A Story of Ballyshannon


                                                                          Fr. Frank Little.



It was not only the recent death of Frankie Millar, the popular, respected motor trader and Enthusiastic angler; it was, partly coupled with the arctic conditions prevailing, all during the month, and a brief conversation the other day with a youth on the Main Street about sleighing on the Main Street that prompted me to record this article. He said some one had told him how the Guards used to stop the Cresta run on the Main Street.


I took him back to the times of the R.I.C., (Royal Irish Constabulary) and told him of the traffic conditions prevailing then and if the R.I.C. in the person of Constables Terry Reilley or Archie Smirril tried to prevent our then winter sports they were snowballed back to the barracks in College Street. The above events struck a chord in my memory – a chord lost to the present generation of Ballyshanney folk – lost they have never experienced the thrills the arctic conditions gave us – our winter sports.


No travel agent in existence then to lure the Ski-ing slopes of Austria, Switzerland, to San Moritz or Seefeld and the Cresta run. The Main Street was our Cresta run, our San Moritz, our Seefeld.


“Fond memories brings the light of other days around me.

It is a long way back that I am gazing,

The scene has changed since then.”


Then was say from 1919 / 24, tho’ the last time I sleighed down “Darcy’s Hill” – above the present public dump was 1937 ’38. Just imagine the traffic conditions prevailing then, to travel out of the town one had to use one of the two Railway systems serving the town and outer world. The G.N.R. and the C.D.R. depending on to what destination one wished to go. The 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 owned originally by John A. Barry, Portnason, now the residence of Cathal Campbell. The old bike was in its own, with Frank Graham, Main Street, Michael Grant, West Port and Tommy O’Loughlin in Belleek.


Where the Commercial Hotel car park now accommodates or should be used for the mess of irresponsible parking opposite Ferguson’s. The number by the way of Joe Sheerin’s ford was – IH 112. The few private cars were owned by the Major – Major Sproul 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 a member for South Donegal. Other private car owners were Bob Myles brother of the Major and father of John, the number of his car was IH – 96. Dr. Gordon, Dr. McMullan, Dr. Willie Gallagher, the late Eugene’s brother, Fr. Traynor of the rock, Mr. Neely, Milltown flour mills, Alphie Stubbs, Solicitor, Danby. Shanks mare took all out for local walks down the Mall, by the winding banks of Erne – long before the engineers straightened out the winding banks of Erne and contributed little to the economic growth of the town.

Thomas McGuiness – locally known as McGinney had the mail contract to carry on the green dray the mails to and from the G.N.R. trains. When Thomas had stabled the horse in “the van yard” – now the Erne Cinema, that was when Myles. Neely’s, Campbell’s Abbey Mills carters had stabled the cart horse for the night the traffic was nil and a signal when conditions were suitable to begin our winter sports on our Cresta Run, the Main Street. The nightly session lasted when conditions were really in order from 6 p.m to 2 a.m. Winter snows come but once a year; we had to make the most of them when they lasted.


Like the present day motor car there were several models of sleighs, by the way Frank Millar had an advert in a Democrat for, I think an Austin car – hold your breath – new ordinary model – £125-0-0, luxury model – £150-0-0. The times have changed since then – petrol was round 1 shilling, (5 new pence) a gallon, it was only 1s – 9d in 1936, around 10 new pence. The luxury model sleigh ran about 6ft. long with front turn table for steering by two ropes by the pilot who sat behind on a raised seat for view and control.


This model could accommodate five or six passengers. The owners of some of these luxury models were: – Major Myles, John Myles – I’ll bet that model is hidden some where still in Myles Yard; it should be put on exhibition for the present generation. Frankie Millar, Jack Reilly, still going strong and could do a run if conditions were right and traffic nil. Marchy Deacon, Harry McClennand, the Sweeney brothers, I mean Bernard, Hughie Gallagher were other owners. These were all Formula One sleighers. For them the record run when sleighing conditions were idea, was from the Church Avenue or from the then Reid residence. With a hefty shove it went across the bridge, take Rogan’s corner and end at Campbell’s butcher shop. It is difficult to calculate at what speed these Formula One models were going at, when full out say at the bank they could be doing 30/40 miles per hour. What a thrill? It was along haul from Campbell’s back up to the Church Avenue, there were however many willing boys hands to do the needful for a run. When conditions were only ordinary the run ended half way across the bridge.


