Throwback Thursday: Era of steam, and the reign of Cha and Miah

JO KERRIGAN recalls the days when steam trains puffed along Cork tracks, and also marks the 50th anniversary of the debut of Hall’s Pictorial Weekly on RTÉ
Throwback Thursday: Era of steam, and the reign of Cha and Miah

A steam train crossing the Mallow Viaduct on a special journey to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the introduction of railway services to Cork in 1999. Picture: Denis Minihane

REMEMBER that wonderfully evocative picture in Throwback Thursday last week of the crowds descending from the excursion train at Youghal on a summer Sunday long ago?

Well, we have another of those marvellous identifications from a reader which brings it into reality.

THAT’S ME IN THE PHOTO! Sean O’Sullivan gets off the train in Youghal with his beach bucket in the 1950s
THAT’S ME IN THE PHOTO! Sean O’Sullivan gets off the train in Youghal with his beach bucket in the 1950s

On seeing the article, Sean O’Sullivan instantly wrote in to say: “Hi, I love your Throwback Thursday feature. I reckon your picture of the train arriving in Youghal was taken in the mid to late 1950s. l’m the small guy with a sand bucket over my shoulder there in the middle of the picture, waiting on the platform for my mother to alight from the train. I guess I was maybe six or seven years old. Mother had the picture in a file so I’ve seen it before.”

Sean also showed the feature to his granddaughter, and pointed out himself as a child. Her reaction? 

“That’s so cool!”

Can anyone else remember the thrill of catching the train in Cork, jolting and puffing all the way down to Youghal, through Carrigtwohill, Midleton, and Mogeely, waiting impatiently for the train to come to a stop, and leaping out on to the platform with your bucket and spade, all ready to head for the beach which was only just beyond the station, and wondering why it took your parents (who were toting all the food and raincoats and other paraphernalia) so long to get out?

What did you love best about Youghal? The endless golden sands of course, maybe a pony ride if you were very lucky or your dad was feeling flush. Even an ice cream, more likely to be a wafer than a cone back then, once the sandwiches, carefully prepared at home on Saturday night, had all been finished to the last crumb. Did your family bring tea in a thermos flask, or boil a kettle on the beach?

And for those a little older, with perhaps some hard-earned money to spend, a trip to Perk’s Amusements was the highlight of the day.  Roundabouts, swings, an eerie Ghost Train, and the stomach-churning Chair-o-Planes were all there, vying for your cash, while the side stalls seduced with their encouraging placards showing how you could win a china dog or a vase by throwing rubber rings, hitting the mark with an air rifle, or even risking a penny on a board with moving pushers, where it was possible that the coin would be returned along with several more if you hit the right moment.

It all seemed so glittering, so far removed from the pedestrian week with school or work every day, that you wished it would never end. But maybe that was its charm: it didn’t happen too often, so the delight was always fresh and new.

We didn’t realise back then that we were seeing the last of the great old steam trains, which were always used on the excursion runs to Youghal, although diesel had already replaced them on major routes.

Smuts, smoke, fossil fuels, OK, we know all that, but the fact remains that steam trains awaken an immediate atavistic urge in all of us. The far-off scream of the whistle, the puffs of white rising up beyond that hill, the hiss of brakes and the smell of coal dust as it finally draws up at the platform — they are part of our heritage.

No wonder whenever a steam train is run on any route, there is always a crowd to see it and cheer it on at every level crossing, every station. And trains are always shown as steam on warning signs, and even described to small children as “the puff puff”, even though it’s a long time since they did any such thing.

Youghal Station was opened to passenger traffic 161 years ago, on a warm May day, and the last passenger service ran on a chilly February day in 1963.

Although the line from Midleton to Cork has now, happily, been reinstated and is well used by commuters and shoppers, the tracks beyond Midleton were taken up and put to use in Sligo, so apart from the ghost train, which is said to run on summer nights (anybody ever heard it?), we won’t see an engine on that section again in our lifetime.

All is not lost, though: plans are well underway for the Youghal Greenway, and where iron and steel once thundered through, now walkers and cyclists will be able to wander peacefully along a leafy lane which holds so many echoes of the past.

Do tell us of your own memories of Youghal, won’t you?

Frank Duggan and Michael Twomey, in Hall's Pictorial Weekly.
Frank Duggan and Michael Twomey, in Hall's Pictorial Weekly.

We also mentioned Hall’s Pictorial Weekly in the last Throwback Thursday feature and I have been reminded that the very first episode of that wonderfully comic show aired on RTÉ on September 29, 1971. Fifty years ago!

