Who remembers the era of Cork's mystery trains?

The whistling Cork city delivery man makes a reappearance this week, while JO KERRIGAN also recalls train outings, hot rod cars, and a Ritz Cinema ghost story...
Who remembers the era of Cork's mystery trains?

A GRAND DAY OUT: People getting off the train on a summer’s day at Youghal in the 1960s — mystery train journeys from Cork often ended up here.

READER Rick Davitt enjoyed our Throwback Thursday feature last week, which mentioned Michael O’Halloran, who did the horse-drawn deliveries for Miah Kelleher’s shops on Barrack Street and South Main Street.

“What a whistler, and what a voice,” comments Rick affectionately. “He was an absolute gentleman.”

Rick also remembers that the popular RTÉ show, Hall’s Pictorial Weekly, did a lovely programme about Michael in the 1960s.

“There he was, going down Magazine Road, whistling to his heart’s content. He was so happy in himself, delivering vegetables to all the customers. I had the honour and pleasure of working with him in later life. He is still going strong, thank God.”

Mr Davitt was also an avid cinema-goer back then.

“When you left the cinema, or, as we called it, “de Pictures”, and you met a friend, they would always ask you, was it a war one, a love one, a monster one, or a cowboy one? And then, who was ‘De Boy’? In other words, who was the leading man.”

In later years, Rick recalls visiting Dermot’s (or, as he always called it, The Midnight Grocer) in Adelaide Street, on many occasions, for slices of cooked ham on his way home from a dance at the Arc.

“That was long before Cork got into late night takeaways. I think Jackie Lennox’s closed about 12, or maybe a bit earlier.”

Can anyone remember that really good fish and chip shop up at the top of Southern Road where it meets High Street? They used to serve great deep fried mushrooms with their chips — just right after a happy evening in the pub with friends.

And Rick’s father worked for CIE, which brings back memories to his son of the Mystery Trains that ran on summer Sundays.

“Not ghost trains now, but real ones, only you bought your ticket and didn’t know where you were going, which was the ‘mystery’ bit.

“Of course, given our limited railway network, they were mostly to Youghal, and not much of a mystery, but as my father worked on the railway, all week people would be asking him where the mystery train was going next Sunday!”

It makes you think, doesn’t it? Kids today head off for New Zealand or Outer Mongolia in their gap year, and we take a weekend in the Canaries without the slightest hesitation, but back then, a trip into the unknown meant Kent Station in the early morning with your packet of sandwiches and a raincoat over your arm in case it poured (it usually did!)

SOMBRE TONE: Charles Mitchel announced the death of President Kennedy to Irish TV audiences
SOMBRE TONE: Charles Mitchel announced the death of President Kennedy to Irish TV audiences

Our query last week as to where people were when they heard of JFK’s assassination also trigged a response from Rick.

“Yes, I can still see it, feel it. A dark November evening, a news flash. Charles Mitchel in a sombre tone informing the nation of the shooting of the President of America. A real sense of shock and horror.”

It was the previous summer that Kennedy had been in Ireland.

“I worked as a helper on an ice cream van during the holidays,” says Rick. 

“On the great day, the driver and I stood on the roof of the van on Pope’s Quay and watched the cavalcade crossing Patrick’s Bridge. 

"In my innocence I felt I was in the presence of greatness. It was the American dream, Hollywood, the White House all rolled into one.

“John Fitzgerald Kennedy, whose ancestors left Ireland to seek a better life, was now the most powerful man in the world. Leaving Shannon Airport he vowed to return, but tragically, he never did.”

The other day, we were asking Leo O’Sullivan, that determined hot rodder of the 1960s, how he got started in that sport in a place like Cork, which hitherto had fallen more into the ‘old banger’ category than noise and speed.

“Well, I was apprenticed at Dilworth’s Garage in Dripsey. They used to get old cars as trade-ins, which weren’t really of much use any more, and so I’d speak to the boss and ask him if he would mind if I took one that caught my fancy, and he’d say sure, take it away.

“We had a small garage ourselves at home, so I was able to work on these wrecks there with the knowledge I’d gained from my day job.”

Leo breaks off to throw a glance at me. 

“I bought an Adler off your brother, Gilbert, once. Loved that car. Sold it to a friend of mine in Cork and then it went on to Kilkenny, I believe, but I’ve lost sight of it. Would love to know where it ended up.”

