Tuesday 25 October 2016

My worst summer job: 'I'm ashamed to say that I only lasted four weekends'

Irish Independent writers reveal the worst summer jobs they ever had

Published 03/07/2016 | 02:30

Deputy farming editor Darragh McCullough as a young farm hand
Deputy farming editor Darragh McCullough as a young farm hand
Mary Kenny in her 20s: 'barely qualified for my task'.
Author Dermot Bolger as a teenager
Health editor Eilish O'Regan as a teenager

The summers of our youth are often remembered as days of freedom, but some were more akin to a jail term. Eager for a taste of adulthood - and an income of our own- many of us secured employment and found out what working life is really like. From mind-numbing factory work to turning hay in the rain, some of the Irish Independent's top writers remember their worst summer jobs…

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English teacher

Mary Kenny

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A holiday job implies a university education, but this was not - pardon the chip on my shoulder - a privilege that I enjoyed. But as a 19-year-old au pair in France I was invited to spend the summer in an unusual summer job. I was asked to travel to a French convent in the Pyrenees, where my only duty was to speak English to the nuns, for a modest but adequate income. And so I took the train to Pau, near to the spa of Gavernie, and indeed to Lourdes.

I was barely qualified for my task: I spoke English, but I had sat, bewildered, through school lessons of something called "parsing and analysis" of English grammar without ever grasping the first principle of what it was about.

However, the nuns were friendly and down-to-earth and made me welcome with a nice supper, and, to my astonishment, as much wine as I could drink. Indeed, the sisters themselves would knock back the wine at meals quite naturally - it was the vin du pays. I had been accustomed to the Irish Loreto nuns who were keen on genteel and ladylike conduct. These French nuns were unpretentious countrywomen, who spoke with strong regional accents and had deep links with the local community.

Sister Therese, the nun most eager to improve her English, said with candour, even pride: "Oh, me, I'm a peasant." You wouldn't have said that in Ireland.

There was a visiting nun from a St Vincent de Paul order - wearing that lovely butterfly wimple - who had just come back from the Congo, where she had been ministering to former cannibals converted to Christianity.

She amused us hilariously at mealtimes by describing how her ex-cannibal cook would tell her how delicious human flesh tasted.

It was a strange summer job, but I now wish I'd appreciated it more.

Mary Kenny is a Weekend columnist, commentator and author


Factory worker

Pól Ó Conghaile

Washing machines. Or rather, minuscule parts of washing machines. Those were the centre of my life for three summer months in Hannover, Germany.

It was the early 1990s and the job was simple. Show up and sit down. Take a piece from Box A and a piece from Box B, stamp them together using a manual punch machine and place the new, combined part into Box C. It was manufacturing at its mind-numbing best and I sat between Frau Liebermann, a grandmother from the old East Germany, and Lydia, an Italian mother of one. They wore blue aprons. I wore a look of bemusement.

In school, our language teacher advised us to double down on Germany. Ireland had been against the ropes in the 1980s and there was a sense that this economic powerhouse and hotbed of logic was the smart bet for jobs.

Back then, Europe seemed further away. There was no Ryanair, euro, mobile phones or internet. Leaving Ireland for an entire summer seemed like an awfully big adventure. Mothers wept. Promises were made to buy phone cards. Passports were stamped on entry, long-lost cousins contacted for reassurance.

I was in my teens, travelling with a couple of school friends. Hapless but cocky, we went through crates of beer every week, returning empties for the pfand (deposit). We subsisted on brötchens (those fabulously fresh German bread rolls). We spent our spare Deutschmarks on the latest 12 inches by Ride, The Charlatans and My Bloody Valentine... and brötchens, of course.

The job was breathtakingly boring. I cycled to the factory, took my seat between Lydia and Frau Libermann, and glazed over. I regularly stamped my thumb into piece A (or was it piece B?). I read books as I worked - propping them up behind the puncher. I finished Ulysses.

Gradually, however, the two ladies and I struck up a rapport. We discussed Ireland, Italy and the old East Germany. They told me about their kids. I told them about my parents. We bought each other bottles of Coke. Thousands upon thousands of washing machine parts passed through our fingers, on the great conveyor belt of German industry. I can't even remember the name of the factory. But I've never forgotten those two.

I returned to Germany several times. I unloaded trucks, packed candles, and worked on a Bavarian campsite that had a problem with dead fish washing up on its artificial lakeshore. I hated the jobs. But I loved the travel.

Pól Ó Conghaile is Travel Editor of Weekend and Independent.ie


Farm hand

Darragh McCullough

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Every school break - summer, Christmas, Easter, mid-term breaks, the whole lot - were spent working on the farm. Naturally, there was the odd strop, where I raged about the fact that my friends all appeared to spend their holidays lolling by the community centre and hanging out with desirable girls. But ultimately I had my heart set on emulating my dad, so farm work was to be my lot.

