For my 40th birthday, Mam gave me an old scrapbook of my early years, and two items in particular brought memories flooding back. An £8 one-way ticket for the 8.50am Cork to Ballina bus dated 9 August 1991, and an accompanying letter from my grandmother.

The road from west Cork to north Mayo was one I travelled every summer since I was a baby to visit my relations near Lahardane. A spanner was thrown in the works in the summer of 1991. We had moved house the previous year. Work was still ongoing, so it meant we would only get to Mayo for a weekend. That wasn’t long enough for my 10-year-old self and I was determined to find a way to make the 222-mile journey from Ballinascarthy to Ballyduffy.

Hitting the road

After a bit of thinking, a solution was found. Cork to Ballina by bus, and my uncle would bring me out to my grandparents at Ballyduffy from there. My grandparents in Ardfield were going to stay with the O’Donnells, old neighbours and friends of the family near Ennis, Co Clare. They’d get the bus from Cork and I could go with them and continue on to Ballina alone. We found out the drivers changed in Limerick and Galway, so there were no changeovers and less risk of getting lost. This was a time before mobile phones, so while I was relatively carefree in my seat, I’ve no doubt there were a few nerves until a phone call was made back home that I had arrived.

Nana sent me the letter a few days earlier and reading it over 30 years later, I find it funny, especially given she would be with me for half the trip and had a part in its planning.

My dear Tommy

Delighted to hear you are going to Mayo. Tell them all we were asking for them. You will have a great time with Granda and uncle David. Enclosing a little token for your holiday. Hope you will enjoy the bus trip. You will see lots of nice places from the bus. So enjoy your holiday. Take care of yourself, Love from Nana

Voyage of discovery

With luggage stowed away, we were ready to go. Granda sat with me as the bus proceeded through Cork city, pointing out any place of note. He was well accustomed to travel himself. In the 60s, he used to run a hackney service, picking up tourists in Shannon and driving them around the country.

That “no changeover” plan went out the window within an hour when the bus broke down south of Buttevent. We had to stand outside the quarry there and wait for our new transport to arrive and the eight-hour trip increased to nine hours.

The letter from his grandmother and bus ticket of Tommy's first solo trip.

Having made that journey every summer, the route was familiar, but most trips to Mayo consisted of making progress and stopping only in Patrickswell or at the O’Donnell’s house in Ennis. I was conditioned to driving through places not stopping, so this trip was a voyage of discovery of sorts.

I discovered Mallow wasn’t just a yellow pub at a roundabout and the Ballyclough factory – it was a big town. When the driver took the third exit at the roundabout, I was convinced he was lost as my parents never went that way. Driving through Limerick city, it was the same. What was the driver at? He’d missed the turn for the docks and the bridge over the Shannon.

Over time, I developed my own system of landmarks to break up the journey once Limerick was passed: Bunratty, the river Fergus, Clarecastle, the tall trees and stonewalls on the approach to Ennis. Josephine O’Donnell was there to pick up my grandparents; a call was made to Cork to say ring Mayo and mention the delay due to the earlier break down. That’s how things operated before mobile phones. Granda gave me his copy of the Cork Examiner (I was a big fan of their sports section), and topped me up with a packet of bonbons, I was off and on my own. Geography and maps were always an interest and that helped pass the time.

Local landmarks

Under the bridge at Crusheen, into Connacht and rounding the corner onto the main street of Gort, Ardrahan, the school at Clarinbridge and onwards to Galway and another city discovery tour. Eyre Square was thronged as we pulled in for the final driver change. An avid 2FM listener at the time, I was delighted at having a full day of radio. Gerry Ryan ‘til midday, Larry Gogan, the golden hour and just-a-minute quiz followed before Gareth O’Callaghan took over. Bryan Adams, The Waterboys, Extreme and PM Dawn dominated the airwaves and I was loving it. Imagine my disgust when the new driver switched over to Radio 1. Getting over this disappointment, I returned to landmark spotting, glad of the higher perspective a bus had, compared to a car.

Turning right at Claregalway, not left, like in the song of the road I was on. N17, with its stone walls and grasses green. On past the bridge over the Clare River before heading to one of the most significant towns I’d pass on the day, Tuam, home of The Saw Doctors. As far as my young self was concerned, they mentioned the place so often they were bound to be hanging around the town somewhere. Despite my best observations, they weren’t to be seen, but the consolation was I was making progress and almost four counties were knocked off the journey list.

The NCF (North Connacht Farmers) store in Milltown signalled the Mayo border was getting closer. That meant my grandparents; there was always a sense of anticipation on the approach to the county bounds. From that point on, I was on the lookout for Nephin, the mountain that dominates the landscape near their house. It’s easier to spot in a car than on a bus but once I was past Castlebar, it appeared, and I’d be in Ballyduffy in 30 minutes or so I thought. All I had to do was reach Lough Conn, turn left at Pontoon and I’d be at my destination in minutes.

One last time, a wrong turn by a driver and the bus went around the lake instead. Having grown in size on the way from Castlebar, Nephin began to shrink again. Onwards to Foxford before finally reaching the bus station in Ballina, where my uncle picked me up and we headed for Crossmolina and beyond until we reached my grandparents’ house.

While only one of my grandparents was keen on travel, they all had an influence on my interest in hitting the road. Ironic, I suppose, as they were averse to going too far from home, so I had to go to them. That trip gave me confidence to not always wait for a crowd, and I’ve lost track of the kilometres I’ve travelled on my own since.

Ever since, if I get a notion to go somewhere, I tend to find a way; even if it takes a few years to do so.