The non luxury or formula four model sleigh was around three feet long without a forward turn table; it was guided by the pilot sitting behind using two guiders or dogger’s. These were two pieces of timber, usually three inches of the handle of an old broom into which were driven two six inch nails the business end of which protruded, by trailing the guiders on the snowy surface the sleigh was kept on course, when on course the two guiders were used with equal gentle pressure.


Only a courageous owner of a formula four model of seasoned expertise could compete with or enter the course with the formula ones. Still they did, their speed was moderate, usually a hindrance to the latter, but you took your chance. I still recall Georgie McCarvill, East Port, the owner of a formula four model taking his sister Josie on a run in the midst of the big timers. Georgie got as far as the now Grimes café when he was hit by a flyer, unseating Georgie, leaving hysterical Josie to her un-guidable fate waltzing and broad siding and praying for a safe end to her journey. God forgive us – much to our enjoyment. This is your life; you take your seat and take your chance. These winter sports gathered a good audience in those days. I must say the formula one owners were very generous in giving the on lookers a run.


Like the winter sports in San Moritz and Seefeld there are ski-ing slopes for beginners, so we had our sleighing hills for beginners. Erne Street was very popular and safe for young beginners from beyond the water. 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 gentle, goatee bearded grocer where Charlie Davis now has his shop. Christy Nelson was related to the Wray’s, one of whom was the wife of Hugh Caldwell, the Mall bakery.


Sweets were of few and rare varieties, Christy had one variety with which he was very generous to us children – sugar a candy, a stick of brown sugar crystal with a white string running through like a penny candle. Out side Christy’s shop door was a big stone step which we used as a youthful “Stone out side Dan Murphy’s door”. On Christy’s Hill it was that we Purtionians , the Sweeney’s, McShea’s, McGuinesses and Connolly’s etc. learned to ‘guide’ the single seater sleigh. We Irish have a peculiar aptitude in giving people, things and events ‘names’. Willie McShea – Robbie’s brother it was who ‘christened’ this model four sleigh: – The Blackening Box. Charlie Chaplin was then the only so called ‘film star’; Jazz in it’s infancy, some of the old first war songs were still to be heard, one ran some thing like this;- “Charlie Chaplin his boots are crakin for the want of blacklin, and his baggy trousers needs a mending before we send him to the Dardanelles”. I guess that’s where Willie got his naming idea for the wee sleigh.


The Dardanelles reminds me of that Churchillian blunder where so many Irish – Dublin Fusiliers & Anzacs were led to their slaughter by the German armed Turks. When I first sailed up the Dardanelles, I could not help comparing the Gallipoli peninsula with the north bank of the Erne estuary as seen from Finner Hill, the allied troops hadn’t a hope of landing. This is the event recalled now in song by our popular pair Mackem and Clancy in “Waltzing Matilda”, which is the parody on the original famous Australian song.


On that infamous Gallipoli peninsula now stands monuments to the Turkish, French, English, Irish and Anzac dead. But what is a wheen of medals to me, when me own we lads are no more. Or as the legless Anzac sings in Clancy’s song: “What are they marching for”. At my back as I gazed on Churchill’s Dardanelles Folly lay the famous troy – the inspiration of Homers Iliad and Odessey, Virgil’s Aenead and Handel for his Xerxes, 519. (465 B.C.). King of Persia who built a bridge of boats across the Bosporus from Asia to Europe, to give us the beautiful aria “Ombra mai fu”. By the way the Allied General in Command of the Churchill Gallipoli Blunder was General Wilson who was in command of the blundered executions in Dublin after Easter Week.


