The man behind the wheel
by Matt Britton
Wherever there is a celebration involving Donegal people, either at home or abroad, one Donegal man dressed in a kilt and surrounded by his colleagues radiates his presence.
Not only is Frankie Bonner a well known figure in the acclaimed St. Naul's Pipe Band from Ardaghey but this popular man has spent his life ferrying people from one end of the county to another in his many years with Bus Eireann.
Speaking to the Donegal Democrat, Frankie recalls his earlier years growing up in the rural community of Drumkeen outside Stranorlar.
"I was part of a family of eight children so as you can imagine it was a busy household - my mother ran the local Post Office and my father was a farmer who ‘specialised' in everything - cattle, sheep, horses and most importantly, spuds.
"In those days through the Gap was known as 'Spud Country' and my father had the whole lot of us picking, sorting, bagging and getting the crop ready for Dublin - we never had to go out looking for summer work like the kids nowadays. Donegal spuds were known as the pick of the crop and it was our job to get them to the market on time.
"Needless to say, the weather was always great back then but sure isn't that the way we always remember it in our youth?" he joked.
After finishing his education at the local Vocational School, now the Finn Valley College, Frankie went off to Scotland with his uncle Mick in search of work.
"Work was hard enough to come by in the early sixties and Scotland was a good option - mind you I never took to wearing a kilt over there, I waited until I came back to St. Naul's for that!
"I got a job with a large rock drilling company - it was quite specialised as we would have been drilling down as far as 300 feet. I loved the work and the money was just unbelievable. I ended up working on the very secure Polaris Sub - marine base and even though things were becoming unstable in the North my ‘Irishness' was never questioned.
"Regrettably I had an accident in which I lost a finger and had to return home - I must stress however that the company were very good to me and ensured that I had great treatment."
I found returning to Donegal strange - there were no great changes, there was no evidence of the building boom, it was very much pre - Celtic Tiger and jobs were scarce.
"I managed to get a job in the Northern Garage in Donegal Town with Bobby Glenn and I travelled back and forward from Drumkeen everyday. As a car lover, this was my dream job, I had to bring brand new cars down from Dublin every week, there was no such thing as transporters in those days. I'll have to confess that I felt very proud driving my glistening Renault 16 down the road."
In 1974, Frankie noticed an advertisement in the Donegal Democrat for bus drivers in the county.
"I did the interview and was successful, then the test on a Friday and by Sunday I was behind the wheel of a bus wheeling my way around the county. I was what was referred to as a ‘spare driver' - if someone was sick or on holidays I covered for them with the result that I must have covered every inch of the county.
"During that period I also landed the Lough Derg route for the summer season - this was the most sought after position in the county. In those days we would have had around 12 buses delivering pilgrims to the island - today they find it hard to fill one. I suppose really it's the fact that more people are bringing their own cars because I know that numbers visiting the island are on the increase."
Frankie eventually took over the wheel behind the Donegal Express and was a familiar and friendly face to the many passengers to Dublin, Galway and Derry.
"These were state-of-the-art buses but the trips were not without incident.
"The troubles in the North were at their worst and on many occasions I found myself staring down the barrel of a machine gun during the many sporadic checkpoints. "The problem was that we didn't know who was stopping us on a lot of occasions. The Army were fine and usually very polite but others were quite intimidating. There was a genuine fear amongst many of the passengers - you have to realise that the only place many of us had seen a gun was at ‘the pictures' or on television.
"On reflection it is a great tribute to the many drivers who travelled these lonely roads late at night without any protection - it is only in retrospect that you realise that real danger existed.
"I had met my wife Sally in Dom's Shop which was part of the Abbey Hotel and also served as the ticket office for Bus Eireann. Sally was a teacher then and friendly with one of the girls that worked there. Romance blossomed and we were married in 1981."
His involvement with the band began when he was living outside Donegal Town in Ballydevitt.
"I was friendly with one of the pipers, Vincent O'Donnell and had expressed my interest and before I knew it I was down in Kennedys and soon playing the bass and tenor drum. "It has been a great experience and still is and an honour to represent the county.
"We led the parade down 5th. Ave. on Patrick's Day, and also the parade in London but perhaps the most memorable occasion was in Flanders where we played alongside eight other bands both Catholic and Protestant honouring the Irish who gave their lives in the First World War.
"It is great to see the kids of Donegal Town continuing on the tradition of marching bands with the establishment of the Donegal Community Band - they are a credit to the committee, their parents and the town."
Frankie's career as a driver ended in 1990 when he was promoted to Inspector and made responsible for the school transport throughout a large part of the county ensuring that pupils and students at over 72 schools got there safely and on time.
For a man that has been on the move practically all his life does he miss it?
"Not one bit" said Frankie, "I enjoyed every minute of it when I was there but I have so much things to keep me going, including growing a few potatoes that I don't get much tome to dwell on it!"
The man behind the wheel - the indefatigable Frankie Bonner - a bus driver, a drum major, a gentleman.