The railway came to Skerries about 160 years ago, in the middle of The Great Famine.It seems like an unlikely time to speculate on new-fangled machines and a network of tracks all over the country. Like the famine, the railways radically changed this country. The engineers created new landscapes, levelling or cutting through hills and piling embankments across swamps and valleys. Everything was subservient to gradient. Elegant viaducts stride across rivers and estuaries. For the first time speed greater than that of a galloping horse became possible. The fascination of railways still survives.
It is ironic to think that what fascinates us most, is often that which is forbidden. The Duke of Wellington, then Prime Minister, saw at close quarters, his political rival, Huskisson, killed by Stevenson’s Rocket. It instilled in him a horror of trains. He instructed that railways and trains should be hedged about by fences and notices warning of dire punishments for any who trespass on the tracks. Those notices are still there, elegant cast iron warnings with raised print. A century and a half of paint made many illegible, but they fulfill the letter of the law. In the cast iron awning at the station you will still see the letters GNR intertwining amid the struts and braces. The railway age was the time when cast iron sprouted and blossomed into Corinthian pillars and fruit-laden boughs. Some of that old decency survives amid the electronics and loud-speakers.
Mr. Sreenan was once the station master. He was a small good-natured man with a high-pitched voice. I remember him mostly in his retirement. He lived near us. His wife kept hens. I was often sent to buy eggs, a task which I enjoyed. Their front door was exactly the same as ours, but on a smaller scale. It was on the level, with no visible doorstep. I could reach the knocker. I was a giant. I pounded on the knocker and said in a deep, rumbling giant’s voice: ‘Mammy wants to know if you can oblige with a dozen eggs.’ That was in the days when people ‘obliged with a song’ or ‘obliged with the time’. Actually I didn’t pound. I minded my manners. My voice squeaked, but it felt great to be a giant, if only for a few minutes. Mr. Sreenan gave me his bike when he got too old to ride it. It was the most comfortable bike in the world, with a step on the back axle. I had it for a week. My brother pranged it, doing speedway around Red Island. He has promised to fix it for me.
Mr. Canning’s time was the golden age of the station. His sons were much the same age as we were. This gave us the entree to the platforms and even the signal box, with its battery of levers and cables. I marvelled at how the signal men knew which lever to pull, or push. They had lanterns which they lit in the evening before plodding off to the distance signals. They carried awesome responsibility and power. Very occasionally they remembered Wellington’s warnings and chased us off the premises. At the northern siding lay The Ballast Pit, where locomotives scraped out their furnaces and dumped the cinder. There was an ever-smouldering fire at the Ballast Pit, where people came to pick coke in winter time. I recall boys coming late to school with the soot and ashes on their hands and the shame-faced excuse: ‘Pickin’ coke, Sir.’ We would call it sustainable recycling nowadays.
The railway livery was mediaeval in its splendour. The buses were navy and fawn, with a British Leyland tiger leaping dramatically out of the bonnet. The GNR coat of arms was a shield with ships and castles, the red hand of Ulster, a sword and strangest of all, a genial skeleton sitting on a sack of coal. I was fascinated by his smile. I thought he had a great job, riding around on trains and buses all the time.
Just as the railway imposed its will on the landscape, creating swamps and embankments, it imposed itself on human behaviour. People became its minions. The timetable ruled their lives. If one commuter broke into a trot, everybody followed suit. Scientists study flocks of birds to find out about this herd /flock behaviour. It’s quite simple. If you don’t run you won’t get a seat. You won’t be able to read your paper or meet your usual travelling companions. This, of course, does not apply to starlings. Nowadays people travel with plugs in their ears. They don’t look out at the sunrise over Rogerstown or Howth or the splendour of the harvest fields. They fiddle with their phones or sit immobile, with that thousand-yard-stare of the terminally catatonic. In this way, they can avoid seeing the elderly or pregnant and not feel obliged to oblige with the offer of a seat.
The alternative is to commute by car and spend the time clenching the steering wheel and swearing. Did you see Michael Douglas on the freeway in Falling Down? His subsequent behaviour was a bit over the top, but he had a point.
Mr. Canning had a regrettable habit of making sure that the train departed on time. In the interests of safety, he closed the platform gate. This sometimes infuriated my father, who usually timed his sprint to perfection. There were heated exchanges.
‘Just because you have a bit of scrambled egg on your cap…’ At first I thought he was alluding to a hasty breakfast or a small commercial transaction, but it was a charge that came out of the pit of antiquity, the resentment of senior officers and ‘dogs obeyed in office.’ The next train was in an hour’s time, time enough to come back home and fume over another cup of tea. We stepped warily and got ready for school. Sadly, Mr Canning was killed by a motor car, outside our house. My father was very upset. ‘Decent bloody fellow.’
The GNR passed away. The great steam locomotives were supplanted. You can no longer stick your head over the parapet of a railway bridge and get a face full of smoke. The parapets have all been raised in the interests of safety. Diesel trains in CIE green, took over. No longer in the dark can you trace the passage of a train by the puffing of smoke and the hiss of steam. If there is a tear in your eye when remembering those bygone days, at least it is not from grains of soot wafted in through an open window.
Brother Malachy explained how parallel lines can do amazing things in geometry. They never meet. Except,of course, in infinity. He smiled at our puzzlement at this vast concept. When there was no steam locomotive available, there was occasionally an electric rail car. There was a seat beside the driver, although he lived in an enclosed cabin with levers and buttons and the fascinating ‘dead man’s handle’. Perhaps that was the skeleton’s job. From this much contested seat you had the same view as the driver. Brother Malachy was mistaken. Parallel lines meet beyond the golf course, just before you get to Lusk. Somewhere beyond that again, the old GNR trains still rumble onwards into infinity.