'I knew that if they were real bombs, they couldn't harm me as they were so far behind'
The last steam train driver in Northern Ireland is about to retire - 53 years after stepping onto the footplate for the first time. Brendan McCrory tells Ivan Little about Sunday School excursions, football specials and the day he saved the railway from an IRA explosive with
It was the ultimate busman's holiday for a railway man. And the good times came rolling in as Brendan McCrory travelled back in time on that steam train to Dublin. Not in the driver's seat, as in the old days, but rather in a specially reserved seat in the passenger compartment where he was able to sit back and simply enjoy the ride.
Brendan was on the post-Christmas "mince pie" excursion as a guest of the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland, who do exactly what it says on their locomotive logo by keeping the magic of steam trains alive for thousands of enthusiasts here. It was the RPSI's way of saying thank you to Brendan for taking the controls of so many of their outings down the years and a way of recognising his contribution to the railways over the past 53 years, during which time he was the last man to drive a commercial steam train here and possibly in the whole of the United Kingdom. He enjoyed his first ever RPSI trip to Dublin as a passenger on the perfectly preserved No 85 steam engine called Merlin, which was built in 1932 for the Great Northern Railway.
"It was a marvellous day out," says Brendan, who retires soon from the employment of Northern Ireland Railways. And, no, he didn't travel on the footplate. "I didn't want to," he says.
"I've seen enough of them."
Fellow passengers may have spent much of the 200-plus mile round-trip clocking the train's speeds and keeping an eye on the journey time. But not Brendan. "That sort of thing doesn't interest me."
He did, however, get a buzz out of taking his grandchildren to a shorter steam excursion at the RPSI headquarters at Whitehead.
But it was other children's excursions way way back in the day of steam which provided Brendan with the undoubted highpoints of his lengthy career on the province's railways.
And it's singularly appropriate that Northern Ireland's last steam train driver should get a little misty-eyed as he allowed himself a nostalgic journey through his memories.
And as Brendan relives those distant Sunday School specials to Portrush, you can almost smell the steam and feel the warmth of the summer sun as he paints an almost poetic word-picture of what was to him perfection.
Brendan was a young fireman on the footplate of the steam train excursions on those idyllic Saturday afternoons in the Sixties - and they're as real to him now as they were five decades ago.
"They were always big big trains with 10 carriages behind us, full of Sunday School children from all over - Antrim, Whiteabbey and Belfast. The sun always seemed to be shining and I can still see the beautiful sights as we puffed up through Dhu Varren," he says.
But there were nightmarish times, too. Like a tragic rail crash, or the night that Brendan became the unwitting hero of a bomb drama at York Road railway station at the height of the Troubles.
The alarm had been raised by guard on a train from Larne, who saw two men boarding at Jordanstown and alighting at Whiteabbey after leaving two bags in separate carriages.
Brendan had been a stand-by driver at York Road and, when he heard what had happened, he decided on the spur of the moment to clamber onboard the train and reverse it back up the tracks away from nearby buildings, thus reducing the potential of any bombs to do any real damage.
"I knew, if they were real bombs, they couldn't cause me any harm because they were so far behind me."
But he was well clear by the time the bombs exploded around an hour later.
The top brass on the railways thanked Brendan for saving the station. "But they told me not to do it again," says the Dunmurry man, who comes from a long line of McCrorys who worked on the railway lines.
His great-grandfather, Jack, was one of the hardy team who laid the tracks between Dungannon and Omagh in the 1860s and he later worked on the trains and lived in a railway cottage at Beragh, where Brendan's grandfather, John, was born.
John went on to become a guard on goods trains and Brendan's father, Gerry, followed him onto the railways - in a big way.
During the Second World War, he had no fewer than three jobs - as a railway porter during the day at Belfast docks, as a fire-watcher at nights and as a goods yard employee at weekends.
But Gerry knew nothing about his son following in his footsteps. "I sort of slid into it," laughs Brendan, "I went down to the old Ulster Transport Authority offices in Linenhall Street and knocked on the door. I was only 15 and asked them if I could have a job.
"After filling in a form, a man said he had a job at York Road for an engine cleaner."
That was August 3, 1962 and Brendan is still on the payroll of the railways at the age of 67 - though retirement is the next stop on the itinerary in a month or two.
Yet, at the time he joined them, UTA officials had stressed the job was only a temporary one, because the Stormont government was shutting down rail lines and the way ahead looked grim, though a more optimistic Gerry McCrory had other ideas.
"My father told me an engine cleaner was a good job, because with the order of things on the railways it would lead to me becoming a fireman on the footplate and then a driver. And that's exactly what happened, as the railways somehow survived," says Brendan.
His reason for wanting a job on the railways was all about getting a wage - not about sentimentality about steam, though having a father with access to free travel had ensured that he and his siblings did have a love of the railways.
