When We Were Kings and Queens of the Road: Robert Burns

Three o’clock and school was over. We slid out from behind our old wooden desks, the ones with the sloping desktop and the old inkwell holders, and darted out the door, making a beeline for the old shed where our bikes were stored. 

It was early June and at 10 years old I was in the dog days of fourth class, closing in on the summer break. 

It was one of those early, hot summer days with the sun beating down on Ballynagearn National School and a soft breeze gently blowing the meadow grass and rushes in the surrounding fields. The school, with its pitched roof and high windows, was built in 1935 and my grandmother, mother, aunts and uncles had all gone to that same school before me. 

We collected our bikes – Michael, Brian, Johnny, Ellen, Marie and I – spilling down the steps, carrying our freedom machines through the rusted wrought iron gates. As we set off, the wheels crunched and skidded on the gravel that had collected where the two roads met in front of the school. The sun’s heat had warmed up the tar on the road surface so that it was soft and pliable and in places there were small puddles of melted tar that squished and sprayed up as our wheels turned. 

Robert Burns, aged 9

We were all in the same class, except for Ellen, who was a year ahead in fifth class. Marie and Ellen had joined the school earlier that year when their family had returned home from America. They were exotic and curious to us, with their American twang, their innate confidence and the way they dressed; very different to the rest of us. The boys in fourth class, including myself, were smitten by Marie with her silky brown hair and sallow skin and her tales from an outside world, far from the small hills of south Monaghan. 

We pedalled hard past Crosby’s house, along the narrow country road, whizzing past the overgrown hedgerows and leaf-laden trees. At Hamill’s Lane, we pulled in when we met a few cars and a tractor towing a trailer full of freshly-cut grass from the nearby fields. 

Although there was traffic on the roads then, I don’t think I ever felt unsafe cycling, maybe that was because cars drove more slowly then and there were fewer of them than there are now, and I guess I was also confident as I had been cycling to school since I was seven years old, which was very common for children back then. 

I pulled up between Johnny and Marie and tucked in behind Michael who was cycling in front of me. We travelled as the mood caught us, pedalling like crazy one minute, to lazy, no-hands-on-the-handlebars freewheeling the next. As we went along, we chatted about what happened at school that day and the football match we were going to play against local rivals, Corduff, the next day. We moved quickly along a flat section of road towards the crossroads at the ‘Diamond’, stopping for a time at the stream near the crossroads to throw stones in the water. 

A Ballynagearn NS (Robert’s childhood school) group photo from around 80/81.  The photo has a beautiful, innocent and giddy energy. 

After that, we got back on our bikes and headed in the direction of Kingscourt. This was the steepest part of the journey and we stood up out of our saddles and pedalled hard up and over the hill, when the first of our crew, Brian, peeled off and into his driveway. On we went until we came next to Marie and Ellen’s house. We stopped to chat, all of us in a circle with the front wheels of our bikes facing inwards. I happened to be facing Marie and for a few moments our eyes met, and we smiled at each other and then, seconds later, the girls took off towards their house. Michael, Johnny and I continued on, until Johnny turned up the laneway that led to his house. 

Then it was just Michael and I and, after a short while, we turned onto the road where I lived, passing a cluster of houses owned by the Muldoons. We didn’t say much as we rode together, although Michael sometimes hummed a tune that was popular at the time, and we took relief from the heat in the dapple-shade of the tree canopies arching over the road. We then passed Hand’s house, cycling up and freewheeling down the undulating hills of the narrow road that had been laid down on this landscape of glacially-formed drumlins. 

All was good with the world as our wheels kept turning and we headed for home. To paraphrase a famous son of Monaghan, Patrick Kavanagh, we felt as 10-year-olds that the road was our kingdom and that we were the kings and queens of “banks and stones and every blooming thing”.

Robert Burns, 2022

Robert Burns is a civil engineer and director of Fingal County Council. He grew up in the Monaghan countryside in the 70s and 80s, moving to Roscommon in the late 80s. He now lives and works in Dublin. Robert has a passion for creating safe, vibrant, attractive and sustainable public places and communities. In his time as director with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council he led on a range of projects to build new cycle lanes, create people-friendly public spaces, revitalise towns and villages and foster community input and engagement. He feels that our roads and streets are becoming increasingly  hostile places for children as a result of the prevalence of cars, something that has changed dramatically since his own childhood. He argues for the reclamation of street space away from cars for the health, safety and enjoyment of children and the local community. This project is his concept, and is a collaboration between Robert and the Museum of Childhood Ireland.

On behalf of the Museum of Childhood Ireland, we would like to extend our heartfelt gratitude to Robert for all his incredibly hard work on this project, and 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.