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Reminiscences by Soinbhe Lally
The Erne Bus Service, based in Enniskillen and providing a service from Clones and Cootehill to Bundoran, was founded in 1929 by my father, Maurice Cassidy, who came from Letterbreen Co Fermanagh.
The service remained in operation from April 1929 until it was compulsorily acquired by the Ulster Transport Authority on 30 September 1957 as part of a nationalisation policy of all transport services in Northern Ireland.
Maurice left home in 1909 to take up a scholarship at a teacher training college in Dublin but was dismissed from college on his first day there because he could not sing. Ashamed to go back home, he shipped out to Glasgow and got work as a conductor on the Glasgow trams.
He then worked his passage as a steward on a ship to New York and jumped ship there. He remained in New York till 1929 working as a tram and taxi driver. He also dabbled a little in illicit distilling and liquor transporting during prohibition which once resulted in his spending a night in jail in Mexico. In 1929 he lost most of his savings in the Wall Street Crash and returned to Ireland with only a little money and a dream of opening up the country roads with a bus service.
His first bus was a second hand Chevrolet bought in England and shipped over to Ireland. He was licensed to provide a service from Enniskillen to Bundoran via Derrygonnelly. His family were astonished at this ambitious plan. His Aunt Anne, an old woman who could remember the famine, was on her deathbed as they waited for the bus to arrive from England and her dying words were: “How Maurice is going to get the bus down the lane?”
The country people were delighted with the new bus service. My mother lived at Leg, near Roscor, on the Enniskillen Bundoran route and remembers the day her mother mustered enough courage to put up her hand and stop the bus at their front door. She returned later, thrilled with the new freedom and independence of being to go to Ballyshannon and Bundoran without having to wait for a man to harness a horse into a trap, and all for half a crown return fare. Her neighbour Mrs Morrow gave her opinion more bluntly: “Wouldn’t you rather pay half a crown and ride in comfort than to be out in the rain with a horse farting in your face.”
As my father could not provide an adequate service with one bus he borrowed money from his brother with which he bought two Black Marias. Passengers were often brought on the outward journey on the bus and brought home in the Black Marias. My mother remembers returning from a Twelfth of July outing to Lisbellaw in the early thirties in a Black Maria and hearing one man complain “They brought us out on a bus and home in a chicken coop”. She also remembers seeing the bus at Christmas, festooned with Christmas decorations on the insides of the windows.
Dublin Express Service
My father did very thorough book-keeping and left record books which show that the cost of running a bus during the early thirties averaged 3d per mile. He started a Dublin express service for ten shillings return which could make the trip faster than the train. This was the first Enniskillen-Dublin Road Express since Bianconi’s coaches. An old white bearded man once got on the bus near Lisbellaw and told my father that he remembered the Royal Mail passing that way with six horses in front and two red-coats armed with blunderbusses on the back.
In the early thirties there were several bus companies operating in Fermanagh, notably Hezekiah Appelby’s and Clarke’s. Clarke’s was the largest company and was determined to put the newer companies out of business. Clarke drivers had orders that when they met a bus from a rival company they were to run it off the road. Hezekiah Appelby whose service ran from Belcoo to Bundoran gave up after a few years and went into the taxi business. The Erne buses however kept going and when a Clarke bus met an Erne bus on the road they played chicken, with one bus winding up in the ditch, much to the delight of the passengers on the winning bus. There were no serious injuries during these episodes as the buses were built of wooden and aluminium sheets over wooden frames and absorbed most of the impact.
The most notorious Clarke driver was Johnny Goan (nicknamed Johnny Goin’ Goin’ Gone) who ran Erne buses into the ditch several times before my father solved the problem by offering him higher wages to come and work for him. Johnny Goan remained a leading personality on the Erne Bus Service until it was compulsorily acquired by the Ulster Transport Authority in 1957.
He was a small, stout man who could whistle and sing to entertain passengers. I remember he used to sing and whistle “Black-Eyed Susie” to a dark-eyed girl called Eileen Haughey who is now Sister Eileen in Convent of Mercy in Ballyshannon. One of his most arduous jobs was to drive each new Leyland bus chassis from Belfast. In the early days only the new chassis was bought from England and the body was built in Ireland. Magee’s coachworks in Irvinestown built several bus bodies. My cousin Jimmy Murphy also built bus bodies during the war years. As driving a chassis was a very cold job Johnny had to stop at each town between Belfast and Enniskillen to warm himself up with whiskey. He always arrived in Enniskillen very drunk and was laid up for a couple of days after with “a bad cold”. As there was not much road traffic at the time he was never caught drunk driving. He and my father remained good friends always and it was Johnny who was at my father’s bedside, holding his hand, when he died in 1967.
Separate registrations for buses
Buses had to be registered separately in Northern Ireland and in the Freestate, with considerable taxes to be paid in both jurisdictions. When DeValera’s government introduced tax concessions for buses assembled in the Republic of Ireland, my father took advantage of this by having each new bus dismantled at the border and brought across in bits and pieces to be re-assembled in the Freestate. One of these dismantled buses was transported to a garage beside Sweeney’s Hotel in the Port in Ballyshannon to be reassembled. All went well till the job was finished and then they found that the bus was too big to get out through the garage door! They had to toss the front of the garage to get it out.
