Bus Éireann Derry to Dublin route ends but memories endure
‘I remember people getting the bus to Dublin just to go to McDonalds. It was regarded as exotic’
At one stage the Derry to Dublin bus was the ‘only form of travel, and there was a camaraderie’ among the passengers. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times
The nearest I’ve ever come to the Sam Maguire was a glimpse from the window of the Derry to Dublin bus.
I was, like many others, a student travelling back to Dublin on a Sunday evening when the bus encountered the victorious Tyrone team – the 2003 All-Ireland winners - being escorted home on an open-topped bus, the trophy held aloft.
We spent a good half an hour stuck in a sea of Tyrone supporters in the main street in Carrickmacross, watching the celebrations from our Bus Éireann window.
Ask just about anyone from Derry, Tyrone or north Donegal, and they’ll tell you their own story of travelling on the Derry to Dublin bus – even if it’s just to nod knowingly about Monaghan bus station, or compare notes on border delays during the Troubles.
It’s a journey people from the north-west have made for generations - but, as of Sunday, it will no longer be made by Bus Éireann.
Route 33 – which currently runs two return services per day from Dublin to Derry – is one of several Bus Éireann routes which the company says it has no option but to close as part of cost-cutting measures.
Translink runs seven return services daily and so while a bus will still run from Derry to Dublin, for many in the north-west the loss of the Bus Éireann services is symbolic.
“If you get on a Greyhound bus you know you’re in America; if you get on a bus with a red setter on it, you’re in Ireland,” says Derry writer and playwright Dave Duggan.
“There’s something ironic about this,” says journalist and campaigner Eamonn McCann, “in that the all-Ireland dimension here is coming from the Northern public transport company, not the Southern one.”
For many people, the bus to Dublin was – and in certain places still is – their only way of reaching the capital. The link it created inevitably influenced the social, cultural and economic life of Derry and the north-west.
“There used to be a bus back to Derry from Dublin at 11 o’clock at night,” says McCann.
“It was perfectly possible to get the bus down, get a burger and go to either the Abbey or the Peacock Theatre, and then catch the bus back to Derry.”
“It sounds ridiculous now, but McDonalds was unheard of in the North at the time, and was regarded as something exotic.”
The Derry bus was a place where connections were made, experiences shared, and friendships formed.
“On one of my first trips to Derry in 1980, I went right up to the back seat and there was a fella asleep on what I realised was a kitbag,” says Duggan.
“He was an Irish army soldier just back from the Lebanon.
Irish army soldier
“We travelled up together and became friends and later I ended up working with him.
“To this day we still sit together at the Brandywell and have the best of craic.”
“I met an American who’d been stationed in Ireland years before and who was travelling back to find the base where he’d been stationed,” says Doherty.
“I also met some Germans on the bus one night who were arriving into Derry with nowhere to stay and no idea where to go.
“I took them home with me and my mother put them up for the night.”
Mary Harte began studying at UCD in 1972.
“It was really the only form of travel in those days, and there was a camaraderie, everyone knew everyone else.
“I used to hate going to get the bus to Dublin on the dark winter nights, the rain would be lashing on the window and you knew you had a long journey ahead.
“It used to pull into a pub in Monaghan town, the Ulster Arms, and you’d head up the stairs for a nice cup of tea in the lounge bar.
“Everyone who knows that bus knows the Ulster Arms.”
“I met Cyril Cusack in the Ulster Arms,” adds Duggan.
“He was the Belgian gun-maker in The Day of the Jackal, and I had a conversation with him about the gun his character had in that film.”
The pub was also the location for his first encounter with Brian Friel.
“This was the early 1980s and I was a beginner writer and dramatist.
“Mr Friel had something to do in Dublin and so he was going about his work and part of that was taking the bus to Dublin, and as someone who was starting out as a professional writer I thought, yeah, I’m on the right bus.”
When The Undertones were invited to play in Dublin, the bus was their only option.
“In the spring of 1977 The Radiators from Space, who were the Dublin punk band at the time, asked us to Dublin,” says Undertones bassist Mickey Bradley.
The only way was the bus
“We didn’t have a car, so the only way to get there was the bus. There was no other mode of transport.
“To this day our lead singer Paul McLoone, who doesn’t drive, will get the bus up from Dublin if we’re rehearsing in Derry.”
There is no hierarchy on the Dublin bus – and at no time was that commonality of experience more evident than during the Troubles.
Often the four-hour journey would turn into five or six hours, as the bus was delayed crossing the Border at Aughnacloy or at other checkpoints in Tyrone or Derry.
“The soldiers would come on,” explains Harte, and they would walk down through the bus with their rifles out.
“You just stared straight ahead, you didn’t engage with them.”
“When Special Branch came on the bus it always felt more menacing than when it was just soldiers,” explains Doherty.
“You could see them examining the appearance of some passengers, and asking them questions.
“Once, when we were stopped just outside Derry, one man, who looked like a student, said he lived just across the road and went to get off the bus and go home.
“He was taken away.”
“There had been so many sectarian attacks, and I remember thinking at the time that the people on the bus were very vulnerable.
“On one journey I’d nodded off somewhere around the Border and all of a sudden I woke up to see this British army helicopter come up from nowhere.
“It had been snowing, and the fields all around us were covered in white. I’ll never forget the lights of the helicopter shining on the white of the fields.
These days many of the old town centres are bypassed, journey times are shorter, and the bus serves Dublin airport.
Yet for Duggan, something of the experience has been lost.
“Sure, you can get in a car and go to Dublin, and the kids can sit in the back seat and stare at a screen and miss the countryside.
“But on the bus they’re going to meet interesting people, they’re going to look out of the window, and they’re going to travel with the red setter.
“There’s something mythic about that.”