was a teenager a fellow told me if I had all my licences I’d never be stuck so I always had summer jobs driving machinery.
After Australia, I worked with my Dad. I continued to help him until he died eleven years ago. It was the Celtic Tiger and I also worked in Dublin and Waterford on the trucks.
I was queuing one day at the tax office and overheard a bus driver in his uniform chatting to another lady about his work. I was a couple of feet back and heard everything.
It sounded like a nice job, and when I mentioned this to my dad he agreed. We were working together one day when he brought it up again soon after and said: “You know, I really think that would be a great option for you.”
So that was that.
I applied and did the aptitude test, the demonstration of skills and the three-week training. By this time, I had met Orla and we were building our house – it was time to settle down.
On the Road
I like to listen to podcasts on the way to work: Eamon Dunphy, Guardian football weekly and GAA hour with Colm Parkinson. Some of the buses don’t have radios now but I can play it through the speaker.
When customers fall asleep, generally they have a lot of drink on board. I cautiously try to alert them, which can prove rather difficult. Then I call the control office who contacts the law.
When I drive the Oranmore route I know lots of the customers and we have a chat and there’s always someone waving from a car.
The wheels on the bus
When restrictions eased last summer the passengers came back, so I’d say I will be as busy as before when life gets back to normal.
My mum is a regular. She’s a retired nurse and works in a charity shop one day a week in Galway and like many people, the bus is her only mode of transport.
I just bought a new bike and we go cycling as a family. Before Covid, I played five-a-side and would often go swimming at the gym before work so it will be nice to get back to this. I’d give anything to go out for a meal with Orla or go out and meet friends.
Driving around yesterday evening, I could see queues going into the medical centre to get their jabs. That cheered me up – also because my mum is getting her vaccination today.
I know people who have lost jobs and I’m grateful I can go to work. I’m very happy with my job and how I can fit my family and interests around it. That’s the best thing about it. And the people, there’s a great camaraderie.