FIFTY-five years ago this month, the West Clare Railway was trundling towards Moyasta from Shragh when the driver started pumping the breaks. The train was packed and en route to the County Fleadh in Kilrush, which will be held in the town again later this month. Among those on board were the U-14 Shragh Flagellate and Accordion Band. The Whelan brothers, Frank and Joe Joe, were seated on the train when it ground to a sudden halt.
“We heard the hooter blowing and we just pulled up,” Frank recounted. “I stuck my head out the window. There was a cow on the track with the calf sucking the cow. We sat there until the cow walked away when the calf was finished.”
Their adventurous journey to Kilrush wasn’t over. The train pulled into Moyasta Station and was next due in Kilkee. However, a technical issue in Kilkee meant the West Clare Railway couldn’t turn there.
“The roundabout in Kilkee wasn’t working, so we reversed into Kilkee from Moyasta and I think we only picked up five or six people. And then back into Kilrush,” Frank reminisced.
Director of the West Clare Railway tourist attraction in Moyasta, Jackie Whelan, also a Shragh man, heard of another cow-related incident on the railway. It involved an American tourist and a, presumably, separate animal.
“There were several incidents like that. There was one at this side of Ennistymon around the Black Hills, where the Rineen Ambush was. There was a Yank on the train. The train stopped and the Yank said ‘what’s wrong my man?’ to the porter. ‘There’s a cow on the track,’ said the porter. A few minutes later, the train moved off again and about two miles after, it stopped. ‘Cow on the track again my man?’ the Yank asked. ‘No, it’s the same cow,’ the porter replied.”
As for the Shragh Flagellate (tin whistle) and Accordion Band, it was established by the then Shragh National School teacher, Joe Hurley.
“Joe Hurley was the teacher there and he was big into the music. He was big into the football as well. He got things going there when they weren’t going anywhere else. Everybody had a little job to do and he was fantastic,” Joe Joe recalled.
“There was one accordion, Pete Haugh played it left-handed upside down. Everyone in the band played the flagellate, except for the drummer and we had a young lad on the triangle, Tomás Deloughrey,” Frank noted.
Jackie remembers another element of his schooldays in Shragh; the parish football league.
“Any match we played in the parish league, we were never bate [sic]. And the parish league used to be dog eat dog. You were beatin’ yourself in and out of the field,” he revealed.
Jackie didn’t play in the band but he was roped in on one occasion.
“I did one day marching with ye,” he informed Frank and Joe Joe. “I happened to be in Doonbeg at mass. There was something on and Joe Hurley had no-one to march with the staff out ahead of ye. That’s how I got collared. I wasn’t supposed to be there at all. There was a few of the Doonbeg lads I could have used the staff on,” he smiled.
As for the 1960 fleadh in Kilrush, Jackie had a role to play there too, albeit not a musical one.
“I was driving the Darling Girls around the town on a low-loader. I had a full trailer of them and we put seats inside in the middle of it. There was some fella playing a set of pipes above in the front of the trailer.”
The fleadh was a successful one for the Shragh musicians. They held off Tulla to win their category.
Their day didn’t conclude then. though. There was more music to cock an ear to.
“We went to the concert that night and The Chieftains were playing,” Frank remembers.
They didn’t return home on the West Clare Railway but living near the station in Shragh, they grew up with it and retain a life-long affection for it.
“I was sent back one day to check if the geese were all right because they used to go out on the track. The train from Kilrush passed Shragh and chugged away up. About 15 or 20 minutes later, we heard the hooter going again. He was backing down and a train coming against him. The timetable was hit and miss. He was almost in Doonbeg and had to back down to Shragh, pull into the siding, let the other train pass onto Kilrush and off again,” Frank laughed again.
The service was famous for stopping regularly and not always because cows were on the track.
“When you buy turf by the tonne, it’s wet turf you get. That’s why the trains were stopping,” Jackie maintained.
“When the power station in Miltown was built, there was a fella in charge of it by the name of Collins. When we’d go up with a load of turf with the lorry, he’d take the biro out of the top pocket and stick it into the sod of turf. If that biro went into the sod, you’d go home with the load of turf. The only way of beatin’ him was to g’up when you had good hard frost. The biro wouldn’t g’in to the sod of turf. It’d be frozen. There was always a way of beating them,” Jackie smiled.
“An awful lot of bad turf went into that station,” Frank said, shaking his head.
“Will you stop. They were buying it by the tonne, sure. What did they expect?” Jackie replied.
The upcoming County Fleadh in Kilrush will be held on the weekend of June 19 to 21.
Event secretary Anne Hayes is expecting a huge crowd in the town.
“At the moment, we have over 1,000 entries. It’s bringing a massive amount of people into the west. We’ve been travelling now for the last number of years. We had it in Killaloe last year and Kilfenora the year before. It’s nice now to have it in the west,” Anne said.
She feels the standard of musicians is still rising.
“It’s getting better. The names that are out there, like Sharon Shannon and Noel Hill, make it attractive to play trad again. Then a lot of it is also jazzed up. I listened to Tommy Browne’s grand-daughter, Andrea Browne. She’s just nine and plays the concertina. She just sits back with the concertina and you see the natural talent coming out. Then you have some great teachers as well,” Anne reflected.
On day one of the county fleadh (Friday, June 19), 82 sets will compete. The U-9 to U-15 events will be on the Saturday, with U-15, U-18 and senior on the Sunday.
Of course, the 2015 transport arrangements will be markedly different. No-one will be worrying about wet turf or a stubborn cow impeding their journey to Kilrush for this year’s County Fleadh.
By Peter O’Connell