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You might say that I’m a little bit at sea this week – ‘at sea’ in the best possible way, though.  I’ve been marvelling at the modes of travel in times past as I take a few armchair trips courtesy of a few old diaries.   The diaries belonged to my late aunt, an elder sister of my father’s, so what I’ve been engaged in, you could say, are travels with my aunt.  Move over Graham Greene.

So far, I have made only a cursory examination of four notebooks covering the period 1950 to 1965 which deal almost exclusively with pilgrimages to Rome and Lourdes. The first of these was her account of a trip made to Rome and Lourdes in 1950, which was declared a Holy Year by Pope Pius the XII.


Now, just in case you are getting a bit nervous at the prospect of my disgorging the contents of my aunt’s diaries onto the page before you, fear not. But what struck me about her accounts of her travels was the insight they gave into what it was like to travel back then.


I suppose it would be fair to say that, nowadays, we take the relative ease of travel somewhat for granted. And when travelling outside the country, almost invariably, we opt to travel by air.


Just 60 odd years ago, it was a different story. Air travel was in its infancy and prohibitively expensive for the common man. So, the only viable option for most was to travel by boat and train.




In her account of the trip to Rome and Lourdes in 1950, my aunt travelled on the Leinster which departed from the North Wall bound for Liverpool. While today we mostly associate Dun Laoghaire as the port of departure, the North Wall was also a significant departure route back then, particularly for the cattle boats, which many an emigrant took, some never to return.


My antennae went up when I saw mention of travelling from Dublin on the Leinster. Somewhere or other I had come across an account of the sinking of the RMS Leinster. She belonged to the Dublin Steam Packet Company and was torpedoed just at the close of The Great War. Sad to say, unlike the Lusitania, she is little remembered, though there were more than 500 souls lost.


However, the Leinster my aunt travelled on in 1950 was, I believe, Leinster (4), which was built in 1948. By that time, the Dublin Steam Packet Company had been ingested into the British and Irish Steam Packet Company, (B & I to you and me), and they, in turn, were owned by Coast Lines Shipping Company which, by the 1950s, operated a fleet of over 100 ships.


Today, travel disruption involving a few hours flight delay is enough to enrage the travelling public, who has come to expect prompt and efficient service. Indeed, for all their ills, Ryanair will still trumpet their on-time arrival.


But the traveller of times past must have been made of sterner stuff. I was fascinated to read in my aunt’s account of a trip to Lourdes in 1952 that…’the trip from Newhaven to Dieppe was devilish, the boat was packed and we had to stand all the time and the weather was unpleasant’.


And that explained a further excited entry in her diary on the return journey.  She noted their good fortune at getting a good connection from London to Holyhead which would see them on the boat and settled in before the crowds would arrive off the late train.


I am not sure if today’s traveller would put up with the rigors that went with sea travel in times past. Though the modern ships and the ultra-modern hydrofoil varieties promise faster and more comfortable crossings, the market forces and today’s preoccupation with saving time have conspired to consign large-scale sea travel to the pages of history.  Or, in this case, to the pages of my late aunt’s diaries.


I think a closer examination of these wonderful records will yield up much to interest us, but I will leave you, like myself, wondering about her mentions of ‘vanishing whist’, ‘couchettes’ and ‘early tea (English style)’.

More delving to do, I think, and more armchair voyages of discovery to make.

Tom Cox
Tom Cox
Tom Cox column 'An Eye on the Past' appears weekly in the Laois Nationalist newspaper.

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