Amplify NI's Jim Ledwith reflects on his ethnographic research on board Enniskillen's 397 bus service.
It was only at weekends when at home at the top of Cornagrade housing estate some 45 years ago did I notice from the front living room window the novel beginnings of the town service bus. It always seemed to be around midday on a Sunday - mass time - when the bus was full of people of all ages making their way to and from mass held down in the centre of Enniskillen.
The Ledwiths had no need of the bus as we had a family car and my dad had a company work van on hand. Inverted snobbery held sway for years and I instinctively held the view that people who used the town service must have had no means to own or run a car. They were not like us!
Since starting ethnographic research in north Enniskillen, I have always wanted to experiment with novel ways of meeting local people in everyday "real life" situations. Getting onto the small town service bus as it snakes its way through the sprawling housing estates of north Enniskillen was that every day experience. For the people who use and depend on it, I was going to be part of it and live it.
For a budding ethnographer and being a local man who has just reached the qualifying age of the free bus pass, there is also the added interest and excitement of finding a shared local space in which people I know and see every week can be talked with as neighbours and are also comfortable to chat away at their ease on the things that matter to them.
On the bus, interviews with bus drivers, locals and hospital workers (the bus route ends its outward journey at the hospital) has brought me into a different world of access, of connecting people and place.
The bus is not only a means of being able to shop downtown and go to weekday mass, but crucially it is a services that liberates those (mainly) women who are without a car during the daytime. It’s a hugely vital means of transport for those, young and elderly, who cannot physically climb the hills of Cornagrade or Hillview estates.
An unwritten script of bus 397 is its social function. It is enabling the meeting up of relatives from rural areas, and helping to connect up mothers and daughters who live in different estates. There are men who are barred from driving for medical reasons and are now resorting to using the bus. Passengers who are new residents from abroad question why the local people do not use the service more.
Questions abound as to the service being cut back, but it's still far cheaper than the taxis - even before the taxi metres come in. People organise their hospital appointments around the bus times and some elderly use the bus to get to their men's shed or to do volunteering in the many charity shops that adorn the main street of the town centre .
Hopping off and on the bus and stopping by bus stops at different times, it's clear that the town service says what it does - it services the transport of those who need it most - and often, that's not the “well off”.
Passing the roundabout directly below the chapel , I witness many regulars instinctively blessing themselves. It’s a ritual that I haven’t witnessed for years amongst townspeople .
By listening to each other's stories we can learn more about the world around us and open up a dialogue about the future we want to see. Every voice matters, so if you have thoughts or stories about the things you love in your community, the things that need to change to make it a fairer place, or your hopes or dreams for the future there, please share them with us!