We went off sugar for lent. Me and daddy. It was Ash Wednesday and we were heading to Sligo in the ESB lorry.
It was at Duncan’s cafe in Ballybofey that we always stopped in for the ten o’clock tea when we were on the road.
We poured out the two cups of tea and took a long look at the sugar bowl sitting on the table before, bravely taking a sip of the tea. Daddy took a draw on his cigarette as he looked out the cafe window and said nothing. It felt to me as if we didn’t have a cup of tea at all when we had now sugar in it.
We made the journey, loaded up in Sligo and we headed for home stopping off for the late dinner in our favourite eating house Willie’s Cafe in the village of Grange. Chicken n chips, tea bread and butter.
Tea without sugar for the second time on Ash Wednesday tasted even worse the second time, maybe because we knew what was coming. The freshest of bread and the butter came in a wee wicker basket. The big back window of the cafe had the greatest view looking out onto Benbulbin in all its splendour.
We always stopped in Grange on trips to Sligo. We went into Willie’s cafe when we could afford it and on other trips when money was tight. We stopped on the Sligo side of Grange and had tea out of a flask with our own sandwiches. Daddy always pointed out the house that we once lived in on the Main Street in Grange. The house that we rented house belonged to a Mrs Molloy who was the postmistress in the town back then.
He would tell me stories about the time the three of us lived there and how he and my late mother would take me on big walks out the Sligo Road out of Grange.
Even back in the seventies the new road was there and the old Sligo Road runs parallel beside it like a time warp. Back on that Ash Wednesday we pulled out of Willie Cafe and the old Ford D Series lorry hauled its cargo up and out of Grange village and as we crossed into Co.Leitrim briefly before crossing into Donegal the clock passed daddy’s normal quitting time of five o’clock. The evening closed in fast by the time we reached Bundoran and we made our way to Ballyshannon which always had a checkpoint at the roundabout on the bridge. The steep street up through Ballyshannon was negotiated in a low gear and it was down the old road through all the we villages like Bridgetown, Ballintra and on to Laghy where my father would take a wee break from the driving.
Back in those days there wasn’t much people on the road to pass so we stopped for the odd bottle of Phoenix or stout to break up the journey. I would sit in and keep an eye on the lorry for him parked outside the pub. I thought about the day that was in it Ash Wednesday and the weekend before when He had a few too many he promised that he was going to give up the drink for Lent by a way of saying sorry for the state he got into.
Earlier that morning when he announced that he was going off sugar in his tea for Lent I decided in the spur of the moment at 9 years of age I would do lent along with him to support him. In my innocence I thought his Lenten drive was also going to include going off the drink as well. I looked at him through the window of the pub sitting at the bar on Ash Wednesday enjoying a smoke and schooner of beer chatting to the barman and I knew the sugar in the tea was the only thing he would be giving up for Lent.
We were soon on the road again he lit up a major cigarette and in the darkness of the evening the match lit up his face and the cab of the lorry before he pulled off and headed for Donegal Town. I like the smell of a match lighting up a cigarette it reminded me of my late mother when she worked at her sewing machine always with a cigarette sitting with the lit side hanging out over the end of her table.
Daddy was in good form as headed through the gap and you would be only spoiling things to mention to him that he had promised to give up drink for Lent. He went into Biddys for one and I went in because we got parked outside the front door. A bag of crisps and a bottle of Fanta sitting down beside the fire for me as daddy sat up at the bar.
We were soon on the road again heading through the Gap with the heater on and the window opened. My father loved to listen to the sound of the engine when his lorry was going into a hill and changing it down and loved listening to the engine pulling. We would also sing a few songs on the way home, especially going through Barnes more Gap. Then the sound of the old Ford engine would take over as daddy would change it down a gear at the top of McGrory’s brae to help with the braking and after heading through the Twin Towns with great care taken with the heavy load to get the Ford into the right gear before heading down Lurgybrack. And soon we were back home in Letterkenny.
On Ash Wednesday this week I was stopped at a Garda Checkpoint outside Letterkenny. I was writing this column and took a wee break. And sitting at the checkpoint as I tried to find my driving licence for the officer on duty on a dark cold winter’s night, my mind went back fifty years ago. The day that me and my daddy gave up the sugar in or tea and he didn’t give up the drink! And even though he was a very careful driver and never remember him ever having an accident, he would always stop for a few drinks on the late nights coming out of Sligo and if anything did happen the drink was always going against him let him be on the right or the wrong.
On a recent trip to Galway at the start of this month with my eldest son we stopped off for coffee on the way. Willie’s cafe is long now gone in Grange but there is a filling station a hundred yards up the road from where the cafe once stood. Gone are the days of chicken and chips, tea bread and butter, now everything Is ‘to go’. ‘Coffee’ my son suggested, ‘nah get me a wee tea for a change’ I replied. You don’t even have to ask someone not to put sugar in tea as very few take sugar in their tea. I waited in the cab of the van and my son lands back with a tea, hands it in the window and goes for a wee smoke sitting on the wall along the road side as I sip the tea and think of my father and me heading in this road many years before transport me in a ESB lorry and before that walk with my mother behind me in a pram. My son, the oldest grandson jumps into the van fromThe cold winters air and briefly you can smell that familiar smell of smoke, I never smoked myself but my son reminded me of both his grandparents all of them years ago. We pulled out onto the Sligo Road and headed up The brae out of Grange. We travelled along the New Road and I told him our family story of his grandparents (who he never met) walking out the old road running parallel to this road with me as a wane in a pram.
In the early 90’s going through Dunkineely a few years after my father had passed away I spotted my fathers old ESB lorry sitting at the side of a garage. It was very unique and was a one-off built by Doherty’s coach builders in Lifford. I swung around on the road and back to the garage and right enough there she was sitting looking a lot smaller than I imagined her when I was younger heading off on the them road trips to Sligo. The garage bought it at an auction, the door where the ESB logo was once proudly placed, it was painted over with black paint. The lorry was now old and a bit rusty, it once was my father’s pride and joy, he polished the cab of that truck so you could see your reflection in the paint. I stood for a photo at the door of the lorry that I learned to drive in before I was legally allowed on the road and for a moment I was back were on the old road to Sligo was again with daddy his wee helper sitting on with the windows down and the arms out the window singing the Rocks A Ban.
We did keep Lent that year going off the sugar, and both of us went off sugar in our tea for good.
Happy motoring folks