2002 - Ireland

Our first foreign excursion. Precedent was set a few years ago when 'Scotland' was interpreted as 'a part of the UK with strong Celtic traditions', to permit a sleeper trip to Cornwall. This year the definition was re-interpreted as 'the land over the sea with strong Celtic traditions where they play a mean game of football', to bring Ireland into the frame. We decided on a triangular tournament, taking in Dublin, Tralee and Cork, with a four-man team that included one new signing, the ink on his domestic visa still wet.

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The sleeper element was established by selecting the overnight Merchant ferry from Liverpool, a large modern ro-ro mainly used for lorries. The vessel was clean and spacious, with a friendly crew, comfortable cabins, a good restaurant and a bar. What more could one want? Departure was a protracted business, as Canada Dock is somewhat remote from the Mersey, with a large pair of slow-moving lock gates protecting it from the unruly watery elements. After a good deal of to-ing and fro-ing and at least two three-point turns we eventually emerged into the river proper. The captain promptly unleashed a tightly-wound rubber band and we accelerated smartly westwards. The urge to join hands and sing 'Ferry cross the Mersey' was firmly resisted, in favour of going indoors for dinner.

Dawn saw us cruising serenely into Dublin harbour, where we disembarked ready to do battle with the Irish Immigration Service. Unfortunately they seemed to have forgotten all about the fixture, and failed even to turn up. We therefore entered a completely unprotected Euroland, with our refugee status not even questioned. The wire cutters and camouflage suits were put back into the rucsac, ready for the next raid on Tesco.

The first necessity was breakfast, as the ship's offering had been deemed to be far too early for mere tourists to accomodate. A taxi took us to Heuston station, where the first change to the carefully-crafted schedule was voted through, namely an earlier departure to Tralee, the better to throw pursuing officialdom off the scent. The ticket office confirmed that a return ticket to Tralee could be purchased that permitted a diversion to Cork on the return leg (only) at no extra charge, which seemed well, a trifle Irish. Not that we complained.

After a pleasant half hour spent eating, drinking and watching Dublin's commuters hurrying off to work, we ventured onto the platform to see what transport awaited us. Modern-ish diesels pulling old-ish stock, looking like something from British Rail 30 years ago, when trains ran on time and the staff knew which company they worked for. Only the colour scheme spoiled it - black and orange doesn't do much for Southport FC, and does even less for railway stock.

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Tralee turned out to be a pleasant small town with a distinctly Irish character. After checking-in at the B&B we split up into two teams, the better to infiltrate the local ambience and search for the elusive Tralee and Dingle Railway. Needless to say it was the A Team which discovered its hideout, a small shed on the edge of Blennerville village about a mile out of Tralee.

The solitary loco was out of service for peak-season boiler maintenance, so we had to be content with taking photos and imagining what it might be like chugging up and down the remaining two miles of track with its small collection of coaching stock. The operation looked a touch minimalist, but probably no less enjoyable for those involved. The evening was spent at a typical Irish pub, with typical Irish live music. Untypical in that it was in Ireland.

The next day we were due to play Cork, but another option was taken up on the way, that of visiting Killarney. Its station is on a short spur off the main line, so it was the train's turn to shunt backwards and forwards into position for disembarking. The first port of call was the permanent model railway in the town centre, a single large exhibit purporting to show the whole of Euroland (and certain renegade states such as the UK) in one sweeping canvas. This inevitably caused some difficulties with scale, but marks were awarded for grandeur of concept as much as for quality of execution.

Rumours of a castle in the vicinity were then pursued, navigating by the sun westwards until we arrived at the imposing architecture of Ross Castle, amongst some decorative lakeside scenery. Refreshed at the teashop we decided to take the restful way back by pony and trap, accompanied by a driver who could have easily walked into any Hollywood film about the Emerald Isle, so well did he fit the stereotype. The only jarring note was his complaint about insurance costs, which seemed a touch off-message.

Onwards to Cork, which turned out to be a somewhat industrial and down-at-heel place, not quite what we were expecting from Ireland's 2nd city. Our detailed investigation was postponed somewhat by the discovery of a suburban side-shoot to Cobh (pronounced Covebh), with a train waiting expectantly in the siding.

Diversion no.3 was promptly approved and an evening excursion to the Titanic's last port of call embarked upon. On arrival we discovered an American team had got there first, and in typical understated fashion had hired a complete cruise ship as personal transport.

Fortunately they had just done Ireland in 30 minutes, and were on the point of departure, with a local brass band noisily celebrating the fact. We were therefore able to practise our Guinness-drinking and group photo-taking whilst watching them sail off into the sunset, perhaps never to return.

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A nearby statue commemorated the flow of emigrants which had left from that landing-stage for a better, or at least very different, life in the New World. One wondered just what proportion of the liner's passengers had claimed Irish descent as an excuse for the trip - probably 95% or thereabouts. Perhaps some were homesick for their heritage to the point of jumping ship, and were even then clambering over the rocks, Gucci suitcases in hand, to claim asylum in the land of the free Euro? Again, no sign of the IIS with man-sized fishing nets - did they actually exist?

The B&B turned out to be in a characterful old house on a hill next to an old military hospital, run by a lady whose collection of object d'art was as imaginative as it was striking. Her knowledge of European tramways was equally impressive.

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Next morning saw us back on the rails again to Dublin, a journey enlivened by the buffet steward depositing the entire trolley onto its side, the better to entertain passengers (and definitely not customers). In the UK this might have been a major disaster, in Ireland it was merely a short interruption to the service, which was resumed with commendable swiftness.

On arrival we bussed across to Connolly station and headed off on another local train, this time a few miles northwards to Malahide.Another castle, and another model display, this one courtesy of a Mr Cyril Fry (deceased), and a more sophisticated effort altogether, with some quality static exhibits as well.

Returning to Dublin, our final B&B was of altogether diffferent, and Catholic, style, run by an elderly couple who quite clearly knew their heritage and their place in it. This was reflected in the furniture and decor - Ikea chic and flat-pack self-assembly it certainly was not. The negotiations on the timing of breakfast were unexpectedly protracted, as a certain football match involving two non-Irish countries was timed to start just at the endof the cereal course, creating a log-jam of demand for the eggs and bacon. Perhaps with a premonition of the outcome, some graciously decided food was a priority over mere sport, while the rest of us saw England take lead before deciding to eat.

Consoling ourselves that England had lost to the likely World Cup winners, we took a bus into Dublin centre and again split up, this time exploring the city singly. Time for purchase of souvenirs, postcards and the like, and for checking the authenticity of the bullet-holes in the GPO's front elevation. At least there was no nonsense over calling it Consignia, so they must have done some good.

After regrouping at the bus station (for the left-luggage facilities) we departed by taxi for the ferry port and a rendezvous with the Sea-Cat. The return journey was a touch bumpier than the outward trip, partly due to the captain keeping up a determined 36 knots until well into the Mersey, doing some impressive fly-bys of slow-moving traffic on the way. A quick hard left under the nose of the Birkenhead ferry and we slid sideways onto station alongside Pier Head, almost on time. The final score: UK 4, IIS 0 - a very satisfactory result.

An itinerary is here.

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