During the War Years the bus service boomed because very few people could obtain petrol or even rubber parts for cars. There were special concessions for buses but my father had to keep a car for bus inspection on each side of the border at one stage because he was not allowed to drive a Freestate car into the north or a Northern one into the south because petrol rationing was so strict. Later that rule was relaxed.
Special instructions had to be issued during war rationing to drivers not to let the engine run when they let passengers off to do errands or collect shopping as this wasted fuel. It was routine for country women to shop in Ballyshannon, take a later bus on to Bundoran and then, on their way home, make the bus wait in Ballyshannon while they picked up their shopping. This often took up to half an hour and on a fair day the bus had to wait to gather all the men from the pubs. As the driver usually took responsibility for rounding up the men he was sometimes less than sober by the time the bus took off again. One such incident happened after a Belleek fair. I remember my father having to take out a second bus because the bus from Bundoran had gone over a ditch at a place called “The Sandy Garden” when the driver, Hughie Quinn fell asleep at the wheel. Nobody was hurt. Hughie was sacked but was reinstated a few days later when his wife gave my father a good telling off, saying “A man must have his drink.”
Smuggling was a way of life
Smuggling was a way of life in the war years. Once a bus, complete with passengers, was impounded by British customs because the driver was smuggling a box of nails from the North. They were held till my father paid £50 for their release. Demand for bus seats to Bundoran was so great in summertime that maids were often sent as early as ten o’clock to the bus garage to sit all morning on a Bundorn bus seat and hold it for her mistress who would then take the seat when the bus came up to the Diamond at one’clock.
My father wooed my mother on the Bundoran route, bringing her sweets at first and then progressing to a present of a gold watch, the first watch in my mother’s family. He tried to ingratiate himself with my mother’s father, a loyal orangeman who had no intention of letting a Catholic marry his daughter, and once stopped the bus to offer him a lift when he was driving a sow on the road. My grandfather accepted and hauled the sow on board.
My mother’s family used Lough Erne, which was just across the road, as a bathroom. She and her sister were once down there having a bath in readiness for going to Bundoran when the bus arrived early. Someone at the house waved it down for them and all on board were regaled with the sight of the girls having to skulk back into the house to get dressed. Naturally the bus waited till they were ready.
In the late 1930′s my father persuaded my mother to come to the London Motor Show with him to look at buses. She set off from home on her bicycle with her suitcase on the carrier, pretending she was visiting her brother in Brookborough. When she and my father had looked enough at buses in London they went on to Paris where they went to the Follies Bergeres and my mother saw the most appallingly sinful show on earth. A week later she arrived back home on her bicycle and told what a nice time she’d had in Brookborough. There followed an elopement in 1940 and marriage in the Rock Chapel Ballyshannon.
Busmen lodged in our house
My own recollections of the buses date from the late forties. Several of the busmen lodged in our house and in another house across the street. One of my earliest memories is of lying in my cot listening to men from the night runs coming upstairs and calling men who had to go out on early morning runs. The Clones bus arrived before breakfast time and the bus conductor cleared one end of the kitchen table to count the fares and fill out his waybill which he put in the drawer of the dresser. The conductor’s bags were hung on the back of the kitchen door with a float of small change still in it. I tried stealing out of this one time but the shopkeeper would not give me sweets without ration tickets so the money was of no use to me and I put it back.
Fred Doherty was the usual Clones conductor. He had heart trouble and my father insisted he should have cocoa instead of tea at breakfast, which he considered better for him. Fred preferred tea so he had a cup of each put before him and there was a rush to hide Fred’s tea if we heard my father on the stairs. Fred died at Easter in 1956, an event which I solemnly recorded in a diary which I kept that year.
The buses in the fifties were mainly Leylands and were bought new at the London Motor Show which my parents visited every autumn. They were delivered fully built by then with a wonderful innovation – heaters, which were always mentioned in the advertising. Most of the buses had names. I remember the Dodge, the Comet, the Cheetah, the Bedford, two fifty-four seaters, a thirty-three seater and two Tiger coaches which were 44 seaters, among the biggest single decker buses in Ireland at the time. The pride of the fleet arrived in 1954, a Leyland coach which was the first coach style bus in Ireland. The night it arrived from Belfast a few hundred people came down to Belmore Street and waited for it. I and my brothers and sisters had walked out the road to meet it and rode into town in glory. This coach was reserved for private bookings and was never put into general service. It not only had a heater – it had a wireless!
Routes over the years included the Enniskillen-Bundoran route on the north side of Lough Erne through Kesh and Boa Island, as well as the direct south shore road route, Enniskillen-Pettigo, Cavan-Bundoran, Clones-Bundoran and day trip specials. There was also an Erne bus service operating under our cousin Ned Maguire in the Carragallen-Ballinamore area which did day-trips to Bundoran.
