When I first got to know Tom Carroll, he was probably in his early thirties, just after the Second World War. He was CIE's official carter from the local Railway station in Charlestown. The entire economy of the town depended on him and his faithful brown mare, Molly. They delivered all the articles from the goods store on time, in an open-sided cart, with large steel-clad wooden wheels. Tom, always dressed in blue overalls, heavy serge pants, hobnailed boots, dark blue shirt and a battered tweed cap. Only in really severe weather did he use a heavy black coat.
Living about a mile outside the town, he was of small, light stature but oh boy! could he handle a bag of sugar, a large chest of tea or a long side of bacon! Heavy timber Guinness firkins he dropped on to a cork-filled canvas bag.
He picked up Molly and started work at noon. The he went through the notes pinned for him on the station's large store door by frantic businessmen, eagerly awaiting their bags of cement, boxes of bearings, lengths of piping etc. These shopkeepers had to tell early morning customers that their requirement was "at the station" and they would have to await Tom's arrival. He saw to it that those "emergency calls" were dealt with first. His very pleasing, ever-helpful personality and trustworthy reputation, endeared him to everyone.
Molly was affectionately looked after, her well brushed coat a testimony to this fact. A nosebag of oats was unfailingly available to her, her harness was of the best quality and she was well shod at all times. In the summer evenings as he led her out to her field, he would often give some local children a ride on her. Only once ever did I see her "fall on the job". She was drawing a well-laden cart of beers and minerals from our wholesale premises, which Tom was conveying to local customers during a frosty Christmas week. Suddenly she slipped and fell, in her panic she broke her harness and sped away down the street, with Tom, still holding on to the reins, in hot pursuit. He eventually stopped her on the outskirts of the town, both of them totally exausted.
The debris of broken bottles from the overturned cart, having created a major traffic jam in the street, was finally cleared up by a "meitheal" of neighbours, armed with brushes and shovels, and deposited into empty barrels. Molly's only holiday from work was during the weeks leading up to her confinements. Tom would then obtain a replacement from his friend Charlie Ward, who generally kept a few horses around his encampment for his own transport. From time to time you would see the attractive sight of a young foal trotting alongside Molly on her rounds.
We received Guinness stout in 52-gallon hogsheads, which Tom would deliver to us, three at a time (a very wobbly load) to be bottled for distribution to other towns. When he arrived at our store entrance he would back his cart into two ruts in the ground which we had dug for him. This enabled him to bring his cart down to the axle, in order to have the load at ground level. The wooden barrels were then rolled off very easily. He occasionally delivered orders around the town for us, writing out the invoices and collecting the money as well.
It was all COD in those days and he would drop into our office the following morning, pockets bulging with pounds and half crown coins, and check in his takings which were always correct. A one man accountancy system.
Throughout the big snow of 1947, when all transport was at a standstill, he had a type of rough sleigh built for Molly. With this contraption, he managed to get fowl, vegetables,churns of milk, creels of turf, and even cocks of hay, brought to the towns-people from the local farms. Real seventh cavalry style! My abiding recollection of those few isolated weeks was seeing this heroic duo and the sleigh passing our house with a coffin for burial in the local cemetery.
They were accompanied by a large group of walking mourners, trudging knee-deep through the snow. Tom, conscious of his reverential undertaking, wore his best black suit, tie and white shirt and Molly had her brass-studded harness gleaming in the frosty air. During the early fifties a pre-Christmas pantomine, was being staged in the town. It was decided, as an opening treat before the Sunday Matinee, that Santa would arrive at the railway platform, to be greeted by all the children of the area. With the co-operation of the Stationmaster, who was in the show, our Father Christmas was placed on a maintenance buggy on the tracks about a mile outside the town, near the top of the hill and loaded with goodies.
It was then let run down the incline right into the station, to the accompaniment of large fireworks, which had been placed along the line. Welcoming him on arrival was our local Mayor, wearing a dozen flattened crown caps as his chain of office. Awaiting him outside was a glittering golden 'coach and one'. This consisted of a heavily camouflaged Tom Molly and cart. The effect was indeed regal. Timber beer cases turned upside-down and covered in multi-coloured Christmas paper, with drapes of golden tinsel all around the sides, provided the dais. A red painted tea chest served for Santa's seat, surrounded by balloons of various hues. With flagpoles at each end covered in holly, and crepe paper wrapped around the wheel spokes and shafts, it was certainly a carriage fit for a King.
