The race riots and political unrest of the late 1960s have lasted long in the memory; but at that same time, a revolution of another kind was taking place here in Ireland.
A powerful force had arrived and was making its way along our rural roads – spreading to the very edge of every town and village.
The appearance of the big yellow school bus was signalling the start of a new era; a new freedom.
The free second-level education, which was introduced in September 1967, is now widely seen as a major milestone in our development as a nation. It is said the education minister at that time, Donogh O’Malley, famously made his announcement without even consulting the Department of Finance.
They stormed the bus garages of Britain and Northern Ireland for anything they could get their hands on, new or secondhand
The new system brought much social change – gone were the days of leaving school at the age of 13, and arriving was the possibility of free education for every child. The package was topped off with a real bonus: an exciting ride (twice daily) on the school bus.
Córas Iompair Éireann (CIÉ) were tasked with providing and maintaining the buses for this new scheme. They stormed the bus garages of Britain and Northern Ireland for anything they could get their hands on, new or secondhand. They eventually amassed a fleet of half cab AEC Regals and Leyland Tigers.
Later, funds were provided for a fleet of Bedford VAS5 and SB5 buses. It was these Bedfords that saw the introduction of the yellow and white livery which set off the whole outfit. The design criteria for the new busses were unambitious; basic and cheap. The outer skin of the buses seemed to be little more than a flimsy fiberglass faring, and the interior was completely without luxury.
The big lads always sat in the back seat. A plucky first year who might innocently wander back there could be torn to shreds
A team of drivers – recruited from the ranks of part-time farmers, retired lorry drivers and members of the local party cumann – helped to mobilise the new fleet.
For the first time in Ireland, scholars simply walked to the end of their lane and boarded the bus for school. The school bus soon began to develop its own society; its own culture. There were places where you could sit and there were places where you could not sit.
Seat belts were non-existent
The big lads always sat in the back seat. A plucky first year who might innocently wander back there could be torn to shreds. Timid young girls dived obsequiously into the front seats and everyone else took their chances. Seat belts were non-existent. Standing and overcrowding were commonplace.
In the gloomy interior of this school bus, overcrowding was not the worst hazard. Every child on the bus had an accompanying schoolbag, but no self-respecting teen wanted to be seen to care about this bag or its contents. So, when they entered the bus, their first action, to be witnessed by all others present, was to fling their bag into the huge pile already forming behind the driver’s seat. In this way, the optimum conditions were perfectly established; where large numbers of children could be trampled to death. The risks were further increased with the leaking into the bus of suffocating diesel fumes, a wet floor and regular full-blown fist fights.
The school bus also accommodated surreptitious smokers, courting couples and the purveyors of pornographic pictures
These fights were often sorted out by the bus driver. Taking on the role of referee, he jammed hard on the brakes and plunge the pugilists and everyone in the arena, head-over-heels through the bus. The school bus also accommodated surreptitious smokers, courting couples and the purveyors of pornographic pictures.
The whole scene resembled a kind of vice-ridden mobile den of iniquity.
This was Ireland in the 1970s; a place where young people were given a free education and the promise of unlimited opportunity... if they could only survive the bus ride home.