A short story by Chip Deyerle
Authors Note: This short story was released and published in an anthology entitled “New Directions” -for more information see http://writebytherails.blogspot.com. Copies are available on Amazon.com.
As the Irish summer wanes, European visitors continue to pour into Ireland to enjoy the green beauty of the Emerald Isle and to take in the sights and sounds around Dublin, a city with a history of more than a thousand years. The streets of Dublin are surging with a stream of visitors filling the pedestrian shopping areas of the old town. Restaurants and taverns, bedecked with hanging baskets of petunias, gladiolas, and yellow Gerber daisies, are busy serving up delicious bowls of classic Irish stew and brown bread accompanied by a pint of dark Guinness.
Cead Mile Failte read the top of the ticket envelope, which means “One Hundred Thousand Welcomes,” in Gaelic. Am I in the right place this morning? After all, there are two train stations in Dublin.
I check my watch and it’s almost 6:30 a.m. Snack vendors are busy stocking fresh pastries and scones in the glass cases to be consumed by hungry travelers or commuters on their way to work. The scones are exceptionally large. Better take two on the morning train to Limerick for day tour. The station is dark in the corners, but the ticket machines are busy. Through openings in the skylight, an occasional bird flies around the ceiling looking for its nest.
It was in this setting that I first noticed an older man in a bright yellow rain jacket and polo shirt, with chiseled features and massive, medusa-like silver curly locks overlaying his receding forehead. I guessed that he was in his early 70s, and he seemed quite spry for his many years. In his bony hand he held a list of what I guess were the names of tourists, like myself whom he would lead on a tour of the west coast of Ireland today.
Sitting there in the station, I held a very hot cup of Irish tea, contemplating which hand to hold the cup in and why I had even bothered to order tea in the first place. I soon realized that tea requires patience and that tea served the Irish for the practice of patience—yet to be discovered in the United States. But this is Ireland and I need to enjoy the customs of my host country.
“Are ya’ booked on the rail tour to Limerick this morning, lad?” asked the old man as I sat there on the bench, waiting for my cup of tea to cool.
“Why, yes I am!” I replied, surveying him as I sat there. At age 65, I did not consider myself a lad by any means. I presented my ticket for the tour. He introduced himself as Norman.
“Ah, yes, here you are! – and welcome!” said Norman, “and where are you from, Michael?”
“I’m from Northern Virginia, near Washington, DC,” I replied.
“Well, today, you’ll be travelin’ in the last car of the train to Cork,” said Norman, “Now be ready to board at 6:50.”
Norman spoke to other members of the group assembled in the waiting area, checking off each name and meticulously noting the time of check in. He responded to questions genuinely reflecting well on his heritage and knowledge of the railroads, and particularly Iarnród Éireann, the Irish National Railway.
I later learned that Norman retired from a carpeting business fifty years to the day he started work. After retiring, his plan included travel on every remaining steam train still running in Europe. After that, he really didn’t have a plan, but he did love railroading, which had led him to Poland, France, Italy, the Baltics, Belgium, Holland and Germany to ride scheduled steam trains and excursion trains throughout Europe.
One day, about three years ago, Norman met up with an old friend who asked if he had retired. Norman assured he had retired for some time. His friend told him that there was a job that would be perfect for him, fulfilling his desires to work with the railroad. Nothing sounded sweeter to Norman nor brought more joy, than to ride the rails. It was as if he had been reborn.
Promptly at 6:50 a.m., Norman led our group from the waiting area, through the electronic gates, to the train platforms and the waiting train for Limerick. The sleek aluminum and glass rail coaches were as aerodynamic as possible, permitting the train to sprint at speeds over 100 miles per hour. As we boarded, the conductor time-stamped our tickets, unlike the centuries-old ticket punch unique to each conductor.
Our departure from Dublin was smooth and soon we were on our way south to Limerick to meet a bus for excursion to Bunratty Castle, Doolin for lunch, the Cliffs of Mohr, and reaching Galway around 6:30 p.m. for the return to Dublin. It would be a full day of sightseeing.
As the tour guide, Norman provided commentary about passing landmarks, such as ruins of a castle, a stone bridge, a distant cathedral or village. It was as if he knew each village and landmark personally and would gladly take us there for a tour at any time. It was refreshing to meet someone at his age that was joyfully doing something he dearly loved.
“Now, in exactly one minute, we will be passing the Irish National Raceway, where you will see the grandstands in the distance and the many horses in the pastures surrounding the course,” said Norman as he pointed out the side of the fast-moving coach. Sure enough, in exactly one minute, the race way became visible as well as a multitude of horses in the pasture.
