‘Goodbye, Con Colbert Road’ – a farewell to AA Roadwatch, my workplace for 12 years

The traffic and travel reports have come to a halt after 32 years

Esther O’Moore Donohoe: ‘When I’d tell people I worked for AA Roadwatch they’d mostly ask “Do you ever get to go in a helicopter?”’

Esther O’Moore Donohoe: ‘When I’d tell people I worked for AA Roadwatch they’d mostly ask “Do you ever get to go in a helicopter?”’

 

In my 12 years working for AA Roadwatch, I amassed a lot of great memories and even more completely useless and non-transferable information. Pre-pandemic, you’d often find me in the kitchen at parties, a small crowd gathered, all of them firing motorway junction numbers at me, testing my knowledge.

J27 on the M7? Birdhill. J15 on the M50? Kilternan of course! J5, M8? Guys, it’s Twomileborris, obviously.

They’d then all clap and carry me on their shoulders, chanting “LEGEND! LEGEND! LEGEND!” as we’d do laps of the front room. And then I’d wake up.

In reality though, when I’d tell people I worked for AA Roadwatch they’d mostly ask “Do you ever get to go in a helicopter?” followed by “What’s Conor Faughnan like?” and then “Have you ever met Lorraine Keane?” The answers to which would be “1. No. 2. Very nice and 3. Yes. She’s very nice too.”

Others would repeat “rounnnndaboutttt” or “bumperrr to bumperrr” in their best Dublin 4 accent, which was as funny the 700th time as it was the first. Taxi driver questions were in a different league, given they were fellow traffic experts themselves. Frequently, they’d let me know about a traffic light sequence change they didn’t like or they’d ask me to pass on suggestions to Conor, like the one who said “You lot should start AA Birdwatch ‘cause a load of seagulls carpet bombed my car on the South Circular Road and I’m only after gettin’ it washed.”

In hindsight, he could have been onto something.

Conor Faughnan of AA Roadwatch watches a video on Dublin traffic with then Fine Gael leader John Bruton and Oliva Mitchell, spokesperson on Dublin Traffic in 2002
Conor Faughnan of AA Roadwatch watches a video on Dublin traffic with then Fine Gael leader John Bruton and Oliva Mitchell, spokesperson on Dublin Traffic in 2002

The radio traffic reports were what most people associated with Roadwatch. They’d hear us in the mornings and evenings, chatting with the various presenters and then go on with their days. But after our reports were done, we still had a full shift to do.

And yes, working in a newsroom dedicated to traffic and travel was as sexy and dynamic as it sounds. If you were on earlies, shifts started at 6am, or earlier if there was a major weather event or State visit. And like any newsroom, we’d have to find our stories every hour, which meant endlessly calling Garda stations, emailing engineers, talking to bus garages, working with the corporation and watching Twitter. Roadwatch was open 6am-11pm, Monday to Sunday, bank holidays, Christmas Day, New Years, rain, hail or snow. During Storm Emma, we all stayed in a hotel in town to guarantee we’d make it in for morning broadcasts. Traffic never sleeps and neither did Roadwatch for those few days. Elaine O’Sullivan, who could usually be heard on Lyric FM with Marty Whelan says of Roadwatch: “I will never work anywhere like it again. That team spirit is one of a kind.”

But it wasn’t all inputting stop/go systems on the N80 in Portlaoise at the James Fintan Lalor Roundabout. No siree. Every few days we’d be gifted with a wayward horse or rogue cow that would see our Twitter mentions light up with various riffs on “only in Ireland”.

Derek Ryan, who broadcast on Today FM from 2001-2014, remembers the time a truck carrying hens overturned in Cavan. As they clucked their way to freedom, they proceeded to lay eggs on the road. Who said traffic wasn’t eggciting?

Former AA Roadwatch reporter Emma Caulfield pictured in the Roadwatch newsroom in 2001. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Former AA Roadwatch reporter Emma Caulfield pictured in the Roadwatch newsroom in 2001. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

In the run up to St Patrick’s Day each year, we’d input every single parade for every single town and village that had one. We simply couldn’t be touched when it came to aggregating national flatbed truck processions. When President Obama and Queen Elizabeth visited, the website nearly exploded with the amount of people logging onto to check when roads were opening and closing. Who knows what will become of it now?

But there’s only so long one can maintain the hedonism of the traffic and travel reporting lifestyle. After year 10, the 5:30am alarm calls start to lose their sheen. And there are only so many times you can type the sentence “A bridge lift will take place on Rice Bridge in Waterford City at 3pm. Expect delays” before Peggy Lee’s Is That All There Is starts to play on a loop in your brain.

So, goodbye, Con Colbert Road. Adios, The Viaduct in Cork and toodleoo to the N4 Inner Relief Road in Sligo Town. We had joy, we had fun and had breakdowns on the N1 but we’ve come to the end of the road.

Roadwatch was always more than reminding motorists to turn on their fog lights or warning them of treacherous conditions. It was the routine of hearing familiar voices on whatever radio station you listened to every morning. It was our interactions with the gardaí, councils, emergency services, engineers and our friends in Dublin City Council, who all worked with us to help get people where they were going safely.

And personally, it was about my wonderful colleagues. In all the various Roadwatch configurations I’ve worked with over years, I’ve been lucky to meet so many talented and hard-working people, not least the current team who worked with laughter and grace through a pandemic. “It was always a good humoured and happy place to work,” says Conor Faughnan. “It’s definitely the end of an era.”

So, I’m going to hit the road and sign off one last time. I want to beat the traffic. Esther O’Moore Donohoe, AA Roadwatch.

Esther O’Moore Donohoe is a writer and podcaster. Follow her @esthertwonames on Instagram.

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