"He took us over every railway line that existed at the time, including Bundoran, where we were able to spend about an hour-and-a-half before we had to come home," he says. "Newcastle and Warrenpoint were handier runs on the Great Northern Railway system on a Sunday.
"But, for me, there was no great mysticism about the railways. I just saw them as something which might be able to give me employment."
Brendan's first job was as an engine cleaner working mainly at night to consistently stoke stationary steam engines in the depot to ensure their efficiency.
The work may have nominally been a cleaner's job, but it was a messy one. "I remember coming home on the first or second day and all my mother could see were the whites of my eyes. She wanted to know if I'd been sent down the mines to work. I was piggin' dirty - there were no showers in those days," says Brendan.
However, the old-style trains were fast running out of steam, so to speak, as more modern diesel engines were replacing them, and after just six months Brendan progressed to become a full-time fireman on the footplates of trains operating in the docks.
It wasn't until several years later that he was deemed old enough to work on mainline services, like the boat train between Larne and Belfast.
In August 1968, at the age of 21, an opportunity opened up for a train driver and Brendan was next on the pecking order, having learnt all the necessary skills during his years as a fireman.
Brendan drove a number of passenger steam trains, but was more used to working on stone trains from Magheramore quarry near Larne to Fortwilliam, with materials which were used to fill in the foreshore of Belfast Lough for the M2 motorway.
They were the last scheduled timetable steam trains here, but Brendan also drove those Sunday School excursions and at the other end of the scale he was on the footplate of football specials, some of which were wrecked by supporters whose days out weren't complete without smashing up the trains.
Football fans of a certain vintage can remember journeys between Londonderry and Belfast which took hours to complete, because hooligans would also routinely force the trains to stop by repeatedly pulling the communication cord.
"The RUC had to be called sometimes to board the trains. Otherwise, we would never have got home," says Brendan, who recalls driving, or acting as inspector, on those RPSI steam trips with more affection.
The difference between driving steam and diesel trains was like chalk and cheese. "On the diesels, you basically sat there and watched your controls, but there was always something happening on the footplates of the steam trains," he says.
Brendan's career took a different direction in 1984, when he became a controller. One of the worst periods was after a train crash at Slaght, outside Ballymena, in March 1988, when three people were killed after a railway crossing was disabled by bad weather.
"That was a really bad night," says Brendan, who returned to working as a depot manager at York Road after five years behind a desk.
He has watched with pride as a new fleet of trains has been introduced and dramatically transformed services for the public and the fortunes of the railways around Northern Ireland.
"People now have the sort of rail system they deserve," says Brendan, who has five children and 10 grandchildren - none of whom have shown any inclination to maintain the family links with the railways.
For Brendan, the 50-odd years on the railways have gone by all too quickly, almost in a flash. "I have no regrets. None at all," he says. "Somebody once told me that if you enjoy what you do, you will never work a day in your life."
But Brendan intends to make the most of his new life in the sidings. He hopes that retirement will open up the possibility of more travel. On the trains, I ask him? Definitely not is the answer.
And talking to this affable and engaging rail man, you get the sense that nothing could ever compare to those heady days on the footplate of those Sunday School steam runs to Portrush in the sunshine.
"They were some of those good-to-be-alive moments," he says.
Railway society ensures historic trains stay on tracks
The Railway Preservation Society of Ireland (RPSI) was founded in 1964 to preserve the country’s fast-disappearing rail network.
The society has its headquarters at Whitehead in Co Antrim and also has a base at Mullingar, Co Westmeath.
The RPSI operates mainline trains on the railway network, north and south, using steam traction and vintage carriages. It also owns a small fleet of vintage diesel locomotives.
Its longest-running and most famous train — the Portrush Flyer — takes daytrippers from Belfast to Portrush during the summer.
Lord O’Neill, patron of the Railway Transport Preservation Society of Ireland, chaired the inaugural meeting at the Presbyterian Hostel in Belfast in September 1964.
The RPSI acquired its first locomotive in 1965, moving into premises in former rail sidings and sheds at Whitehead the following year. It is here that the society’s major locomotive and carriage refurbishment still takes place and it features a travelling overhead crane (dating back to 1897) and a fully operational forge/smithy.
In 1983, the RPSI received the Association of Railway Preservation Societies Annual Award, while Locomotive No 184 featured in the popular TV series The Irish RM, starring Peter Bowles and Bryan Murray.
RPSI excursions include the ‘Bangor Belle’, between Whitehead and Bangor, the ‘Easter Shuttle’ — an Easter-themed train operating from Dublin — and the ‘Broomstick Belle’, which runs between Belfast and Whitehead at Halloween.
Excursions run throughout the year, primarily at weekends. An operational set of vintage carriages is kept both at Whitehead and in Dublin for this purpose.
Such is their popularity that carriages are frequently packed to capacity and advance booking is recommended.