Deliveroo? Recalling the era of the messenger boy in Cork

Pedal power used to be the main mode of transport in Cork city, says JO KERRIGAN, in her weekly Throwback Thursday column, who also reports on a scary plane flight, and the days of steam engines
Deliveroo? Recalling the era of the messenger boy in Cork

A messenger boy and other cyclists have the street to themselves on Capwell Road in Cork city in October, 1936.

WAY back, in the days before Deliveroo was even a twinkle in the eye of a couple of online entrepreneurs, the streets of Cork city were full of messenger boys using pedal power alone to get around, writes Jo Kerrigan in her Throwback Thursday column.

Reader Rick Davitt tells us that the Deliveroo boys and girls you see everywhere day and night on their battery-powered bikes, are “doing a good job by the way, and the speed they can travel at, they might as well have motor bikes!”

But the sight of them brought back memories of the good old days when the young lads on the famous messenger boy bikes were to be seen everywhere.

“They had nothing other than pedal power. Imagine going up Barrack Street or Shandon Street with a full load!” recalls Rick.

From memory, he says, O’Donovan’s in Princes Street, Kelliher and McKenna, Rose Brothers, Liptons... all employed these messenger boys.

“Maybe Woodford Bourne - or did they have a van? It seems from memory that most of the butchers had them. Maybe Bresnans, O’Flynns, Oldens? I am sure your readers will remember a lot more.”

The bikes were not built for speed, Rick reminds us.

“They had enormous wicker baskets on a huge frame in the front, and usually the name of the shop hanging on the crossbar. Without any load they were difficult to cycle and manoeuvre.

“Buddies would often let me have a test drive, when they were having their coffee break (joke -some chance!). Whether turning left or right or going straight on, the basket never changed direction, just the small wheel in front that you couldn’t see. It was really disconcerting.

“They were great young fellas, those messenger boys.”

John Brennan, now living in New York, but who grew up in Passage West, was reminded by an anecdote last week (about trainee soldiers running up Patrick’s Hill in full combat gear) of an event also involving Cork’s steepest hill, of which his dad told him.

“In the early 1940s, my father introduced me to a man named Leahy (his first name I think was Dave) who owned a garage in the vicinity of the South Terrace.

“He told me that Mr Leahy was the very first person to drive a car to the top of St Patrick’s Hill probably some time in the 1930s.

“I’m sure this achievement was covered in the Examiner and Echo.”

Well if it was, John, we will find it, and bring it to this page! Thank-you for that glimpse into past achievements.

Jerry Holt was reminded by Michael Nolan’s memories of flying in the 1970s, in last week’s Throwback Thursday, of the time that he himself got the fright of his life on a flight.

“Sadly, my sister was dying in London; as soon as I got word, I contacted Aer Lingus to book a flight. The only seat available was in Business Class, at enormous cost, but given that time was of the essence, I had no choice but to book it.”

Jack Healy's bike shop on MacCurtain Street.
Jack Healy's bike shop on MacCurtain Street.

Shortly after take-off, says Jerry, he heard an enormous CLUNK. “This, I was sure, was not normal.”

“This is your captain speaking,” came over the passenger address system. “Some of you may have heard a slight noise coming from one of the engines. It has stopped, probably due to a bird strike. But there’s nothing to worry about.”

How would yo react to that? Jerry recalls: “Well, I tell you, the businessmen around me suddenly became quiet little boys. I was a little subdued myself to be honest.

“There followed a noise just like an old lorry trying to start up, but nothing else. Then...

“This is your captain speaking, I’m afraid it must have been quite a large bird, but there’s nothing to worry about. I’ve been on to the authorities and they say to fly to Dublin and we will get a new plane to take us on to Heathrow.”

This was reassuring, to some extent, says Jerry. After all, there were another two engines on the plane, so no worries.....until the captain announced: “We are now flying over Dublin Bay, to jettison excess fuel. But there’s nothing to worry about.”

Jerry adds: “Despite that captain’s best efforts at comfort, the worry was still there for all of us though, especially as we could see a line of fire brigades tearing alongside the runway as we landed!”

To be fair, they herded us into a bus and onto another plane before we had time to change our travel plans.”

Years later, says Jerry, he made plans to visit his son in New Zealand. 

“But no way would I fly, as to my mind there are an awful lot of birds between here and there. I went by boat!”

Pat Dennehy writes with wonderful detail on ‘The Dagenham Yanks’, or those Irishmen who emigrated and found work at the Henry Ford plant over there in Essex, England.

“I was reading something recently and I came across an article by Jimmy Crowley, balladeer extraordinaire, of this parish. He was talking about people from Cork who went to work at the Henry Ford Plant in Dagenham.

