Thursday, October 20, 2016

MacDara looks for a job

After sitting the Leaving Certificate in the mid-fifties, MacDara decided to seek a job for the summer months. Jobs were in short supply in country towns like Boyle in those days so MacDara set his sights on Dublin city. He drew up a list of well known business houses he knew by name, beginning with Eason’s Booksellers and Independent Newspapers (both of Abbey Street). Having received no joy there he moved on to tobacco manufacturers Player Wills, and then to Cadbury’s and Rowntree’s confectioners, renowned for sweets and chocolate. Failing again he turned his attention to Millard Brothers, O’Neills Sportswear and Elverys (all of them distributers of fishing tackle and sporting goods), and finally Kapp & Peterson Limited (suppliers of pipes, lighters and accessories); all to no avail. High-tech giants like Microsoft and Apple hadn’t yet arrived; they were concepts of the future. 

As MacDara pedalled the streets and cobblestone lanes of North Dublin courtesy of the brother’s bike, and coming near the end of his tether, he suddenly saw the name Lucan Dairies standing out in large letters on a wall in Parkgate Street and remembered the well-known flag with its logo fluttering in the breeze at home and in seaside resorts roundabout like Strandhill, Rosses Point and Enniscrone. He’d give them a lash in a last ditch effort! Lucan Dairies consisted of a huge milk plant on one side of Parkgate Street and their office block on the opposite side. They were among the main distributers of milk around Dublin city and county, the others being Dublin Dairies, Merville and a smaller one with the exotic name Tel-el-Keber. With nothing to lose he marched in bravely and asked if there were any jobs going for the summer. A while later he was ushered into Personnel, where the usual questions were asked about education and background. MacDara had suddenly and unexpectedly found himself a summer job that would continue till early October, which was the end of the ice cream season. Today, and in hindsight, it’s unbelievable to think that ice cream was on sale for just six months of the year, from April to October. Delighted with his new found luck he was informed that he could start work on the following Monday morning. That left him three days to find accommodation. 

MacDara ploughed the north side on his bicycle and eventually found a place beside Arbour Hill Church, with his bedroom window looking on to one of the most hallowed sites in Dublin city or country, the graves of the signatories of the Proclamation. He could walk to work from there in ten minutes and lived on the doorstep of the Phoenix Park, which was home from home on a Sunday morning with groups of lads his own age playing football, hurling and a game called rounders that was hugely popular then. Dublin Zoo, being close by, was another great way of spending a few hours on a Sunday. Begging the liberty of a short digression, MacDara had retired to bed late one Saturday night/Sunday morning when something went boom in the dark. A sound like a bomb going off shattered the peace and tranquillity of Arbour Hill and left him semi shell-shocked in the middle of his bedroom floor and in pitch darkness. Within minutes his good landlady, like a modern day Florence Nightingale, came on the scene torch in hand assuring her five lodgers that the roof was still on the house, that she had no gas leaks and that the loud bang emanated from elsewhere. Happily the electric power came back within an hour. The following morning, after Mass in Arbour Hill Church, all was revealed. The bronze statue of Field Marshall Hugh Gough (1779-1869), sitting on a horse on a plinth just inside the gates of Phoenix Park, had been blown away by the newest breed of the IRA. The noble gentleman’s head had been blown off once before in an earlier campaign in the forties, but was found later in the River Liffey at Islandbridge and soldered back on. 

Getting back to his new found job, Lucan Dairies had a huge milk distribution business throughout Dublin city and county and also had contracts to supply milk to wholesale confectioners around the city. His immediate boss Mr. Samuel was of the austere calibre, a man who rarely if ever smiled at anybody or any thing! His working day seemed to revolve around one principle, ‘reconciling the stocks’. The three words hit the ear drums ten times a day like lines from an old ballad. The equation in simple language amounted to, the volume of milk in stock from yesterday plus the volume of milk received on the current day, minus the amount distributed to customers and wholesalers in the course of the day. It must balance or ‘reconcile’ by the day’s end, and if that didn’t happen then you worked until it did, no questions asked! Yet the most heartbreaking task of the week was yet to come on the Friday afternoon. If ever a job was conceived to destabilise the brain of two eighteen year olds this must surely be it. With Jimmy, the other young recruit taken on for the summer season, the two of them spent the afternoon counting empty bottles till they were blue in the face, thirty-thousand to be precise! There were twenty-four bottles to a crate and the crates were stacked fifteen feet high in a building tall enough to hold a 747 jet aircraft. Bottles were completely made of glass then, and didn’t have any label of identity on them; every last one was similar. MacDara and Jimmy took turns to climb a ladder and count the rows of crates that stretched upwards and outwards in all directions. The mountain of dead colourless matter staring down at them could have been Queen Maeve’s grave on the top of Knocknarea and to further aggravate the situation Mr. Samuels looked in like a Job’s comforter to see how “the long count” was progressing! What a relief it was for the beleaguered two when the clock struck six and the bells of Arran Quay Church up the road rang out the Angelus across the Liffey! The normal functions of the brain found their way back slowly, similar to the deep sea diver coming out of the bends.

