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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 Street.

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 Bakery.

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

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!

A personal memoir on Ballyshannon winter sleighing may be found at "Of Sports and Games" in "The Kindly Spot".

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!

J. Ward.

The End

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