“These people, who returned home annually to Cork on vacation, subsequently became known as ‘The Dagenham Yanks’. Jimmy mentioned a preponderance of Cork natives working at that plant. He also mentioned two names in particular, Mick and Joe Healy.

“I remember my Dad telling me about them, Mick in particular,” recalls Pat. “They were his first cousins on his dad’s side of the family, their mum was his aunt.

“Jimmy was of the opinion that they were from Blarney Street, but I think he was a bit mistaken with that address. My memories of visiting my gran aunt, with my dad, are all centred on a house in Mulgrave Place (the street which joins John Redmond Street and Dominick Street), across the road from the old North Infirmary (now the Maldron Hotel), Shandon and The Butter Exchange. But I stand corrected if anyone knows better.

“My gran aunt lived to a great age and had a very large family. If any of the Healy clan recognise this, maybe they would get in touch. I am fairly certain another brother named Tom worked in Nat Ross on MacCurtain Street.”

However, says Mr Dennehy, back to the Dagenham end. Mick Healy somehow or other ended up as a member of the Personnel Office (this would now be known as Human Resources) at Fords in Dagenham. But he never forgot where he came from.

“My dad always said when Mick interviewed prospective employees, after ascertaining from what part of Ireland they hailed, he would tell them that he would be in touch.

“If, however, the answer was Cork, dad always maintained that Mick’s reply was ‘Can you start on Monday?’ I am not sure what credence I would place on that but dad always insisted that it was a fact.

An Irish Railways Record Society outing to West Cork as the train crosses Clontarf bridge in 1961
An Irish Railways Record Society outing to West Cork as the train crosses Clontarf bridge in 1961

“A very good friend of dad’s and a great Cork, Blackrock, Collins and Buttevant hurler, I am sure worked there,” adds Pat. “His name was Peter ‘Hawker’ O’Grady, and he won three All-Irelands with Cork (1928, 1929, and 1931). He was born in The New Street, Buttevant, just a few doors up from my maternal gran uncle’s (Coffey). I think he passed to his eternal reward around 1980, but I often met him with dad in a bar that was located in the triangle formed by Leitrim Street, Coburg Street and Pine Street, but for the life of me I cannot recall its name. Was it the Beehive? Or that place where the publican used to keep greyhounds in the gents? I also knew his brother Jackie.”

This, says Pat, leads him nicely to when Ford cars from the Marina were distributed throughout Ireland by rail.

“This was in the 1950s, but that practice started to wane in the early ’60s. They were delivered to Penrose Quay (CIE Freight Depot) by Ford staff, and loaded by CIE staff onto flat wagons at a customized loading dock.

“Rumour has it that some of the office staff learned to drive doing this. The practice ceased when one of the ‘lads’ forgot to stop at the last wagon and plunged down onto the railway tracks. That new vehicle was a complete write-off, of course.”

Pat Dennehy also remembers as a child watching the goods trains shunting at Buttevant Station.

“I would see the long ‘rakes’ of flat wagons with the cars on them. They all seemed to be black, but one evening, mirabile dictu, what should I see but a dark green one, I was telling people about it for days.

“I remember dad telling me about this particular fireman on the loco who would get into one of the cars and wave to a particular nervous signalman as the train thundered past. He nearly drove the man mad!”

Oh wonderful memories, Pat.

How many readers have recollections of the sounds that trains made when they were so much part of Cork life? The warning clanging of an engine manoeuvring its way from Glanmire to Albert Quay over the bridges? The announcement of the departure of the Dublin train from Kent Station, echoing out over the Lower Road? The exciting glimpse for Blackpool children of the steam engine and line of carriages crossing the high bridge far above them? The hope that, as you approached a level crossing somewhere in the countryside, the gates would be shutting, and you could rush out to stand and wait for the big moment as the train rushed past?

This writer has two distinct memories of those golden days of steam. Once was when we were coming home from a day out, and the woman at the level crossing was just shutting the gates for the expected train. My father was in a hurry and jumped out and reasoned with her. As a child, I can still remember how she shaded her eyes and peered up the long length of shining rail, and then quickly ran to re-open the gates and let us through. I think my brothers and sisters and I held our breath until we were safely across and the gates shut once more. “Oh, the train was probably late anyway,” said my father, dismissing the incident light-heartedly.

The second memory is of coming home really late one night after a meeting of the Munster Motor Cycle and Car Club down west – was it Dunmanway?

Anyway, we got to the level crossing, and the car somehow got stuck on the rails. Don’t ask me how, it just did. Pitch dark of course.

My father knocked up the level crossing cottage and used their phone to contact the hotel in Dunmanway. The entire Car Club decamped, roared up to that crossing, and hefty men literally lifted our car off the rails and on to the road. Then they roared back to Dunmanway, presumably to finish their evening.

Ah, steam trains…

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