For Molly it was her moment of glory. She stood like an Arab steed, her body festooned with dozens of Christmas lights and seasonal decorations-balls, bells, angels and stars, and of course, silver horseshoes for luck. Over her nostrils she wore a large clown's bulbous, flaming red nose-a la Rudolph. But the piece-de-resistance was the set of antlers on her ears.
Fitted out, not too comfortably, in a Dickensian-style coachman's costume, was Tom himself, complete with top hat and whip. What an overall spectacle, Santa was duly ensconced on his 'throne' and escorted throughout the town. Every street had to be visited - to the Town Hall. He was cheered on by hundreds of mesmerised children, who will no doubt, remember forever Santa's first magical visit to their own place.
In his social life, Tom had two passions. One was dancing. Being a non-driver he always booked a hackney car for the out-of-town venues and would bring a few of his friends with him wherever the top bands of the day were playing. Bert Flynn, Stephen Garvey and Brose Walsh were the big drawing cards. My first away trip with his group was to the newly opened Astor Ballroom in Roscommon. We were all fascinated, watching the new-fangled Crystal Ball spinning from the ceiling as it turned the place into a rapidly changing kaleidoscope of magical colour.
The era of the modern Ballroom had arrived. Tom may not have danced very much but he loved the music, the crowds and the whole atmosphere of gaiety and fun. The other lifelong interest of his was gambling, or more specifically 'pitch-and-toss'. The side of the handball alley was the most popular venue and there the crowds would gather in the Summer evenings. The game consisted of placing two pennies on a comb and 'tossing' them up in the air. Because Tom always acted as Banker and backed on the two coins turning up 'Harps' when they hit the ground, everybody else hoped their heavily supported 'Heads' would show up.
Through all weathers and into the night, under candlelight or hand-held torch, he continued taking bets, as he squatted down on his hunkers. On very wet evenings he, and his entourage of about twelve, would adjourn to Jim Terry's forge and play by the eerie light of the constantly bellowed furnace and the sound of the rain drumming down on the galvanised roof.
With the arrival of extended public street lighting they moved to the brighter light at the gable end of an old disused dance hall and operated there for many years. No one knew how he fared out financially at his gambling, but he was never short and always laid his bets in cash. During the long Bank closure in 1970, he was always able to change the wage or milk cheques for his associates and must have had a very large lodgement to make when the strike was over.
As the years went by and companies began to use their own road transport, Tom's days were numbered. Rail traffic declined dramatically and he was reduced to a donkey and cart for the few meagre deliveries. Molly was no longer required, and he was anxious to find a good home for her. One day he answered a box-number advertisement in the local paper "Horse required for light work around extensive farm, Good home assured". He duly met the farm manager involved who convinced him Molly would be well looked after. So he sent her off in a horse box and jeep to her new dwelling place in a village called Classiebawn in County Sligo. About three months afterwards he got a rather formal letter inviting him to come and see Molly at work. It was signed 'Louis Mountbatten'.
Not a bit fazed, Tom asked me to drive him there. We duly arrived on the requested date and he was delighted to see Molly looking so well. He had a short conversation with "the Lord" as he called him. They talked about various aspects of horseflesh, their breeding, harness requirements, feeding habits and the skills involved in breaking-them-in. Tom was in his element. On the way home he was very quiet and eventually I asked him how he felt. After a short pause he said "Did you see the tears in Molly's eyes when we were leaving?"
His working term with his donkey and cart was short lived, as our branch line closed down after about two years, due to reduced use. One incident stood out in my mind during these declining days. In the early seventies our local Bank was being merged into a larger group and the switch over to new stationery and logo was set to start nation-wide at 10am on a particular day. By then all branches would have received the new paperwork.
When the consignment had not arrived by opening time, the distraught Manager sent out an SOS for Tom. He couldn't be found. As he had the keys of the station store with him, nothing could be done until his arrival. Eventually, at ten past twelve, Tom, on his reduced four-footed delivery vechicle arrived at the Bank door. A stressed out team of employees rushing to get the material inside met him. This was how our town belatedly entered the electronic banking, compliments of Tom. Undoubtedly 'the last of the Mohicans'.
Tom is long gone from us. His rail lifeline is now overgrown and silent, discos and nightclubs have replaced the dancehalls, we now gamble on lotteries and television sports events. The Mollys of old have virtually disappeared from our countryside. Yet the memories of those simple carefree days will live on in our recollections of the Toms of this world. They were lovely, endearing people who earned our respect and affection by the total dedication they brought to their work and community.
© Cathal Henry 2004. With thanks to Paddy Henry (19th Jan 2004).