JERRY Holt, who worked in Cork’s principal railway in the ’60s and ’70s, has already given us some highly entertaining detail about those famed Mystery Train excursions and other services in and out of Kent Station (including the rapscallions who regularly pulled the communication cord on late night trains.)
Now he comes back with some more stories, this time involving less innocent escapades and the risks taken by staff as part of their job.
“During the height of the Troubles, when security was high everywhere across the country, Jimmy Keefe and I were given the task of keeping bombs out of the station. I am happy to say that we were successful: not one bomb went off at Kent,” he recalled.
The nerve centre of operations, explains Jerry, was the little hut at the main gate.
“We were supplied with a brazier and a bag of coal to keep us warm, and our instructions were to check every car boot for bombs.
“There were empty 40-gallon drums spaced all round the station buildings to prevent cars from parking next to them.
“Jimmy and I worked alternate shifts so we were lone sentinels, tasked with the job of keeping Cork’s main station safe.”
Most of the members of the public, he says, were co-operative, and appreciated their attempts to preserve a bomb-free environment at the transport hub of the Second City. But there were one or two exceptions.
“As I said, our job was to stop all cars and have the driver open the boot for inspection. We would then inform them that it was forbidden to park along the station frontage where the big 40-gallon drums were positioned.”
[Gosh, do you remember the days when you could simply drive into Kent Station with those traditional gates bearing the notices Isteach and Amach, and park wherever, with no queues, no parking tickets, no problem? Must be 60 years ago now…).
“At this point,” admits Jerry, “I have to admit that I would have permitted anyone pointing a gun at me drive in without hindrance and park wherever they wanted. I mean, I had a job to do, but there are limits.”
Fortunately, that ultimatum never actually occurred, but Jerry did have several annoyed drivers to deal with.
“One day, a man in an upmarket car refused to stop for me and drove straight down and parked his car between two barrels. I knew what I had to do. I ran down and confronted him, ‘If you weren’t a stranger around here, you would know who I am,’ he said grandly.
“I made the best answer I could: ‘Sir , the President of Ireland had the courtesy to stop at the gate the other day, and I think you should have done the same whoever you are,’ I said. (This was a fact. President Erskine Childers was the man.)
“This so-called merchant prince of Cork (I am sure he was a lovely man at home), then abandoned his travel plans for the day, and drove off in a huff. But I’d done my job!”
A more impressive, not to say threatening stand was taken by a prominent republican-minded fellow from East Cork, recalls Jerry.
“The Dublin train was about to depart from platform 5 - everybody will remember that this was only accessible via the ticket barrier at the top of the subway, leading under tracks to the train on the other side. Our man was late, only minutes to departure time, so he left his car between the barrels and went to buy a ticket. I had no choice. I confronted him and politely asked him to move his car. He refused, so I told him that if he left it there the Army would come and blow it up. He said he didn’t care so I notified Mick Devane, the Inspector, whose job it was to wave off departing trains. Mick refused to let the man through the barrier, locked the gate and sent the train away.”
So what happened then, Jerry? Well, rather than shift his car and thus obey the official regulations, the man crossed the Lower Road and caught a bus back to East Cork. (As far as I remember his car wasn’t blown up.)”
Mr Holt remembers the fierce dogs kept on the embankment above the Lower Road, which kept up a fusillade of barking when anyone came over one of the bridges from Summerhill.
“I think they belonged to a man called Mr Minter.”
Yes they did, Jerry, and those dogs (mostly Alsatians) brought fear to the hearts of many small Boy Scouts exploring beyond their official hut on the land at the Summerhill end, which had once been the terminus of the Youghal railway.
“Thus far and no further,” those dogs would snarl, and the youngsters would take warning and keep to their own end of the old railway tracks.
“Speaking of canines,” recalls Jerry, “Canon Salter’s dog was a regular visitor to Kent with his master.”
The Canon, of course, was in charge of the Church of Ireland at St Luke’s, and often pottered down with his dog of an evening, probably by Clifton Terrace and that long long set of stone steps to the Lower Road, for a few friendly words at the station.
“Another random visitor was Bernie Murphy (later Councillor). Either of them could call down to the railway at night just for the craic.”
And that matches with the memories of Mary, who lived on Summerhill and often went down to Kent Station at evenings with her friends when they were schoolchildren.
“In those days it was what you did – you went for a walk, saw what there was to be seen, entertained yourself and got some exercise at the same time. We didn’t have TV back then of course, and didn’t listen much to the radio, so the thing to do in the evening was to roam down to the station where something interesting might be happening.
“Businessmen rushing in to post late letters right into the side of the mail train to Dublin. I think they had to put an extra halfpenny on the envelope for that, to cover the extra work of sorting on board. Or big boxes loaded on to the station trolleys waiting to be collected, or sent on, and you wondered what was in them.
“There was always something to look at, and of course back then it was quite safe. Nobody bothered you.”
And recalling those childhood evenings, Mary brings back to mind a wonderful machine in Kent Station that would stamp out your name and address on a metal tab.
“I suppose now, thinking back, it was for putting on luggage, but to us it was a miracle machine. You put in a penny and swung the pointer round to the different letters before pulling the handle down to emboss each one. And then you finished and out fell this little metal strip with your name on it, and a tiny tab either end so it could be attached to a box or package. We loved that machine.”
Today it would be Coke or Fanta, Snickers or Twix, in bright dispensing machines, but back then the station provided only a strictly utilitarian method of ensuring safe delivery of goods. Utilitarian, yes, but magic to schoolchildren with a penny to spend.
Any of you who may have frequented Kent Station in the ’60s and ’70s may well have seen Jerry Holt, as he actually had a beard, which up to that time had been forbidden on the hallowed grounds of CIE.
“I was the first CIE operative to receive permission for that beard.
"When I went to the interview for the job, on Albert Quay, the personnel officer phoned the stationmaster who was urgently looking for temporary staff, and said he had a man ready to start that afternoon, “but he has a beard, and would that be a problem?” That great man, Theo Linehan, replied: ‘Well, the Good Lord and Karl Marx both had beards, that’s good enough for me’. Up to then, no railwayman or busman had been allowed to have a hairy face.”
A new era had dawned. And he still has that beard today, records Jerry proudly.
Jerry sent us another email, just prior to going to press on this issue.
“My son Robert, living in New Zealand, sent me an EchoLive link to an article about Mary Decker at the Mardyke.” [Doesn’t EchoLive get around,? How many of you are reading this in far distant lands?] The reference to Mary Decker reminded Mr Holt of the time he was put to work on the turnstile that admitted the competitors to the Mardyke grounds.
“I am a total ignoramus when it comes to sport, but I was told to check that anyone I didn’t recognise had official numbers on their back. My colleague Tadgh O’Leary at the next turnstile was knotted at the idea of putting me on the competitors’ gate, and he drank his tears as I asked people like The Man in Black, John Walker, the legendary runner from New Zealand, to show me his number.”
The next man challenged by Jerry was a big chap.
“My name’s Slaney, that’s the wife,” he said gesturing with his thumb to the small woman behind him. The wife was of course Mary Decker Slaney the Olympic runner. How was I to know?”
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