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13 February 1997 Edition

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Television: Fond times on old lines

RTE's Off the Beaten Track series (RTE 1, Sundays, 5.25pm) continues to explore our railway legacy; those lines which have been closed and allowed to fall into disrepair but which still leave their marks, both on the landscape and in people's memories.

Last week's programme was narrated by Olivia O'Leary, who we met balancing on the parapet of the great railway viaduct at Borris in County Carlow, her home town. For her as a child, the Bagnelstown to New Ross line was a source of adventure and mischief. For others it was a livelihood. Molly Carroll remembered vividly the closing of the railway line in 1963. Her father, who had worked on the line since 1911, went to bed for three days and they thought he was going to give up and die. Molly spoke in such fond terms of the railway and of her distress at its passing that it was impossible not to be moved. Her memories of rashers frying on the engine's coal shovel - ``the finest rashers you ever met'' - and billy cans of tea boiled off the furnace - ``you could stand on it, it was that thick, oh God it was lovely'' - were priceless.

But this passion for railways bridged the class divide. The man responsible for the line, which was an economic disaster from its completion in 1870, was Arthur McMurrough Kavanagh, whose ancestors included the infamous Diarmuid McMurrough, who invited in the Norman invaders, and the scourge of Richard II, the warrior chieftain Art McMurrough.

Arthur, the heir to the Kavanagh seat, was born with no arms or legs but led a remarkably full and well-travelled life. He rode everywhere, strapped into a special saddle. He survived a dangerous stint as a despatch rider in the Khyber Pass and when, on his return from Afghanistan, he fel ill, he was invited to recuperate in a Persian harem. When he left, his host is reputed to have remarked that ``his education was nearly complete when he came and now it is complete''. McMurrough was also an MP but his main claim to fame was his passion for railways which led to his financing of the Bagnelstown to New Ross line.

Olivia O'Leary's railway journey was marked by this wonderful variety of stories and a well-handled personal approach to the people she talked with, typical of which was the story of her grandfather's marriage. He was head of the Fourth Carlow Brigade of the Irish Volunteers and was about to be arrested as the Easter Rising erupted in 1916. He proposed to his fiancée and they were married that very day, even though she did not approve of his politics.

O'Leary prefaced her tale with the story of a folk song about two lovers who escaped together up the beautiful River Barrow, which runs alongside the line. Her grandfather and grandmother escaped by rail but he was arrested en route to Kerry and was imprisoned in the Curragh and later Frongach.

My own grandfather and granduncles also made their living on the railways. My mother was raised in a railway cottage. As children down from Dublin for the day we used to play on the old railway gates in Portlaoise and walk the long narrow field which used to boast a railway line but now grazed a donkey. This clever series is introduced by a different celebrity each week but Olivia O'Leary's romantic evocation of a way of life which has passed but which played such in important role, especially in rural communities, is so far the pick of the crop.

Saturday's Assignment (BBC2, 7.10pm) was a far cry from O'Leary's heartwarming tale. Julie Finch's damning portrayal of multinational oil giant British Petroleum's activities in Colombia was strong stuff.

Civil war rages in Colombia between left-wing guerrillas and a corrupt state which uses regular army forces and irregular death squads to quell all opposition. So BP's arrival in the previously quiet province of Casanare to exploit massive oil reserves brought more than just oil. It also brought war. BP's oil rigs are protected by government troops, which have been accused of atrocities and human rights abuses by Amnesty International, the US State Department and Human Rights Watch. The presence of the troops and the oil rigs attracts the rebels, which in turn leads to increased activity by the death dquads, which have brought misery and fear to locals. Many locals have been forced from their land by the death squads, buying property in anticipation of a prices boom as this oil rich area is developed.

The man from BP made the usual placatory PR moves and denials but the allegations that the company was turning a blind eye to human rights abuses to benefit its continued exploration were not adequately refuted.

And finally, the Short Cuts series of Irish films on RTE ended on Monday night with a re-screening of Thirty-Five Aside, originally shown at Christmas.

This black comic take on school bullying was wierd but hilarious. James Mahon played the hapless Philip, who is bought the ugliest schoolbag in the world by his strange granny for his first day in a new school. The bad start only gets worse as he is immediately picked on by all his fellow pupils. His psycho father doesn't help matters by beating up a taxi driver outside the main gate of Mountjoy just seconds after his release on parole.

This whole series has been an impressive reminder of domestic film making talent and it is great news that a second helping is already in production.


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