Bundoran Sea Baths
The Bundoran Sea Baths provided an extension of the tourist season after the harvest as the country people considered a seabath to be therapeutic and took a day-trip to Bundoran in August or September when the sea was “ripe” from the release of iodine from seaweed into the water. Travers’ Baths (owned by Liam Travers’ family) and Philips’ Baths were still functioning in the fifties and buses were still doing good business bringing country people for a bath. This was especially important for the week-day bus trade as the country people preferred to bath on a weekday.
The buses did a parcel delivery service. Boxes of day-old chicks from the hatchery were regularly stashed in front of our Aga cooker keeping warm until their bus was due to take them out the country. In the days before electricity, when wirelesses had wet batteries, the buses carried batteries to McNulty’s bicycle shop in Enniskillen to be re-charged and then delivered them back out the country to their owners. My father once experimented with charging a wet battery on the charger which he used for bus batteries and set the wet battery on fire.
The parcel service once led to a close shave for the family. In the IRA fifties campaign a parcel was left in, to be delivered to Swanlinbar British Customs hut and left there for collection by its owner. When the bus returned that way in the evening the parcel had not been collected. The proper procedure was for the parcel to be brought back and left in our kitchen -to go out on the bus again next day. However the customs officer said he would keep it till the next day it in case someone would come for it. In the middle of the night the customs hut blew up. The parcel contained a time bomb, which would have been in our kitchen if proper procedures had been followed.
Cream with a brown curl along each side
The buses were well maintained. They were painted each year, cream, with a brown curl along each side, and an upholsterer came from Belfast to re-upholstered the seats. Conductors were responsible for keeping the buses swept out and garage boys washed and polished the buses on a wash stand at the side of the bus garage. There was a diesel pump and a very old petrol pump which had to be pumped by hand and had two glass bulbs on top. The Ulster Transport Museum got permission to take away this pump in the early 70s but the IRA tried to blow up the bus garage which was then property of the County Council and wrecked the antique pump in the process.
Some of the drivers were Johnny Goan, Hughie Quinn, Sonny Harron, Harry McAuley, Eugene Corrigan, Tommy Howe, Packey McGuinness, Packey McIntyre, Paddy Cadden, The mechanic was Jimmy McCombes. Some conductors were Desmond Cox, Spud Murphy, Tom Palmer, Sonny McGovern, Fred Doherty. Office girls were Lena McAuley and Vera Leonard.
In the fifties Johnny Goan drove the “Dodge”, an old Leyland bus which he liked better than the newer bigger buses coming into service. Each Sunday in summer about half a dozen buses left the Diamond in Enniskillen for Bundoran. I always made sure I was on the Dodge because once a bus was fully loaded it joined in the race to Bundoran, an unofficial event involving both buses and cars and sometimes the train also where the GNR line ran alongside the road between Belleek and Ballyshannon. If there was a queue of traffic in the Port in Ballyshannon the bus would tear up the Rock and down the other side to get by as there was no Allingham Road then. The Dodge was always the first bus to reach Bundoran.
Coming down Finner straight was a special moment because as we hurtled along at enormous speed in the shaky old bus the passengers raised a cheer for the tricolour flying over Finner camp. Also on a political theme – in the early fifties, during a national election, DeValera was due to visit Bundoran on a Sunday night. All the Erne buses lined up opposite the O’Gorman Arms and waited for two hours past departure time to let the Northern passengers have a glimpse of our national hero. We yelled “Up Dev” all the way home that night. However it was more usual for passengers to sing all the way home – the hits of the fifties – Mocking Bird Hill, Irene Goodnight, On Top of Old Smokey, and lots more.
The Bus terminal in Bundoran was at McCloy’s Corner, on the sea road. The Bargain King (Cyril Chapman) had his stall there and entertained customers with his witty chat while they waited for the buses to go home. Later when road traffic increased, the terminal was beside the Garda Station on Church Road. Smuggling of butter and cigarettes from Bundoran was part of the fun of travel and British customs were generally good humoured and did not really try to find any contraband. However Irish customs were nitpicking terrors and searched luggage, bags, even men’s hats. Although I travelled on the bus every Sunday (I used to get travel sick so my parents didn’t want me in the car) I never saw anyone getting caught smuggling. John Keating was the most feared customs man and was reputed to have searched a baby’s napkin.
The service remained in operation from April 1929 until it was compulsorily acquired by the Ulster Transport Authority on 30 September 1957 as part of a nationalisation policy of all transport services in Northern Ireland. Part of the service which operated in Carragallen Co Leitrim continued under the ownership and management of Edward (Ned) Maguire, (father of Mrs Jim White Danby Ballyshannon) until the mid-sixties. There is an Erne Bus in the Ulster Transport Museum. From photos I have seen I think it might be the Cheetah. However it is not on public display at present.
I was away at school on the last night of the Erne Buses but heard all about it. A crowd of well wishers and friends stood with my father at our front door. As each bus pulled in to drop off the last passengers and the conductor with his punch and bag my father waved the driver on up the street to the UTA depot. This went on for hours as each bus returned and a lot of people were crying as the last bus went up the town. My mother stayed in the kitchen making tea for the sobbing busmen who gathered there. Even though their jobs were guaranteed as part of the take over by the UTA, that evening was like a wake for a bus service which became a well-loved part of the lives of people in Fermanagh and South Donegal.