“Fares please.” “All board now.” “Plenty of seats on top.” “Move along the aisle please.” “Fares please.”
These phrases will ring a bell for many readers of a certain age. They are, of course, the poetry of that erstwhile mainstay of the urban transport system - the bus conductor - going about his work, collecting his fares and overseeing the smooth running of the vehicle in his charge.
I say HIS charge because for most of the years that bus conductors plied their trade the vast majority of them were men. Although conductors were around since the days of the trams, it wasn’t until 1979 that the job was opened up to women. On July 18th of that year the first three female bus conductors in Ireland started work in Cork City. Dublin followed suit soon after.
That was the tail end of the era of the old-model, open-backed bus and a hardier, less regulated time. The years of living dangerously, perhaps. It wasn’t unusual to see people hopping on and off those old buses, not just at bus-stops, but at traffic lights and corners and sometimes even when the bus was moving at speed. Such carry-on would no doubt give the horrors to today’s health-and-safety practitioners.
It was a rite of passage for a kid to learn how to jump off a bus. You had to go with the flow of traffic and hop off while facing into the direction the bus was heading. And you had to hit the ground running - if you landed at a standstill you’d surely come a cropper. Many a lad lost his front teeth learning to alight from a double-decker moving at speed. Likewise, if you jumped off while facing the opposite direction in which the bus was travelling you were in for a nasty fall.
Kids were the bane of bus conductors’ working lives. Hiding under seats or telling fibs to bunk their fares. Making noise. Robbing ticket rolls. Giving back cheek. Slagging: “CIE - ROBBERY” was a common refrain. And on snowy days in the winter the conductor was a prime target for snowballs as he manned his position beside the bell at the back of the bus.
There weren’t as many cars about in those days and lots of people depended on the bus to commute to and from work, to go out socialising, to travel to and from school. It was an era when many women were homemakers and the conductor was a godsend to them, helping them on and off with their children, prams and shopping and groceries and stuff.
I myself worked as a bus conductor for seven years and I have many fond memories of those days. If you were of a sociable nature, you could make a grand old time of it. You were out and about in the world all day, watching the city go about its business and being a part of it all, with nobody looking over your shoulder save the odd visit from an inspector.
I loved the interchange and banter that went on with the passengers and I derived tremendous job satisfaction from the knowledge that I was providing a vital public service by helping people get to their jobs, their places of business and their entertainment.
The buses were fantastic places for conversation. Many of the passengers knew each other and a trip into town was an opportunity to indulge in a good natter, catch up on all the gossip and have a bit of a laugh.
And a great sense of comradeship prevailed within the workforce.
Tommy Shortall was a bus conductor back in the 1970s and he recalls fondly this comradely ethos. “You’d be working nights and weekends - Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, maybe,” he says. “So, it was difficult to maintain relationships with friends outside the buses and you tended to mix with people in the job. For instance, we were based in Clontarf on the northside and on the late shift we’d finish work and eight or ten of us would load up into a couple of cars and head out to night clubs like Saint’s in Howth or Tamango’s in Portarnock. We’d have free passes because we’d have earlier taken the staff to work and as often as not you might run into a woman you’d been chatting up on the bus.”
He says that larger-than-life characters seemed to be attracted to work on the buses. “There was a fellow called PJ O’Brien. He was a fountain of knowledge and he was nicknamed the Walking Encyclopaedia. His claim to fame was that he went on Bunny Carr’s quiz show Quicksilver. I don’t know how much he won but he put up a good show. Another chap, John Kinsella, was mad about the poet Robert Service and he could quote chapter and verse from that man’s work. Sometimes, after a few pints maybe, he’d regale his passengers with a few verses of Dangerous Dan McGrew.”
Everybody in the job seemed to have a nickname. Some men were named for their physical attributes. There was Long John, Slim, Roundy, Hairoil and Pinocchio. Yorrick hadn’t a pick on him and Quasimodo was ugly as sin.
Others were branded according to their habitual personal qualities. Footsy O’Brien could never stand still. The Morning Grouch hated the world. Twenty Questions should have been a lawyer. An Cupan Tae ran into the canteen for a cup of tea every time he got to the terminus. Scaldy Byrne’s socks whiffed so pungently that the smell would singe the hairs in your nostrils.
Still others were named after characters on the television. Kojak was baldy, Columbo was scruffy, the Six Million Dollar Man was a jogger and two gung-ho inspectors were Starsky and Hutch.
Some places got nicknames. One year there was an epidemic of separation as wives got wise to their two-timing men and chucked them out of the house. The banished sinners landed in bedsits in a couple of blocks of Victorian houses down the road from the bus depot. That street quickly became known as Knott’s Landing, after a popular soap opera known for its characters’ interchangeable coupling.
For most of the 20th century, bus conductors were a constant in our daily lives. Ann Dunne is a writer and journalist living in Howth on Dublin’s northside and she has fond memories of those times. “The conductors were very kind to children, the elderly and the occasional tourist and had a great rapport with us all. When I was growing up, everybody’s favourite conductor was Snowball, a chubby, avuncular man who would have made a good Santa Claus with his ruddy red cheeks and white hair. If you behaved yourself on the bus he might let you off your fare but if you gave any cheek he’d grab your ear and give it a little twist. Snowball ran an orderly, happy bus – he used to sing to us whether we liked it or not. In later years he suffered some illness and was missing for a long time. He came back a shadow of himself, a lot quieter and slimmer. When he retired, the people of Howth held a party for him and presented him with a silver tray to thank him for his service.”
When Ann grew into her late teens the conductors seemed to get younger. “As we went through yet another recession, young men took any job they could get. Many of them became bus conductors and some became friends of ours. In the hippy days of the mid-1970s, sometimes there was more than a whiff of strange-smelling smoke in the air. Many a night there was a singsong on the bus with the conductor joining in and no fares collected. I have very happy memories of those conductors who kept their bus in order, or not, with a smile on their faces.”
But by 1980 the old open-back vehicles were being increasingly phased out and replaced by buses with doors. “It’s much more impersonal now,” says Tommy Shortall. “People are ensconced in their phones and Facebook and the driver is isolated in his cage. People seemed to have more time in those days. One thing I like about Dublin, though, is the way people thank the driver when getting off the bus. They don’t do that anywhere else and I think it’s a very civilized thing to do.”
Now, alas, conductors have gone the way of the glimmer man, the rat catcher, the toys-for-rags man, the telephone switchboard operator and the typing pool. But throughout most of the 20th century they were a vital and lively fixture in Ireland’s urban mosaic.