Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Coffee corruption and day-olds

(A bit before my time, but the bus stop in 1929 was the same place as this piece is about.)

When I was growing up, our family pub in Kilcullen was also the bus stop, one of the important ones on the main Dublin to Waterford run because it gave both passengers and crews alike the chance for some quick relief and a coffee or stronger.

That was a time also when the bus service — three each way in the mornings and evenings — was also the DHL of its time, and there would always be a bundle of parcels of varying sizes, for personal collection as well as the commercial stuff such as the fulfillment of orders of tools for the hardware store and rolls of cloth for the draper.

Other interesting things carried included the semen collected from local bulls and transported to the Department of Agriculture division responsible for artificial insemination. It was sent in small sealed churns, and I always presumed that the local AI man got by the return churns bullish stuff from other parts of the country to do the needfuls down our way.

People would also send letters by bus, and many years later as a freelance journalist I would often meet the early bus with my copy and photographs to be brought to the main bus station in the city for collection by the relevant national newspapers.

A community's relationship with the buses and their crews in rural Ireland was very close. Once a parcel or a letter had been collected off the counter by the driver or conductor we always felt content that it would safely find its way to its destination. There was always time for a short chat too, while waiting for the last of the passengers to get back out to the bus, and the local news from the various similar stops along the route was exchanged in the process. It kept villages on the route in touch with each other.

All that is gone. It used be that stops would last up to ten minutes. Now the drivers don't even get time to leave the bus for a call of nature, let alone for a coffee while their conductor had a whiskey. In fact, there haven't been conductors for years either. And the news comes in newspapers that are delivered by truck a lot earlier than the first bus comes through.

But even before I left the pub business almost thirty years ago, another very unique regular bus delivery had ceased. One which provided both an audial and occasionally olefactory experience in the front bar where the parcels were deposited, at the end just under the dartboard. The chicks.

Day-old chicks was a big business through the fifties and the early sixties. They'd be sent out all over the country from the hatcheries, in flat square boxes with holes in them, to small chicken rearing operations. People who would raise them to full chickenhood and a career on local dinner-plates or egg provision.

My grandmother was one of them. When the day-old chicks would come on the bus, she'd put hers into an indoor rearing pen, heated by infra-red lights. Released from the confines of the square box, they'd run around in their yellow down and pick at the meal that was their first food. Meal carefully formulated to fatten them quickly and get them out from under the infra-red. Electricity cost money.

Several times a week, day-olds would come on the bus. And each evening somebody would mostly come and collect them. We behind the bar — and our customers on the other side of it — were always glad to see the backs of the twittery-chittering creatures whose noise output seemed to grow in direct relation to the amount of time they had been waiting.

Occasionally somebody would fail to come for their chicks. Maybe they didn't know they were coming, and we'd not managed to contact them. Not everyone had telephones in those days. Then we'd arrive in the morning to a more quiet bar, and the realisation that we would have to get rid of the now-silent square boxes before they began to smell.

Sometimes we were too late ...

Growing up in the pub that was the bus-stop had its own advantages, as we Byrnes were therefore also entitled to free bus travel. Officially only once a year, but the ticket inspectors used also get their free coffees as they got off one bus and waited for the next, and they never asked any of us kids for a ticket whenever they came across us on the way to or from Dublin.

Coffee Corruption of a state bus company. These days they'd have tribunals for less.

We got to know them all, the busmen. Mick, Charlie et al. And later, as they retired and we grew up, they faded from our memories. Until we began reading their death notices over recent years. Well, that's life. And death. Part of the whole experience of contact and disconnection.

Nowadays we never connect on the buses. And the chicks don't tweet on them either.

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