The further happy remembrance recedes through the passage of the years, the more immediate, colourful and directly pleasurably it is to the senses when at some quiet moment in an otherwise frenetic day it unexpectedly flutters back to you, engagingly immediate and alive with all its innocence, beauty and delight. Its images take on a vivid freshness that was never lost, one that blows away the dusts of time instantly and effortlessly, ushering in a warm glow of inner contentment to the heart that is a sweet foretaste of heaven.
It is thus that I am walking once more through the gate of the old railway station in the small West Waterford town of Cappoquin on any sultry summer's evening in the mid-1960s, the era of the Beatles, Elvis Presley, flower Power and the mini-skirt, do-your-own-thing and Vietnam. But here in this charming, picturesque halt on the soon to be abandoned branch line linking Mallow and Waterford, all of that brash modernity is so remote and unreal. Such things all belonged to that other outside world that began somewhere beyond where the rails converged and met in the hazy, shimmering distance.
I step across the platform. To the right, the serried masses of brilliant tall Red Hot Poker blooms flame a vivid scarlet parallel to the tracks as though fallen sparks of the blushing sun settling into the western horizon from which the Rosslare boat train will soon emerge. To the left rises the station house, the ticket office and waiting room. Beyond are various stores and outbuildings and sidings, together with a high water-tank evoking the recently ended era of steam. Across the line is the green-painted quaint signal box to which access was obtained by a steep wooden stairs adorned with its cluster of wild bees beside the doorway humming drowsily in the gentle early evening warmth of summertime. To the right, a set of red and white gates guard the level-crossing over the Dungarvan road. Between them and the signal-box, the curious gantry of a hand-cranked crane stands sentinel over the opposite platform. It won so many awards in its day for its bright neatness and well-kept presentation. Countless trains came and went there over the years and are now gone forever. But in a special corner of my heart, I have never left that fondest place.
What I saw then through the eyes of childhood and what I still see now through the eyes of memory was a scene unchanged since the line had been built during the 1870s, just under a century before. During my school summer holidays spent in Cappoquin with my late beloved grandparents, Mick and Pauline Sargent, I blissfully passed almost every waking hour in this station that seemed filled with such a rare and special kind of magic. Of course, I did not then realise that even then it was in its twilight years and that I was an unknowing representative of the last generation that would ever remember trains here. But while so much else has vanished into the past, the romance of rail still endures with me in a rose-tinted nostalgia that I will always cherish.
My first visit to the station was a rather inauspicious one. I was greeted by the spectacle of one of the last of the old steam trains rolling up towards the platform. I took one look at this dirty roaring, hissing, smoking and steaming fiery monster and ran right into the station toilet until it was safely gone on its way. Recognising however that this was a mysterious world apart from the familiarity of home and school, my now well-aroused curiosity persisted in trying to discover and in some way to become a part of all these strange and wonderful sights and sounds. Indeed, it was an early lesson in the mastery of the search and inquiring mind that, in its ability to overcome all fears, carries the secret of personal growth and maturity.
Yes, those great locomotives, first steam and later diesel-driven, exercised such an undying fascination on me by their sheer size, speed and power; great panting leviathans of the rails pulling their long trains of green-liveried carriages that thunderously rumbled in and out of the station some half-a-dozen times each weekday. But if my childhood visits to Cappoquin station placed me under the spell of the romance of rail, they also impressed on me just how important other people are in the attainment of any kind of happiness in this world. For none of the joyous childhood memories that I can now look back upon with so much pleasure could never have been were it not for the heart warming kindness and friendship of those who worked there. The station-master Mr. Doyle and his family, the signalmen Joe Keane and Jackie Greene (who sadly passed away but a few short years ago), and of course my dear grandparents who not only gave their blessing to my visits there but who listened so avidly and with such warm approbation to my enthusiastic accounts each teatime of the days railway adventures so that if I had the enjoyment of a pleasure received, I also had the even greater satisfaction of a pleasure shared.
All of these very special people understood the significance of a child's imagination and how important if is to nurture and encourage the sense of wonder and excitement that forms the basis of the capacity to dream that leads to a better and more rewarding life. They opened their hearts to me and made me welcome and truly at home in that old station of happy remembrance, for which I shall always be so eternally grateful to them all.
How many times I bounded up those steps into the signal-box with its row of levers standing ready to guide the next train in and out of the station! It seemed back then that the place was always bathed in sunlight, so that it took a few moments for your eyes to adjust to the darkness within. But it was a gentle, inviting gloom for there I would find Jackie and Joe both seated on high-backed wooden chairs, their legs crossed in a shared relaxed attitude (for what was there ever to rush for?) as they brewed up another billycan of tea over the hot turf-burning stove, And of course, not to be outdone, if they had a billycan, I had to have mine as well, thus beginning my tea-making career. Of course those two dear fiends bravely tasted my juvenile efforts but were too polite to say what they must really have thought about my efforts!
Still I hear the thunderous roar of trains approaching the station, the patient humming of engines idling by expectant platforms. But so much more than any of that I treasure the kindness of dear Jackie who, as head signalman, had to keep an official log of the precise arrival and departure times of all trains. With a child's true imitative sense, I of course had to do the same in my own copy-book throughout the summer months. Later, I was astonished to find out that while I had been back in Fermoy attending school during the winter, Jackie had kept my little book up to date together with his own! It gives a measure of the goodness, warmth and understanding of this dearest friend of so many years ago whose name and memory I will ever hold in the very highest honour and affection.
