The local bus that’s for everyone – even Christmas trees and dead turkeys

It might be one of the slowest bus services in Ireland, but none of its passengers seem to mind. ‘You get all the gossip on this bus’

Joe O’Keeffe on his way to back Tiger Roll in the Grand National. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision Magazine

Joe O’Keeffe on his way to back Tiger Roll in the Grand National. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision Magazine

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Austin O’Brien – antiques dealer, undertaker, taxi driver and, right now, bus operator – pulls up in his silver saloon car to the spot from where the 9am weekly Local Link Waterford service from Tallow to Dungarvan was supposed to have departed four minutes ago.

The bus will be leaving slightly late this morning, he explains, due to the fact the intending passengers are in the post office collecting their pensions.

When I looked at the timetable, I wondered whether this was the slowest bus service in Ireland. I drove the 32km from Tallow, a village on the Cork-Waterford border, to Dungarvan in less than half an hour. But the 9am service is not due to get into Dungarvan until 10.40am. Now, I’m starting to see why.

When we locate the bus outside the post office in Tallow, driver John Murphy explains there is a direct route, but this service takes the scenic route, collecting somewhere between 16 and 20 people on the way.

But we can’t leave yet, he adds. We’re waiting for passenger Liam Kirby to collect a prescription in the chemist.

I'm going to Dungarvan as there is nothing in Lismore, only dogs and jackdaws

Kirby, who is 73, arrives and takes his seat opposite Joe O’Keeffe, and the bus finally sets off, snaking its way up into the misty hills around Ballyduff and Ballysaggart, going on to the heritage towns of Lismore and Cappoquin, before finally pulling up at the big shopping centre in Dungarvan.

Rural buses don’t always run on time, but even by those relaxed standards, this not your typical public bus service – and it’s not designed to be. Operated by Local Link Waterford, and part of a national network of Local Link services funded by the National Transport Authority as part of an initiative to combat rural isolation, this is one of hundreds of services weaving an intricate web across some of the most remote parts of the country. Some of the routes operate like more conventional services, stopping only at scheduled stops. And then there are routes like this.

It started in 2003 and was only ever supposed to run for two or three years, says Teresa Fennell, the administrator for Local Link Waterford. “But then the take-up was so good. And when you give something to people who are isolated, you can’t just take it away. They see it as their bus now.

“We have people who get on the bus just to see other people. They’d have a cup of tea in Lismore, and then get back on the bus home. The bus trip is really the whole point,” says Fennell.

Murphy has been driving this route for two years – and his own route in a different part of the county before that. So he knows how important these services are to people in sometimes fractured local communities. One January, he picked a woman up after the Christmas break. “She said: ‘John it’s great to see you, I saw no one over Christmas’. So you can see how something like this is a great thing for older people.”

On a mission

Kirby and O’Keeffe are on a mission this morning. It is the day before the Aintree Grand National, and they both have to see a man about a horse. O’Keeffe is not rushing into anything – he’ll check the odds in Dungarvan first, and then he’ll take another bus to Youghal later before making his decision. The smart money is on local man Davy Russell. He hands me a slip of paper with three names on it – “Tiger Roll” is the top one. I put it in my pocket and forget about it, kicking myself when I find it several days after the Michael O’Leary-owned horse wins the National, ridden by Davy Russell.

Driver John Murphy: “You can see how something like this is a great thing for older people.” Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Driver John Murphy: 'You can see how something like this is a great thing for older people.' Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

As the bus winds along the country roads, stopping at townlands whose names are like playground incantations from long ago – Cooladoody, Mocollop, Cooleishal, Affane – Kirby says he knows this area like he knows the back of his own hand. He was the postman here for 28 years. “I started off on a push bike, it was that long ago. I was still the temporary postman after all that time, and I stayed that way until they brought a younger man up from Cork to replace me. So I came out of it with nothing,” he says.

He lives alone, he says, always has. “I made an attempt once,” he says. He is talking about relationships. “But it didn’t work out. We were always best friends, but it just wasn’t to be and that was it.” She married someone else, but they stayed friends. She’s not well now, he says, and turns to look out the window for a bit.