One Friday during lunch break, MacDara remarked to a colleague who was many years in the job how he found it hard to live on four pounds a week. He was already paying his landlady three pounds ten shillings full board which left him with ten shillings to survive on. Norman’s advice was to ask Herbie (the boss) for a rise. He’s not such a bad guy when you get to know him he said smiling! The next Monday MacDara plucked up courage and inquired from Personnel if he could see the boss? Like a patient sitting anxiously in a doctor’s surgery he was becoming more nervous by the minute. What followed next came dangerously close to a health check up.  Herbie asked him did he smoke, did he drink, did he gamble, did he go to films, where did he live and how much did he pay for his digs? MacDara wondered what would come next, would he be asked to take a deep breadth or cough a few times! Then came the punch line. How much are you being paid per week young man? Four pounds a week sir. Don’t you get extra for working in the milk office on the second Sunday morning of each month, isn’t that another ten shillings! Yes sir. He rubbed his rich growth of moustache over and back a few times while studying this new employee of his. His façade softened, a hint of a smile appeared and he said he would give the matter further consideration. Thank you very much sir, said MacDara. The following Friday there was an extra ten shillings in his pay packet. Norman (the guy who had talked him into it) could hardly believe it. You’re a plucky young lad he said; I was having you on and didn’t think for a second you’d have the guts! 

Ten shillings increase in wages in the mid-fifties would be regarded as considerable and would open up a few new avenues of enjoyment; an extra film or dance in the city on weekends, a game of billiards in the saloon opposite Wynn’s Hotel in Abbey Street, a swim at the Fortyfoot on a Saturday. He might even invite Joan in the office (whom he fancied) to a film or a dance, all made possible courtesy of Herbie’s increase. A favourite venue was the Theatre Royal to listen to Tommy Dando in his all-white suit blasting out the great music hall hits of the day on an organ that lit up like an exploding star as it appeared from out the bowels of the building. Like a great amphitheatre inside, MacDara picked a seat well up at the back where he could see everything going on even though he seemed a mile away from the stage. On one occasion he was lucky to get in to hear the renowned international speaker Archbishop Fulton Sheen from New York. MacDara had heard the famous man speak once before in the tiny village of Croghan outside Boyle in 1950 when the Archbishop travelled there to bless the newly-reconstructed church where his grandparents had been baptised. He was looking forward to hear him speak again and he wasn’t disappointed! He spoke about his trips to countries around the globe and the mission fields he visited throughout Africa, Southeast Asia and America. In a short digression (and there were more than one) he told a story that brought an explosion of laughter from a thousand throats. The venerable Archbishop had been invited to a christening ceremony in a small isolated village in Nigeria served by an Irish missionary priest he knew personally. The parents of the child had seemingly been well tuned into Ireland’s ancient history and its culture and had chosen a very special name for their new born son; he would be named Brian Boru after one of Ireland’s greatest chieftains. The Archbishop spoke for surely an hour that evening with never a dull moment. 

Back to reality and the various other entertainments on a weekend in Dublin. There was the poky little Grafton Cinema on a wet Saturday afternoon where one could sit back and watch the great cartoons and comedies of the thirties and forties. There was the Carlton Cinema on O’Connell Street that showed western films almost all the time, so much so that normal banter had it that the cast were permanently resident in the Gresham Hotel opposite. A dance in the Metropole Ballroom for two shillings and sixpence brought a new dimension to the Sunday afternoon, while The Yerrawaddies (Engineering students) ran their dances in the Olympic Ballroom on Camden Street on a Saturday night. Ten shillings wouldn’t give access to all of them the same weekend but it allowed one to choose. MacDara met his first girlfriend at one of them and timidly asked if he could meet her the following Sunday afternoon under Nelson’s Pillar, a tradition he was told might bring him good luck! His luck held out just about as long as the job! Herbie his boss was blamed for it all, but in a most congenial way!

Shrill October arrived and so also did the day of reckoning. The ice cream season had come to an end and it was time for the ‘Prodigal Son’ to return home. As he left the city, MacDara brought with him a slice of Old Dublin in the form of 2lbs of Hafner sausages which were regarded at the time as the crème de la crème of the sausage world; the flavour was unique and just could not be equalled. To have to stand in a queue outside Hafner’s shop on Abbey Street, and wait your turn to gain entrance, was a pre-requisite to achieving your goal. As he sat on the train and ruminated over the months gone by he could have been Alice exiting Wonderland. The passengers opposite him must have wondered at the eccentric figure smiling seemingly at nothing; they didn’t know the half of it!      
Christy Wynne.


  1. Nobody surpasses Christy in capturing the essence of the Ireland of by-gone days especially the Ireland of the "fifties".