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Dublin: 4°C Friday 7 May 2021

'Imagine doing a day’s work for free and enjoying it'

Glen Murphy talks about his work for the Stradbally Woodland Railway in Laois.

Glen Murphy

IMAGINE THIS: YOU do a hard day’s work, have a cup of tea and a few jokes with your co-workers and head home for the night exhausted.

That’s what I do when I spend my day on a small railway in Laois. There I’m learning how to drive an old steam locomotive.

There’s just one difference between that and my day job; I don’t get a cent for it.

No one involved in the Stradbally Woodland Railway does. The best part? When I leave, I find myself waiting impatiently to go back and do it all again. Imagine doing a day’s work for free and enjoying it.

Most young lads in their early 20s spend their weekends in nightclubs, on GAA pitches or putting up with their second cousins’ small talk at family dinners. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of those things, but I couldn’t kick a football to save my life and my dancing skills are barely worth mentioning.

Instead, I do my best to learn a skill long thought to be obsolete in the wifi age.

What it’s like driving the train

We had two busy days running full passenger trains over the August bank holiday weekend. Customers came from far and wide to travel on our line and to visit the 52nd annual Stradbally Steam Rally.

Source: Kieran Marshall

The other volunteers and I were awake by 6am to light a fire in the locomotive that many consider the closest thing to a living machine ever built. Steam traction is nothing like modern trains; these trains require at least two hours work before being ready to run.

The fire burns at 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. The small regulator handle in the cab lets steam into the cylinders. They fill up in an instant and push the wheels. The engine moves off in a great white cloud, with a shriek of a whistle and rattle of the carriage chains.

The rhythm of the cylinders pulses through the regulator handle and the machine inhales and exhales with each turn of the wheels. Even with the metal cacophony surrounding me, I find it to be the most peaceful place there is. Every little hiss and squeak help keep it running along at steady pace.

You leave the footplate at the end of each day covered in sweat, engine oil, and coal dust. It’s still a much better feeling than coming home in a wrinkly office shirt and tie.

It’s hot, dirty, backbreaking work and that’s what makes it special. There’s skill involved in every aspect of it.

The trainspotters count the rivets or take down numbers while the public simply gazes wide-eyed at the metal anomaly before them. Fire, water and air combine in a big, complicated kettle on wheels.

Sense of comradery

The engine we run, called No. 2, was built in Kilmarnock, Scotland, in 1949 and spent its working life on a Bord na Móna bog railway just outside Portlaoise. She (locomotives are always a she) now has a more leisurely life hauling two small coaches on a kilometre of track laid through the woods on the grounds of Stradbally Manor. Most people go to Stradbally for Electric Picnic, but we go there to keep a unique piece of Irish history alive.

Source: Keiran Marshall

But why do I do it? And why do the other volunteers, mostly in their early 20s, want to do it? It’s simple. Because we love it.

If you spend years training, you dream of making the senior team. That’s exactly what I’ve done by learning to drive this old engine. It’s my All-Ireland final day. It’s something I’m proud that I’ve ticked off my bucket list already.

There is more to it than just playing trains and feeling six years old again. There is a unique sense of comradery between everyone involved. There is a friendship that is fostered through a common interest. Arguments come and go, but the train must keep on track. Best of all, the craic is fantastic.

Many of the passengers I spoke to over the bank holiday weekend were shocked to find out we were unpaid volunteers. But you can’t put a price on the pride and joy we feel at the end of a running day, and we’d never have it any other way.

Glen Murphy is a recent journalism graduate from DCU with aspirations of working in print and radio.

The Stradbally Woodland Railway’s next running days are Saturday 20 and Sunday 21 August as part of Laois Heritage Week.

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