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'Of Man and Machine' by 'Korky'

I was around six years of age when my father asked me to join him on a trip to Dublin where he was looking at some machinery at an industrial exhibition. At the time he worked for his brother in a factory that made stainless steel tanks and other products, but my interest in machinery was a far second to my excitement at the prospect of going to Dublin on the train.

I had been to the capital just once before, about a year earlier when my parents brought my sister and me to the zoo. The trip to Dublin sounded like an exotic adventure, the train journey being part and parcel of the excitement. It was like being asked to go on a journey to Samarkand or to see the Pyramids of Egypt.

The trip also meant a day off school to me and I would enjoy telling my pals next day about my trip to the capital. I would be the envy of the class – during lunch break at least.

We had to get up very early the next morning to be on time for the early train to Dublin. After breakfast I said goodbye to my mother and sister and climbed into the back seat of my father's small Fiat 850 car. It was a freezing cold morning and it took a while for the car to start. My father poured two kettles full of hot water over the windscreen but the water froze almost immediately. The car spluttered each time he turned the key but each time showed slightly more signs of life that before. Eventually he got the car started and it chugged down the road ready to stall at any moment. The car had barely heated up by the time we got to the railway station.

I was born in Cork just a few years too late to see the end of the steam railways, but the big diesel engines and the long strings of carriages still held a fascination for me as did the crowds of people queuing up to get aboard. Soon we too boarded the train. I had to be lifted up onto the carriage as there was a wide gap between train and platform and I could easily have fallen between the two.

We soon found empty seats and took our places. The train was just as cold as my father's car and was already filling up with smoke. This was long before the “smoking ban” and nearly all the adults on board were smoking tar-rich cigarettes that filled the carriage with a thick bluish smoke. Not that I noticed, my mind was on the train and I was watching every move of the station master outside with his neat blue uniform, silver pocket-watch and the whistle dangling from his neck-chain.

After a few minutes he blew the whistle and he waved a small green flag. The train began to pull slowly from the station. We were on the way to Dublin. Moments later we disappeared into the darkness of the tunnel that passes under the Lower Glanmire Road and The Glen only to emerge in Kilbarry near Blackpool on Cork's northside a few minutes later.

 

As the train picked up speed I could hear the clickety-clack of the wheels passing over the joints in the rail. I don't know why, but I loved that sound. It had a rhythmic, almost soothing, quality like the regularity of an old clock; it almost lulled me to sleep.

My father bought me a bar of chocolate and some lemonade while he had a sandwich, a cup of tea and another cigarette. My eyes continued to observe the countryside flitting by with rolling hills being replaced with meadows and small villages being marked out by the rod-straight puffs of smoke over the many chimneys in the cold morning gloom.

It soon brightened up and I watched cows grazing. As we passed a herd of cattle they would look up to see what beast was making such a racket and disturbing their grazing. It was of course our train! Occasionally I caught sight of a few small rabbits scampering from ditch to ditch and then a pheasant moving across a field looking like some overloaded aircraft trying and failing to take off. Once in a while I'd spot a level crossing with a few cars and the odd tractor waiting behind the barrier for our train to pass. It was as if my model train set at home had come to life, the strange agricultural characters being infused with motion and life. I was a city boy after all, and the country was still a mystery to me in many ways.

I counted the towns we passed through and tried to pronounce and remember the strange names; Mallow, Buttevant, Charleville, Thurles, and so on until we reached the outskirts of Dublin after what seemed like a very long time.

We arrived into Heuston Station around eleven o'clock and headed towards the bus stop. We boarded a double-decker and I asked my father to bring me upstairs. From the top deck I scanned the Dublin quays as we passed by and Dad pointed out to me some of the main buildings; Guinness's Brewery, the Four Courts and Dublin City Hall. We then changed buses and I was in unknown territory. We passed through the decay of 1960s Georgian Dublin and eventually arrived at the RDS where the industrial exhibition was being held.

My father brought me into a huge exhibition hall where there were many stands exhibiting all kinds of machinery and equipment. There were giant lathes for turning huge pieces of metal into turbine shafts. There were folding and cutting machines, huge saws and all types of strange machines. The noise of machinery and people was very loud to my young ears.

While all the machinery and the hubbub of activity was very interesting for a while I got bored soon as I followed my father around from stand to stand. He had a fascination with all kinds of machinery. He was interested in woodwork and metalwork, with boat-making and with just about any kind of machine you could think of and he spent what seemed like ages at each stand. I kept asking when we'd be finished and would he bring me to the zoo to see the elephants, lions and tigers and especially the monkeys whose antics I'd really enjoyed on my previous visit.

Eventually we came to the stand which exhibited the machines that he was really interested in buying for the factory. There were some monstrous contraptions whose function I could hardly understand. He seemed particularly interested in one machine. It was huge – almost as high as our house with ladders up the side for the men working on it. A number of other men were looking at it too and a representative of the company that made it was showing them what it could do.

“Stay there and don't touch anything”, my Dad warned me as he and four other men climbed up the ladder onto the second storey of the huge machine. I did what I was told and all I could do was look up as they disappeared to the top of the machine. They were up there for what seemed like ages and I was getting bored and agitated.

I was also getting a bit frightened because I was not used to being alone in a strange place with lots of strange people and the din of huge machines all around me. Then I caught sight of a large panel on the side of the big machine. There were two colourful lozenge-shaped buttons and a series of illuminated dials on the front. One button was large and coloured red, the other was smaller and coloured green. Now I knew that red was the colour that represented danger but thought to myself that it wouldn't do any harm if I pressed the green one, so I went over, had a look at it, and, first turning around to see if anyone was looking, I pressed the green button.

The result was dramatic and terrifying! The massive machine burst into life, vibrating and rumbling until the sound became almost a scream. I recoiled in fear. Then I caught sight of my father and the other men frantically running down the platform on top of the machine towards the ladder. My father and two other men didn't wait for the ladder; they simply jumped over my head and were sprawled on the ground. The others sprinted down the ladder and joined the huddle while the man in charge of the machine jumped up to slam down the red button and stop the machine. It came to a halt with a judder and for a few seconds continued whirring and shaking.

There was a lot of shouting and roaring and I cowered by the machine terrified as to what might happen next. Amazingly my father was speechless. I was expecting a tirade of language from him but he and the others were so stunned that nothing was said.

The machine salesman was the first to break the silence. With a nervous laugh he said “Well at least you know it works now”. The others joined his laugh but I could see that they were very shaken. My button twiddling could have killed five men, including my father. One push of my little finger had sent them scurrying away in terror.

The inevitable rebuke from my father came later but I think he realised his folly in leaving a bored six year old near the controls of such a lethal machine. That was asking for trouble.

Surprisingly he did buy the machine and a few weeks later it arrived at the factory where for many years it folded heavy steel plates into amazing shapes for bulk milk tankers, milking machines and many other industrial tanks and contraptions. Some of those milk tanks are still in use today all over Ireland. Needless to say, I wasn't left near the new machine and would have dared touch it anyway. Nearly forty years on the event is still imprinted onto my mind.

I eventually did get to the zoo that day. My father had cooled down and I think he was glad to be alive and not the subject of a lurid headline in the next day's newspapers thundering “Six Year Old Cork Boy kills Five”.

I, on the other hand was most impressed with the new-found power of my index finger.