Cycling the WRC

County View
A boy walks on the railway tracks at a station
HOP SCOTCH Jonathan Healy, Kiltimagh on the tracks at Kiltimagh Train Station during a visit to stations proposed for the Western Rail Corridor by Seamus Brennan TD, Minister for Social Welfare and Family Affairs.

Cycling the WRC

John Healy

Promoters of the reopening of the Western Rail Corridor might have other views, but letters written to the papers have recently been advocating the idea of a cycle route on the disused sections of the line.
Leaving aside the fact that any such proposal would be running completely counter to what the West on Track people have in mind, the idea of utilising disused railways in this way is worth a second look.
Near the town of St Hilaire in the Vendee region of France, the enterprising local development company have introduced, some years ago, the velorail. The velorail is a big tourist attraction which, with the minimum of investment, has managed to become a money spinner in its own right. The concept could hardly be more simple - a disused length of railway running for ten kilometres between two local villages, a set of open carriage contraptions carrying four people, two of whom provide the pedal power from twin driving seats at the front, and spectacular views through farmland and fields with an occasional level crossing thrown in for good measure.
The single track route has a number of stopping and turning points for those who find the going a little challenging, while a carefully timed sequence of departure means that congestion on the track is kept to a minimum.
Mark Twain once remarked on how people are delighted to do something they have to pay for, whereas they can be most reluctant to do so if they see it as a chore. The velorail is a case in point. Those who mount the carriages and vie with each other to pedal themselves into a state of happy exhaustion, because they have to pay for the privilege, would down tools and go on strike if they were asked to do it for a living.
A keen observer of human nature once told me that, if he had ownership of a stretch of bogland, he would market as a tourist attraction the idea of a day working on the bog, complete with lunch of bog-brewed tea and well buttered slabs of traditional soda bread. The visitors would save the turf and provide him with free labour and, he assured me, they would be lined up at the gate to pay for the experience.
Now, I’m beginning to think he was right.

The battle for hearts and minds
Uneven as the battle might seem to be, the protesters at Bellanaboy have nothing to learn from their rivals, Shell, in the arts of propaganda.
With a most plausible and persuasive spokesman in Mark Garavan, who seems as comfortable in the Today Tonight studio as he would be in his own living room, the anti-Shell group scored a couple of notable points during the week.
Dr Jerry Cowley got to the heart of a thorny matter when his Dail question on the cost of policing the daily protest at Bellanaboy yielded the news that three quarters of a million in costs (excluding wages) had been racked up by the Gardaí in the first ten days. Just what that will run into by the time the refinery is completed would need a calculator bigger than mine, but Dr Cowley’s claim that a company which is making massive profits by the hour should be contributing to the cost will strike a chord.
Meanwhile, Joe Murray of AFRI was also wading in on behalf of the protesters to warn that the Irish Government should not emulate the Nigerian authorities, which had executed nine protesters for opposing Shell in that country. It was perhaps a little over the top - and hopefully Dr Cowley and his people will never be subject to the type of expression which marks protests in those countries - but AFRI’s intervention has certainly given Shell to Sea another card to play.
And, as Joe Murray warned, “Shell has never been known to allow human rights to stand in the way of its pursuit of power”.

William Rooney remembered
The reunion of residents of Linenhall Street and Tucker Street in the county town reached the perfect conclusion last weekend with the presentation of a substantial cheque - proceeds of the evening - to the Friends of the Sacred Heart Hospital.
But the celebrations also drew attention to the streets’ long forgotten connections with a famed Irish patriot, poet and benefactor of the arts.
William Rooney was a prominent member of the Young Ireland League who, in 1890, founded the patriotic newspaper ‘The United Irishman’ with Arthur Grifith.
A fluent Irish speaker and an excellent orator, he was much in demand at patriotic gatherings, and in 1898 he visited Castlebar with Maud Gonne for the centenary celebrations of ‘The Year of the French’. He gave a passionate speech in Irish in which he exhorted people to think for themselves, to educate themselves, and not to take their teachings from others.
In order to promote self-education, he founded Castlebar’s first Public Library at the Town Hall, to which he dedicated his books. Thirty years later the surviving books of that collection were added to the stock of the newly established County Library.
Three years later, at the early age of twenty-eight, William Rooney was dead, but the esteem in which he was held in Castlebar continued to grow. In 1911, a new Hurling Club in the town was named the ‘William Rooney’ in his honour.
A few years later, the Rooney Hall was opened in Tucker Street where the Al Muretto restaurant is now located. It became a local landmark for several generations, much used by various civic and voluntary organisations, including the PTAA. Later, Rooney Hall fell into decline, finally making way for the regulated development of Tucker Street and ending the link between Castlebar and William Rooney.
The one surviving connection is in ‘Poems and Ballads’, a collection of Rooney’s poetry edited by Arthur Griffith and published in 1902, a year after his death.
An original of this title is held by Mayo County Library where it can be consulted at the Mayo County Library in Castlebar.

