Ballyshannon's Cresta Run
An Article by the late Fr. Frank Little
It was not only the recent death of Frankie Millar, the popular, respected
motor trader and enthusiastic angler, coupled with the recent arctic weather
conditions, but also a brief conversation I had the other day with a youth about
sleighing on the Main Street, that prompted me to write this article. He said
someone had told him how the Gardai used to stop the Cresta run on the Main
I took him back to the times of the R.I.C., the Royal Irish Constabulary, and
told him how Constables Terry Reilly and Archie Smirrll tried to prevent our
winter sports when we were young, and were snowballed back to the barracks in
College Street for their efforts. This struck a chord in my memory of something
lost to the present generation of Belashanney folk because they have never
experienced the thrills that arctic conditions gave to us in our winter sports.
There were no travel agents in existence then to lure us to the skiing slopes
of Austria, to San Moritz in Switzerland, or to Seefeld and the Cresta run. The
Main Street was our Cresta run, our San Moritz, our Seefeld. That was, say, from
1919 to 1924, although the last time I sleighed down Darcy's Hill--above the
present public dump--was 1937/38.
To provide the setting I ask you to imagine the traffic conditions of the
time. To travel out of town you had to use one of the two railway systems
linking the town with the outer world, the G.N.R. and the C.D.R., depending on
which destination you wished to reach. A side car, jarvey driven, was the local
taxi. Frank Millar, Frankie's father, with Joe Sheerin ran the first Ford taxis.
Joe's was a Model T Ford originally owned by John A. Barry of Portnason, whose
house is now the residence of Cathal Campbell. Bicycles were the main mode of
personal transport, and the principal bicycle emporiums were owned by Frank
Graham, Main Street; Michael Grant, West Port; and Tommy O'Loughlin, Belleek. By
the way, the number of Joe Sheerin's Ford was IH 112.
Private car owners included the Major, Major Sproule Myles, who always owned
the most up-to-date model, his most attractive being a big blue Crossley which
took him to the Dail when he was the member for South Donegal. Others were Bob
Myles, brother of the Major and father of John Myles--the number of his car was
IH 96--Dr. Gordon, Dr. McMullan, Dr. Willie Gallagher, brother of the late
Eugene Gallagher, Fr. Traynor of the Rock, Mr. Neely, Milltown flour mills, and
Alphie Stubbs, solicitor, Danby. Shank's mare took the rest of us out for local
walks down the Mall, by the winding banks of Erne, long before engineers
straightened them and contributed little to the economic growth of the town.
Thomas McGuinness, locally known as McGinney, had the contract to carry the
mail to and from the G.N.R. station, driving a green dray. He stabled his horse
in the Van Yard, now the Erne Cinema. When the other cart horses of the Myles's,
Neelys, Campbells, and the Abbey Mills were also stabled for the night, traffic
was nil, and conditions were suitable to begin our winter sports on our Cresta
run, the Main Street. When conditions were really right, the nightly sessions
ran from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Winter snows came but once a year, and we had to make
the most of them while they lasted.
Like present-day motor cars there were several models of sleighs. The luxury
model sleigh was about 6 ft. long, with a front turntable steered with two ropes
held by the sleigh's pilot, who sat on a little raised seat at the rear. It
could accommodate five or six passengers.
Some of the owners of these luxury models were Major Myles, John Myles--I'll
bet that one is still hidden somewhere in Myles's Yard, and I think it should be
put on exhibition for the present generation--Frankie Millar, Jack Reilly,
Marshie Deacon, Harry McClennand, Bernard Sweeney and Hughie Gallagher. They
were all Formula One sleighers.
When conditions were ideal, sleighs started with a hefty shove from Church
Avenue or from the Reid residence, down Main Street, across the bridge, took
Rogan's corner, and ended at Campbell's butcher shop. It is difficult to
calculate what speed they went, but at the Northern Bank they would have reached
30 to 40 miles an hour. What a thrill!
It was a long way back from Campbell's up to Church Avenue, but there many
boys willing to lend a hand hauling a sleigh up Main Street.