However, before you graduated to the cool jobs of driving tractors, there were many years of apprenticeship in jobs that were either physically exhausting or just mind-numbingly boring. One of the earliest ones I remember was painting the old white wrought iron railings at the gate. These beautifully crafted fences were also magnets for a green growth that had to be scrubbed off them before you even got near painting them. Parked out at the gate for days, weeks even, I would spend my time calculating how many more bars, uprights and knobbly florets were left.

So the offer to switch to power-hosing calf sheds seemed like a gift from heaven... until I copped that this was another seemingly endless task that confined me to a dark, misty shed in smelly oil-skins that didn't fit, and a light sheen of sweet covering my body inside.

That eventually ended too and it looked like the jack-pot had arrived. The hay had been baled and was ready to bring in. Still too puny to be able control the stiff old clutch pedal in the David Brown, and certainly not fit to pitch the 10kg-15kg bales on to the flat trailer being towed behind, my job was to build the bales on the trailer, along with Liam the master builder.

I quickly learned that building was a serious business, with a very definite right and wrong way for every bale to be placed. Spicing it up was the fact that no two bales were exactly the same, so building the perfect load became something of an art-form. Liam was no-nonsense - if you place the wrong bale the wrong way, you weren't long hearing about it, in terms that I knew would horrify my mother. But that was part of the buzz - working with the men, pretending not to be shocked by their filthy jokes during the tea break and flinging the last of the tay out across the stubbles when it was time to crack on with the job again.

I used little fistfuls of hay to cushion my hands from the worst of the baling twine, but the welts would still appear, and the arms would be pulled out of you by the end of the day, making me more of a hindrance than a help.

The only place where I came into my own was when the bales arrived back at the shed. Under the rafters space was at a premium, suiting little bodies like myself to push the bales into position. The heat under those galvanised tin roofs, the sweat worked up from the work, and palms reddened by the cutting twines. Limbs aching, parrying flying bales, colourful jibes, and the laughter of men at work. God it was hell, but boy was it sweet. And next year, there was even the possibility of driving the tractor.

Darragh McCullough is Deputy Farming Editor with the Irish Independent


Saving hay

Eilish O'Regan

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It all seems idyllic. A summer working in the green fields of west Kerry. Look to the right and you see Tralee bay glittering in the sun. On the left is the towering beauty of Sliabh Mish. Well, the charm soon wears off when there are days of seemingly unrelenting sweeping rain.

I was 15 years old and my summer job was to save the hay with my brother Frank in our two fields. Just the two of us were left. All our other siblings had flown the nest to work in Dublin.

My family were not farmers. But my late mother had a notion to keep a cow, so the hay was absolutely essential for feed in the winter. The problem was we had no farming skills, no tractor and even less interest. My father, a lovely man who was a baker by trade, had passed away at that stage. His idea of country life only extended to a nice walk after Sunday mass.

We were full of foolish optimism when on the grand fine day that summer a neighbour with a tractor cut the hay in the fields. A carpet of gold awaited us and, sure, it would be no bother. The rest of the labour was left to Frank and myself.

We were each armed with a pitchfork. The task was simple - just turn the endless rows of hay to dry it. We had a plan to do sections of a field in stages over a few days, allowing us time to watch the Wimbledon tennis tournament on television where Bjorn Borg was in his prime. But it turned out to be one of the rainiest summers in years.

I can still see the squalls of unmerciful showers sweeping across the bay. There were days it was so wet we just walked the fields and stared at the sodden hay on the ground. There was no respite. Any sunny break in the clouds had us rushing out to the fields ungluing the dark, thick wads of hay that appeared to be shrinking into the ground.

Bjorn had long served his last ace by the time we salvaged what we could to make haystacks, or haycocks as they are called in Kerry.

Making haycocks is another art, and while my brother did all the work of piling on the layers of hay, my job was to clamber up and stomp on the mound to make it as tight as possible. I can't have been any good at that either.

After the haycocks are secured with rope they are not meant to be lopsided. But unfortunately we spent the next two weeks up and down the fields "straightening the hay". If you looked at our creation from a distance, with rows of haycocks and a backdrop of the blue sea, it looked like a John Hinde postcard. But it hid the chaos and we feared the cow would be without any of her ready-meals of hay in the winter. The final step was to store it in an outhouse.

The ordeal did me no harm. It turned out the cow had enough fodder, after all. And it taught me respect for generations for whom saving the hay was a matter of survival.

Eilish O'Regan is Health Correspondent of the Irish Independent

Lounge boy

Adrian Weckler

The worst summer job I ever had was also the first job I ever had. It was 1991. I was 16. At that time in Ireland, there was one place to get work for boys my age: the pub. And there was just one job that you could get: a lounge boy.

So one day, I walked into the lounge close to where I lived in Dublin's Glasnevin. Attired in a pair of black Dunnes Stores slacks and a white Unique Boutique shirt, I was taken on.

My job was to attend to customers, clean ashtrays and make myself useful. I wasn't allowed to prepare or serve alcoholic drinks, but I was expected to ferry them to seated customers and to take orders from the tables. And this is where most of the misery ensued.

