When We Were Kings and Queens of the Road: Cathal Mac Coille

Cycling to school in Clondalkin in the 1960s, and a Garda warning

I was ten when I became the proud owner of the bike of my dreams. The fact that it was secondhand didn’t matter, its gleaming red frame and mudguards made a perfect birthday present. The short slope in the back garden of our house was an ideal test track. Until I learned to ride, I could get on the saddle of my new dream machine and roll it downhill, staying upright for at least a metre and a half before falling off.

For weeks, maybe months, my attempts at simultaneously staying upright, pedalling and steering invariably ended in failure, but on soft grass away from the critical gaze of my peers. Until the glorious moment arrived when I finally mastered the art of cycling.

Cathal aged 12 in 1964

I wasn’t let out on the open road for a few months after that. But in my memory, the days of freedom (in reality, mainly the daily one-kilometre journey from our house in Clondalkin to Moyle Park College ) beckoned soon after. Disaster struck a year or two later however, after I’d cycled down Main Street with both hands in my pockets. It was the result of a ‘dare’ issued by a friend who rode in front of me while doing the same and occasionally looking back to check that I was keeping both hands well away from the handlebars. The trauma that followed wasn’t the kind that required medical treatment, but the shock of it is burned in my memory nevertheless. Within minutes of arriving home, the doorbell rang. I still remember seeing the familiar uniformed shape of our well-respected village Garda through the glass of our front door.

My mother brought him into the front room – a place reserved for important visitors. I listened to the Garda describe my foolish deed in painfully slow and precise language. I avoided my mother’s horrified gaze as I felt the shame brought on the family by her eldest son, revealed as a heedless new member of the law-breaking fraternity. I didn’t like to think of the penalty to come, especially if it involved confiscation of my red dream machine. Thankfully, the only consequences were a stern Garda warning that there should be no repeat of the episode and my mother’s even sterner disapproval – expressed not so much in words as with that look that mothers are good at. From then on however, knowing that the same ever-vigilant Garda might be on duty every time I cycled along Main Street, I kept both hands firmly on my handlebars.

Clondalkin in the mid-1960s was a much quieter place than now, even on Main Street. The traffic usually consisted of one or two moving vehicles at most. What I’d done was of course daft, dangerous and highly irresponsible. That said, the risk of being injured or worse was far lower then than it would be for any child who did such a crazy thing on the streets of any Irish town today. Now, as I cycle along much busier city streets I often remember gratefully the Garda who once took the trouble to go to a young tearaway’s house to deliver a warning that might well have saved his life.

Cathal Mac Coille presented Morning Ireland on RTE Radio One for twenty years before his retirement in 2017. He was TG4’s first political correspondent. Other jobs included work with the Sunday Tribune and RTE’s Northern staff in Belfast. He writes a weekly column for the Irish language website Tuairisc.ie. A Dubliner, he was educated at Moyle Park College in Clondalkin and Coláiste Mhuire in Dublin. He now lives in Phibsborough and cycles everywhere.

On behalf of the Museum of Childhood Ireland, and Robert Burns, we would like to extend our heartfelt gratitude to all of our wonderful participants for their time and their stories. We are thrilled to be presenting this project and we hope you will enjoy following along with us in the coming weeks.

Have a story on this topic and want to get involved? Contact us on our social media sites, or email us at cbrowne@museumofchildhood.ie – we would love to hear from you!

By Chloe Browne

Chloe Browne is an Irish writer, curator and Art Historian, with a keen interest in objects and social history.