After passing a few more landmarks, Norman sat down across from my seat, engaging me in conversation about the history of the railroad. Soon I realized we had a joint interest in model trains as well as railroading in general. Comparing notes, I asked how long he had worked for the railroad.
“I’ve only been working as a tour guide for about three years now,” replied Norman, as he further related his job in the carpet business, his retirement, and how he became a tour guide for the railroad “If I were to die tomorrow, I would pass happily,” confided Norman as he glanced out the window at the country side racing by. Here in the railcars, his definition of paradise was fulfilled. I am sure that Norman could live out his days on the train if permitted.
Reaching the Limerick station, Norman advised us of the plan to catch a bus and transfer to yet another bus to take us to Bunratty Castle and Doolin. In pouring rain, we made our way from the train and to a seat on a crowed local bus. After a hectic ride through Limerick, we arrived at the local bus terminal and stepped in the rain again onto another bus. Moments later we were on our way to visit Bunratty Castle. Concerned about the schedule, Norman was always the Sherpa, waiting in the background, carefully observing, and ready to jump in where needed.
After visiting this six hundred year old relic of rock and towers standing impressively amid green pastures, fields and trees, it was awe inspiring. Tours through the inside of the castle revealed stained glass windows created by hand in the 14th century. Passage ways led to the parapets and down to the dungeon of the castle. Outside, there was the infamous poison garden filled with plants such as arsenic, night shade, oleander, and other things poisonous to man. Perhaps Sleeping Beauty was Irish after all and was actually waiting in an inaccessible tower of Bunratty Castle for her Prince Charming to make his appearance, but that’s probably another story.
Quickly now, we were headed to Doolin for lunch at a local tavern. Via back roads barely wide enough for one vehicle, the bus lurched around curves and sudden stops for oncoming traffic, finally reaching the small village of Doolin. In O’Conner’s Tavern, we took a break from the tour and had hot, tea and a creamy vegetable soup for lunch in a classic Irish setting. Not much had changed in six hundred years, according to Norman, except for power poles, satellite dishes and running water notwithstanding.
Buttoning his rain jacket, Norman stood by the tavern door, his curly locks mussed by the wind, observing the hilly green pastures just beyond the village street. A stream bubbled as it meandered at the bottom of the hill and running toward the west coast of Ireland and the Atlantic Ocean. Norman makes this same trip three times a week, but seemed enraptured with the emerald hills and fields crisscrossed with stone walls and hedge rows.
Soon, we are on our way again. Norman is standing in the isle of the pitching bus as we head over to the Cliffs of Mohr. He reminds us that the cliffs are over seven hundred feet above the ocean and that there are no real barriers to prevent us from fall into the ocean or smashing into the rocks below- “Please be cautious—I don’t want to have to explain this to my boss!’ entreated Norman.
I am sure that Norman must have made arrangements with the almighty for the weather to improve that afternoon, because the rains rolled out to the Atlantic and the clouds began to recede. Following Norman’s plea for caution, we made our way out to behold the emerald green atop the cliffs and it was well worth it. Norman was right; it was a long way to the bottom of the cliffs, but what a memorable and beautiful place in this world.
Back on the bus, Galway is next through terrain similar to a moonscape. Huge rocky patches of limestone define the west coast of Ireland. Driving through this area was remarkable for its lack of vegetation. Lots of rocks were used to build walls running up the hills on one side of the bus and others running down to the ocean. Norman commented that the walls defined the property boundaries for centuries.
Reaching Galway, Norman led us to the station for the train to Dublin. The return trip would have us in at 9:00 that evening.
Once on the train, Norman was back in his element. His running narrative gave us more landmarks to see as we travelled along the countryside. Another castle, another cathedral, and another old railroad station refurbished and still in use were highlights pointed out by Norman.
“From here, we will reach a speed of over 100 miles per hour, so hold on tight,” commented Norman as the train surged to higher speed. The sun was now setting rapidly in the west.
Seeing that his duties were almost over, Norman sat with me for the remainder of the trip. I asked if he would be going home afterwards. “Oh, no, I am having dinner at Ryan’s Pub tonight!” said Norman. “They have the best food in all of Dublin; besides they have their own farm where everything served and that farm is over 125 years old. You should try it before you return home.”
I thanked Norman for the tip and promised I would.
Entering Heuston Station in Dublin, Norman led us back through the gate from the platform to the station interior. After a round of applause, there were profuse handshakes, hugs and tips for Norman from our group of fellow travelers. I thanked him for sharing his vision of Ireland with me and especially his railroading experiences.
Now, when I have my Irish breakfast tea each morning, I remember Norman, proud of his heritage and proud of his country. Perhaps one day, I could show him the beauty of my Virginia countryside. I could only wish to relate my countryside as well as he did for Ireland. All aboard for Washington DC? Anyone?