Trevor Laffan: Knights of the road... but my stint as a trucker wasn’t easy

Trevor Laffan recalls his adventures driving a truck across Europe as part of a humanitarian convoy
Trevor Laffan: Knights of the road... but my stint as a trucker wasn’t easy

Trucks parked up in Dover port in England, because of the recent travel restrictions owing to a new variant of Covid-19

I HAVE a sneaky admiration for truck drivers.

It’s a responsible job, and taking those big rigs through small towns and villages across the country is no mean feat. Especially when so many of those roads were originally built for the horse and cart and haven’t improved much since then. Manoeuvring these machines in tight spots is tricky and requires a lot of skill.

Those guys are capable mechanics too because they need to be able to sort themselves out when trouble comes calling and they’re nowhere near a garage.

I say guys, but of course there are female truckers too, although the majority are men. They are a tight- knit bunch, particularly those driving on the continent.

I had a small experience of that lifestyle back in the 1990s when myself and John O’Connor were both serving members of An Garda Siochana in Mayfield. We were involved in Chernobyl-related charities at the time and decided to bring a truck full of supplies on a humanitarian aid convoy to Belarus. To do that, we needed a truck and a licence to drive it and we had neither.

The licence was the first step, so we signed up for driving lessons. 

Our instructor was a lovely man blessed with patience. When I met him initially though, I was ready to arrest him under the Mental Treatment Act when, on the very first lesson, he told me to drive the truck through the city centre.

He knew what he was doing though and after completing the required number of lessons, John and I were deemed ready for the test. We both passed, although there was a moment during my test drive when I thought I might have blown it.

We were down around Mahon approaching a small roundabout and a trench had been dug on the left-hand side of the road. There were some large no-parking cones placed along the edge of the trench advising motorists of the hazard.

The space was tight, and the truck wasn’t going to navigate the roundabout without touching it with one of the wheels. It was already showing signs of damage from being driven on.

I pointed out my fears to the Driving Tester and he told me not to worry because there was nothing I could do about it so on I went.

As I passed the trench, I clipped a cone with one of the rear wheels and sent it into the trench. In my mirror I saw a worker pop his head up and he didn’t seem very happy.

Nothing was said though and I duly passed the test. So did John.

The next item on the agenda was to find a truck, and thanks to Peter Dennehy of Dennehy Trucks in Carrigtwohill, we got one. Peter was also involved in charity work and was going on the convoy too.

His company offered us the use of a truck for the journey, which was very generous of him given that we were two novices.

John and I went to collect it from their sister company in Limerick and as soon as we sat into it, we discovered a problem. It had a different gear box to the one we were trained in.

For those who know even less than I do about trucks, I can tell you that there are two types of gear boxes. One type has a switch on the gear stick and when you hit fifth gear, you flick the switch and that gives you five more gears. That’s known as a five over five, and the other one is known as a five by five and has a different switch system.

We were now sitting in a borrowed truck that we were about to drive across Europe, and we couldn’t even get it out of the yard.

We couldn’t ask the people in Dennehy’s how to drive it because they would definitely have changed their minds about giving it to us. So, we decided to get it into any gear that would get us out of there and onto the road and then we would regroup once we were out of sight.

Sweating profusely, and praying that nobody was watching us, we stuttered our way out the gate. As soon as we were out of sight, we flagged down a passing trucker and asked him how to select the gears. It was all highly embarrassing.

We eventually got back to Cork and when the truck was loaded, I brought it to an old disused FCA barracks in Cobh, where it was to remain until we headed off.

While driving it in between two large pillars at the entrance to the barracks, I caught the side of the truck on one of them and got stuck. To get out of that situation, I had to reverse uphill and the strain of that was too much for the poor truck and the drive shaft broke and fell onto the road.

At this stage, the truck was incapable of moving anywhere and was partially blocking the main road. I sent an S.O.S to a friend of mine who hauled it out of harm’s way with his JCB and then I had to break the news to Peter Dennehy.

Peter soon arrived on the scene with his usual smiley head on him and had the truck as good as new in no time.

We made it to Belarus and back without any more incidents and by the time we got home we were well used to the truck. We could have turned it on a sixpence, but by then I suspect the Dennehy’s were just glad to get us out of it.

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