The non-luxury, or Formula Four model sleigh, was around 3 ft. feet long and
did not have a forward turntable. It was driven by a pilot using two guiders, or
doggers as they were sometimes called. These were usually three inches each, cut
from the handle of an old broom, and into the ends of which were driven two
six-inch nails. By trailing the guiders on the snowy surface the sleigh was kept
on course. Only a courageous owner of a Formula Four model, with seasoned
expertise, could compete with the Formula Ones. But some took their chances.
I still recall Georgie McCarvill, of the East Port, the owner of a Formula
Four model, taking his sister, Josie, out on a run in the midst of the big
timers. Georgie got as far as the present Grimes Cafe when he was hit by a
flyer, unseating Georgie, and leaving the hysterical Josie to her unguidable
fate, broadsiding and waltzing all over the place, praying for a safe end to her
journey, much to our enjoyment. God forgive us!
These winter sports gathered a good audience in those days, and I must say
the Formula One owners were very generous in giving onlookers a run.
Like the winter sports venues of San Moritz and Seefeld, there were sleighing
hills for beginners. Erne Street was very popular and safe for beginners. Some
well-sloped fields were also popular. The young Purters began on Christy's Hill,
the wee hill in the West Port by the Erne Cinema that was. Christy was a small,
goatee bearded grocer where Charlie Davis now has his shop. Christy Nelson was
related to the Wrays, one of whom was the wife of Hugh Caldwell, the Mall
Sweets then were of few and rare varieties. Christy had one variety with
which he was very generous to us children, a stick of brown sugar crystal with a
white string running through it like a penny candle. Outside Christy's shop door
was a big stone step which we used as a youthful "stone outside Dan Murphy's
door". It was on Christy's Hill that we Purtonians, the Sweeneys, McSheas,
McGuinnesses and Connollys, etc., learned to guide our single-seater sleighs.
Darcy's Hill, above the present public dump, also gave sleighers a fair run,
but it had its handicaps. Although it was a good long run, it was not as
straight as the Main Street, and was much too narrow. It was also too far out of
town to haul a sleigh.
The last run I had down there was in January, 1938. I shall never forget an
adventurous run many years before when, approaching the first bend in the road
three-quarters way down, there loomed up in front of our fully loaded sleigh a
Loughside man and his donkey and cart. I wonder now how we ever got to town
without hitting the ass. Somehow I almost closed my eyes to see the proper
angles, like Stirling Moss on the Monte Carlo circuit remained cool, and passed
the oncoming danger successfully. After that, we left Darcy's Hill to the Leydon
boys who then lived in Waterloo House.
When there were days of very keen frost without snow, we had our local skiing
sport--sliding. The West Rock was the favourite rink, being free from traffic.
It was then that our hobnailed boots came into their own. The boys of the Rock,
the Connollys, John, Kevin and Terry, the Dohertys and the Keenans, saw to it
that the slide was kept in excellent order by applying liberal coatings of water
before retiring at night. The terrain determined the length of the slide, and
the West Rock, with its gentle decline, gave a good length of 30 to 40 yards.
The slider began with a run-up depending on the length of the slide. His
position at the start was upright, but as confidence and expertise developed,
the "hunker" position was attempted. I wonder did the cliche "hunker sliding"
applied to work dodgers originate with actual ice sliding. It was a thrilling
acrbatic feat leading up to "shooting the crow", the most difficult manouevre of
all. Having hunkered down, as speed developed the slider lifted one foot,
balanced on the other, and placed the lifted foot in front of him. Often, like a
group of dancers on stage, six or seven boys would form up "line astern", each
holding the slider in front of him, and do a group hunker slide.
Very rarely was frost severe enough to make skating on local lakes or ponds
possible. But when it did create a thick enough covering of ice, William Neely
was a graceful exponent of the art on the pool in the grounds where Micky Dolan
now lives in Portnason.
Happy to relate, with all this winter fun and thrills at our doorstep,
serious injuries were rare. I cannot recall any injuries at all.
