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Manning the gates

The Interview

Joe Byrne

Manning the gates

Sean Rice
in Greenhills

FROM the cosy living room of his level crossing cottage at Greenhills, Joe Byrne looks back on more than half a century of railway service. Soon he will say goodbye to it all, and the final chapter of almost a century of family commitment to the permanent way will have ended.Joe is one of Iarnród Éireann’s longest-serving employees. For 42 years he has been manning the railway gates at Greenhills, and as he eases into the final six months of his service he is conscious that the long tradition of manually-operated gates is coming to an end.Within a few years automatic barriers will have replaced the present system. Automation will do the bidding for motorists, and technology will have finally effaced one further image of a rural past with all its flaws and hardships, its history of long hours of duty, of broken gates, of paraffin oil-lit signals.All of that was part of Joe Byrne’s association with the railways. As a 15-year-old, in 1959, he got his first taste of work … in the dining car of the train between Westport  and Dublin where they served breakfast and full four-course lunches. He was then living in Manulla, his parents having settled there in 1945 after 42 years work with CIE in various parts of the country. He recalls the old carbide and oil lamps that lit the platform and bridges at Manulla Station, in the dark and distant forties. The stint in the dining car to a term in the CIE-owned Great Southern Hotel in Galway, to painting bridges, and work on the permanent way, preceded Joe’s advent to Islandeady. He had been asked to attend the gates for two weeks. The two weeks became 42 years.
“I started with the late Sean McGuire on the gates. The hours were from six o’clock in the morning until five in the evening, and from five ‘til two the following morning.”
“For early duty I would leave Manulla on a push bike in hail, rain or shine at 3.45am to be at the gates at 6 o’clock, and back home again in the evening.  It was hard going at times. I did that for five years. I saved up and eventually bought an autocycle, which was an improvement, but I had more mishaps on that than on the pushbike.”
His father died some months before Joe took up the gate-keeping post, and his mother, who was then living alone in Manulla, agreed to come to live with Joe in the railway cottage at Greenhills. She became a great help to him during his long hours of duty. It was tough work in those early days. On Reek Sundays seven extra trains were added to the regular schedule, carrying thousands of pilgrims to Westport.
The work would have been much more difficult, but for the fact that his mother was there to give a hand. It was then a 24-hour day. “About an hour’s sleep at night was all I’d get. The gates had to be locked across the public road at all times, and opened for every car, cart or bicycle to pass. You might be only five minutes back in bed when you would have to get up again.
“Nowadays the gates are opened only for the trains. There was no relief then. You were there full-time, round the clock. Only in the past seven years or so has there been a permanent relief.”
The signals’ system then was not like it is today. “I had to go over quarter of a mile once a week to light the signals. I had to climb a ladder to replenish the paraffin oil before lighting  them. Often on a windy night the match would go out, and you had to go back all the way to the house for a light.” 
Sometimes his pet Alsatian made the task easier. A hastily-scribbled note was attached to its collar, and the dog sent home. Minutes later the dog returned with matches attached by Joe’s mother to its collar. Often the dog carried a bucket of water from the well for Joe and, when asked, would go out and remove the key from the railway gate. Sadly, the dog, which had been Joe’s companion for years, was stolen, and never traced. “It was like losing a member of the family,” he said.
The signals are now electrified, and the driver must obey them to avoid driving through the gates, which was not an infrequent occurrence previously. A late night or a heavy sleep was sufficient to leave Joe searching for plausible excuses the following morning for failing to have the gates opened.
He tried to spell it out in the report why it happened. But you did not have to be out late to sleep it out, because the hours were long, and there was not enough rest time. And after all, no serious damage was caused except to the gates, and they could be replaced.
On one occasion Joe was notified of a steam engine leaving Westport. “I had been out late the night before and fell into a deep slumber. My mother came in saying the gates were gone. I got up to see just four pillars standing and no gates. The train had gone up the line with the gates hanging from it.
“Another morning my mother was sitting at the window having a cup of tea when the train came crashing through the closed gates, and part of one of the gates through the window, missing her by inches. It was serious enough because an accident like that could derail the train. It is stricter now. The rules are there and you have to abide by them.”
That was not the only scare his mother experienced. While Joe was away a storm blew up so frightening that the roof of a nearby shed landed in his garden. The lights went off, and a drunk came to the gates and drove his car up the railway line.  A neighbour came along, lifted the car off the line and, just when he had Joe’s mother back in the house, the train passed.
Joe is full of praise for CIE. “From the day I joined the company I could not say anything bad about them. They have been absolutely brilliant.  The boss was down in Mayo recently and wanted to see some of the gatehouses. He called here and was very impressed.”
Joe also paid tribute to the stationmaster in Westport, Ann Elliott, who, he said, had been very good to him ever since she took up duty.
Music was a big part of Joe’s life in his younger days. He played the accordion with various groups at all sorts of functions. And he also took part in drama productions.
He invited Jack Ruane’s Showband - from the Gaiety in Islandeady where they had been playing – to a cup of tea after the dance. He had arranged for a few girls from the hospitals in Castlebar to come to the house for a bit of a hooley. His mother made a pile of sandwiches, and the band played all night in the house and were belting out ‘The Grand Old River Moy’ when the train was going down at six o’clock in the morning.”
Even to this day there is a cup of tea in Joe’s house for friends. Staff working on the railway line have benefited from the Byrne hospitality. On a wet and windy day his mother once brought workers in to the house and made them a pot of soup.
Another feature of Joe’s life was his baking of wedding cakes. He ‘got the bug’ while working in the Great Southern Hotel watching the pastry chef making the cakes. Having got the tips he tried them, and for years afterwards was called upon again and again by people getting married, and by hotels for his unique creations. Only occasionally does he bother now … maybe for some special event.
He said that he had experienced many sad times as well as good times. He was the youngest of a family of 12, many of whom he never knew. All of them are dead now – one, his brother Tommy, at the age of 23. His mother lived to 97. She died in 1989 and her death marked a low point in his career. Two years earlier she was working the gates.
Joe will miss the gates when he finally calls it a day next April. He’ll miss the time slots, and the chat to passing drivers. But there will be compensation in knowing that punctuality is no longer a demand on his time.
He will still have his friends and neighbours to visit, and he’ll have the memories of traditions long gone to keep him company in the years ahead.