07 Jul 2022

Trip Through Time: Dundalk, the Bicycle Town

Looking back at Dundalk's past, with former Democrat editor Peter Kavanagh

Some memories of Dundalk when it was a ‘Bicycle Town’

When I was a school-going child Dundalk was known as the 'Bicycle Town' because, it was believed that the population owned more pedal cycles per head than any other town in Ireland.

This was partly because of the 'Wartime Emergency' when petrol was scarce and there were few other means of transport.

Being, mostly, a flat town helped and nearly everybody, from toddlers to grannies, could ride whatever form of 'bike' was available.

Bikes were cheap and a lot of second-hand ones were on sale in the many bicycle repair shops that were dotted around town.

This, however, did not stop the stealing of bicycles and the crime of 'bicycle stealing' was regarded as one of the most serious offences in the district as many depended on their 'trusty wheels' to get them to work on time!

It was something like the stealing of a horse in old 'Wild West' of the Cowboy Era because there was no insurance for the loss of a bike.

Even if you could afford a replacement a person could lose their job if they found their bicycle missing on a workday morning! It was also an essential means by which many students got to school on time, as free school-buses were not yet provided.

A type of bike that was common around the Town up to sixty years ago that you won't see any of these days, was the Messenger Bike.

These were large heavy ones with a square metal frame at the front to carry all sorts of things, from grocery goods to postal parcels.

I recall one man from the Hill Street area who used to go around the town with a large metal milk container, with a tap at the front and measuring cans hanging from his handlebar.

I suppose he would purchase the milk from one of the larger dairies and re-sell it to his customers at a small profit.

He would have to start in the early hours of the morning and, maybe, not finish until the late afternoon – for six days a week.

He could not have made much of a living from this trade and he was a pathetic sight coming down the road on a cold, dark winter's morning but most people in our district loved him and many may have bought milk from him for charitable reasons.

I remember that he seemed very grateful to my mother when she would invite him into our house for a hot cup of tea on those cold days and the children in our home were very sorry when he gave it up!

I wonder what became of his messenger bike?

These memories all came flooding back to me when I spoke to a middle aged man outside a local supermarket quite recently loading parcels on one of those modern E bikes.

He spoke with a foreign accent and I got a surprise when told me that it had cost over two thousand euros.

He told me that he had been living in Dundalk for over 15 years and had owned a car but the cost of running it had become too great.

He further explained what had decided him to make the change was when he was asked over €2,200 to renew his insurance.

I suppose that I should not have been too surprised by the cost of his new bicycle because a member of my own family has recently decided to do his bit in trying to reduce carbon emissions by buying one of those new fold-up bicycles which had an electric motor booster.

The cost of this type of transport was even greater than the fixed frame one owned by the man outside the supermarket. It had cost almost €4,500 and I wondered how anybody could afford such an expenditure until I learned that there is a Government supported scheme by which his employers pay about half that amount.

It is clearly a useful piece of transport, especially as it can be folded and carried on to a bus or train at no extra cost! Still I am not sure that it would be suitable for an older person.

Regarding the cost of paying for goods like E bicycles, it might surprise some younger readers to learn that, back in the middle of the last century few luxury goods, and indeed, many household appliances were not bought by direct payment.

They were bought on what was known as 'hire-purchase', whereby a small deposit was paid and the rest in weekly instalments. Which often meant that the goods cost a lot more eventually than their advertised price.

This method of payment often horrified older people of time who still had what was known as the 'Workhouse Mentality' whereby they feared they would incur debts they could never repay.

It did, however, provide many Dundalk homes with things, like radios and washing machines, that people of any earlier generation could only dream about possessing!

By the way, I wondered how a cyclist could get any power assist from these E bicycles until it was pointed out that there is a small, round motor mounted in the middle of the front wheel !

This motor is not much bigger than the gears that had been fitted to the more expensive bicycles after World War Two. Petrol driven bicycles were tried out in the same period but they were much larger and heavier, were noisy and smelly and, more often than not, broke down and could not be repaired easily!

Modern technology has greatly improved since the start of the present century and I wonder what the workers of Dundalk of three-quarters of a century ago would have thought of E bikes and such like things?

Equally, it makes me ponder what new developments in transport and travel may have arrived by the middle of the 21st century?

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