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Journeys on trains and of the beating heart


Con Houlihan

Con Houlihan

Con Houlihan

CAN YOU remember your first time on a train? I can, and I have no trouble with the date. It was September, 1937. The reason I know is because it was the first time that the All-Ireland Hurling Final was played in Killarney. Of course my brother and myself were very excited, all the more so because we would be seeing our first ever game of Hurling. We were well able to cycle.

We had no bikes but that wouldn't be a problem – it was a great age for borrowing. My mother, however, decided that we were too young – the roads would be thronged. And so we were present and correct in our local Railway Station in good time for the train.

It steamed off at eleven. It was only fifteen miles to Killarney. Little did we know. We halted at Gortatlea Junction, five miles on the way.

Big long trains were clattering through almost every five minutes. Our little train couldn't move. After about half-an-hour a little party of boys and girls got out. Somebody produced a mouth organ. They began dancing sets on the platform. It provided an ideal floor. Trains and time went by.

One of the most respected citizens of our town lost patience. Jer Nolan was a baker who also had a famous bread shop. He was a handsome man with a great head of white hair. When he spoke people listened. “This” he said, “is a fiasco.”

I doubt if any of us had heard the word before – but it didn't need to be explained.

At last the main rail line got quiet. Our little train got permission to move. We steamed into Killarney about three o'clock. If we had been still in Gortatlea, we wouldn't have missed much: Tipperary walked roughshod and smoothshod over Kilkenny. The atmosphere in the town that night compensated for the debacle.

It was a great age of political ferment. All over Europe Hitler and Mussolini were on the way up. That night in Killarney long ago you could hear orators at almost every street corner.

Some stood on boxes; some stood on chairs; some stood on their feet. All had one thing in common, they were threatening to free Ireland.

Our little train was due to depart at nine. Of course it didn't, we didn't mind. There was great fun down at the station too. It was after midnight when my brother and myself got home.

Our father and his trusty bike were home long before us. We were still too excited to sleep. We had seen our first game of Hurling, even if it hadn't been a game at all – and we had acquired a new word. Better was to come: when I consulted the dictionary, I discovered that it was an Italian word. It meant a glass bottle that had gone wrong in the blowing.

I was delighted. The day hadn't been a fiasco after all.

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Our next venture on a train was to a big football game in Tralee about eleven miles away. The outward journey was quiet: the return was not without uncertainty – for a while it seemed that it might not start that night. We were due to depart at eight but several pilgrims were missing. Our driver knew that we couldn't return without them. Search parties were sent out. Some of the missing pilgrims came back on their own. Some of the search parties didn't.

Eventually all were aboard that were going aboard.

About eleven o'clock we steamed off. On the journey back old feuds broke out. The occasion was fraught but the combatants hadn't room to fight. Some pilgrims decided to speed up the journey by pulling the communications cord. It was well after midnight when we docked. There a distraught huddle of women were waiting, some fearing and some hoping that they would never see their menfolk again I never think of Dublin's chief station as other than Kingsbridge. Habits die hard. I love that station. It was John Betjeman's favourite – he was an authority in that field. I am old enough to remember the birth of the township that Dubs call Ballyfarout and I feel a quiet satisfaction looking at those nice houses that freed people from the tenements.

I have an especial memory of a train journey I made a long time ago in our neighbouring island. I was travelling from Paddington to Fishguard on an early train. A lovely little fairhaired girl and I had the carriage to ourselves.

She was poring over the crossword in The Daily Telegraph, sometimes frowning, sometimes smiling. I had done most of that same crossword that morning on the train up from Hastings. I had the page in my bag but of course I didn't take it out. Eventually I dared to suggest an answer to that lovely girl – she was pleased. I didn't overdo the act: I gave her a few more answers – and then we concentrated on those clues that neither of us had solved. We were like old friends and had only a few clues left as the train stopped at Newport. My heart sank a little as she gathered up her few things. We shook hands rather sadly. Who said that parting is such sweet sorrow? It was the story of an unfinished crossword and an unfinished romance.

When we were in the primary school long ago, we loved our railway and our trains. The train brought us the English newspapers – and brought the comics on Fridays. And that lovely horizontal ladder would be our pathway to the big world outside.

There is a famous story about our station. It concerns a man called The Puckanneen Keane, a man well known for his quickness of mind. The story goes back to the days when Portlaoise was known as Maryborough. The Puckanneen had never been on a train until a day came when he had to go to Dublin.

He didn't know how to go about getting a ticket – so he stood behind a man and a girl at the ticket window. He listened intently to the girl. She said: “Maryborough, Second, Single”. The Puckanneen said: ”Maurice Keane, Third, Married”.

FOGRA: My congratulations go to Jim Hogan, legendary athlete, on the publication of his life’s story.