Written, presented and edited by Frank Hall, it was a huge hit from the start, with its blend of sharp observation and quirky satirical humour. Attacking contemporary news stories, politics, and popular culture, it frequently introduced delightfully crazy spoof television formats, which fitted right into the zeitgeist of the early ’70s and continued to run to 1980.

Hall’s Pictorial Weekly was probably at the height of its popularity during the 1973–1977 term of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition government, when it never lost the opportunity of sending up the ministers of the time, Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave being lampooned as the Minister for Hardship, while Finance minister Richie Ryan was rechristened Richie Ruin.

It could indeed be said that the programme played an important part in bringing the coalition into disrepute and perhaps even contributed to bringing it down.

However, the show also launched an entirely new career for two of Cork’s most stalwart performers, Michael Twomey and Frank Duggan, who, after long and successful careers (acting and directing for Michael, brilliant musical accompanying for Frank) now became beloved household names as the philosophical down-and-outs, Cha and Miah.

So much so, in fact, that when Oisin Kelly’s sculpture of two workmen gazing up at the height of County Hall was first put in place, it took only days for Corkonians to christen them after the Hall’s Pictorial Weekly characters.

Although the original idea was for the figures to portray admiration for their achievement, the generally accepted version on Leeside is that they are saying something to the effect of: “What de h*ll do ye think they were doin’, designin’ a place like that?”

When talking to Michael Twomey before his sad demise a few years ago, the topic of these two delightful characters came up.

ART IMITATING ART? The ‘Two Working Men’ statues at County Hall are still commonly known as ‘Cha and Miah’, after the characters played by Frank Duggan and Michael Twomey.
ART IMITATING ART? The ‘Two Working Men’ statues at County Hall are still commonly known as ‘Cha and Miah’, after the characters played by Frank Duggan and Michael Twomey.

“Well, you know, it sort of happened. We did one sketch for Frank Hall and it proved so popular that it became a regular slot.

“They’re definitely from the bottom of the social scale, but they have deep discussions about the meaning of life, which Miah tends to expound on ponderously to Cha.

“Cha in the meantime is trying to grasp the principles and not always succeeding.

“It’s pure Beckett if you like, Waiting for Godot on the Lee, but tongue-in-cheek.”

He recalled that, at first, Hall would scrupulously send him down a script which Michael — with a lifetime of theatrical experience behind him — would immediately alter to reflect the true and unique wit of Cork, which was nothing like that of Dublin.

“In the end, Frank gave up trying to control the proceedings. He would simply send down the rough idea, and I would write the script round that.”

Michael remembered with a chuckle how they were always searching for different locations for each episode, and strange props — “I remember we needed a milk churn once, and a bucket” — and just had a great deal of fun in imagining new scenarios.

“I’m proud to think that we put the culture of Cork right up there on RTÉ,” he said. And he wasn’t joking. After all, we’re an entirely different kingdom to Dublin, aren’t we?

At first, the capital city’s TV viewers laughed at the Cork accent, but gradually came to realise what a goldmine was contained in our unique way of viewing things and expressing ourselves.

Both Frank O’Connor and Sean O’Faolain championed the instantly recognisable voice of their native city, “as up and down as the hills that surround it,” or as Wikipedia puts it rather more formally: “The Cork accent, part of the Southwest dialect of Hiberno-English, displays various features which set it apart from other accents in Ireland. Patterns of tone and intonation often rise and fall, with the overall tone tending to be more high-pitched than other Irish accents. English spoken in Cork has a number of dialect words that are peculiar to the city and environs.

As the comic pair would have said: “Couldn’t have put it better meself, boy!”

Those of you too young to remember the classic Cha and Miah sketches (which rivalled the BBC’s Yes Minister in every way, replacing that very polished English humour with pure Cork style), should, without delay, go and look them up on YouTube. Try https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PyDWLSrbzUw

This is a gem in which the duo discuss why they, as noble Corkmen, are never invited to appear on Gay Byrne’s Late Late. After dismissing the show as sleazy rubbish anyway, only fit for politicians and the like, Miah utters the immortal lines: “Y’see, dirt is all right when it comes from America, but when RTÉ tries to do it, that’s disgraceful. That Gay Byrne is totally — totally — uninhabited!”

Wonderful viewing and as fresh as when it was first filmed, down on the Marina, with the two sitting on a bench by the water, and the traffic whizzing by on the opposite bank.

Hall’s Pictorial Weekly may have left our screens, and Cha and Miah may only survive in rare footage, but we still proudly maintain the accent that distinguishes us from lesser counties on this island of Ireland. “Wax up a gazz-ah and shout it to the world!” (and that quote comes from a highly distinguished former professor of English at UCC who specialised in recording our individualistic phraseology).

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

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