An Irishman's Diary

 

Why are there no songs about the Dublin-Sligo train service? Maybe there are, and I've just missed them. Or if there were none before now, perhaps a passenger on the 5.05pm from Connolly last Sunday wrote one during the seven hours it took to reach the north-western capital. If not, I appeal to musicians to rectify the situation and honour this national treasure, however belatedly.

The Dublin-Sligo train is clearly the spiritual descendant of the West Clare Railway, which closed 46 years ago, but only after achieving musical immortality. In fact, the story of its famous song has a Sligo link - because that's where Percy French started his fateful journey one morning in 1897, bound for Kilkee and an 8pm concert.

His plan was intact as far as Ennis. But in providing him with the material for one of his greatest hits - "Are you right there, Michael?" - the last leg of the journey also deprived him of a concert. He was so late when he reached Kilkee, apparently, that the audience had gone home.

The worst thing endured by the passengers in his satirical tribute to the railway is that they have to collect firewood when the stoker runs out of coal. They also have to get off the train on the steeper sections of the track. Or as the song put it: "Uphill the old engine is climbin'/ While the passengers push with a will/ You're in luck when you reach Ennistymon/ For all the way home is down hill." But it sounds as if the Sligo-bound passengers last Sunday would have welcomed such distractions, if only as an opportunity to warm up.

Instead, they were stuck on a "bitterly cold" train, where they couldn't buy a cup of tea because there was no water. A few did disembark where the engine broke down - at Killucan, near Mullingar - and walked for a mile in search of hot food. Back on board, meanwhile, the only consolation in the lack of liquid refreshment was that the toilets were unusable.

All in all, it sounds like excellent material for a simple, 36-verse ballad.

As I envisage it, the song would begin optimistically, with the train racing towards Kilcock, full of high spirits (if not water). A note of concern might creep in at Enfield, where the engine would be making strange noises. Then the breakdown would occur and it would be a slow descent into horror: from the depletion of the tea trolley, to the passengers' desperate but vain sortie out into Apache country - Westmeath, as it's known locally - to the terrible moment when the passengers first contemplate cannibalism.

That thought would quickly turn into action (". . .and before we left Killucan/The poor trolley boy was cookin', etc); so that when the train finally limped into Sligo, the surviving passengers would disembark sadder, wiser, and united by a dark secret.

In the right hands, the song could be a tribute not just to the Sligo route but to every bad experience rail travellers in Ireland have ever had. And since unreliable trains are now the only link left with the Ireland of Percy French, maybe the lyrics could reflect this too. The chorus could be something along the lines of: "We're not there yet (Michael). But we're getting there."

French's song became a big embarrassment to the West Clare railway, and spawned at least one urban-rural myth. The generally agreed account is that the company sued for libel, or at least threatened to sue, and that French counter-sued for loss of earnings. But in the more colourful versions, the composer went down to Clare for the court case and turned up late, attributing his lack of punctuality to the same infamous train, whereupon the judge found in his favour.

Sadly, this never happened. The Irish Times archive's last word on the subject is from April 1961, when the newspaper's radio reviewer tracked the myth back to a documentary of a few years before, which had attributed such a sweet resolution of the dispute to the imagination of the composer himself.

The documentary had made clear that "no action came into court". Nevertheless, the event had entered folklore. Our radio reviewer noted that a Sunday newspaper had since found at least one elderly Clare man who remembered seeing French board the train in Ennis en route to attend the case.

Earlier the same year, on February 1st, 1961, this newspaper also reported the tearful closure of the railway. Even this event was mishandled by CIE. To prevent embarrassing scenes, the company cancelled the final scheduled service out of Ennis, so that what was supposed to be the penultimate train was in fact the last.

Such a dastardly ploy had been foreseen, however. The earlier train was packed and hundreds lined the route to watch it pass. The final passengers drank bottles of stout and played music. And when the engine pulled into Kilkee for the last time, a large crowd serenaded it with French's song, proving that there really is no such thing as bad publicity.