When We Were Kings and Queens of the Road: Chloe Browne

Maggie’s Birthday Bus

Growing up in a rural area on the Westmeath/Meath border, I was no stranger to a school bus. The bus acted as the bookends to my day, and was the social highlight of every schooling stage from four to eighteen. The very political hierarchy of seat selection, the sharing of snacks, the morning cramming of study material before an exam, the shaky homework answers hastily written last minute that shot across the page due to an unexpected pothole – these are the rich memories that fill my head when I think back to my childhood bus days. 

While I took the bus all through secondary school also (and indeed Dublin Bus was my chauffeur in college later on), it was my primary school experience that most sticks out, and this is due to Maggie – the real star of this story. 

Maggie drove one of two bus routes for my primary school, Clonmellon NS, and we felt an air of almost superiority to be on her route – like an exclusive club that we were all part of. As an anxious child, I found starting school very difficult, and hated being away from home – I had just moved from living with my mother and grandparents in an estate in the town of Leixlip, and all of a sudden my world was a bungalow, my parents alone, endless fields and strange four-legged neighbours that I had only seen in books and on milk cartons. Starting an unfamiliar school with people who all seemed to know each other going back multiple family generations was a very scary thing, but I firmly believe the mornings and evenings with Maggie did so much to ease the transition, and make me almost (a very slight almost on P.E. day) enjoy going into school. 

Junior or Senior Infants: All smiles, no teeth!

How do I even begin to explain the bus route with Maggie? It was just a warm, friendly, fun experience. Maggie drove the bus for an incredible 42 years. When I asked her about it this week, she said that some of the people she drove to primary school now have grandkids – how’s that for a legacy! She knew each and every one of us by name, and she’d greet us getting on and off – but not only that, she got to know our families, our interests, our personalities. There was never any guff on the bus while Maggie was around – we all got along, because if you didn’t, if you fought or misbehaved, you’d be brought up to apologise to the other children. Maggie looked out for each and every one of us and wouldn’t stand for a child sitting in discomfort or sadness on our bus. It was a rare occasion when there were reprimands – we all respected Maggie too much to act out, and this created a lovely equalising atmosphere on the bus where social rivalries weren’t really a thing. 

There was always time for a chat or to share a bit of news – and sometimes the kids would bring their graded homework with stickers, or trophies and medals they’d won in school and out to show her – and she would always be so excited to hear. At Christmas, everyone would have a card for their favourite bus driver and she would often have chocolate for us, or a little surprise planned. In later years after I left, while my younger brother still travelled the same route, kids would bring in their trad instruments, and there would be a little mini Fleadh on the bus before setting off home, with Maggie herself on the squeezebox.

Our bus wasn’t dissimilar to this one, though in our later years we had a snazzy model with three seats on one side and two on the other. Photo: Bus Éireann

The one thing I remember most from my time, however, is the birthday celebration that awaited us when we turned another year older – or on a Monday if we were unfortunate enough to have a weekend celebration that you couldn’t cash in on in the schoolyard. You’d be excited all day because you knew what was coming, and as a spectator on the bus you were no stranger to other people’s big moments – this happened almost weekly, as there were some thirty to forty of us along the route. You’d pile onto the bus at five minutes to three (another reason for smugness as a bus-goer – we got out early so the buses could leave before the tsunami of kids ran out the gate), and wait for Maggie to pull out into the street. On these days, however, the doors closed and the bus wouldn’t move. Maggie would then stand up in the aisle, and at the top of her voice call out “Oi oi everybody! Sing happy birthday to _______!” and then would conduct us all as we all joined in in a boisterous, tuneless and deafening chorus to the lucky boy or girl. While that was wonderful, it was the part that came next that was our absolute favourite. Maggie would start: 

“Hip hip!” 

We’d answer: “Hooray!” 

She’d raise her voice: “HIP HIP!” 

We’d shout: “HOORAY!” 

She’d lean back and yell at the top of her voice, a bellowing, final “HIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIP. HIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIP.” 

The bus would erupt, thirty something children, feral, wild, screaming from the bottom of their little lungs, “HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOORRRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY!” 

Choruses of student-led “For she’s a jolly good fellows” would ring out throughout the journey as Maggie would finally take her seat and we’d be off – the birthday King or Queen of the Road a little pink, but mostly chuffed as they had their annual moment in the spotlight. 

A couple of years later, back when wheelie bags were cool!

I loved that bus route, and Maggie – I was devastated when I had to leave for a school in a different catchment area in secondary, and I was always a little jealous of the secondary school kids in the next town over, Athboy, who got to graduate to her second bus route. Maggie is truly an incredible person, who gave so many wonderful memories to so many children over the years. I’ve seen Maggie several times since, and it has always been the loveliest encounter, and it was fantastic to reconnect this week, having not seen each other since before lockdown. She is kind, funny, and caring, and she looked out for each and every one of us. I know I am not the only one who has boundless warm and fuzzy memories of that journey throughout the years. She no longer drives the bus route, having retired several years ago, but she still remembers it with fondness, and I would be surprised if she couldn’t still name every single child she ever took on that primary school bus route through the whole of her 42 year career! What a woman. 

Chloe Browne is Community Engagement Lead for the Museum of Childhood Ireland, and has been working closely with Majella McAllister and Robert Burns on this project for the last few months. This project is close to her heart not only due to its important message, but also due to her wonderful memories of her own journey to school. Chloe would like to extend a huge “Thank you!” to Maggie Fitzgerald for chatting with her ahead of this post and for giving her enthusiastic permission to share the Birthday Bus tradition with all of our readers, not to mention her incredible years of service and support to the schools in the area!

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.

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.