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Where the Buses (and Trams and Trucks) Go


Welcome to a barebones museum run by enthusiastic volunteers with not much space and a whole lot of vehicles. And a name possibly a little grand for the project: The National Transport Museum of Ireland, or Iarsmalann Náisiunta Iompair na hÉireann.


The museum hasn't a fancy home; it's lodged in former farm buildings on the grounds of Dublin's Howth Castle. It doesn't have a big staff; in fact its staff are all volunteers. It doesn't have a big admission charge either. What it does have is an overwhelming collection of 'public service' vehicles, including buses, trams, fire trucks and specialty trucks of various kinds.


Space limits keep the display down to about sixty at a time, with another forty stored nearby (and available by appointment) and another eighty stored in a depot an hour or so away. Space limits also make it a bit hard to see all the vehicles that are on display... aisles can be very narrow!


What stood out for me, a veteran of many motor museums, was the degree to which the carefully-placed placards explained not only the technical details of the vehicle and its maker but also where it fits into the social and industrial history of Ireland. Here's a sample:


Here we learn a bit about Dublin's bakeries and bread distribution, both to homes and stores, and how much longer horse-drawn vehicles dominated the trade than elsewhere, with many still in service in the 1950s. Other signs in the museum give similar histories. According to the signs, the horses knew their routes so well they could return to the bakery without help from the driver. Interestingly, they were originally largely replaced by electric rather than gas!


A bit more nostalgia: The blue openside truck above was a milk 'float,' a truck built for early-morning doorstep deliveries of milk to homes. The big Kelso Laundry truck, a 1960s battery-electric, started life as a bread truck, but was converted to a milk float when its owner went under. When the milk delivery business followed, it was converted again to hold commercial laundry. And when home washing machines put the laundry out of business... it came here.


Above, a van and a heavy truck used by the Postal and Telegraph services; the narrative signs describe how the services changed over the years. For the first 50 years after independence, all the vehicles were painted the same dark green inherited from the British Post Office; in the 1970s, everything went cheery blue and white.


Most of the trucks in the Howth collection come from familiar British names such as Bedford, Thames Trader (British Ford) and Austin, though some were assembled in Ireland, especially buses. The gray Austin above was standard equipment for Ireland's defense forces from the 1940s through the 1970s. The green Bedford above has a close cousin in the collection, a fire engine based on the same chassis and mechanicals.


Speaking of fire engines, the museum has a good few of those as well, some with surprising histories. The old wooden hand-pump cart above, built in the 1860s, saw service all the way up to 1948. Merryweather, the company that built it, started making fire pumpers in 1690!


More modern firefighting equipment is on display, too, including a steam pumper from the early 1900s and a rather stylish ladder truck, as well as the squarish 1970s model just above.


Heavy-duty department. Some military vehicles, including the off-road 'Unimog' in center of lower photo, and above it a junior behemoth—a giant road tractor, built for hauling heavy loads where previously steam-tractors would have been used. This one, by Scammell, is one of their smaller models, rated officially to be able to pull 100 tons, but actually capable of much more. Many of them saw duty in World War II.

P1320228Scammell also built this three-wheel tractor, used by Ireland's railroads to pull freight and baggage around stations and freight yards. This one was used in Dublin's Heuston Station, its main station. No information was posted on the Cantrell & Cochrane truck below; it's more like an enclosed farm tractor than a traditional truck.


With all the other vehicles on display, it might seem easy to overlook the bus and tram displays, but their sheer size saves them from that.


Dublin had one of the most advanced tram systems in the world, and one of the densest and heavily used, as the 1915 scene in Parnell Square shows. The system grew up through the 1920s, when it was slowly but steadily replaced by buses, a bad decision Dublin shared with many other cities around the world. By 1949, they were gone, with one exception, the Hill of Howth tram, which circled a popular seaside area near the museum.


The Hill of Howth tram, beautifully restored by museum volunteers, ran on until 1959, and was then abandoned to rot in a field. Restored with parts from tram systems in several cities, it is actually able to run again on special occasions, although, ironically, the nearest rail transit to the museum is half a mile away and the nearest bus a quarter mile!



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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