We’re 11 kilometers from Ballinasloe, then 10, then seven, then nine. The Local Bus lives up to its name, going out of its way, door to door, backing up and turning around in people’s driveways, winding down one-lane country roads. The trip from Portumna, in County Galway, Ireland, which otherwise takes about 40 minutes, lasts an hour and a quarter.
As it makes its circuitous way past sparkling green fields and the occasional castle ruins, through little towns not yet awake, the 16-passenger minibus gradually fills up. I calculate: 5 euros round trip, times 16, is about $120. With gas around $9 a gallon, they’re not doing this for the money.
Most of the riders are elderly, most of them women. People greet each other; everybody knows everybody. At some point it dawns on me: This really isn’t about the money. It’s a social service, for rural residents who have no other way to get around.
I signed up in advance for the only public transportation between Portumna and Ballinasloe. I asked Bernie at the tourist information office, “If nobody signed up, would the bus not run?”
“Oh, no, it goes anyway,” she said. But if you sign up and you’re running late, the bus will wait for you.
Kieran, our driver, pulls over to answers his cellphone: “Ah, Mary, we’ll be by for you in about 30 minutes.” He opens the door for his passengers, places a footstool, helps them aboard. When he discharges us in Ballinasloe, he shows me where to catch the bus for the return trip. Everybody else already knows. He still hasn’t collected my fare.
For the homeward journey, passengers gather behind the CostCutter grocery on the square. Most folks are there early, lingering inside the back door out of the intermittent rain.
Kieran loads their shopping bags, and we reverse our route. He carries people’s packages in for them. At one house, when he doesn’t return immediately, somebody murmurs, “He’s gone in for tea.”
“He’s gone in to see the cat.”
“The cat’s gone. It died.” Clearly, these are people who know each other’s business.
Back in Portumna, he finally collects my fare.