We reverse into Teresa O’Keeffe’s driveway and wait for a few moments for her to come out. Murphy doesn’t seem to mind. Not much fazes him. He regularly helps passengers into the house with their shopping. He sees that as part of the service. A lady once asked him to pick up a Christmas tree for her. “I put it on the bus and brought it back up home for her. We’ve brought a few turkeys home in our time too.

“Dead ones,” he adds.

When O’Keeffe boards, she takes a clipboard from him to write down the names of all the passengers. She takes the bus “90 per cent of the time”. “People would be lost only for it. We’re like a big family now. If there’s anything wrong, we’d know.”

She has lived in her pretty, well-kept house all her life, taking care of her mother until she died 2½ years ago. Six weeks ago, there was another blow when she lost a sister to lung cancer. “It comes that way,” she says. “There’s nothing you can do about it. You have to get on with it, or you’d be gone quare altogether.”

Now she lives with her two dogs, “two fine big fellas”, a collie and a husky. She got them after a break-in two years ago. She had just gone out to get new brake pads for the car, and she decided on a rare whim to treat herself to her dinner out in the middle of the day. When she came back, she noticed immediately that the door was ajar. The guards gave out to her later for going in. “They got a few bits and pieces only. But the place was ransacked.”

A great comfort

So the dogs are a great comfort these days. She walks a good five miles with them every day, and has lost 4½ stone since she got them. And they’re brilliant guard dogs. “Don’t walk up behind them,” she laughs.

Security is a frequent topic of conversation on the bus. Last year, their 90-year-old neighbour Paddy Lyons, who had travelled the bus a few times, was savagely beaten to death in his home in Ballysaggart. His death gouged a deep wound in the community, and it is one that hasn’t yet healed. Silence briefly descends when Joe O’Keeffe brings his name up.

“What about him?” someone says sharply, in a tone that suggests it’s not the kind of story you tell journalists, maybe not the kind of thing you talk about at all.

Bridie O’Brien gets on when the bus stops at the bottom of her driveway in Ballysaggart. She’s been living in the area for 36 years, and has seen a lot of changes in that time. You used to be able to do your shopping in Ballyduff, she says. There was a great hardware and a grocery shop. But they all closed down one by one, the last about six months ago, so now you have to go to Willie Roche’s in Lismore on a Saturday, or further into Dungarvan. That’s on the days she’s not looking after her 11-month-old granddaughter.

“I have her from half seven until six in the evening. It’s grand when she’s not walking, but I’ll be galloping after her soon.” She might bring her on the bus “when she’ll get a bit cuter. I will I suppose,” she says.

Mary Kennefick: on her way to get her pension in Lismore and on to Dungarvan for tea and shopping. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Mary Kennefick on her way to get her pension in Lismore and on to Dungarvan for tea and shopping. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Lizzy Prendergast and her friend Mary Kennefick also get on in Ballysaggart. “Will that be in the paper?” Prendergast asks, after she says her name. You’ll be famous, someone laughs. “Oh my God,” she says.

The two women will get their pension in Lismore and then in Dungarvan, they’ll do a bit of shopping, get a cup of tea. Kennefick, whose husband died 24 years ago, had to stop getting the other bus to Youghal on a Tuesday, because she didn’t want to take the bus driver out of his way. “There was only one or two of us on it from out this way, so I couldn’t do that to him. That wouldn’t be me at all.”

She is grand living on her own, even if she, like everyone else, worries about security. But she’s never been broken into. “That’d be all the prayers,” she explains.

Just beyond Ballysaggart, Bridie Murphy gets on. She hands over the €2.50 for a single fare. The price is technically €3, but they haven’t bothered to pass on the increase to the long-term passengers. She is on her way to her job in the cafe in Dungarvan. It’s one of three jobs the mother of seven juggles – she does a bit of house cleaning, and minds her grandchildren too. And she’s a sacristan in the church. “I’m not starting work until half eleven today, so it suits me grand.”