From the very beginning I became integrated into the station and with all the exuberance of those formative years I was given a tantalising share in the arcane mysteries of the railwayman's craft. I was allowed help with all regular duties: attempting to pull the signals and change the points (though the latter proved beyond my boyish strength), as well as work the staff machines which provided the train drivers with the essential circular tokens that authorised them to proceed over the next section of line ahead that was clear as far as anyone knew. This device allowed you to send a recognised number of electric pulse signals through the wires to the next stations along the line, either Lismore or Dungarvan. The operator at the other end would reply in similar vein, thus releasing the staff from the machine that Jackie then handed to the driver.
It was always such an unforgettable moment of heightened expectancy to see the signals come down, hear the distant shrill whistle of the train, followed by the mounting clatter as it surged across the Red Bridge over the wide placid and majestic expanse of the widening Blackwater estuary at the very point where it turns sharply south for Youghal and the sea. And then that first dramatic view of the great locomotive and following train as it rounded the distant corner and rumbled towards the station, drawing up level with the platform to the accompaniment of a screeching of air-brakes. There it would purr expectantly for several minutes as passengers got on and off to the exchange of handshakes, the uttering of cheerful greetings or sometimes tear-edged goodbyes for those old stations were truly public theatres for the playing out of the rituals of life with its comings and goings.
Then the shrill cry of the hooter again reverberated over the town to be followed by another great swelling surge of power and force, the gathering clanking of wheels over gleaming rails that climbed the steep gradient of the long straight stretch of track rising from the station boasting a long black plume of diesel fumes. Standing inside the signal-box window, I would long gaze after them as they slowly faded from view down that steel spine of track right across the county, on under the lee of gentle hills, touching the wave-lapping sea just beyond Dungarvan, winding its way through the rural hinterland to far-flung Waterford and Rosslare.
Yes, what power that first generation of diesel engines had! For if the station personnel were always so kindly to me, the same can also be said of very many of the drivers. I remember with particular fondness one elderly driver with silver-grey hair who incessantly had upon his lips the popular Nancy Sinatra hit song of the time, "These Boots Are Made For Walking". Even yet, whenever I hear on some radio 'golden oldies' collection, I think of him and of how when I asked him one day if he would allow me ride footplate on the Waterford goods train in which he carried out regular shunting operations at the station - de-coupling some wagons and hitching up others from the tree-shaded siding behind the signal-box - he readily agreed.
So for several exhilarating miles off up the line we went, the wind whistling about the cab, the cud-chewing cattle in their sun-drenched fields languidly raising their heads to glimpse the mechanical monster hurtling by, the telegraph poles flickering hypnotically across the passing countryside. With eager excitement I sounded the hooter again and again and increased the speed as high as notch six on the scale, unleashing a surge of tremulous power of quite extraordinary intensity up through my feet. Words fail me to describe that sensation - it was quite simply amazing, an extraordinary 'high' feeling! As Jackie afterwards wryly commented having watched the train roar at high speed up along the line, "I knew it wasn't the driver who was driving it!"
And then almost in an instant, the dream abruptly ended. I remember feeling shattered when the news broke that the line was to close. It was like the end of the world to me. And in a way it was. Those unforgettably happy summer days in a small country railway station were to pass forever into the realms of nostalgia. When you are a child you cannot believe that adults were once children themselves, any more than you can apprehend that childhood will end for you too one day. The closure announcement made me vividly realise for the first time that nothing can ever be taken for granted in this world, that nothing lasts forever: I felt the pain inflicted by the sharp edge of transience.
So I stood amongst the huge sombre crowd on the platform of Fermoy Station that gathered to wave the last goodbye to the last train on an aptly grey March evening in 1967. As it roared off down the line and beyond our sight, it carried a whole era with it into oblivion. The last faint echo of its receding plaintive whistle was answered by a vast falling silence.
Shortly afterwards, I recall standing with Jackie Greene for the last time on the steps of Cappoquin signal-box. We stood looking up the line, our eyes following the still freshly gleaming rails curving away into the evening sun towards the Red Bridge. Another train would never round that corner again. It was an emotional moment for us both. For him it was the end of a long career of dedicated service to the travelling public. For me it was in a way the ending of childhood innocence to be replaced by the encroaching realities of the adult world of work and responsibility, with all the problems and challenges that go with it.
Yet, I cannot end on an elegiac note. Today, some thirty-five years of development and intensive agriculture later, few traces of the old Mallow-Waterford line remain. Bridges, stations, cuttings, everything has almost entirely been long bulldozed away. The Red Bridge, now coated in rust, remains a gaunt and sad reminder of those halcyon days of rail travel, as well as of a short-sighted, stupid official policy by which so many lines were closed and uprooted throughout vast stretches of the country. Although they do not care to admit it, the powers-that-be now bitterly regret those disastrous decisions that stripped so many regions of a vital aspect of their infrastructure, one without any realistic prospect of restoration because of the astronomical cost factors involved.
For so many of us therefore the railway age is gone forever. But not quite. Trains will always appeal to the child in rue and I suppose to the child that is in us all. Whenever life seems dull, monotonous and grey to me - and to whom does that not sometimes happen? I experience a most pleasing illumination of the soul whenever sweet memory evokes those great days whose essential rhythm was imparted by the coming and the going of the trains, filled with the spectacle of size, power and speed, the poetry of a thing so larger-than-life that beckoned the spirit to follow it into the bright kingdoms of wonder and mystery.
If nothing lasts forever, neither is anything ever completely lost. For a train is ever waiting within our hearts to carry us off down the tracks of the imagination to bring us down to the station of our dreams.
Author: David Walsh