One day, Leo remembers, he was involved in cutting the roof off a DKW (as you do on a leisurely Saturday afternoon, I suppose). “Kevin McSweeney came along, saw what we were up to, and asked if we would be interested in starting a hot rod club. And it all stemmed from there.”

In those early days, when money was non-existent but energy and enthusiasm were huge, Leo and his pals were never idle in pursuing their passion of souping up old vehicles.

“We used to cut off the exhaust and make them good and noisy, so people could hear us, and then we’d go round the lanes at night, enjoying them.

“We made sure it was late at night, though, when everybody was in bed, as we didn’t want to meet people coming home from the pub!”

Eventually, Leo confesses, they started converting bigger cars to TVO (for the innocent, this was tractor vaporising oil, a lot cheaper than petrol), but didn’t have the technology to do it properly.

“It was only later on we understood how we could have done it. We drove this Austin A90 that we had converted to the end of the Straight Road but it wasn’t exploding the fuel properly and there were bangs and clouds of smoke, and I tell you, it was like a spaceship landing!”

Nevertheless, Leo won the very first hot rod race ever held in Cork, in that Austin A90.

“That was at Classes, in John A. Wood’s place, which we were able to use because there was some kind of strike on. I remember I turned the car upside down that time, but I wasn’t hurt and it was great publicity.

“We never had serious injuries because, quite quickly for youngsters, we made sure we had seat belts and roll bars. Everything else got taken out. A big five-gallon container of water in the back to clean the screen, that was all.”

They got huge crowds from the beginning. 

“At that first one, we went over to put up some ropes in the early morning, and thought it would be fine to come back just before the starting time, but when we came back there was a huge queue. Nobody had seen car racing in Cork then since the Straight Road in the 1930s. We introduced the shoulder to shoulder racing at very cheap cost.”

Leo learned a lot on the track and indeed off it, he reveals.

“It was an eye-opener, because after two or three years in the garage, I thought I knew everything. Then, as we got involved in the hot-rod racing, we realised how little we knew —high lift cams, different grades, modifications, all the things to make the engine go faster. I learned an awful lot. We hunted for books on tuning, and were desperate for information.”

Once, he says, he built a two-engine car.

“An Austin Maxi, I used. I took the engines out of two cars and put one in the front and one in the back. I did that as an experiment to see would it work and it did. It was great around fields but in races it was too heavy.”

But the experimenting went on.

“We were always trying new ideas to see what would work better. We used reject tyres from Mobil near Coachford and we would try them all, compounds, Formula One, everything. The compound would leave black rubber on the track. We turned wheels inside out, and put different wheels on cars.

“A man called Paddy Mackey from Blarney came in with a Beetle with a wire mesh over the screen and the wings half cut and that became the fashion brand for a long time. You cut four inches off the wings and it looked great and they wouldn’t be rubbing off the bigger wheels you were using.”

******

Now here is a reminder for you. Saturday marks the 30th anniversary of the demolition of the great old Ritz cinema on Washington Street, to make way for an office and apartment complex.

What memories do you have of that classic theatre? How many foreign language movies, how many re-runs did you catch there? This writer remembers seeing all the Sissi films and the early Trapp Family ones (pre-Julie Andrews).

The Ritz cinema in Cork city.
The Ritz cinema in Cork city.

There had been another cinema here in the 1920s and ’30s, the Washington, but it burned down, to be replaced by the newly-built Ritz in August, 1929. Hardly an auspicious date to open a cinema, one might think, but it prospered, not least because it had an exclusive contract to show all the new releases from Warner Brothers.

In the 1940s, it is said, the queue for a new Humphrey Bogart film would stretch right down to the corner of the Grand Parade.

But it was always said that the Ritz was under a bad luck curse because it was built on the site of what was once a fairy fort, long before Cork had expanded into a city. It was even held to house a resident ghost. Fires, accidents, bad business times... all affected that initial prosperity.

Closed by one management in the early 1970s, it was reopened a couple of times by other entrepreneurs, but finally closed in 1989, to be demolished in 1991. At the time of its closure, it was the only functioning member of Cork’s old cinemas.

A girl who worked in the restaurant which later opened on the site, said she had seen a strange transparent figure sitting there one night, facing where the screen had once been, apparently watching a long-ago film.

Did anyone else ever see the Ghost at the Ritz?

Email your memories to jokerrigan1@gmail. com. Or leave a comment on our Facebook page: (https://www.facebook.com/echolivecork)

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