Back to the Barracks
For the second year in succession, Castlebar Boxing Club is to roll back the history pages by hosting its annual Autumn Carnival at the town’s Military Barracks.
Back in the 1950s, the Military Barracks was the venue for the Western Fair, a landmark in the entertainment which saw the crowds flocking from all over the province for the open air spectaculars, the amusements, the dancing and the host of festive events lined up by the local development association.
Later years - and largely because of security concerns - the barracks was placed off limits to all outside activity, and the sound and colour and excitement of the fairground became a distant memory.
But Castlebar Boxing Club is nothing if not persistent and having run an Autumn Carnival in various other locations for thirty years, never gave up on the hope of returning to the Military Barracks. Persistence paid off, and the assent of the Minister, Willie O’Dea, was finally given last year to throwing open the massive parade ground once more to the swings and roundabouts and dodgems and ferris wheel.
The carnival comes straight to Castlebar from the Funderland event at the RDS, so that patrons can be assured of the most modern showground features for ten days, starting this Friday.
Older Castlebar residents will be pleased to see the carnival back in its traditional location in the heart of the town, and to see the Military Barracks regain its place at the centre of the town’s social life.

The gates at Greenhills
Sean Rice’s interview with Joe Byrne, the affable gate-keeper of the level crossing at Islandeady, will have evoked warm memories for many of days when the world moved at a more leisurely pace.
If hospitality could be said to have a name, it hat to be the small railway cottage at Greenhills where Joe and his late mother welcomed callers from near and far in the days before the pub became the centre of social life.
Musician, raconteur, confectioner, singer and actor, Joe Byrne’s cottage was the place where the door was on the latch and where you could always count on a gathering of the young and carefree whatever the hour. Late night dancers from the Gaity or Frenchill or the TF or the old Pavilion were sure of a warm welcome, the cup of tea and maybe even a couple of accordion tunes from Joe. The Byrne cottage was a home from home for young people who had come to work in the vicinity - Gardaí and nurses and council staff and postal workers - or who appreciated the warm hospitality they found in Greenhills.
There was too another string to Joe Byrne’s bow. A talented actor, he took part in countless plays, sketches, concerts and other performances over the years. His acclaimed role in ‘The Workhouse Ward’, Lady Gregory’s masterpiece, with the late veteran thespian James Devaney, won plaudits at  home and further afield. Yes, the Byrne’s scrapbook must be filled with a kaleidoscope of memories of a world now changed completely.
Those of us who drove that Greenhills road in the early hours of a winter morning still have pangs of guilt at having to rouse Joe or Mrs Byrne from their beds to unlock the gates and clear the way. Theirs was a hard calling which is why, on behalf of all of us - motorists, bikers and pedal cyclists - this column extends a heartfelt “thank you” to the legendary Joe Byrne.

No time out for Michael Feeney
Michael Feeney of Castlebar is this week marking the joys of retirement, having finally bowed out of the service of the HSE, or as former colleagues prefer to say, the Western Health Board.
But it is most unlikely that the active Michael will content himself with late breakfasts or afternoon TV, for a challenging agenda of specific issues are waiting to be tackled.
The first concerns the creation of the Peace park along the relief road in Castlebar where, close to the entrance to the old cemetery, plans are coming along well. Dedicated to the memory of all those who fell in war, in whatever colour, the Memorial Park has won the backing of the statutory authorities and will become a reality by the end of 2007.
And then there is the magnum opus, the definitive history of all the sons on Mayo who fought and died in World War One. meticulously researched and compiled by Michael and his close colleague, PJ Clarke of Ballina, this will be a book not just for now, but for generations to come.
The book recalls the names and details and stories of the men who marched away in 1914 with the applause ringing in their ears, with bands playing and colours waving and with the commendation of civic and Church leaders to speed them on their way. And they were the men who - if they were lucky enough to survive - came back to a land which didn’t want to know. They had fought for freedom,  had risked their lives against tyranny, only to be treated as outcasts in their own country.
That book too is now in the final stages, except that every other day some new insight or fresh piece of information comes along to persuade the authors to stay the final page just a little longer.