It's a long way back I'm gazing,
and the scene has changed since then.
Oh memory, thou midway world twixt earth and paradise
where things decayed and loved ones lost in dreamy shadows rise
Before the engineers straightened out the winding banks of Erne.
Father Little was a stepson of Mr. Patrick O'Shea, whose grocery store in the
West Port was patronised by a very large number of customers who enjoyed good
value and courteous service. He always managed to stock the finest local tubers
in town, potatoes or spuds to you, and many were the Saturdays my early chores
included toting two stones of them home. On occasion, his shop boy, Pat Murray,
was obliged to help in the carrying, much to my mortification and his, but Paddy
O'Shea had so ordered. My niece, Carol, also has fond memories of him.
I am indebted to Joe O'Louglin of Belleek, author of a number of books on his
native place and surrounding area, the most enjoyable of which, "West Fermanagh
Kingdoms of Mulleek and Toura", has added to my store of happy memories, for
sending me a photostat of Fr. Little's original text, which I have taken the
liberty of abridging.
Readers can find further memoirs of sleighing in Ballyshannon in the
following verses by a poet of the people, James Clarence Mangan, a County
Council worker who lived beside Durnish Lake in Rossnowlagh. It was written in
the early 1950s. A copy of it was given by his son Barney, who lived in St.
Benildus Avenue (Falgarragh Park), to Soinbhe Lally, a faithful correspondent
whose name is familiar to readers of "A Home Page with an Itish Flavour". She
made it available to me a few years ago and I have been waiting an opportunity
to share it. Barney, alas, died in 1996. His father's poem, "The Battle of
Falgarragh", commemorates the battle which ensued when Council workers tried to
stop sleighing in Falgarragh Park by speading grit on the street. Both items
are offered with the aim of ensuring that those mentioned in them, who enjoyed
the winter sports of their times, are not forgotten.
The Battle of Falgarragh
A personal memoir on Ballyshannon winter sleighing may be found at
"Of Sports and Games" in
"The Kindly Spot".
Not long ago in frost and snow
When days were cold and dark
A lorry took some Council men
To chip Falgarragh Park.
But youngsters who were playing there
Saw if the work was done
Their fun would be all over
For their sleighs they would not run.
Bob Tolan was the ganger
And a man of many wars.
Said he, "I fought the Black and Tans,
From them I bear no scars;
I fought in France and Flanders
And the Battle of Dunkirk;
Do you think today I'll run away
From urchins in the Park?"
The youngsters gathered round him
About a score and ten,
With shouts of "Up Falgarragh!"
And "Down the Council men!"
They tackled him from front and rear
With every kind of scrap,
And then a flanking fire
Which had him in a trap.
James Doherty got wounded
But I'll not say what he said,
For I hear he made some reference
To the Man to whom you bow your head;
He shouted for the doctor
And ran off for a guard,
And going past the Convent gate,
He was like a man was scared.
Then up speaks Patsy Fagan,
"The lorry I must save,
For if we stay much longer here
We'll never need a shave!"
He put the lorry in reverse
And quickly did retreat,
And they never stopped or looked around
'Till they came to Castle Street.
When they got to Castle Street
It was then they called the roll,
And to their joy and great relief
There was no deathly toll.
It was then the ganger made a vow,
Falgarragh he would pass,
If every pot-hole in the place
Could drown a tinker's ass!
The lads that's in Falgarragh now
Are of a fighting race,
And in the field of battle yet,
I'm sure they'll take their place.
If we only had that Army,
I'm going to let you know,
Sir Basil Brook might go and gook,
For the border it would go!
Why are there always Grinches who want to stop innocent, healthy, enjoyment?
In Canada, where I now live, there are sadsacks who are trying to abolish street
hockey, played by young school kids, boys and girls, on cul de sacs and
infrequently travelled roads in residential areas. Youngsters have enjoyed such
games for years, indeed generations. Long may they continue to do so.
Written at Ottawa, January 2000, with the temperature and windchill at -41°C.
Here it snows more, many times more, than once a year!
| Canadian Vindicator