The main Street while being the Cresta Run was not the only run, Darcy’s Hill above the present public dump was a fair run. It had its handicaps, while a god long run it was not as straight as the Main Street, much to narrow and so 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, approaching the first bend in the road three quarter way down there loomed up in front of the fully loaded sleigh a Lough Side man and his donkey and cart. I wonder now how he got to the town and home again in the sleighing conditions without having the ass sharpened. Anyhow I almost closed my eyes to see the angles, how ever like Stirling Moss on the Monte Carlo circuit I kept my cool and met the oncoming danger successfully with a sigh of relief for the safety of the passengers. We left Darcy’s Hill to the Leydon boys who then lived in Waterloo House.


When very keen frost was without snow we had our local ski-ing sport: “Sliding”. The Rock – the west Rock was the favourite rink, it was free from dangerous traffic. It was then our ‘Hob nailed boots’ came into their own. The boys of the Rock, the Connolly’s, Doherty’s and Keenan’s etc. saw to it that ‘the slide’ was in excellent order by applying liberal coatings of water before retiring at night. The terrain determined the length of the ‘slide’, again the Rock with its gentle westward decline gave a good length maybe 30 to 40 yards.


The slider began with a run up length depending on the length of the slide. The sliding position was for a start ‘upright’, as confidence and expertise developed the ‘Hunker’ position was attempted. I wonder if from sliding the cliché ‘Hunker Sliding’ as applied to work dodgers originated. I fail to se the connection, our hunker sliding was if you like a thrilling acrobatic feat, leading up to the last word in sliding – ‘Shooting the crow’. How he name came to be applied to the act I have not a clue. It demanded expertise, balance and courage. At speed the slider began a hunker, then as soon as he had developed sufficient speed and the slide was of sufficient length, he lifted one foot from the slide, balanced himself on one foot, straightened out in front of him the disengaged foot.


Often like a group of stage dancers a group of six or seven would form up ‘line astern’ holding the slider ahead by the waist, run up and do a hunker slide in group. Very rarely was frost severe enough to make skating on the local lakes or ponds possible. When it was, Willie Neely was a graceful exponent on the pool in the grounds of where Micky Dolan now lives in Portnason. Happy to relate having all this winter fun, thrills at our doorstep, serious injuries if any injuries at all were rare, I cannot recall any.


   So; –                          “It’s a long way back that I’m gazing

                                   And the scene has changed since then.

                    Oh! Memory, thou midway world twix earth and paradise

              Where things decayed, and loved ones lost in dreamy shadows rise!

               Before the engineers straightened out The Winding Banks of Erne”.


                                                 *   *   *   *   *   *   *    *


Belleek village enjoyed its own sleigh run, while not as long or as steep as the Main Street in Ballyshannon it required a skill to negotiate the course. The Main Street was barred as the R.U.C. were on constant patrol, but here the advantage of having a border was put to good use. The run started at the top of the Battery Lane beside the residence of the late Eddie McGonnigle. There was only one top of the range sleighs, owned if memory serves me right by Willie McLaughlin and the late Tommy McGonnigle of Corlea. The lane itself was narrow and joined the Main Road at Donaldson’s Corner; the less skilled pilots would go straight ahead until momentum was lost at Slater’s Cross. The experts could take the left turn at the bottom of the lane, proceed towards the village, and make a right turn into the Creamery Lane ending the run at the Creamery. There was no class distinction amongst the sport people taking part, young and old men and women were willing passengers on the Battery Run.


There were two years of suitable weather for the sport, 1942 and 1947. There may have been others before and after those years, but after 1947 when road traffic increased the sleighing was discontinued. The home built sleighs were road models only and were not suitable for hill sleighing on local farmland. Not to be out done in later years young men would convert the bonnet of an old car into a slight, it was quite successful on an over land route.


The ideal place for sliding as described above was on the old High Arched bridge of Belleek. While short it demanded a skill of its own, the surface was smooth and swift, the wall of the old Pottery Ware house was a natural stopping point, Those who choose to adopt the ‘Shoot the Crow’ style could use the foot to stop at the wall. The 1947 winter lasted from February until May, at Roscor the lake was frozen for many yards out from the shore. Photographs in the ‘Belleek Book’ show residents gathered far out in the lake.


Compiled March 2008.