She hates driving nearly as much as she hates being idle, she explains. “So the bus is brilliant for me. I only wish it ran every day.” She thinks it’s great for the older people, giving them a much-needed social outlet.

At Lismore, the last remaining seats fill up.

Designated blackguard

Brendan Crowley, a handsome man with shining white teeth, doesn’t want his photo taken. Can I sit in beside him for a moment, I ask. “No. You’re grand where you are,” he says sharply, to hoots of laughter. Crowley, who is 80, is clearly the designated blackguard, a role he takes seriously. “Sure there’s nothing in Lismore only dogs and jackdaws,” he says, when I ask why he’s going to Dungarvan.

He lived in London as a younger man. “I left England because every time you’d go to work in the morning you’d have some smartarse making remarks. One morning, I came home and I just said to my wife, I’m putting it up with it no more.”

It was very hard when they came back – there were no jobs, no decent houses, so he worked at “a bit of everything”. They had four children. “Sure they’re old-age pensioners themselves now.”

One of them lives with him, since his wife died 14 years ago, but he does most things for himself, even if he is slowing down a bit. One thing he has noticed about getting older is that he finds it harder to get over illnesses. “But sure you’re young if you feel young.”

You will know you are a local when you start getting the gossip

All the same, he appreciates it when the driver on this bus, and the other Local Link Waterford bus to Youghal, bring the few messages to the door for you. “Other buses wouldn’t do that at all,” he says.

When I talk to Teresa Fennell later, she tells me about a woman on the Ardmore service who came home one day after a neighbour gave her a lift home, to find her house had been broken into, and everything was in disarray. “She didn’t want to bother anyone, and she was scared to leave, so she sat there for two days surrounded by the mess, until someone came to call on her. So when the Local Link Waterford bus started, the driver would always walk with her to her door, and put the shopping on the table, and make sure everything was okay. So she was happy out then. She had her independence back.”

A few years ago, Fennell took a call in the office from an 84-year-old woman who asked her to “find me a bus” into Dungarvan. Fennell realised the woman would probably struggle to manage the bus, so instead they set her up with a community care driver to bring her shopping and to Mass once a week. “They became great friends. They’d go to Mass together, and he’d drive her home, and light the fire for her, or clean the kitchen.” The woman is in a home now, so her day trips are over, but the driver still visits her.

University lecturer

Jeremiah Robert Mabele Shija is sitting at the very back. He is a university lecturer in international economics from Tanzania. “You get all the gossip on this bus,” he says.

He is on his way to Dungarvan to meet his wife, Damhnait Dennis, who has gone ahead to do some shopping. From Lismore, she’s the reason he’s here.

They met in Spain, where he was doing a PhD in international economics, and she was teaching English. They fell in love, and got married, and then moved to England. But we wanted good weather, he says, so they found jobs in Mexico.

That’s where they were living when she was diagnosed with cancer. “Everything was going really good.” He was lecturing in university and writing books, and she was teaching.

But then she got sick, “very sick”, he says. It happened really suddenly, just after she had returned from a trip to Ireland. Her legs swelled up, and at first they thought it was an after-effect of the flight. When they diagnosed it, she was 40. She came home for treatment. “They gave her just one month to live. But that was six years ago. She’s doing very well, but she’s still fighting,” he says quietly. The Irish health service is very good, if you’re really sick, he says.

“She’s a fighter. If it was me, I’d be already gone. But she’s back. She can argue with me again now, so I know she’s back,” he laughs.

He’s looking after Damhnait full-time now, so he can’t work. “Even if I could teach mathematics, that would be something. But it’s okay. I can’t complain. Sometimes, you need to lower expectations about your life. When I see her okay, I’m good.”

The bus has been an important part of their lives in the past few years. “The rural bus service for me is not only about moving people from point A to point B. It’s about community. It’s also about exchanging information. You’ll know you’re a local when you start getting the gossip. If somebody is not here, you know there’s something wrong with them. They look out for each other. They’re good people,” he says, as the bus finally pulls into Dungarvan, one hour and 40 minutes after its departure. But no one seems to mind a bit.

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