In a nutshell, I couldn't get orders in. Or to be more accurate, I was way too meek to be heard. The reason was down to the superior abilities of my fellow lounge staff.

There were two in particular. One was a boy who was a star local athlete and who did brilliant impressions of people. The other was the pub's only lounge girl, an uncommonly good-looking, statuesque individual with golden hair and a 500-watt smile. Needless to say, both excelled when it came to getting the attention of the young, crude barmen. And when things got really hectic, they both blew me away. I would stand flailing at the bar, while my customers shot angry glances in my direction five minutes after they had put in their orders for Satzenbraus, Ritzes or glasses of Bass.

Looking back, I don't begrudge either of my junior colleagues their natural advantages, or the young barmen who wanted to coalesce with the more attractive human specimens. After all, the world is a complex, uneven place. You have to compete.

But when you're 16, scrawny, and trying to flag a sweaty barman's attention over the equal calls of your stunning or hilarious co-workers, it can get you down.

It certainly got me down. I ended up at the back of the queue every time.

Our pay each night, for six hours' work, was £9 (probably about €25 in 2016 money) plus whatever tips we made.

Unfortunately for me, a Seven Eleven store had just opened in nearby Phibsboro. And it stayed open all night. After our shift at around 1am, we trudged into Seven Eleven to spend about a quarter of it on a Big Gulp, a hot dog and a bag of jellies. (If you ever want to get a sense of what it feels like to sit in a Seven Eleven in Phibsboro in 1991 with a Big Gulp at 1am, listen to Beck's first album, Mellow Gold, which was released around that time.)

I'm ashamed to say that I only lasted four weekends in that job. I made no friends out of it and learned only two things: that I never wanted to work in a bar again and that there are some situations where you're simply not the right fit.

It didn't put me off the hospitality or customer service sectors, though. Later teenage jobs saw me go on to achieve respectability as a sales helper in Dunnes (homeware department), pizza-maker in El Padrino restaurant, Glasnevin, and a waiter in Bewley's of Grafton Street. I also had a superb time when I was 19 working as a junior waiter in one of the hotels at Yellowstone National Park in the US state of Wyoming.

Ironically, I still have bad dreams about that 1991 summer as a lounge boy. Not about the rude barmen or the huffy patrons. But about having abandoned it. In my dream, there are customers screaming for their Satzenbraus and their Ritzes. And I'm next door, drinking a Big Gulp.

Adrian Weckler is Technology Editor of the Irish Independent

Factory worker

Dermot Bolger

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When stating my time working as a factory hand in the wire and cable section of the Unidare industrial complex in Finglas was my worst summer job, this is only because my first summer job was stunningly brilliant. Every childhood needs one golden summer. Mine occurred in 1973 when - at 13 - I lied about my age to become an under-age van-boy delivering Palm Grove ice-cream to shops along the necklace of seaside towns that straddle North Dublin's coastline. We were not supplying nectar from the Gods, but during a heatwave when our rival, HB, was on strike, shopkeepers flocked around us like we were a relief convoy.

Van drivers were a nomadic race, stopping to swap contraband and compare notes on shopkeepers. We'd parked for lunch in lay-bys and other delivery vans would arrive, with drivers engaging in brick, illicit barter. Each lunchtime we were divested of a dozen choc ices and found ourselves acquiring packets of crisps, soft drinks, hot dogs, plastic sunglasses and, once, two goldfish in a plastic bag that we left dangling on a tree outside a national school for children to find. It was bliss.

In contrast, working in Unidare for a summer, as a shy 15-year-old, was initially scary because factories are an enclosed world of whirling machinery, incessant noise and production lines. Three years later this was an environment I became familiar with, after I worked as a factory hand myself after leaving school. But at 15, I felt out of my depth.

When writing my latest novel, The Lonely Sea and Sky, I drew heavily on my memory of entering the unfamiliar world, because - like the novel's 14-year-old seagoing narrator - I needed to adjust to finding myself working alongside hardened but fair men who were decades older than me. These factory hands were friendly but did not suffer fools gladly; they were men with families to support, working against the clock for production bonuses, and yet finding time for pranks and banter. Thankfully, nobody sent me off to seek "The Long Wait" or "The Glass Hammer" but they terrified me with vivid stories of the intimate medical examination which the staff nurse was allegedly meant to give all new employees.

We made the thick wire used in phone and electricity cables and one of my jobs involved hammering 6in nails into the slats of wood used to seal up those giant wooden spools, which were then placed on open-backed trucks by forklift drivers. It was not the physical work that I found hard but the art of learning to make conversation with far older adults whose life experiences were so much wider than mine. But once I got over my shyness and came to know them, then - just like Jack in the novel - I learned a huge amount about life simply by listening to their stories.

Dermot Bolger is a contributor to the Irish Independent and writer in residence at the National Museum of Ireland at Collins Barracks. The Lonely Sea and Sky is published by New Island Books

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